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Wobbler Syndrome: The Case of the Goose-Stepping Giant-Breed Dog

Wobbler syndrome is a neurologic disease that can affect larger dogs.

Wobbler Syndrome in a Great Dane
Tyson showed worrisome early signs of wobbler syndrome. Photo: fb2013

How would you cope with a large dog who struggled to walk?

When pocket-sized dogs have difficulty walking, you can just tuck them under your arm or use a carrier. But when the dog is a giant breed, you don’t have these options, and weak legs take on a whole new dimension.

This was why the first time I saw Tyson, an enormous black-and-tan pup with a funny walk, I feared for his long-term future.

An Big Dog With a Funny Walk

Tyson is a cross-breed dog obtained from a rescue.

My best guess: He was a mixture of Rottweiler, Doberman and Great Dane.

At the tender age of 1 year old, he already weighed more than 150 pounds and still had some growing to do.

Despite his macho name, Tyson was a softie, a happy pup who liked to lick and was easily delighted by a treat. But he had a strange way of walking. Indeed, his generally goofy behavior made his human wonder if the dog was just exceptionally clumsy … and wanted reassurance.

Unfortunately, things were more serious than just being clumsy.

Tyson walked with what’s known as a “goose step,” an exaggerated way of high-stepping with the front legs and walking with a stiff, choppy gait — and it was getting worse.

The Trouble With Tyson: Wobbler Syndrome?

My clinical examination showed that Tyson was otherwise fit and well.

He was alert and responsive, with his digestive tract in full working order and no history of accidents or trauma. He’d had vaccinations at the rescue, had regular parasite treatments and loved his new family.

However, he did have problems, with a slightly stiff neck and a stilted way of walking.

His humans remarked on how he preferred to eat with his bowl raised from the floor and how he sometimes made a fuss about picking up treats from the ground.

Tyson had brisk nerve reflexes in his front legs, but there were telltale signs of nail scuffing on his back legs. The latter is significant — it can mean a delay in returning the paw to its normal position when walking.

Given Tyson’s heritage (the suspicion of Doberman and Great Dane in his parentage) and the symptoms, I was concerned that he might have early signs of wobbler syndrome, compression of the spinal cord and the spinal nerve roots.

These suspicions came as a shock to his people, who had hoped Tyson was just a goofball.

After chatting over the options, they decided to wait and reassess Tyson in a couple of months before deciding on whether to get diagnostic tests done.

However, just 6 weeks later, they revisited.

They’d compared then and now on a video, and Tyson had definitely gotten worse.

Wobbler Syndrome in a Great Dane
With wobbler syndrome, pressure on the spinal cord can cause a loss of nerve function, among other symptoms. Photo: BelaMarie

Vertebral Canal Stenosis as a Cause of Wobbler Syndrome

Tyson’s strange walk was most likely due to interference with the nerve supply to his legs.

X-rays would be of limited help, since they are better at detecting bone problems than nerve issues. An MRI or CT scan can give a picture of the spinal cord and any pinching or pressure on it.

Tyson was referred to a specialist for an MRI. The results came back that he did have pressure on his spinal cord, toward the bottom of his neck.

In his case, this was because the spinal canal (the bony tube through which the spinal cord passes) was unusually narrow, a condition known as vertebral canal stenosis.

As luck would have it, it tends to occur in Great Danes, and so another jigsaw puzzle piece fell into place.

Cautious Optimism

As it happened, this diagnosis carried a slightly better outlook than other causes of wobbler syndrome.

The classic cause of wobbler syndrome is when one of the neck vertebrae are tilted and pinch hard on the spinal cord. This can get progressively worse until, like a foot on a hose stopping water flow, the vertebra tips hard enough to “cut off” the nerve supply to the back end.

However, there was a chance that the narrowing could stabilize.

The specialist prescribed steroids for Tyson to reduce inflammation of the spinal cord. We then all held our breath to see what happened.

This big dog is struggling with wobbler syndrome:

YouTube player

Possible Outcomes of Wobbler Syndrome

Pressure on the spinal cord can cause a range of symptoms, from pain (think of a slipped disc) to numbness and loss of nerve function.

Depending on the location of the problem, nerve signs often start with a loss of sensation to the backend, with physical clues such as:

  • Scuffed nails
  • Weakness
  • Poor coordination

These signs can get so bad that the dog has difficulty getting up or walking, which, for a big dog, has serious implications.

We hoped that the steroids would reduce swelling on Tyson’s spinal cord and, in a best-case scenario, he wouldn’t get any worse.

Should this not have worked and he had difficulty walking, then the long-term future would look bleak indeed.

A Few Years Later

Last week, Tyson came in for his routine vaccination.

Happily, as they do every year, his humans recounted how well Tyson was doing. He was still on steroids (but took them every other day now, instead of daily), and he’d done very well.

Tyson is fully mobile and a contented gentle giant — albeit one with a funny walk. He may be an adult now, but he still has a puppyish way about him, and his clumsiness somehow sits well with his character.

This was a happy ending that might so easily have been different.


vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed March 16, 2018.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.