Wobblers in Horses

by | Dec 12, 2019

Wobblers is a term used to describe a condition in horses known as equine cervical vetrebral mallformation (or CVM). It´s not a common disease but when it does occur it can have serious consequences for the health and performance of the horse and the safety of its owner and rider. The condition causes neurological signs and as such can mimic other conditions so a thorough work up by the veterinarian is paramount for a speedy and accurate diagnosis.

What is CVM?

Wobblers or CVM is often caused by a developmental problem and thus is commonly seen in younger horses. Abnormalities in the development of the bony vertebrae in the neck (the cervical region) can lead to poor alignment of the vertebral column, this malalignment leads to pressure and compression of the spinal cord which sits within the vertebral canal. The compression of the spinal cord results in the neurological signs characteristic of Wobblers síndrome, where horses show an abnormal wobbly gait, also known as ataxia. Although most often appreciated in younger horses, occasionally abnormal changes in the vertebrae can occur with age (arthritic changes) and these can also lead to the same result of compression on the spinal cord causing neurological signs. An anatomy book can help with understanding where all this is taking place.

What Are The Signs Of CVM?

Horses often have an abnormal gait, they are ataxic. Because of the location in the neck the front and hind limbs can both be affected. The horse might have subtle signs such as tripping or stumbling regularly, through to exaggerated and apparently uncoordinated movements of his legs. The signs can be very severe in some cases and cause the horse to fall. The abnormality can be associated with pain in the neck region too and therefore the horse can display behavioural signs reflecting discomfort, which do not appear to relate to neurological disease. Other diseases can cause similar signs so it´s useful to get familiar with different causes of neurological disorders in the horse.

How Is CVM Diagnosed?

Wobblers is a diagnosis that can only be made by the veterinarian. When visiting the horse a thorough physical examination is performed including watching the horse at rest and when moveing to appreciate the pattern of his movements. In many cases where the horse is otherwise well the vet may have an idea that CVM is the underlying cause already however diagnosis relies on taking xrays of the neck to document the existence of abnormalities of the vertebrae, in some cases more work-up is needed and might include the injection of a dye around the spinal cord to reveal any compression that isn´t apparent in the anatomy on xrays, other times more advanced imaging such as CT might be recommended.

Is There Treatment For Wobblers Syndrome?

All cases are different and many times the treatment depends on the severity of the clinical signs of the horse as well as any results of diagnostic imaging tests. In a lot of cases surgery is recommended to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord, this aims to remove the compression causing the neurological signs and pain. Some horses will improve following surgery and even return to their normal athletic function after an appropriate recuperation and rehabilitation period, however it should be appreciated that unfortunately some horses will still have neurological signs even after a successful surgery, and may never return to ridden work. As such the decisión for surgery should not be undertaken lightly. In milder cases the horse may benefit from the administration of anti-inflammatory medication (painkillers), this can improve comfort and can make neurological signs less prominent and more manageable. However, it should be noted that horses that suffer from very severe signs and are a danger to themselves and to handlers may require eutanasia to prevent suffering and further injury.

In treating horses for CVM there is often a preiod of stall rest and rehabilitation required as part of the recovery program and to minimise residual neurological signs. Horses on stall rest should have comfortable clean bedding such as shavings to relax on, ideally over a rubber matting base to provide good steady grip and give the horse confidence when moving, ataxic horses can become panicked by their instability. Some entertainment should also be provided when on prolonged stall rest, for example mirrors, licks and selecterd toys (being careful not to choose hazardous ones such as horse balls that he might stumble over initially).

Rehabilitation will often be reccommended a part of the recovery process to eliminate abnormal movement patterns the horse might have developed due to pain and movement compensation, as well as for helping to manage neurological signs.

So, What´s The Bottom Line With CVM?

Wobblers can be an alarming condition for horse owners and does pose risks to those handling the horse as well as the horse itself. Safety should always be of paramount importance when dealing with horses with CVM. Aside from this, sometimes the disease is frustrating and difficult to successfully diagnose, treat and manage, particularly in performance horses. It requires patience, open-mindedness and involvement from the veterinarian, owner and physiotherapist. The severity of the condition is individual to each patient but for many horses carefully selected treatment and management can allow them to have a near normal life, however the prognosis for return to work under saddle is very much case-dependent and not always clear.

About The Author

<a href="https://www.equiniction.com/author/yvette-bell/" target="_self">Yvette Bell</a>

Yvette Bell

Yvette qualified as a veterinary surgeon from the Royal Veterinary College in 2012. After working in Cape Verde and the UK in various clinical and charitable roles, she now lives in sunny Spain with her partner, three-legged dog Ursa, and Irish Sports Horse mare Bella.

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