About Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease that is believed to be caused by a genetic mutation found in some dogs. DM affects a pet's spinal cord and will gradually lead to a loss of mobility and eventually a loss of bladder and bowel control.  DM in dogs is associated with some forms of human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. For more info about the specific disease you may also visit https://www.caninedm.org/

An official diagnosis of DM is a challenging, often a time-consuming endeavor requiring many tests before a definitive diagnosis is made.  This is in part because DM symptoms mirror symptoms of other diseases such as slipped disc or tumors.  To develop DM a dog must have two copies of a particular mutated gene, however, not all dogs with a double mutation will necessarily develop this condition.  To learn more about genetic testing and to order a test for your dog, visit https://www.ofa.org/diseases/dna-tested-diseases/dm.  It is important to talk with your vet on the right approach for diagnoses. 

Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy

Weakness and loss of coordination in one or both of the hind limbs is often the initial sign, followed by dragging and scuffing of nails. Affected dogs have a drunken appearance and will often stumble and fall when turning, especially on slippery surfaces. As the condition gradually progresses over many months, hind limb weakness and loss of coordination increase. In some severe cases the front legs also become affected and the dog can become unable to walk and may develop incontinence.  According to the University of Missouri's Veterinary Health Center, most dogs lose the ability to walk within 11 months of initial signs. 

Degenerative myelopathy is not a painful condition and, as a result, affected dogs are generally well and keen to exercise, despite their disability.

The following are a few symptoms which can indicate early stage DM:

  • Scraping nails when walking 
  • Knuckling
  • Swaying backend when your pet is walking
  • Difficulties rising into a standing position
  • Exaggerated movements when walking
  • Stumbling and tripping
  • Rear legs crossing
  • Loss of balance

Later stage symptoms include:

  • Loss of ability to stand on hind legs
  • Unable to stand, even when lifted into position
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Gradual loss strength in front end

Treating Symptoms of DM

Unfortunately there is no cure for DM (that's why we're here!). However, various accommodations and physical therapies, such as underwater treadmill, in conjunction with a health diet and exercise can help to maintain the health of the muscles.  Learn more about DM research efforts.