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Michael Dym, V.M.D.
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Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy, (DM) or chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy, is a congenital condition in dogs that causes them to slowly lose the white matter in the spinal cord, which is responsible for sending signals between their body and their brain. It’s comparable to Lou Gehrig's disease in humans. Dogs diagnosed with this condition become paralyzed in their hind limbs, and, eventually, in their whole body.
Unfortunately, DM is fatal. Most dogs are euthanized within one to three years after initial onset of symptoms due to complications and a decline in their quality of life. The good news is, ongoing developments in veterinary research are helping dogs with DM live longer, happier lives.

What Is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
DM in dogs is a hereditary condition that’s most commonly seen in German Shepherds, Corgis, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Siberian Huskies and Boxers, though it can occur in other breeds and in mixed breed dogs.
Most dogs do not start to show symptoms until they are around eight to nine years old. The first symptoms often look similar to arthritis, but since DM is non-inflammatory, there won’t be any swelling, warmth, or pain in the limbs. In the early stages of the disease, the dog may drag their toes while walking, their hind legs may cross when they stand, and they may seem uncoordinated, but they will not be in any pain.

How is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs Diagnosed?
Symptoms of DM can be similar to those of other conditions that cause mobility issues in dogs, such as spinal tumors or a slipped disc. Your veterinarian may use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or myelography to rule out other conditions.

How is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for DM. All dogs with the condition will, over time, become completely paralyzed and incapable of normal body functions like controlling their bladder and bowels, swallowing food, and even breathing.
To help slow degeneration of the disease, there has been promising research on the effectiveness alternative treatments. In a 2020 study, physical rehabilitation combined with laser therapy was shown to double, even triple the canine patients’ lifespan and significantly slow their loss of mobility.

How To Help A Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy
Being diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy does not spell the end for your dog. Though they may not have as much time as others, there are many ways you can support your dog’s needs and make the most of the time they do have with you.
In the early stages, dogs with DM can typically still walk. They may need protective wrapping like special socks or bandages to protect their feet if they walk with their toes “knuckled over.” Exercise is important at this stage to maintain a healthy weight and prevent loss of muscle tone.
A dog with incontinence may need diapers or disposable wraps, or can spend time in a gated area of your home lined with potty pads. Eventually, the dog may need to be manually assisted with urination or defecation. While these tasks can sound daunting, they only take a few minutes, a few times per day, and most pet parents adapt quickly to the routine.
Dogs with hind end paralysis can get around with a dog wheelchair, which you can purchase or even make at home with a few inexpensive components from your local hardware store. You can search online for tutorials that are easy to follow, even if you’re not an experienced builder.
A support harness is invaluable for physical therapy and exercise. you can use a rear lifting harness for dogs with hind end weakness, or a full body harness for dogs who need more support.
Your regular veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary specialist who works with dogs with mobility issues. There are many treatment options to choose from including acupuncture, physical therapy, laser therapy, hydrotherapy, and nutritional support that are beneficial to dogs with DM.