Degenerative Myelopathy: Everything You Need To Know

Degenerative myelopathy is a serious health condition that affects some dogs. It causes a gradual loss of movement until the dog becomes paralyzed. Here is what you need to know about this neurologic disease.

Understanding Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a spine cord disease that affects some dogs as they get older. This is a serious disease that results in paralysis in death. There is no known cure, and some dogs are born predisposed to developing this serious health condition due to a mutation. Here is what you need to know about this health condition.

What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?

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This condition is sometimes referred to as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy since it typically affects the hind legs. Even though this condition only affects canines, it is similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in humans.

This health condition is characterized by the degeneration of the white matter that can be found inside of the spinal cord. These white matter fibers play a crucial role in transmitting messages between the brain, nervous system, and limbs.

The motor neurons become gradually unable to transmit messages to the hind legs of the animals and to control movements as the fibers become lost or damaged. The dog will gradually lose control of the muscles in their hind limbs as the disease progresses.

Not being able to control the hind limbs results in muscle atrophy and eventually in paralysis for the animal. In some cases, the disease spreads to the front limbs and can affect the dog’s ability to control urination and bowel movements.

What Are The Symptoms Of Degenerative Myelopathy?

Owners typically notice some symptoms that resemble arthritis at first because a dog who suffers from this health condition will often have difficulties with movements. You might notice that your dog has a hard time getting in and out of the car or seems to move slowly when walking up a flight of stairs.

The symptoms of this disease are also sometimes mistaken for hip problems. As the disease progresses, symptoms such as weakness and stumbling will become more obvious.

Dogs who suffer from this serious health condition typically display ataxia, loss of coordination, and gradually lose control of their hind legs. Weakness can sometimes spread to the front limbs, and some dogs will also become incontinent as they lose control of their bladder muscles.

You might think that your dog is experiencing pain because they have a hard time moving around, but pets who suffer from this condition don’t experience any pain.

How Does Degenerative Myelopathy Progress?

It’s important to understand how degenerative myelopathy progresses because the worsening of the symptoms your dog experiences is typically the first clue towards an accurate diagnosis.

This condition usually appears between eight and 14 years of age. The first symptom that you will notice is a loss of coordination. Your dog might start dragging their paws when walking, or you might notice that they wobble.

The disease can affect one limb before spreading. You will probably notice that your dog is having a hard time standing or walking as their hind limbs get weaker.

The disease typically continues progressing for six months to a year before resulting in paralysis and death. The disease can sometimes progress at a faster pace and affect the front legs or cause incontinence as paralysis spreads and affects more muscles.

How Is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?

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This disease can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms resemble other health conditions, such as arthritis, or hip dysplasia. Your vet might also suspect that the symptoms are the result of an injury to a limb.

Herniated vertebral disks are another fairly common condition with similar symptoms. A damaged disk can put pressure on the spinal cord of your dog and cause pain, weakness, and even paralysis. Short dogs with long backs have a higher risk of developing herniated vertebral disks.

Typically, your vet will perform several tests to pinpoint the cause behind the symptoms you are noticing in your dog. Your vet can diagnose chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy by eliminating other possible conditions.

Tests include MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays. These tests will help your vet determine if your dog is suffering from an injury or herniated disk. Your vet can work with a neurologist to perform more tests and get a diagnosis.

Myelography can also be performed. This is a test where a contrast fluid is injected into the spinal cord to detect issues with an X-ray. This test might show some damaged tissues.

In a lot of cases, it is difficult to be sure of the diagnosis until an autopsy is performed to observe the fibers inside of the spinal cord. However, the progression of the symptoms and the ruling out of other possible causes are strong indicators that your dog is suffering from this degenerative condition.

It is important to keep testing your dog to rule out other possible causes. There are some treatable conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as a herniated disk or an injury to the spinal cord.

Treatment Options

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Unfortunately, there are no treatment options for this degenerative condition. This is a disease that will keep progressing until paralysis and death, which typically occurs within a year.

The good news is that there is no pain associated with this condition. There are some things you can do improve your pet’s quality of life as the disease progresses.

You can keep your pet moving by using harnesses and carts. Your dog will enjoy visiting their favorite spots and helping your dog walk by using a harness can reduce pressure sores and other complications.

Limited mobility means that your dog is likely to develop pressure sores and ulcers. Your dog won’t be able to switch position by themselves as the disease progress. Monitor your pet and adjust their position every two hours or so. Make sure your dog’s weight isn’t resting on a hind leg when they sleep.

Your dog might have a hard time with grooming as their mobility becomes restricted. You can improve your dog’s quality of life by keeping them clean.

You can also use pillows and pet beds to make your dog more comfortable. If your dog is used to spending time in the yard, set up a comfortable spot where they can lay on some pillows and get some fresh air.

Urinary tract infections are another complication linked to the loss of mobility. You can reduce the risks of infection by keeping your dog’s genitals clean.

Symptoms of urinary tract infections include frequent urination, pain while urinating, blood in urine, and straining. Your dog might also lick their genitals more than usual. Be mindful of these symptoms and schedule an appointment with your vet to get a prescription for antibiotics if you suspect that your dog has developed an infection.

There might be other things you can do to improve your dog’s quality of life as the disease progresses. This is something you should discuss with your vet or neurologist since they will have some suggestions and will help you put together a plan to support your pet.

Is Your Dog At Risk For Degenerative Myelopathy?

This is a neurologic disorder that isn’t fully understood, but researchers believe that this is an inherited disease. This disease has been linked to the SOD1 mutation in a specific gene. However, not all dogs who have this mutation will develop the disease.

There have also been a few cases of dogs who developed this serious condition without having this mutation. More research is needed to fully understand this disease and maybe find a treatment.

A dog can be a carrier of the SOD1 mutation and never develop this degenerative disease. A dog is at risk of developing this condition if both genes are mutated.

There is a genetic test you can do to determine if your dog carries the mutation. The test will tell you if your dog has one or two copies of the mutated gene.

This test isn’t foolproof since your dog carrying this mutation doesn’t necessarily mean that they will develop this health condition. However, if you breed dogs, it is best to have animals tested so that you can reduce the risks of producing offspring that would be at risk for this neurologic disorder.

You should also keep in mind that this disease typically appears between eight and 14 years of age. Some dogs can be at risk for this disease but don’t end up developing symptoms because their lifespan is shorter.

Some breeds are more likely to carry mutated versions of these genes. Here are the breeds that are typically at risk:

  • German shepherd
  • Boxer
  • Corgi
  • Poodle
  • Chesapeake Bay retriever
  • Rhodesian ridgeback

If you want to get a dog from one of these breeds, it is best to ask the breeder if they use genetic testing to reduce risks.

Degenerative myelopathy is a serious health condition that results in paralysis and death. There is no known cure and no way to slow down the progression of the symptoms. However, you can do a few things to keep your dog comfortable and avoid complications and should keep testing your dog to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms.

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