Degenerative Myelopathy is a neurodegenerative disease in dogs. Neurodegenerative means a progressive and often irreversible deterioration and loss of function of the nervous system, especially the neurons in the brain.
In humans, examples of neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease.
Because of its degenerative quality, canine degenerative myelopathy (DM) starts out with mild symptoms. Over time, however, it makes it impossible for your dog to manage its own bodily functions. DM is not painful, but in essence, it “short circuits” nerve pathways from the brain to the limbs so that, over the course of about a year, the dog loses its ability to feel or use its limbs.
Unfortunately, while research is ongoing, there is currently no cure for this fatal disease, which makes it a particularly heart-wrenching diagnosis for dogs and their owners alike.
How to Tell if Your Dog Has Degenerative Myelopathy
Signs and Stages
The onset of the disease occurs later in life for most dogs, after eight years old. Degenerative Myelopathy affects coordination, so common symptoms include:
- Loss of coordination in the hind legs
- Wobbling while walking
- Dragging feet while walking
- Overall weak limbs
- Difficulty standing or buckling while standing
The symptoms get progressively worse, usually over the course of six months to a year, until the dog is entirely unable to walk.
Degenerative Myelopathy can be confused for several other conditions, so it’s critical that you discuss your dog’s condition with your vet. Dog hip dysplasia shows similar symptoms.
Causes and Susceptible Breeds
Degenerative Myelopathy is a genetic disease, meaning dogs inherit it from a specific gene that can be passed down from generation to generation. While once thought of as a German Shepherds’ disease, Degenerative Myelopathy is a concern for many breeds including Boxers, Corgis, Poodles, and Bernese Mountain dogs among others. Read the stats.
The disease usually starts showing signs when a dog is between 8 and 14 years old, which is well past the typical age for breeding female dogs. To help prevent the disease gene from being passed down, breeders should consider conducting genetic testing prior to mating.
Diagnosis and Testing
Degenerative Myelopathy is typically diagnosed by a vet through a process of elimination. Your vet may suggest myelography, which is a special technique to get an x-ray of the spine, and an MRI.
You can also get a DNA test to detect the gene mutation that causes Degenerative Myelopathy. Many tests can be administered at home by using a cheek swab to collect the necessary sample that can then be mailed to a testing center. Degenerative Myelopathy DNA tests typically cost between $50 and $75.
There is no cure for Degenerative Myelopathy in dogs, but fortunately, it is not a painful condition. Keeping your dog healthy through exercise and diet is always helpful. Please note, orthopedic braces like what we offer here at Ortho Dog DO NOT help dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy.
Tough Decisions: When to Euthanize
It is never easy to discuss euthanizing your animal companion. Once a vet has diagnosed a dog with the disease, the condition tends to worsen quite rapidly. Many vets end up putting the dog down within six months to three years.
Some holistic veterinarians like Sunvet Animal Wellness in Asheville offer compassionate euthanasia services, which may help ease the transition.
Talk to your vet to see what is right for you and your pup.