Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs: Signs, Stages, Treatment

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White-and-brown dog posing with a cocked head next to an orange chair

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a disorder of the spinal cord and is similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a human disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The word “degenerative” in the name refers to the degeneration of the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves. “Myelopathy” describes any neurological deficit of the spinal cord. The spinal cord contains fibers that relay movement commands from the brain to the limbs and sensory information from the limbs to the brain. 

If your dog has been diagnosed with the disease or might be at risk of developing it, here's what to know about the signs, stages of degenerative myelopathy, and potential treatments.

Which dog breeds are at greater risk of degenerative myelopathy?

Degenerative myelopathy is known now to be a canine genetic disorder. A genetic mutation in dogs has been identified that is a major risk factor for development of the disease. Degenerative myelopathy is common in several dog breeds, including German shepherds, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Rhodesian ridgebacks, boxers, corgis, and standard poodles. It can also occur in other breeds and in mixed-breed dogs.

The onset of this disease occurs with no real predictability and usually affects adult dogs — middle-aged and older. The typical age of onset is between 8 and 12 years old, and both males and females are equally affected.

What are the signs of degenerative myelopathy?

In general, degenerative myelopathy is not a painful disease. However, having a weak hind end can put stress on other areas of a dog’s body — such as the neck, shoulders, and front limbs — and cause pain. 

The first signs of degenerative myelopathy typically come on very gradually, so you might not see the very early onset. Initial signs include loss of coordination (otherwise called ataxia) in the hind limbs; swaying or wobbling when walking; rear feet knuckling over or dragging; and difficulty with walking up steps, squatting to defecate, or getting into the car.

What are the stages of degenerative myelopathy in dogs?

Signs of progression of the disease include weakness of the hind limbs, buckling in the knees, and difficulty standing. The weakness progresses until the dog is unable to walk on their hind legs. Advanced stages of degenerative myelopathy involve inability to control urination and defecation and weakness in the front limbs.

How is a diagnosis made?

To make a diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy, other potential causes need to be ruled out. This means that your dog’s veterinarian should look for other diseases that affect a dog’s spinal cord, using diagnostic tests such as spinal X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, or something called a myelogram.

Is there a genetic test?

A DNA test for degenerative myelopathy in dogs exists — available through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. It can identify dogs who don't have the degenerative myelopathy gene, as well as those who are carriers and those who are at much higher risk for developing the disease. However, even dogs whose results show that they are at higher risk for developing degenerative myelopathy might not develop the disease. In other words, the test does not actually diagnose the disease.

Is there treatment for degenerative myelopathy?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy in dogs, but there is treatment. Intensive physical rehabilitation and assistive equipment (when properly fitted) can extend a dog’s life by up to three years — versus six months to a year for dogs who don't receive therapy.

A typical physical therapy program might involve walking, weight shifting, stretching, strengthening and balance exercises, and underwater treadmill exercise. The most important thing to remember when adding physical activity to your dog’s care routine is that a fine balance exists between not doing enough and doing too much. Overdoing it can worsen the dog’s disease and is more damaging than doing too little.

While degenerative myelopathy is generally not a painful disease, dogs can have some pain related to muscle compensation and weight shifting. Ways to manage pain include massage, acupuncture, cold laser, chiropractic adjustments, nutraceuticals (foods that provide health benefits), and prescription medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — if your veterinarian feels this is indicated.

As the disease progresses, you might also want to discuss mobility assistive devices with your veterinarian. These devices include booties to prevent skin damage from dragging of paws, slings or harnesses, and carts with wheels. Remember, too, that plenty of love can go a long way.