Finding out your dog has an untreatable or incurable illness can be a pet owner’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately, that’s the heartbreaking situation human companions can find themselves in when their dog is diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM).
There are a lot of unknowns following a DM diagnosis, so it’s important for dog owners to be aware of the signs and symptoms of degenerative myelopathy in dogs. It’s also a good idea to know your options to help keep your pet mobile and comfortable for as long as possible.
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a disease that results in the progressive deterioration of the spinal cord. There’s no known cause, although it’s suspected that it stems from a genetic mutation.1
DM isn’t one of the most common dog diseases and only has a prevalence rate of 0.19%.2 But for pet parents who find themselves in that group, it can be a devastating diagnosis.
To put it into perspective, degenerative myelopathy in dogs mirrors amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) in humans. Affected canine patients share the same genetic mutation as humans with ALS.3 Both DM and ALS are fatal.
DM, also called chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), typically affects older dogs who are at least middle-aged. However, it has been diagnosed in some younger dogs.
What starts as weakness will eventually progress into paralysis. There’s no specific treatment and no cure.
Some breeds are predisposed to DM and more at risk for developing the disease. If your furry friend is on the list, you should pay special attention to any symptoms and seek genetic testing if you’re able. Affected breeds include:1
Because DM is a degenerative disease, affected dogs will go through various stages of the disease, and symptoms will worsen over time. These stages include:4,5
In the early stages of degenerative myelopathy, there aren’t a lot of obvious symptoms. A dog is still mobile and able to walk, and you may suspect they have arthritis before DM becomes the diagnosed culprit.
As time goes on, dogs with DM may struggle more when getting up and have more issues maintaining their balance while standing. Hind limb weakness can also become more apparent.
You may notice your dog scraping their toenails on the ground while walking, with their hind paws turned under.
Dogs begin to lose the ability to walk at this stage. Standing up will become increasingly difficult, and they might stumble more frequently. They also will begin experiencing urinary and fecal incontinence.
Dogs may start scraping their back knuckles on the ground due to difficulty with paw placement, which results in them walking on the tops of their hind paws. At this point, it may be time to consider a dog wheelchair to assist your dog with getting around.
Balance is nonexistent in the third stage of DM, and dogs will have trouble staying upright. The back legs are paralyzed, and the muscles will begin to atrophy due to not being used.
Their front legs will continue to weaken, and dogs may have accidents in the house more frequently.
The final stages of DM can be tough to witness. A dog can’t bear any weight on their hind legs at this point, and increasing weakness in their front legs means complete paralysis and immobility are quickly approaching, if they haven’t set in yet.
Paying close attention at this stage is crucial, so pet parents can work with their veterinarian to ensure a positive quality of life for their dog. Difficult decisions may need to be made, but monitoring the progression of degenerative myelopathy in dogs and staying informed will help better prepare owners for those moments.4,5