Wobbler Syndrome: A Painful Intersection Between Diet and Genetics
This is a personal journey of a Mastiff puppy and an adoring Big Dog Mom.
Here you will find no answers, only questions.
I am not asking for comments or likes or shares. I ask for your understanding and your prayers.
My purpose here today is to share and to make a difference. A difference in the life of a Mastiff puppy who does NOT deserve the hand he has been dealt.
With heartbreak and tears, this is our story.
MRI – An Incomplete Answer for Wobbler Syndrome
On Thursday, July 12, 2018, at 3:40 pm, after blood work, x-rays, an MRI and four months of neck pain, Junior, my heart dog, was diagnosed with Wobbler Syndrome.
“Wobbler Syndrome” / Caudal cervical spondylomyelopathy / Cervical vertebral malformation – malarticulation. Osseous proliferation of C4-5 and C5-6 articular facets as well as hypertrophy of soft tissues/joint capsule with secondary mild vertebral canal stenosis at these locations (predominantly right-sided).”
With a prescription for Gabapentin (900 mg 2-3 times a day as needed), Rimadyl (150mg twice a day), and a forceful recommendation for a diet change, I gathered up my children and my Junior and we drove home.
From heartbreak to determination.
I want answers. Let the research begin.
What is Wobbler Syndrome?
Junior’s discharge papers explain it this way:
“Wobbler Syndrome is a disorder of large and giant breed dogs in which spinal canal narrowing (stenosis) results from developmental abnormalities such as malformed vertebral articular facets or vertebral laminae (bodies). Neurologic signs develop because of progressive spinal cord compression from degenerative changes and hypertrophy (overgrowth) of surrounding vertebral bony and soft tissue structures. There is a gradual onset of pain, ataxia (wobbly gait), and limb weakness. Unfortunately, cervical vertebral malformation/malarticulation syndrome (CVMM) is a degenerative condition, and it is possible Junior’s signs may progress over time.”
Mind spun, I want answers.
Why Junior? Why now? And of all of the possible big dog health problems, why Wobbler Syndrome?
Junior is 21 months young.
What is the Cause of Wobbler Syndrome?
Put simply, the cause of Wobbler Syndrome is undefined and unknown.
Because Wobbler’s disease is most common in Doberman pinschers (disc-associated) and Great Danes (CVMM more similar to Mastiffs), most of the research has been done in those breeds.
While current scientific research is focused on both surgical and non-surgical approaches to treatment and understanding the genetics behind the disease, all of the sources I found mentioned the role diet and nutrition might play in the development of Wobbler Syndrome.
- “Nutrition in some cases – excess protein, calcium, and calories have been a proposed cause in Great Danes
- Fast-growth is suspected in large dog breeds”
And according to University of Pennsylvania’s Textbook of Small Animal Orthopedics,
“Clinical and experimental evidence suggests a role of nutrition as well as genetics in the development of [Wobbler] syndrome. The previously cited over-nutrition study involving paired Great Dane litter mates supported a role for both. Clinical evidence in this study of excessive feeding and supplementation of some affected dogs and closely related affected dogs from different litters also supports this hypothesis. …..Rapid growth, which has also been suggested as a cause, may be related to both over-nutrition and genetics.”
“Undefined” Cause is NOT Good Enough
Junior has no family history of Wobbler Syndrome that I know of. None. Maternal and paternal pedigrees show no evidence of disease going back at least 4-5 generations in all directions.
I am not a scientist. I am just a simple-minded Big Dog Mom who is able to decipher facts clearly when they are seemingly this black and white. Genetics does not seem to be the cause of Junior’s Wobblers. Could they have played a role? Certainly. I am willing to concede that possibility.
So that leaves diet. That leaves me.
Junior was raw fed on and off as a young puppy, then consistently raw fed since he was 9 months old. Sandwiched in the middle were months of kibble torment and dietary guilt when his menu consisted of semi-intelligently rendered hodgepodge and mishmash. (Read What To Do About Dog Food? First, Let Go Of The Guilt!)
Junior’s discharge papers state unequivocally “In order to help reduce the risk of further proliferative bony changes as Junior finishes growing, we recommend feeding him a diet that is less dense in calories… to prevent developmental problems which may occur with too-rapid growth.”
I was not entirely surprised by this advice given many veterinarians disdain for raw diets, but it has forced me to stop and think. Not about all raw diets, just Junior’s.
More Questions than Answers about Wobbler Syndrome
I have spent the last 5 days reflecting on every food I fed, every supplement I added, and every choice I made on behalf of my Junior for the last 20 months.
