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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
More information on degenerative myelopathy in dogs: