What is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) in dogs is a slowly progressive, degenerative disease of the spinal cord that causes hind limb paralysis and weakness.
It develops due to the degeneration of the white matter. According to the University of Missouri, it is more common in older dogs (over 9 years of age), and it starts in the hind limbs but progresses to all limbs. Usually, it affects large breed dogs.
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy. It is the canine equivalent of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans.
Sadly, there is no cure for DM in dogs. Since it significantly lowers the quality of life, affected dogs are often euthanized.
What Causes Dog Degenerative Myelopathy?
The exact cause of canine degenerative myelopathy is unknown. However, it is postulated that it results from a genetic mutation of the SOD-1 (superoxide dismutase) gene.
Only dogs that carry two copies of the mutated gene may develop degenerative myelopathy. Dogs with one copy of the gene are simply carriers.
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals offers genetic tests to determine whether dogs carry this gene mutation.
What Dog Breeds are Prone to Degenerative Myelopathy?
As noted large breeds are more likely to develop degenerative myelopathy. However, there are exceptions. Here is a list of some of the dog breeds at risk of DM.
- German Shepherd Dogs & GSD crosses
- Siberian Huskies
- Cardigan & Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Bernese Mountain dogs
- Golden Retrievers
- Kerry Blue Terriers
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
One of the first signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs is walking on the hind leg knuckles. Then, with the progression of the disease, there are additional signs and symptoms. Let’s take a look at them.
- Knuckling: As mentioned, this is the first sign of DM in dogs. Instead of stepping on the paws, the dog steps on the knuckles. This is most accented when turning to the sides. Prolonged knuckling results in hair loss and injuries to the knuckles.
- Swaying: When standing in a normal position, the dog’s hind legs look swayed.
- Falling Aside: A dog with DM will also lose stability and is likely to fall to one side when lightly pushed.
- Difficulty Getting Up: DM causes weakness, and as a result, the dog finds it hard to get up from a horizontal position. Managing stairs and high furniture is also a challenge.
- Ataxia: Asymmetric ataxia (loss of coordination) is another sign of DM in dogs. It may persist all the time or occur in episodes.
- Muscle Atrophy: Because of the hind leg weakness, the dog stops to use its legs much, which results in atrophy or, simply put, muscle mass loss.
- Urinary Incontinence: In the final stages of the disease, the dog loses control over its bladder and urinates without control.
- Fecal Incontinence: The dog will also lose control over its bowel movements and start to defecate without control.
How is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs Diagnosed?
Diagnosing degenerative myelopathy is time-consuming as it requires eliminating other possible causes of hind limb weakness. The vet will consider the dog’s medical records and perform a full physical exam.
Then, they will likely order additional tests such as x-rays, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis, spinal cord evoked potential, and tissue biopsy. If dealing with an at-risk breed, the vet will recommend DNA testing to confirm the diagnosis of DM.
What is the Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
There is no known treatment for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. However, there are several things pet owners can do to help their dogs live more comfortable lives.
- Assistance: Providing assistance like ramps for stairs or cars and assisting their front legs when they need to get up on furniture can go a long way in making it easier for your dog. You can also provide soft bedding so that affected dogs have a place where they can feel comfortable all of the time.
- Harness: If your dog has degenerative myelopathy, a harness can provide you with rear-end support. You use the dog harness to help lift the dog over obstacles that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to navigate through.
- Boots: Boots can also provide your dog with some comfort for the hind legs of your dog. Ensure that the boots have a non-slip grip and are soft.
- Physical Therapy: Physical therapy may be helpful for this spinal cord disease. Hydrotherapy and
- Exercise: Dogs with DM should be kept physically active for as long as possible. This will strengthen their muscle mass and also helps keep their body weights in check. Obesity is an aggravating factor for dogs with DM.
Can CBD Oil Help Dogs With Degenerative Myelopathy?
Yes, CBD may help dogs with degenerative myelopathy.
In a recent 2022 study, “Can CBG slow the effects of Degenerative Myelopathy?,““it was shown that CBG (cannabigerol) combined with CBD (cannabidiol), has neuroprotective features. As a result, it is postulated that it may “help slow the neurodegenerative devastation of degenerative myelopathy.““
Also, CBD may help dogs with the symptoms and side effects of the conditions, like inflammation and depression.
Luckily, today CBD supplements for dogs come in different forms (oils, chews, peanut butter) and are very easy to dose and use. Plus, CBD is a natural remedy and does not cause significant side effects.
Does Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs Go Away?
No, degenerative myelopathy in dogs does not go away.
Although the condition may be diagnosed via DNA test before clinical signs are apparent, there is no way to reverse the degeneration.
What is the Prognosis for Dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy?
In general, the prognosis for dogs with DM is poor. The condition is progressive and irreversible, meaning it will eventually result in paralysis.
Usually, smaller dogs with DM live longer than large breeds. This is because smaller dogs are easier to manage after they become paralyzed.
How Long Will My Dog Live With Degenerative Myelopathy?
Dogs diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy usually live around 1-2 years.
As time progresses, so do symptoms, and dogs that have this condition usually won’t be able to walk without assistance within a couple of months after it starts.
What are the Final Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
In the final stages of degenerative myelopathy in dogs, the dog’s front legs become affected, which results in fully impaired mobility.
Also, with the progression of the disease, the dog will lose control over its bladder movements and bowel movements – urinary and fecal incontinence. At this point, the quality of life drops.
When Should You Put a Dog Down With Degenerative Myelopathy?
Most dogs with degenerative myelopathy are put down within 6 months to 3 years after being diagnosed.
In an older 2007 study by Joan R Coates et al., “Clinical characterization of a familial degenerative myelopathy in Pembroke Welsh Corgi dogs,“ the median age at which dogs were euthanized was 13 years.
However, every dog is different, and there is no strict rule indicating the right time for euthanasia. In general, the dog needs to be put down when its quality of life becomes compromised. This is a hard decision, and something you need to discuss with the vet at length.
Can I Prevent Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
Owners cannot prevent the condition. However, breeders can.
Namely, responsible breeders should test at-risk dogs (from specific breeds) and avoid breeding them if they carry the mutated gene.
As a future pet parent, if looking into a breed prone to this neurologic disease, find a responsible breeder that does DNA testing on both parents to ensure a healthy offspring.