Were the kibbles I fed too high in protein? Were they balanced in their ratio of calcium to phosphorus? How often did I add an eggshell? Nupro has calcium citrate… how much was I giving? How much calcium citrate was he getting?
When I transitioned Junior to raw at 10 weeks, all I was giving him was chicken (advice common in raw feeding circles). After two weeks and seeing the deterioration in his hind legs, I switched him back to kibble and he got better. Was THAT when this ‘bone proliferation’ started?
What is considered too high in protein? In calcium?
If you could structure a raw food diet that WAS too high in protein and calcium, so much so that it could cause Wobbler Syndrome, what would that look like? Would it look like what I fed Junior?
And, if Junior’s diet is to blame, will following my neurologists’ recommendation to switch to kibble halt the progression of his disease?
My heart is broken and there are no words to describe the guilt I feel.
[READ: Life Lessons: What I Learned from an iPad, Flip Flops, and Two Big Dogs]
“Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” ~ Helen Keller
I can hear them now. Raw feeders will say I am wrong. Kibble feeders will say “see I told you so.”
While I say they are both right and they both are wrong, the only one who truly matters in this story is my Junior. He is the victim, not the diet.
He is my victim. That is the cross I have to bear now. The painful reality of my new normal.
But as heartbroken as I am, sitting here and continuing to sob does nothing to help Junior.
I am determined to find answers and to fix what I have done wrong.
Wobbler Syndrome will not define us. We will not live in secrecy because that does nothing to help the Mastiff breed or the thousands of other big dogs afflicted with Wobbler Syndrome.
So, as time goes on, if you notice Junior’s gait changing or his head hung low, please do not think less of him.
He has a spirit and a heart like no other and I am confident we can fight this and win.
Will our battle be waged through diet, surgery, acupuncture, or exercise? I don’t yet have the answer to that.
This is just the beginning of our story.
For more on Wobbler Syndrome, read:
So sorry. Sometimes even when you do everything right Life just kicks you right in the gut. No explanation, just pain.
I’m following, thinking happy thoughts and hoping for the best. No judgment, no ugly comments, only love for you and Junior. Keep looking for answers. Keep sharing. — Kelley and the GSDs
Thank you so much, Kelley. Your support means a great deal to me and Junior.
I absolutely love you and love your Junior and Sulley! I totally
Support your choices as a big dog Mom and pray that you find answers for Junior ASAP. The love between a dog and dog Mom is irreplaceable and indescribable PERIOD. I totally get what you’re going through. We lost two baby Mastiffs, Riddick, 15month old Brindle boy and Coal, 7 month old Brindle boy. Both due to unforeseen freak heart conditions. Both had clean bills of health several enervation a back. Riddick, we found after autopsy, had same illness young athletes have that just drop dead on the field, which is exactly what happened. He loved getting ready with me so n the mornings and unexpectedly dropped at my feet and could not revive him. Coal was totally unexpected—-and hat was nonandwer for me. After his autopsy-showed a small heart & my vet being a Texas A&M graduate, sent his heart to A&M for answers. It was found that he had an infection of the heart lining along with having too small of heart, would’ve eventually ended his short life. Both were taken too soon, I miss them dearly and still not over them being gone. This is why after two years we still have no dogs…. my advice to all is to have heart ultrasound as soon as you can when they’re still a young pup… and this is what we plan to do on our next Mastiffs. I support you, Stephanie, stay strong and fight Junior’s fight #wearetheirvoice And KNOW that boy along with Sulley love you more than you know. Also thank you for sharing your life, advice and silly pictures, y’all make me smile daily. As I can no longer see through my tears, I end with sending y’all all my Texas love, prayers and support ❤️❤️????????
I just can’t thank you enough for this, Brandy. Your support for me, Sulley, & Junior is so heartwarming and I appreciate it more than you know. I am so extraordinarily sorry about Riddick and baby Coal. I can’t imagine what a tragic loss that was for you. Most breeders I know make it a standard practice to do cardiac testing prior to breeding, but not all do. And unfortunately, even in dogs that are tested and cleared, the offspring can still have issues. My hope and prayer is that the breeder you got both boys from took their sires and dams out of their breeding program. I am even for taking siblings out of the breeding program as the most conservative approach to protecting future generations.
I am dealing with this now with my Doberman 7 yrs old. I sure could use some advise. I am on FB under Alesia Frieslander. Please feel free to message me. I need to know more.
