Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs - The Progression of the Disease
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.
In the early stages of DM, the symptoms can be easily overlooked particularly if your dog is already a senior. You might put it down to general "old dog" stuff like arthritis, or losing muscle mass as he gets older. Here are a few things that can present themselves during the early stages of degenerative myelopathy:
- A slight scraping sound of the dog's nails against the ground. It's often infrequent and intermittent, so easy to overlook.
- Uneven wearing on the nails of the hind paws. Many of us probably wouldn't even notice (or pay a lot of attention) when clipping their nails.
- A hint of clumsiness - a little stagger here, a slight trip there. We might just think the dog mis-stepped.
- Slight weakness - dogs may seem to be straining a little harder to climb the stairs, for example.
Symptoms become more pronounced as the disease progresses. This is the stage where more involved care is required. Another page in this section offers some suggestions on how to help a dog with degenerative myelopathy.
- The scraping sounds of the dog's nails against the ground will become more frequent until it starts happening regularly.
- Weakness. The loss of muscle mass in the dog's hindquarters, particularly the thighs, becomes very noticeable. Dogs struggle to climb stairs or get back up into a standing position. When standing, their hindquarters may start to "sag" because they don't have the strength to maintain the position for long. Eventually the weakness will progress to the point where they need assistance walking.
- A loss of coordination is noticeable. The dog's hind end seems "wobbly" when he walks. He loses his balance sometimes but can recover in the early-mid stages. In the later mid-stage he may not always be able to recover his balance on his own. Dogs with long tails may trip over their own tails.
- Poor balance. Gently push against the dog's side while he's standing and he'll lose his balance.
- The dog's hind legs will cross. He loses the sensation of where he's actually placing his paws, so his paw placement can be faulty when he stands (he isn't likely to notice). It can also happen when he walks which can cause him to trip or stumble over his own legs.
- Knuckling. Dogs will start to stand or walk on the top of the paw, rather than on the pads. If you deliberately pick up the foot and turn it top-side-down, they may right the foot after a delay, and eventually not at all as the disease progresses.
- The dog's tail will hang limp. He'll wag less, if at all. In talking with other people who loved dogs with DM, this symptom was often one of the hardest to deal with emotionally. It was for me as well - my dog used to wag happily in his silly enthusiasm to go for a walk (sometimes even 'helicopter-wagging'). He stopped wagging completely as the degenerative myelopathy progressed.
- Urinary or fecal incontinence, or both.
Many people make the decision to euthanize during the late-mid stage, or the early-late stage of degenerative myelopathy. Late-stage symptoms include:
- Jerkiness of movement. The dog's tail, legs, and hind end will move in an uncontrolled, spastic way. Sometimes the hind legs will kick out for no apparent reason. The tail may raise and lower randomly as if the dog needs to defecate.
- Extreme weakness, loss of coordination and balance. Dogs need help to walk and care must be taken so that they don't fall and injure themselves. They are weak to the point where they cannot squat to defecate or urinate (they will fall if not supported). They aren't able to get up from a down position without help, and cannot stand for long without support.
- Eventual paralysis of the hind end.
- Weakness in the front end, including shoulders and legs.
- In the very late stages, the dog will become so weak he is unable to support himself in any way. Respiratory issues will occur along with organ failure. Dogs are usually euthanized before it gets to the point.
Here's a video that shows the a dog going through the stages of degenerative myelopathy. This isn't my dog, but mine went through something very similar. Please note that some people may find this video upsetting.
It's often stated that dogs reach the late stage of degenerative myelopathy within a year from when the clinical signs first appear. This wasn't true in our case. My dog, adopted at 15, already had the initial symptoms of degenerative myelopathy when adopted. Progression of his symptoms accelerated much more rapidly during the final six months of his life, however three and a half years after we adopted him, he was still mobile. I do truly believe that keeping him active helped. He went to physical therapy as well as continued his twice-daily walks in order to maintain his strength as much as possible. Here are some other ways to help a dog with degenerative myelopathy.
More information on degenerative myelopathy in dogs:
Question to any of the GSD parents out there whose babies are in mid-stage...My guy started to get incontinent about 3 months ago [he was diagnosed w/ DM 16 months ago]. I wanted to ask if anyone's pup got diarrhea more frequently in the latter part of mid-stage. We have good days and bad days, but for the past few days it's been really rough. Seems to get worse if I'm out for extended periods of time [makes working difficult, but my son is commuting to school this semester to help. Trying to have someone always here at the house to reassure him]. This insipid disease is just ripping my heart to shreds. 90% of the time my guy is happy, but those moments where I can see him struggle and then feel guilty for having an accident in the house ... it just kills me [invested in a carpet steamer]. I got him a belly band and full body diaper, but I'm concerned we're heading into late stage.
I have an amazing Boxer named Wilson. He has brought us so much joy. He was diagnosed in May with DM. At first. I noticed him dragging his right foot and wearing down his nails. That is what led me to my vet. Since then, 3 months later it has progressed. He is still walking but tripping himself with his rear legs. It is so sad to see. His mind is the same, but his body is failing him. I have watched the videos of late stage DM and can't imagine that he will be there someday. It seems to be progressing quickly. My heart goes out to all who have to watch their beloved family members go through this.
I have just had my wonderful black and white cat Dhillon put to sleep. He was a rescue cat and had a wonky gait when I got him at 6 months old seven years ago. After a veterinary referral degenerative spinal myleopathy was diagnosed. I never knew whether it was an injury or congenital but I can say that he was my little soldier, beautiful inside and out, wanted lots of cuddles and never once clawed you purposefully. His wonky gait became a dragging of his legs in the last year but he still played and tried to stand on them when he stretched. Over the past month his bladder became blocked and he was given an in dwelling catheter that he used to patiently wait for me to express. He then developed constipation and had an enema but unfortunately after this procedure he never regained his drive and was very poorly. Euthanasia was the hardest but kindest decision. I am broken hearted. I have and never will have a cat like him again, he was my angel and is now an angel in heaven.
my doggie Tippy, a shih tzu, was euthanized 2 months ago due to DM. he was 16, woul’ve been 17 next week. i've rescued him from a shelter when he was 14. i didnt even know he had DM, everyone just kept telling me “spine issues” and “old man arthritis in hind legs” i am devastated now that he’s gone and regret my decision to euthanize. he was in late stages, he couldnt walk nor barely stand long enough to pee, i had to hold him up. pooping was difficult because towards the end he couldnt strain. he had diarrhea often towards the end too and i wonder if it’s because of all the treats i gave him, too many, his poor belly probably couldnt digest them. it was so painful to watch him keep falling down. when id take him to a park, and once his body was warmed up enough, he could walk for a while and sometimes even run for a little bit. at 16, and with all his setbacks, it was like a little miracle. i miss him so much. he still wanted to be here, i wish ive waited with my decision.