Doberman Headbobbing Syndrome


“It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” (Sir Winston Churchill, 10-1-39). Churchill was speaking of Russia at the time, but the words apply equally well to the condition known as Doberman Head Bobbing Syndrome. The Doberman Pinscher Foundation of America and veterinary neurologists across the country are receiving more frequent reports of the condition indicating either heightened awareness or increasing incidence. While no epidemiological studies have been done, the “gut feeling” is that we may be witnessing an emerging disease. The syndrome is one of many classified under the general term of “tremors”. Tremors are defined as rhythmic, oscillatory, involuntary movement of all or part of the body. The nervous or musculoskeletal systems are affected. Many breeds are afflicted with generalized tremor syndrome. Dobermans, Labradors, and English Bulldogs are all overrepresented with head tremors. Tremors in general are often the result of abnormalities in the brain, particularly in the cerebellum. Identified causes can be degenerative, congenital, inflammatory, immune mediated, or toxic.
In Dobermans, clinical features consist of a sudden onset of the tremor restricted to the head. In most cases the movement is up and down, but there are reports of side to side as well. The dogs appear to be conscious, responsive, and otherwise normal during an episode. Tremors typically stop spontaneously after several minutes and in some cases can be stopped temporarily by distracting the dog (for example, with food).
Diagnostic evaluation is typically normal, including neurological examination, blood studies, cerebral spinal fluid analysis and rain CTs and MRIs. There is no known effective treatment. Anti-seizure drugs such as Phenobarbital and bromide do not appear to help. Affected dogs do not develop other neurological deficits and in most cases the syndrome does not severely compromise the dog’s quality of life. In some cases the episodes eventually resolve.
The true nature of Doberman Head Bobbing Syndrome is unknown. Although focal epilepsy is possible, the lack of response to anti-seizure drugs suggests some other cause. Some neurologists have even gone so far as to suggest stereotypy as a cause. Stereotypy is the abnormal repetition of an action or abnormal sustained maintenance of a position or posture as seen in some phases of schizophrenia. While this diagnosis seems unlikely it does illustrate the myriad of potential causes that have been considered. Most likely, based on what is known about tremors in general, some type of movement disorder associated with pathology located in the cerebellum is involved.
The apparent risk in certain breeds suggests that genetic factors are involved. One veterinary neurologist has seen several affected Dobermans with a family history further supporting this, but no one seems to be aware of any pedigree analysis.
At this present time, there appears to be no research being done on Doberman Head Bobbing Syndrome. There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence suggesting a genetic cause of an emerging disease. Exercising caution in breeding Dobermans with a family history, even if the precise genetic mechanism for transmission is unknown, would seem, at least to this writer, to be prudent.

Submitted by C. David McLaughlin, DVM
Dr. McLaughlin is the retired director of Dundee Animal Hospital, which has 19 veterinarians on staff, providing specialty services and in-house 24-hour emergency and critical care. He currently serves as President of the Doberman Pinscher Foundation of America.