Thanks and Best regards to your baby could
So sorry :(. The parent guilt of did I do this or not do this truly sucks, kids or fur kids. But we can only do the best we know to do until we know better – you did the best you knew to do so don’t beat yourself up. Your love for Junior comes through in every word you right and every picture you share. You will do the best you can for him every step of the way going forward too. He will love you no matter.
Thank you so much, Holly. I do try my hardest every day with my dogs and my children. Unfortunately, my best isn’t always good enough, let alone, perfect. My goal now is to learn everything I can about Wobblers, do everything in my power to help Junior, and share my journey here on Big Dog Mom to help others.
Hi Steph..just want to thank you for sharing. Please don’t feel guilty, it is what it is. Hold your head high and do what is right for Junior and you! You have my full support. Junior is AWESOME, no matter what!!!
Thank you so much, Deborah. The guilt is there and I feel it is deserved. But dwelling on that doesn’t help my Junior get better. His best interest are my top priority, as they always have been, and so my focus is on how to help him moving forward.
I sent a reply in a comment looking forward to hearing from you on messenger.
Thanks a ton
My large breed dog developed his wobblers at around age 3.5 which is a more common age. He was kibble fed until he was about 2 then we switched him to raw all the way. His kibble day were torture he was always hungry we were trying to regulate his growth and not overdo the proteins/phosphorus mixture and he never had regular poop always runny and sometimes unexpected even for him. he raw changed his whole digestive situation to that of a normal dog.
anyway our neurologist was going to perform surgery to shave some bone out of he spinal canal so his spinal column would not be pinched. He never recommended a diet change as our boy was grown almost 4 years old. Here’s hoping you can get Junior comfortably to an adult stage and then perhaps there will be a surgical option to relieve the discomfort.
Thank you, Theresa. I’m so sorry about your boy. In addition to his poops being normalized, have you noticed any change in his pain/walking since being on the raw diet? Did you end up doing the surgery? As I am learning more about this disease, I am trying to keep an open mind about what the future holds for Junior and how best to help him today.
I’m so sorry to hear about Junior’s diagnosis. Please don’t beat yourself up about what you did or didn’t do. We all do the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. Also, life is not fair and you could do everything ‘perfect’ and still find yourself getting ill. I’m praying for you both and sending positive vibes. I think you are already on the right path of having a good attitude and also explore every option to help Junior fight this. Doctors can often times underestimate the power and will of their patients (and their parents/family) and beat the odds.
Thank you, Kamira. I know you are right. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter what we do, does it. Life has a way of keeping us on our toes and forcing us to learn lessons we never thought we would have to.
Thank you for calling attention and as others said, do not beat yourself up. I can say this from complete experience and having dogs facing major health crises. You will get to the bottom of this. Are there any vets you can interview and reach out to? I have heard of Wobbler’s Syndrome and I know if anyone can tackle this, it’s you. Hugs and I will be watching for pupdates.
Thank you so much, Carol. I have a message into one of the top researchers on the subject of Wobbler Syndrome. I would love to be able to speak to him about Junior and the disease in general. Whether he responds to me or not, I will be sure to share what I am learning along the way. I would love to bring an expert on Big Dog Mom at some point as I think that would bring tremendous value to all of us!
We are all so heartbroken over this. Yet, truly grateful for Junior having such a fantastic human Momma. We know you will do all you can in keeping Junior comfortable and happy. As breeders we try so hard to literally do everything by the book, and these things still happen. How can we ever know how to eliminate these problems without a DNA test or a way to health screen for things like Wobblers or Cancer. These dogs deserve so much better than this. I’m truly sorry you all are facing this Stephanie. I wish there were better answers in regards to bettering the health of our pets. Hugs to you and sweet Junior.
Hugs back, my sweet friend. I know you are heartbroken like we are. You have my promise that I am going to do everything in my power to help Junior and fix whatever mistakes I have made on his behalf. Please know that every decision I have ever made for him has been with his best interest at heart, but unfortunately, sometimes I don’t have all the answers. I am committed to helping in any way I can find a cure for this awful, heartbreaking disease. I agree that a DNA test is what we need. In addition, we need education about Wobblers and breeders and dog owners willing to be open and transparent about it. Keeping the disease secret helps no one, especially the dogs!
