PET HEALTH

Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs: Stages, Symptoms & Care

Four minutes
Oct 04, 2023

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.

What Is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

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.

Which breeds are most at risk for DM?

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

The Four Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy

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

First stage

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.

Second stage

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.

Third stage

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.

Fourth stage

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

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Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

As mentioned above, DM shares clinical signs that also appear with arthritis and other joint issues. But some more specific signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs to look for include:1

  • Weakness in the hind limbs
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Loss of coordination
  • Loss of muscle
  • Scuffed toenails on hind limbs

Diagnosis of DM is challenging because there’s no specific test for the disease. Vets may suspect a dog experiencing symptoms has the disease based on breed, diagnostics, and other medical history. Diagnosing degenerative myelopathy in dogs is also tricky because many of the symptoms are the same as those a dog with arthritis might have. Once other conditions — like osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia — have been ruled out, a veterinarian may feel more certain about a DM diagnosis.1

If you suspect your dog may be suffering from DM, there’s genetic DNA testing available that can identify if your dog is free of DM, a carrier of the gene, or if they’re at a high risk of developing DM.1

How To Care for a Dog With DM

Unfortunately, there’s no effective treatment for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. However, there are some steps you can take while caring for your dog that have the potential to keep them mobile longer and help maintain their quality of life. These can include:6

  • Avoiding obesity with a healthy diet
  • Employing physical therapy to maintain muscle mass
  • Ensuring other conditions, like arthritis, are handled so mobility issues aren’t exacerbated
  • Addressing pain or discomfort from complications caused by other conditions
  • Making floors less slippery with carpet or rugs
  • Adding pet stairs or ramps where necessary for accessibility
  • Buying dog booties or toe bands/grips to lessen the damage to scuffed paws
  • Using a harness, sling, or wheelchair for support in the later stages of DM

A diagnosis of DM can be an overwhelming and emotional time for dog owners. Still, something to take comfort in is that the disease is generally not painful for dogs.

How Pet Insurance Can Help After a DM Diagnosis

Between physical therapy to help maintain your dog’s muscle mass or looking into other options as the disease progresses, a dog insurance policy can help you to alleviate some of the stress involved. Here’s how a policy from MetLife Pet helped one family:

When 12-year-old Collie Ethel was diagnosed with DM, she received physical therapy three times in an effort to help with her weakening hindlimbs. The claims from these sessions totaled $450. A MetLife Pet Insurance policy reimbursed Ethel’s family for $360 of that cost. Ethel’s family had enough on their minds while dealing with their beloved pup’s prognosis — the reduced financial stress thanks to a pet insurance policy allowed them to focus on Ethel’s well-being, not the bills.7

MetLife Pet can also help cover the cost of end-of-life care, euthanasia, and grief counseling should you have to make a difficult decision after a DM diagnosis.

Discover how a MetLife Pet Insurance policy can help you care for your furry friend as you navigate a DM diagnosis and the progression of the disease.

Degenerative Myelopathy Can Be Scary. Vet Bills Don’t Have To Be.

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**As with any insurance policy, coverage may vary. Review our coverage and exclusions.

1 “Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs,” VCA Animal Hospitals

2 “Degenerative Myelopathy,” Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – Angell Animal Medical Center

3 “The Long-Term Clinical Course of Canine Degenerative Myelopathy and Therapeutic Potential of Curcumin,” National Center for Biotechnology Information

4 “The Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy,” Walkin’ Pets Blog

5 “Degenerative Myelopathy (DM),” Bush Veterinary Neurology Service

6 “Degenerative Myelopathy,” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

7 All claims paid amounts are based on MetLife internal claims data from October 2022. Story altered for illustrative purposes.

Coverage issued by Metropolitan General Insurance Company (“MetGen”), a Rhode Island insurance company, headquartered at 700 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886, and Independence American Insurance Company (“IAIC”), a Delaware insurance company, headquartered at 11333 N Scottsdale Rd, Ste 160, Scottsdale, AZ 85454. Coverage subject to restrictions, exclusions and limitations and application is subject to underwriting. See policy or contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC (“MetLife Pet”) for details. MetLife Pet is the policy administrator. It may operate under an alternate or fictitious name in certain jurisdictions, including MetLife Pet Insurance Services LLC (New York and Minnesota) and MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions Agency LLC (Illinois).

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