What is Degenerative Myelopathy? The Full Guide

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What is Degenerative Myelopathy_The Full GuideIf you have been noticing your dog’s hind limbs becoming weaker, or if your dog has trouble getting up, climbing stairs or walking, then this could be a sign of several different conditions. The most common condition is arthritis or hip dysplasia, which are incredibly common in older dogs. However, it could also be the sign of a dangerous spinal cord disease known as Degenerative Myelopathy. 

Read on to learn more about Degenerative Myelopathy, what causes it, and what it means for your dog’s health and life.

What is Canine Degenerative Myelopathy (Spinal Cord Disease)?

Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy is a spinal cord disease that is present in older dogs.

X-ray film of dog lateral view with red highlight in spinal column bone or canine degenerative myelopathy

This spinal cord disease typically affects dogs between 8 and 14 years of age. This disease results in a loss of coordination and mobility of the hind limbs, causing to the dog to wobble, sink, and/ or drag the back legs while walking.

This disease first affects one hind leg, and then eventually affects the other. In serious cases of Degenerative Myelopathy, the limbs become so weak that the dog can no longer stand or walk comfortably.

After six months to a year, the dog becomes completely paraplegic, and can no longer walk, move or control urinary functions or bowels.

Degenerative Myelopathy, or DM in dogs is similar to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease or spondylotic myelopathy in humans.

What Causes Canine Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

Degenerative Myelopathy is a crippling disease that causes progressive paralysis in many dog breeds.

Although it is certainly a terrible disease that no pet owner would want for his or her dog, it isn’t always painful.

However, the dog’s quality of life is certainly affected.

Degenerative Myelopathy first affects the spinal cord. The area of the spinal cord that is affected by the disease is detected by white matter, which is present under a microscope. The white matter consists of fibers that affect the brain’s commands to signal movement as well as sensory information.

These fibers can also impact the cerebrospinal fluid, which is the natural liquid surrounding the spinal cord and brain. Over time, the degeneration process takes over.

So What Do Studies Say About What Causes Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

Unfortunately, the exact cause of DM in dogs is unknown. However, veterinary research conducted at the University of Missouri and the Genome-wide association have identified a gene that is associated with a major increase in the risk of the disease.

Research has shown that the onset of this spinal cord disease may be linked to the presence of two distinct genes in a dog’s DNA. One gene is “normal” and the other gene is a mutation. The presence of these genes shows that some dogs may be carriers of the disease whereas others may not.

Dogs with the mutation genes are at a higher risk for developing Degenerative Myelopathy, but it isn’t a guarantee. Some dogs live a long, normal, healthy life with the mutated genes without ever developing the disease.

Dog Breeds Most Prone to Canine Degenerative Myelopathy –DM

Some dog breeds are at a higher risk of developing DM. The most common are the Welsh Corgi and the German Shepherd.

In fact, the spinal cord disease is often referred to as German Shepherd Degenerative Myelopathy since it is most common in German Shepherd dogs.

Here is a list of the most common DM dogs:

  • German Shepherd
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgi
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Irish Setters
  • Boxers
  • Collies
  • Rhodesian Ridgebacks
  • Poodles

A Wobbly Pooch! Clinical Signs and Symptoms of DM

The beginning signs of DM often similar to those of arthritis. However, as the spinal cord disease progresses, more severe clinical signs and symptoms begin to indicate Degenerative Myelopathy. Some of the most common clinical signs and symptoms of DM in dogs:

  • Difficulty getting up
  • Rear legs seem to give out while standing
  • Stumbling and wobbling
  • Weakness while walking
  • Difficulty walking up hills or stairs
  • Difficulty exercising
  • Some pain or discomfort in the hind limbs

Close up of dog lying down with splint to stabilize the right hind-limb showing degenerative myelopathy symptoms

If a dog has arthritis, it can eventually develop into Hip Dysplasia.

However, one of the most distinguishable signs of DM in dogs is that a dog’s hind limbs and rear legs become significantly weaker over time. Dogs will begin to stumble, wobble, and fall often. There are also different types and forms of DM in dogs, which include: 

  • Spinal injuries, such as spinal stenosis
  • Lumbosacral stenosis
  • Cervical spondylotic myelopathy (also known as cervical myelopathy or cervical spondylomyelopathy)
  • Discospondylitis Myasthenia

The Power of Science! Degenerative Myelopathy Test for Dogs

As mentioned above, although an exact cause hasn’t yet been determined for DM in dogs, research suggests that a mutation of a particular gene might be a factor.

