Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a progressive disorder of the spinal cord. It's most common in German shepherds, and is often found in other large breed dogs. Most dogs must be euthanized within 6 to 12 months of diagnosis. Here's what you should know about degenerative myelopathy in dogs.

Risk Factors for Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Vets don't really know what causes canine degenerative myelopathy, but they suspect it could be an autoimmune disorder. Degenerative myelopathy occurs in dogs between the ages of 5 to 14 years; on average, dogs develop symptoms of this disease at nine years of age. German shepherds are most often affected by this disease, but other large breeds are also vulnerable, including Rhodesian ridgebacks, standard poodles and Irish Setters.

Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease; symptoms worsen over a period of four to six months in most dogs. Dogs with degenerative myelopathy become gradually weaker, and may experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Loss of muscle tone in the hind legs
  • Weakness and tremors in the hind legs, growing progressively worse
  • Difficulty rising or jumping
  • Dragging the claws when walking
  • Stumbling
  • Knuckling of the toes
  • Irritation of the inner toes on the hind paws
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence

As the disease progresses to its final stages, your dog may experience weakness and trembling in the front legs as well.

Diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Your vet will need a complete medical history and a thorough physical exam in order to diagnose degenerative myelopathy. If your dog is a German shepherd older than five years of age, your vet will strongly suspect degenerative myelopathy. This disease occurs almost exclusively in German shepherds.

Your vet will take spinal X-rays to rule out the possibility that your dog's symptoms are the result of spinal injury or other damage. Your vet will evaluate your dog's reflexes and measure his reaction to painful stimuli to determine the extent of the nerve damage he has suffered. 

Treating Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy can't be cured and treatment is generally ineffective. Your dog might benefit somewhat from the use of vitamins and other nutritional supplements. Your dog will need a special diet and your vet may recommend a program of exercise and physical therapy. Exercise can help to delay the progression of degenerative myelopathy, especially gentle exercises like swimming and walking.

Degenerative Myelopathy Prognosis

The prognosis for degenerative myelopathy isn't very good. Your dog will gradually weaken and will probably need to be euthanized 6 to 12 months after diagnosis. Your dog will need to be nursed through the final weeks of his life.

Once your dog develops urinary and fecal incontinence, he'll be at risk for urine scalding and for skin ulcers and infections. Keep your dog as clean and dry as possible. Provide carpets and rugs to help your dog get traction with standing and walking. You can help your dog walk by wrapping a bath towel under your dog's belly, in front of his back legs, and using it like a sling to help support his weight as he walks.