Wobbler Syndrome

Also Known As

Cervical Vertebral Malformation, Muscular incoordination of limbs

Description

Wobbler syndrome, as the name implies, is a condition that leads to lack of muscular coordination in the horse's limbs and an uneven gait. It is a neurological disease that results from a narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the spinal cord from malformed vertebrae in the horse's backbone.

Veterinarians and researchers have been known to comment that "wobbler horses don't know where their feet are." The disease can be so severe as to cause horses to crash into stationary objects and to fall down. Sometimes only the front limbs are affected, but often all four limbs are involved. The affliction may appear suddenly or develop over a period of time.

Symptoms

  • Lack of muscular coordination in the limbs
  • Uneven gait
  • A stiff neck
  • Stumbling especially when going uphill
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Crossing of legs while moving
  • Scuffing toes
  • Tripping and falling
  • Lameness
  • Wobbler's heel caused by rear hooves striking bulbs of heel of front feet

Causes

Compression of the spinal cord because of misaligned or malformed vertebrae, injury, soft tissue inflammation, or an "outpouching" of the joint capsule causes the distinctive "wobble" of wobbler syndrome.

When the vertebrae are misaligned, malformed, or damaged, the nerves that are responsible for sensing the position of the limbs are affected, resulting in clumsiness and uncoordinated movement.

The exact cause of wobbler syndrome is unknown, but several causative factors are noted in the research. Genetic predisposition, nutritional imbalances, rapid growth, physical trauma, or a combination of these factors has been linked to most cases.

In addition, some researchers suggest that horses with longer necks are more prone to development of wobbler syndrome than those with shorter necks. Also, male horses diagnosed with the condition outnumber female horses three-to-one.

Prevention

There has been some discussion about genetics as a predisposing factor in development of wobbler syndrome, however the breeding of two wobbler parents does not always increase the incidence of the syndrome in the offspring. As with many other conditions affecting horses, good horse management with attention to nutritional balance and prevention of injury or physical trauma will help minimize cases of wobbler syndrome.

Treatment

In any case where wobbler syndrome is suspected, consultation with an experienced veterinarian should take place as soon as possible. Treatment of wobbler syndrome begins with adequate diagnosis of the problem since several other causes of incoordination in horses, such as viruses or protozoa in the spinal cord, parasites, tumors, and injuries such as fractures are well-documented.

Horse owners and veterinarians may first perform less costly tests to determine whether a horse has wobbler syndrome. Sway tests, tail tests, turning the horse in a small circle, and backing up can reveal much about the horse's coordination. However, diagnosis often requires radiographs and a myelogram which includes injecting radio-opaque dye into the area around the spinal cord.

Aggressive nutritional management and controlled exercise have proven to produce rather dramatic results in some horses with wobbler syndrome. Substantially reducing nutrient intake and limiting exercise may greatly reduce incoordination, with follow-up radiographs showing no evidence of malformations. In some cases, total confinement has led to good results.

Drug therapy and surgery or other aggressive management determined by an experienced veterinarian are sometimes necessary. Drugs can be used to decrease nerve tissue swelling. Fusing the vertebrae, a procedure adapted from human surgery, is sometimes used. Because the disease onset usually occurs at two to four years of age, some animals may not return to racing, but will be able to compete in other fields.

Often, complete recovery and return to normal athletic pursuits is possible. Treatment takes time and patience, but is usually well worth it because horses receiving treatment usually attain normal heights and weights and are able to engage in normal activities.

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