Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs - A Personal Story

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a disease of the spinal cord that causes progressive paralysis. Fortunately, the disease isn't painful. This section of the site isn't meant to discuss the medical background of the disease - there are sites much better suited to this - but rather, my own experience in dealing with the disease: the symptoms I first noticed, the things I did that helped (and those that didn't help as much), and the progression of the disease. It's my hope that reading a personal account from a pet owner whose dog had DM, it will help someone else who's dealing with the same situation.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not a vet and I have no veterinary or medical background whatsoever. This information on degenerative myelopathy in dogs is not meant as a substitute or replacement for veterinary advice. It's meant for educational and informational purposes only, as a starting point for discussing the diagnosis and treatment of degenerative myelopathy with a qualified vet.

What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?

I'm not a vet so I'm providing links to other resources that can explain the medical background of degenerative myelopathy to anyone who is interested in learning more (links will open in a new window).

Symptoms

Degenerative myelopathy is more often seen in older dogs, but symptoms can present themselves in younger dogs as well. The earlier symptoms may persist for quite some time before the disease begins to progress. Symptoms tend to progress more rapidly in the later stages.

It started off very subtly for us. My dog was 15 when I adopted him. He'd had a hard life and had little muscle tone or stamina. When I first heard him occasionally stumbling, tripping, or scraping his nails against the ground while we were out walking, I figured that it was just because he was an old, arthritic dog. Later, as he gained strength and endurance it still happened - but because he was running and playing, I didn't think much of it.

Degenerative myelopathy is a slow-progressing disease and the symptoms may not be obvious at first. They include:

  • The sound of the dog's hind paw nails scraping against the ground. At first this happens only intermittently, but gradually becomes more frequent until you start hearing it all the time.

  • Uneven wearing of the nails on the hind paws. This is most often seen on the two middle nails of the paw.

  • Wobbly or uncoordinated while walking. Dogs will walk as if their hind ends are 'drunk'. They may stumble and stagger off-balance. They are easily knocked down if pushed from the side.

  • Crossing of the hind legs. Dogs with DM lose the perception of where they're placing their feet so their legs sometimes cross.

  • Knuckling - standing or walking on the top of the paw, rather than pad-side-down. The dog may not even notice what he's doing and you might have to manually flip his paw right-side-up again.

  • Muscle atrophy. The muscles in the thighs will begin to waste away. Eventually, walking will become difficult due to the progressing weakness as well as the other symptoms.

  • Limp tail. In some cases, the dog's tail will hang limply. Owners often find this distressing especially when their dogs used to wag their tails to express themselves.

  • Dragging of the legs. Dogs won't lift their paws up high enough and instead will drag them along the ground.

  • Difficulty standing for long periods, due to the weakness previously mentioned.

  • Difficulty getting up from a sitting or down position.

  • Urine or fecal incontinence, or both.

  • Hind-end paralysis will eventually set in.

  • Eventually, weakness and paralysis will also affect the front legs.

Symptoms won't necessarily present equally on both sides of the body. In my dog, one hind leg was significantly worse off than the other even though they were both affected. Remember that this is a slow-progressing disease so if one of the symptoms occurs suddenly, or there is sudden pain, it is most likely not DM. Take your dog to the vet for an assessment.

Diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy

Unfortunately, there's no definitive test that will tell you that your dog has DM. A confirmed diagnosis can only be made during a necropsy. Thus diagnosis is a process of elimination. There are other medical conditions that can present the same symptoms as DM. Your vet can take a history, look at symptoms, do a physical and run various tests to rule out other diseases.

However, there is now a test that can identify a major risk factor for degenerative myelopathy. It tests for a DNA mutation. Note that it does not necessarily identify dogs that will develop DM (or who have it); it only identifies those that are at much higher risk, or those who are carriers for the disease. The test can be ordered through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.

Not everyone has the financial means or the interest in pursuing every test - particularly if it won't change the course of treatment. Some vets may be comfortable with a "probable" diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy based on symptoms, history, and breed.

Breeds most often affected include the German Shepherd, the Siberian Husky, the Welsh Corgi, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Standard Poodles, Irish Setters, and several other large-breed dogs.

Treatment

There's currently no proven method of treatment that will stop or cure degenerative myelopathy in dogs. That doesn't mean that dogs can't continue to lead happy lives. Speaking with other people who have dealt with this devastating disease in their dogs, it seems like the dogs handle it much better than their people. Here are some ways to help a dog with degenerative myelopathy, based on my own personal experience. Every dog is different and you know your dog the best ... but I'm hoping that these suggestions will help you in some way.

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