Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a devastating condition that can deeply impact a dog’s life. With early signs of this condition mimicking normal conditions like arthritis, DM can sneak up on a dog and cause serious complications. So what is degenerative myelopathy in dogs?

In this article we will discuss the details of degenerative myelopathy in dogs, and help you understand what this diagnosis means for your canine companion.

What Is Degenerative Myelopathy In Dogs?

Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy is a disease in dogs that impacts the canine motor abilities. Degenerative myelopathy, or DM, causes the slow deterioration of the white matter in the spinal cord. This progressive condition can lead to weakness in the hind limbs, and eventual paralysis as the condition progresses.

The front limbs can be involved in this condition as well, causing a devastating impact to the dog affected. DM in dogs is comparable to the degenerative condition in humans known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Causes Of Degenerative Myelopathy In Dogs

The exact cause of degenerative myelopathy is unknown, but a genetic mutation has been identified as the main risk factor in middle age to senior dogs. The SOD-1 gene mutation is present in each dog that is diagnosed with this degenerative condition, but not every dog with this mutation develops DM. The fact that not every dog with this mutation develops the condition is puzzling, but it is the only known risk that is present in every case.

According to research performed by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, a dog must have two copies of the SOD-1 gene in order to develop DM at some point in their life. Two copies of the gene are required for a dog to suffer from DM, but only one copy is needed to be a carrier. This means that if a dog breeds with another carrier of this gene, their offspring will be at risk down the line.

Breeds most at risk for carrying this gene mutation include German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, Collies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Boxers, Golden Retrievers, and Poodles. Due to the potential for DM to cause serious damage to a dog and their offspring, it’s essential for breeders to test for the presence of this gene mutation in their breeding adults.

What Are The Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

The signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs will vary based on how much the condition has progressed by the time it is noticed. Ranging from minor changes in gait to severe weakness, this condition can affect a dog in many ways.

The most common signs of DM in dogs include:

  • Wobbly gait
  • Swaying in the back end when standing still
  • Falling over easily when pushed
  • Knuckling of the hind paws when walking
  • Difficulty getting up from a lying or sitting position
  • Back paws experiencing irritation from scraping the ground
  • Abnormally worn toe nails on the back paws
  • Inability to get up
  • Inability to walk
  • Complete paralysis of the hind limbs

If your dog is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s important to seek advice from your veterinarian. DM symptoms will worsen as the spinal cord deteriorates, making it essential to seek help before it progresses.

Diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy In Dogs

Most cases of degenerative myelopathy in dogs will be diagnosed based on history, physical exam findings, diagnostic x-rays, or an MRI. These are the most least invasive options in terms of testing, and paint enough of a picture to get a tentative DM diagnosis. Diagnostic imaging can also rule out other joint conditions that affect hind limb strength, and help the veterinarian determine if other conditions are present on top of DM.

There are other diagnostic options available for degenerative myelopathy, but they are more invasive. The only way to get a definitive diagnosis of DM is through testing the spinal fluid or tissue, or performing DNA testing for the SOD-1 gene mutation. These options will offer a clear cut answer, any may be recommended in certain cases.

Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there is no treatment option for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. The only way to improve a dog’s life with this condition is through management of their symptoms, increasing their strength, and tending to any pain they experience. The goal is to maintain a dog’s strength for as long as possible, and offer them as much support as you can as their condition deteriorates. DM will always progress over time, but you can offer your dog comfort as this happens.

The first way to manage DM in your dog is through preserving their muscle strength as long as possible. Many dog owners do this by keeping their dog active, offering them physical therapy, and maintaining a healthy weight. Weight management is important in taking additional stress off the joints, while physical activity can help a dog strengthen the muscles in their hind legs. As your dog’s DM progresses, they will benefit greatly from any additional strength they are able to build.

Some veterinarians also suggest a combination of medication to slow the deterioration of degenerative myelopathy in dogs. A combination of steroids and vitamins has been shown to slow the progression of the disease in some dogs, and may offer assistance when used in combination with exercise. Every dog is different, and management often varies based on how progressed the disease is once a dog owner seeks veterinary help.

Degenerative Myelopathy Timeline In Dogs

As we mentioned above, there is no treatment for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. The disease will always progress to eventual paralysis in our furry friends, and tends to stick to a general timeline. When DM does not receive any medical intervention or exercise therapy, dogs usually experience hind limb paralysis within 6-12 months.

The best way to offer your dog more time in their diagnosis is by offering property management. You can do this by maintaining a healthy weight, keeping them active as long as possible, and using medical management if your veterinarian recommends to do so. Proper management of DM in dogs can offer them anywhere from 1-3 years of hind limb function.

When To Euthanize A Dog With Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

If you are turning to this article for help in managing your dog’s DM, you may be struggling with the question of when to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy. Every furry friend is different, but there are a few standard signs of when it might be time to say goodbye.

Some of the signs of a dog that is struggling in their degenerative myelopathy includes:

  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Weakness of the front limbs as well as the back limbs
  • Complete paralysis of the hind limbs
  • No longer able to get up from a sitting or lying position on their own

If your dog is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it may be time to discuss quality of life with your veterinarian. Your vet will be able to discuss the best end of life care for your pup, or discuss the possibility of saying goodbye.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, degenerative myelopathy is a complex condition that deeply impacts our canine friends. Be sure to review the information we discussed above, and you better manage your dog’s DM going forward.

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