Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a progressive disease of the spinal cord. It occurs most often in large breed dogs, such as the German shepherd, when they get older. Vets don't know what causes this disease, though they suspect genetic factors may be at play. Degenerative myelopathy in dogs carries a poor prognosis.

Causes and Risk Factors for Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Canine degenerative myelopathy is a little-understood disease. Vets think that it's an autoimmune disorder, in which the dog's own immune system attacks and destroys the tissues of the spinal cord and nerves. Because this disorder occurs mostly in specific breeds, notably the German shepherd, vets think that it may be genetic in origin.

Degenerative myelopathy strikes more male than female dogs. Symptoms usually appear between the ages of 5 to 14 years. Most dogs that get this disease do so when they are about 9 years of age. 

Degenerative myelopathy is a common disorder of the German shepherd, though it can affect other breeds of dog as well. Other breeds prone to this disorder include:

  • Rhodesian ridgebacks
  • Irish setters
  • Chesapeake Bay retrievers
  • Boxers
  • Weimaraners

Symptoms of Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Dogs with this disease suffer from weakness in the hind legs, which grows progressively worse. Dogs may experience muscle loss and muscles tremors in the hind legs. They may have trouble standing, jumping and walking. They may stumble and drag their feet.

Dogs with degenerative myelopathy may experience knuckling of the hind toes and wearing of the inner paw pads on the hind feet. Eventually, they may lose control of their bladders and bowels. In the final stages of degenerative myelopathy, the disease can begin to affect the front legs as well.

Diagnosing and Treating Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Your vet will need a complete medical history and thorough physical exam in order to make a diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy. X-rays, a spinal tap and a neurological assessment can help your vet confirm the presence of the disease and pinpoint its stage of advancement.

Vets have not yet come up with an effective treatment for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. Vitamins, supplements, exercise and diet can be used to help delay the progression of the disease and improve your dog's quality of life. Your dog will need you to help him move through the use of a sling, and will benefit from being allowed to remain on padded surfaces. Eventually, your dog will need constant nursing care to keep him clean, as he develops fecal and urinary incontinence.

Degenerative Myelopathy Prognosis

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs carries a very poor prognosis. While a regular exercise program and a homemade diet program of brown rice, tofu, pork and vegetables has been shown to slow the progression of the disease, vets still don't have an effective way to stop or reverse its effects. Loss of limb function, inability to walk and incontinence typically occur within four to six months of diagnosis. At this point, degenerative myelopathy can begin to affect your dog's front legs as well, and you may need to consider euthanasia.