What’s Up with Wobblers?

Wobbler syndrome is no longer a death sentence for horses if detected and managed early.
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Wobbler syndrome is no longer a death sentence for horses if detected and managed early

It used to be that veterinarians automatically recommended euthanasia when they diagnosed horses with wobbler syndrome, a disorder affecting the musculoskeletal and neurologic systems that can upend an affected animal’s prospect for a quality life. Today, thanks to new and continuing research, many wobblers can be managed and some can even go on to become safe riding horses.

A horse with wobbler syndrome (also called cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy) suffers from narrowing of the spinal canal that pinches/compresses his spinal cord as he grows. The trademark clinical signs of a wobbler: He’s incoordinated (exhibits ataxia) and lacks an awareness of where his limbs are in space (proprioceptive deficits). Although many neurologic conditions can cause ataxia, if a once-thriving colt becomes hopelessly incoordinated, for example, he could be a wobbler.

“It is important for owners and trainers to realize that something can be done for these horses, and early diagnosis is the key to staying alive,” says Barrie Grant, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, MRCVS, who has a consulting practice in Bonsall, Calif.

Subtle Signs

Although wobbler syndrome seems to appear in horses unexpectedly, there often are subtle signs of the condition that were missed. “Occasionally, you can have an acute onset. One day the horse is fine, and the next day he is not,” says Stephen M. Reed, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, an associate at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. “Most of the time, you see a progressive onset of clumsiness–meaning weakness (knuckling, stumbling, dropping, or dragging of the limbs); ataxia (specifically, abnormal swaying of the limbs in the air as the horse walks); pacing (both legs on the same side stride together in nonpacing horses); and truncal sway or spasticity (the horse looks like a tin solder when he walks). That is what people see. There is no evidence of brain problems, the horse is mentally alert, he is ‘with it,’ and he looks right at you. He acts right and eats normally, but he has some clumsiness when he walks

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