Your post was very comforting to me, as I am starting my diagnosis journey with my 10.5 month old Mastiff. We saw one neurologist last week who had terrible patient skills and dismissed all of my concerns. We go to Texas A&M next week and I’m anxious, but nervous. I have had so many conflicting opinions, and I’m overwhelmed with reading everything I can. Mine, also has no genetic history, but when asked when the symptoms started, I’ve went back through my videos and it essentially was when he started growing. He was fed kibble with cooked food. Added protein from cooked food did not exceed 10% of his diet. I reached out to both the sire and dams breeders (both have 20+ years of raising mastiffs: 1 told me to do every single thing I could, and the other said she had experienced a lot of things during the growing years and she would do nothing, because even if he does have it, there is no cure. I’ve now seen 2 vets, and one neurologist. He demonstrates no pain, and has no issues with turning his neck….just this constant lameness in his hind legs. He never falls, but they often give out. He’s just a puppy. My heart is hopeful, and I will continue to read about your journey, and hope that juniors condition doesn’t worsen. (((Hugs)))
Oh, Dawn, I’m so, so sorry about your sweet, young boy! I am praying for you and him that this isn’t Wobblers. There are other reasons for lameness and I am hopeful the folks at Texas A&M will be of some help in figuring it out. An MRI will be required to diagnose Wobblers, so hopefully that is the next step. While the genetic link is not 100% clear, in Junior’s case, and in vast majority of cases with Wobblers, there is a genetic link somewhere. I am often dismayed by the number of breeders who dismiss this disease, either choosing to blame owners or say that there is nothing you can do so why confirm the diagnosis. I just couldn’t disagree with that sentiment more and, frankly, I find it maddening. There are things you can do – from managing medically to surgery – your boy is just a puppy and deserves to have a clear treatment plan that can give him a normal life. Please feel free to email or message me on social and we can continue chatting as your boy gets closer to a diagnosis. I can try to help and send you some of the resources that have helped me as well. [email protected] or Facebook @bigdogmomusa.
Hey there, my boy was just unofficially diagnosed with wobblers. With the current state of our country I can not afford to have him tested for confirmation. I am with you though, we are going to do what ever we can to make him comfortable and happy. He is only 15 months old. We lost our last mastiff to a form of MS just before turning 3. This guy was from a totally different breeder and we did our research. They have been wonderful and this can happen to any large breed dog. So this came a a real blow to us all. We have started him on a different food and have ordered some supplements. Keep in touch with me so I can report to you how things are going.
Oh, Danielle, I’m so very sorry about your sweet boy! Since this is an unofficial diagnosis and he’s still young, who knows, perhaps there is another explanation for what is going on with him. I have no doubt it was a blow to you and your family. You are right – sometimes you can do everything right and these things just happen. There are no guarantees. Yes, please do keep in touch! Wobblers is a journey that seems to look a little different for us with each passing day. Some days are good. Some not so good now that we are almost 2 years since Junior’s diagnosis. All we can do is give them the best life possible and I have no doubt you are doing that for your boy! Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help!
I just came upon your video about Wobblers. I am considering adopting a mastiff with this syndrome. Unknown past, and he had no use of his legs when found. He has been through all kinds of rehab and support and was finally diagnosed and will go up for adoption soon. I had suspected it when I had a chance to see him a couple of months the ago. (Before the shelter was closed to the public due to COVID-19) At this point the shelter/vet recommend medical support rather than surgery. He is getting around well, but not perfect.
My big issue is that we have stairs. How was your pup with stairs when he was t doing as well physically? We have 7 stairs into and out of our main level in our home. We could reconfigure things to add a landing to the garden so only 3 steps each part. Was your dog able to do this? We have hard floors (with rugs) and a proliferation of yoga mats for the floor as our dog had surgery.
Lastly, expense. I’m not adverse to spending money for medication but it would be good to know what costs are and if you were quoted a rough cost for surgery. He won’t be eligible for insurance for this, so having money out away would be important.
I haven’t had a chance to read more yet, but I’m so glad to have found your blog.
I am so sorry to hear of your story and everyone else’s.
We are going through the same thing with our young rottie Hulk.
He just turned 4 in April, and out of the blue, one day he came in from being outside playing, and could hardly walk!
After 3000 dollars in vet bills, MRI’s etc…. he was diagnosed with wobblers.
We moved to Florida and have a pool, and I try and get him to swim a couple times a week to help exercise his back legs. He isn’t on any meds, but I think he should be on some type of anti-inflammatory I would think.
Does your pup or anyone else’s give their dog any kind of daily med to help?
I need to find a vet in our new home town, but until then would appreciate any help.
Thanks all, and hang in there! ❤️
Our beautiful golden Labrador, Mali, passed away today following surgery for Wobblers. She was only 8 months old and sadly developed post-op complications. I’m devastated and can’t help but wish we hadn’t put her through this trauma over the last 3 days. She was absolutely adorable.
Hoping all of you out there have success in treating your precious dogs and don’t need to go through this sadness.