The thought that their dog might be suffering from a serious medical condition is one that no parent enjoys. The unfortunate fact is that there are some canine medical problems that are very hard to prevent, but being educated and prepared to deal with them can be a great help.
In this guide we'll take a look at a spinal disease that primarily affects older pups: Degenerative Myelopathy.
What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative Myelopathy is a disease that is, as the name suggests, progressive in nature and affects the function and stability of the spine. It typically affects senior dogs, beginning at around the age of eight.
The disease cause the wasting away of the nerves in the spine that transmit movement commands to the brain. It is a progressive disease for which there is no known cure.
The graphic below depicts a healthy nerve (left) and a nerve with a damaged myelin sheath covering (right).
The condition first manifests itself as an apparent loss of coordination in a pup's hind quarters, something called ataxia in medical terms.
They might wobble, drag their legs or knuckle as they walk. They may struggle to climb stairs, jump up into the car and they may even struggle to complete their regular walks. As the condition progresses it may also begin to affect the front legs as well.
What Causes Degenerative Myelopathy and Are Certain Breeds At a Higher Risk?
There was a time, years ago, when Degenerative Myelopathy was referred to by many as German Shepherd Myelopathy because it was these big pups who seemed to be most commonly afflicted.
These days however it is a better researched and understood condition and it is known that it can affect any pup, whether they are purebred or 'mutt', if they carry the gene that causes it, as this is indeed an inherited disease. It is believed that the gene must be inherited from both pup parents in order for it to cause active Degenerative Myelopathy, but research into the disease is still ongoing.
This research - along with anecdotal evidence from both pet parents and vets - does seem to indicate that it is not just German Shepherds who are at an increased risk.
Corgis, Boxers,Golden Retrievers, smaller Terriers, Pugs, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Borzoi, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Poodle, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Great Pyrenean Mountain dog, Kerry Blues, Shetland sheepdog, soft coated Wheaten terriers and Bernese Mountain dogs are also seemingly more genetically predisposed as well.
As is the case with other inherited diseases in dogs strides made in DNA testing are allowing breeders to identify pups carrying the bad gene and remove them from the breeding pool, helping to decrease the incidence of the disease.
How Can I Tell If My Dog Has Degenerative Myelopathy?
It can be hard for a pet parent to tell if their pup may be developing Degenerative Myelopathy or if, as this is a disease that affects older dogs, they are simply 'slowing down' with age, as the loss of coordination and range of movement associated with it can indeed be due to age rather than any specific ailment or to another medical condition altogether, for example, arthritis.
It usually affects dogs older than 5 years of age and typically older than 8 years of age.
The hindquarter weakness - the inability to climb up a set of stairs or onto a pet parent's bed - is often a stronger sign that Degenerative Myelopathy may be present, as is sudden onset incontinence, but essentially, as any vet will tell you, the diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy is often a process of elimination, with various tests being needed to rule out other causes before a presumptive diagnosis of the condition is made.
DNA tests such as the Wisdom Panel DNA test kit or the Embark breed and ancestry identification DNA test kit can help preempt health conditions that your dog may be predisposed to along with his breed to better understand what he may be at risk for.
How is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?
There is actually no way to tell for sure if a pup is suffering from DM - which has no set effective treatment - until an autopsy is performed after death, so it is more important to rule out conditions that may be able to be addressed with surgery - such as degenerative disc disease - rather than just immediately assume that Degenerative Myelopathy is the problem. This usually involves a series of Xrays and MRIs, as conditions like degenerative disc disease will show up there, but as a condition that affects only the internal spine, DM will not.
Genetic testing can also be used to confirm whether or not the dog carries the faulty gene that is known to cause Degenerative Myelopathy. If they do then the chances that they are indeed suffering from the condition increases significantly and once as many of the other possible causes of their symptoms have been ruled out most vets then feel a diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy can be made.
What Are the Treatment Options for Dogs With Degenerative Myelopathy?
DM is not a condition that can be cured, as the fibers in the spine that it destroys cannot be replaced. It is an irreversible and progressive disease. There are also, unfortunately, no scientifically agreed upon treatments that can prevent, or effectively slow the progression of the disease.
Some do feel that careful weight control and the monitoring of a pups diet to ensure it is as nutritious and balanced as possible may be helpful for those pups who may have the DM gene but have yet to develop the condition but most of the evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific. However, as these measures are excellent for the general health of any pup they really should be undertaken anyway.
Most of the measures that have been shown to help improve the remaining quality of life for pups with Degenerative Myelopathy are what are termed comfort and care measures and often include physical therapies like stretching or swimming, acupuncture and even massage.
One of the most difficult things for pet parents to cope with when their pup is diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy is the fact that this is a pain free condition, and, other than the movement issues their pup develops, the rest of their health, and their cognition, remains unchanged. These days often still bright pups will thrive if they are trained to use a cart or doggie wheelchair and can, with care and love, live out their remaining years in happiness.
Share Your Experience: Have a story about Degenerative Myelopathy in dogs? Share it with us by leaving a comment below.
If you are concerned about your pet, visit or call your veterinarian – he/she is your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your dog. This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet.