What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a disease which is progressive, or chronic, and affects the spinal cord. This results in a slow progression of the weakness of the hind area of the dog and can lead to paralysis. The white matter of the dog’s spinal cord, which is made of bundles of axons which are surrounded by the fatty, white matter, degenerates over time. The exact cause of degenerative myelopathy is unknown, although it is known that specific breeds, such as the German Shepherd, are predisposed to this condition.
This condition usually begins as the dog ages, and begins with the same symptoms as arthritis. Once it looks as if the dog has arthritis, it tends to develop into hip conditions such as hip dysplasia. Over time, the hind limbs become very weak and in the late stages the dog becomes lame in the hind area.
What significantly distinguishes this disease is the fact that dogs become very weak over time and begin to stumble and fall often. It is differentiated from osteoarthritis of the hip for example, because the myelopathy progresses over time with a continued wobbly gait. Other considerations for this condition include spinal injuries, lumbosacral stenosis, myasthenia gravis and discospondylitis.
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs, commonly referred to as “German Shepherd degenerative myelopathy” is a progressive condition in which the spinal cord is affected.
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Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
Symptoms of degenerative myelopathy in dogs begin as what looks like typical arthritis. Once symptoms become more severe they include:
- Difficulty rising from a resting position
- The hind area “gives out” causing the dog to stumble
- Dogs develop a very weak and wobbly walk
- Inability to walk up steps or hills
- inability to perform exercises or run
- Pain in the joint in the hind area due to nerve damage
There are other types of conditions that can lead to a differential diagnosis of this disease. These conditions may include:
- Spinal stenosis
- Lumbosacral stenosis
- Myasthenia gravis
Causes of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
The specific cause of this disorder is unknown, and research is still being conducted to determine precisely what causes degenerative myelopathy. Causes may include:
- Predisposition of certain breeds
- Aging of the dog
Diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
If your dog is showing any symptoms of progressive arthritis that are leaning towards the hind area and causing your dog distress, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will ask you questions that relate to his symptoms and when they began to become more noticeable and more severe.
In order to rule out any other medical conditions, your veterinarian will take bloodwork, urinalysis, and any other tests which he feels are necessary to come to a definitive diagnosis. Your veterinarian may also want to perform imaging techniques on your dog’s spinal cord in order to take a look at the severity of his condition. These imaging techniques may be an MRI as well as a myelography.
It is important to understand that degenerative myopathy will be diagnosed with the elimination of other disorders, such as severe arthritis or spinal stenosis. The veterinarian will also check for any herniated discs or any disc disorders of his back, tumors, cysts, and infections. Once everything is eliminated, your veterinarian will come to a diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy.
DM is a diagnosis of elimination. In other words, many other diseases must be ruled out before a definitive diagnosis can be made. These include a herniated disc or intervertebral disc disease, infections, injuries, cysts, tumors, and stroke. Since many of the diseases with similar symptoms can be successfully treated, it’s important to rule all of them out first.
Treatment of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
Although this disease is progressive, there are ways to treat the dog symptomatically to help them have less pain. Treatment methods include:
Exercises that promote range of motion are important in keeping your dog somewhat active. Your veterinarian may recommend a physical therapist to perform specific exercises with your dog on a regular basis. Although there is no cure for this disease, the therapy may assist with pain management and help your companion with his quality of life.
Giving your dog dietary supplements consisting of fresh fruits recommended by your veterinarian may help. Aminocaproic acid and N-acetylcysteine supplements have been shown in specific studies to slow the progression of the disease if given daily.
Recovery of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
In terms of recovery, degenerative myelopathy is not curable, and only gets worse in time. It is important to understand this and to give your dog the best quality of life possible. The veterinarian will suggest things that you can do at home with your dog so he can remain as happy as he can be.
Moving your dog to one floor of your home (if your home has multiple floors) is necessary so your dog is not tempted to go up and down steps. You may choose to purchase a mattress for your dog to lay upon so he can be more comfortable. This disease can cause instant lameness and steps can be dangerous for your companion. You may need to install a baby gate so your dog can stay away from the stairs.
A ramp is another option for steps that lead to outdoors. This device is also handy if you enjoy taking your dog on car rides. A ramp can keep your dog safe and keep strain off of his back area. Back slings are also helpful, which are covers with handles that wrap underneath the dog with you holding up the handles to take the pressure off of his hind area.
If you enjoy walking your dog, keep them short. Many dog owners take a wagon with them on their walks to tote their companion around if he becomes too weak to walk any further. This allows him to enjoy the outdoors and fresh air while you spend quality time with him and get your exercise as well.
In the final stages of this disease, understand that spending quality time with your dog is important to you and him. Dealing with degenerative myelopathy is difficult for dog owners, as they can see their dog becoming less and less able to move about. Spending as much time with him will help you continue the emotional bond between the two of you.
Degenerative Myelopathy Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My pug has progressive weakness in hindlegs over past 6 months without pain. I have changed foods to opposite of high protein/low carb and he has better energy. He gets meat/egg once or twice a week. All is cooked from scratch. Have added milk, kefir and yoghurt for added protein. Utilizing a Chinese tool that delivers electrical current when touched on skin, so I run along meridians and over spinal cord. Also utilizing herbal remedies assembled for the cor protocol for DM. Today he has energy, which has improved after changing his diet from Kibble to home cooked food with intent to eliminate preservatives. After 1 week of herbal support and working Meridians he is beginning to walk with power and no longer crossing legs in the back. He has still weakness but it seems his hind legs are wailing up. He used to curl his toes under. To day he lifts them. I am told that DM has no getting better. If it’s not DM what is it. He is in no pain, has always had his exercise, there has not been a reason but food that produced changes. I am told on support sites that it must be something else but not DM. Do you think I may have influenced the auto immune response by my approach? Is that a possibility?
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My Bernese mountain dog has been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy but my question is really more of when has the dog had enough. Like most berners, he is very happy go lucky and I can’t really tell if he is in pain. He has become less social throughout the day and it’s been years since he has had control of his bowels. While he is still able to walk for the most part, simple tasks have become nearly impossible for him and his panting and incessant licking are a concern of mine. He hasn’t always been the smartest and doesn’t generally whine about pain or any sort so I’m having a struggle of when he has had enough and if I’m selfishly holding on. He seems all there mentallly so I am torn.
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