This content was reviewed by veterinarian Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM.
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Has your dog become less mobile? Is he having trouble going on walks or climbing stairs? There could be many reasons for this, including arthritis and hip dysplasia. But one lesser-known condition he could be suffering from is degenerative myelopathy (DM), an inherited spinal cord disease in dogs. Learn more about DM here to see if your dog could be at risk for this debilitating condition.
- What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?
- Breeds At High Risk For DM
- Will My Dog Develop Degenerative Myelopathy?
- Symptoms And Stages
- See A Video Of Symptoms As They Progress
- Treatment And Prognosis
- Tools To Help Your Pup
- When Should I Consider Euthanizing My Dog With DM?
- Does My Dog Have Another Condition?
What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a hereditary adult-onset spinal cord disease similar to the human disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dogs with DM experience slowly progressive weakness and an inability to control hind limbs, eventually leading to paralysis. Symptoms usually don’t begin until dogs are around 8 years old, but the range can be anywhere from 4-14 years old.
At first, experts considered DM mainly a large-breed disease, but more recent research has uncovered many more at-risk breeds. Breeds most at risk include:
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Golden Retrievers
- Great Pyrenees
- Kerry Blue Terriers
- Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
- Poodles (Miniature and Standard)
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
- Shetland Sheepdogs
- Siberian Huskies
- Welsh Corgis (Cardigans and Pembrokes)
- Wirehaired Fox Terriers
Researchers have identified the genetic mutation in the SOD1 gene as a major risk factor for DM, so doing a DNA test on your dog can shed light on whether he has this genetic mutation.
We recommend several at-home DNA test kits that can identify factors that increase the risk of degenerative myelopathy: Embark, Wisdom Panel, and EasyDNA. See our reviews of the best dog DNA tests to see how they compare and what else you can learn about your dog through a DNA test.
Keep in mind that if your dog has the SOD1 mutation, it doesn’t mean that he’ll definitely develop DM. It just means he’s at a higher risk. But this knowledge can help your veterinarian with a more accurate diagnosis if your dog begins showing early symptoms.
Degenerative myelopathy symptoms usually progress over months and, in some cases, several years. DM typically doesn’t affect dogs mentally; they remain alert throughout the disease’s progression. Here’s how symptoms typically progress.
- Difficulty getting up from a lying position
- Hind end weakness (difficulty climbing stairs, going for walks, jumping onto furniture, etc.)
- Hindquarters appear to sway when standing still
- Dog falls over easily when pushed from the side
- Dragging the hind feet, causing the nails to look worn down
- Knuckling of hind feet with a reluctance to put hind feet on the underside on the ground
- Difficulty supporting weight with hind legs
- Inability to walk without support
- Urinary incontinence
- Fecal incontinence
- Difficulty eating
- Change in the tone of barking
- Paralysis of hind legs
- Weakness in front legs
- Eventual paralysis in front legs
This brief video shows you how degenerative myelopathy progresses through several stages. It helps you understand how the symptoms appear in dogs and what to expect over time with this disease.
Unfortunately, the only way to definitively diagnose DM is through a postmortem examination of the spinal cord during a necropsy (animal version of an autopsy). However, veterinarians try to arrive at a suspected diagnosis by eliminating other conditions, which can involve a long process of numerous tests.
Veterinarians typically will conduct X-rays, CT, or MRI scans to rule out such conditions as arthritis, hip dysplasia, intervertebral disk disease (IVDD), tumors, trauma, or other issues that could cause weakness and mobility problems. Other tests may include tissue biopsies, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis, and neuromuscular tests. If your dog hasn’t already had a DNA health-risk test, your vet may conduct one for the SOD1 mutation to determine if that could be a cause.
Unfortunately, there’s no medication or other treatment to cure or halt the progression of DM.
What’s the life expectancy of dogs with degenerative myelopathy? Dogs with DM typically live with the disease for anywhere from six months to three years, depending on when it’s diagnosed and how fast it progresses.
The good news is that DM isn’t considered a painful disease. Keeping dogs with DM as active as possible is important to preserve their quality of life and maintain muscle mass. For example, try to keep taking your dog on walks for as long as he’s able to get around.
Veterinarians typically recommend physical therapy and often hydrotherapy. Some physical therapy exercises, like massages, can be performed at home. Your vet may also refer you to a canine rehabilitation specialist for your dog’s physical therapy.
A well-balanced diet will help to make sure that your dog continues to receive all of the nutrients he needs to stay healthy. You may want to consider switching to an all-natural fresh or healthier kibble dog food as another option to feed your dog a nutritious diet.
Some vets may also recommend a combination of supplements like vitamins B, C, and E, epsilon-aminocaproic acid, and N-acetyl cysteine; however, there’s no scientific evidence that they help slow the progression of the disease.
Because DM is a progressive disease and gets worse despite treatment, the prognosis for dogs with this disease is poor.
When Bella, our 12-year-old lab-mix, started dragging her feet on walks, we knew something was wrong. But, she had also been tender in her hip area for over a year, which we believed to be from arthritis, so we assumed it was related. When we took her to the vet for her walking difficulties, they gave her a laser treatment to reduce pain and inflammation from the suspected hip arthritis.
However, the next day, she was even worse. She couldn’t even get up to eat breakfast – her very favorite thing – so we knew her health was declining quickly. We rushed back to the vet, who was reasonably sure that Bella had DM. With no treatment options to cure her, only the ability to manage her pain while she continued to decline, sadly, we chose to say goodbye to Bella that day. You never know how long you have with your furry friends, so be sure to give them love every single day. – Michelle S., Canine Journal
As DM progresses, your dog will eventually lose the ability to be mobile on his own, so you’ll want to consider getting him a harness as well as a cart or wheelchair to assist his hind legs. A dog harness, like the PetSafe CareLift Rear Support Harness, can help you assist him up the stairs, into a car, onto your bed, etc. But, don’t use this more than needed because it reduces your dog’s ability to maintain muscle mass.
Also, see our article on the best wheelchairs for dogs for our recommendations. These equipment options can help maintain your dog’s sense of independence and provide a better quality of life for the time he has left.
Euthanasia (humane death) is never an easy topic to discuss. When to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy depends on each dog’s situation. Many people decide to euthanize their dog before the disease progresses into the front legs (eventually leading to total body paralysis) or before it leaves a dog unable to control his urination and bowel movements. This is a decision that you should discuss with your veterinarian. Your vet can’t make this decision for you, but they can help you in the decision-making process.
As we said above, the early symptoms of degenerative myelopathy closely resemble some other conditions. You may want to learn more about arthritis and hip dysplasia in dogs to see if these conditions could be the cause of your dog’s mobility problems. But be sure to consult with your veterinarian to get the proper diagnosis and treatment plan.Tagged With: Arthritis, DNA, Reviewed By Dr. Pendergrass, DVM