The good news is that there is now an affordable DM DNA test available for dog owners and dog breeders to determine if a dog has the mutation gene.

Although DM is most common in certain dog breeds, such as the German Shepherd, the DM DNA test is available for all dog breeds.

The DM DNA test will show the following three possible results:

  • CLEAR – Tests showing two copies of normal genes
  • CARRIER – Tests showing one copy of the normal gene and one copy of the mutation gene
  • AT RISK – Tests showing two copies of the mutation gene, which will most likely result in clinical signs of the disease

If your dog is a breed that is at a higher risk for DM, and if he or she is beginning to show issues in the hind area, then call your vet immediately. Your vet will likely ask you a series of questions related to the dog’s symptoms and perform a series of tests. These tests will likely include blood work, a urinalysis, and possibly X-rays or even an MRI of the spinal cord. These tests are necessary in order for the vet to reach a firm diagnosis and conclusion.

The vet will also evaluate your dog for any herniated discs, tumors, cysts, infections or even a severe case of arthritis before coming to the conclusion that your dog has DM.

DM – A Progressive Condition. What is the Degenerative Myelopathy Treatment for Dogs?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any specific treatments or cures available for DM in dogs.

There are a number of treatment methods recommended by many vets that may work; however, there isn’t any concrete scientific or medical evidence guaranteeing that they will work 100 percent of the time.

Here are some DM treatment approaches you can try:

  • Therapy Exercises – Therapy exercises may help increase your dog’s mobility and range of motion. In some cases, therapy exercise may be more important than keeping your dog active. Some veterinarians even recommend a physical therapist to help your dog perform exercises on a regular basis.No, therapy exercises aren’t a cure, nor do they work for every dog with DM; however, they can help with pain management and also improve the dog’s quality of life.
  • Natural Supplements – Feeding your dog regular dietary supplements consisting of fresh fruits and B-complex vitamins may help. Speak with your veterinarian about the best natural supplements for your dog.
  • Superoxide Dismutase – Superoxide Dismutase is a natural antioxidant that can help prevent cell destruction, inflammation, aging and degenerative issues.
  • Sanus Biotex – Sanus Biotex is a program that involves administering a special formula to dogs with DM. The formula is designed to help increase and stimulate communication between the nerves and the brain, which can help reduce the degenerative process.
  • Aminocaproic acid and N-acetylcysteine Supplements – According to Westlab Pharmacy, these supplements have shown to help reduce the progression of the disease. This is because Aminocaproic acid and N-acetylcysteine NAC contain antioxidants that can help protect normal cells from damage.

Living With Your Dogs’ Degenerative Myelopathy

Although there isn’t a cure for DM in dogs, it’s important to remember that the disease will only worsen over time.

There are things you can do to help your dog live with Degenerative Myelopathy. Your veterinarian will suggest things that you can do at home with your dog so he or she can live as comfortable and as happy as possible.

Some things you can do at home include:

  • Move to a single-story home
  • Use a baby gate to prevent your dog from using stairs
  • Install a ramp outside
  • Give your dog a mattress to rest on
  • Monitor for urinary infections
  • Keep walks short
  • Increase mobility with a harness or cart

Prognosis after Diagnosis: What is the Quality of Life?

Unfortunately, the prognosis after Degenerative Myelopathy is poor.

Most dogs with DM are put down between six months and three years after diagnosis. The length of time for the inevitable greatly varies with each dog. Overall health, wellness, the progression of the disease and dog breed all impact how long your pooch will live with the disease before he or she is completely paralyzed.

Although it is incredibly difficult to make this decision, once your dog becomes completely paralyzed, then putting him or her to rest should be considered.

With Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, Give Your Dog The Proper Care and Treatment

Dealing with Degenerative Myelopathy can be incredibly difficult for pet owners as well as dogs. Therefore, it’s important to give your dog as much love, care, compassion, quality time and fresh air up until the final stages of the disease, and his or her final moments with you.

Common Questions on Degenerative Myelopathy

What does Degenerative Myelopathy look like?

What breeds get Degenerative Myelopathy?

Does this condition cause pain?

Can Degenerative Myelopathy be cured?

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