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Degenerative Myelopathy: A Guide To Improving Your Dog’s Quality of Life

Unfortunately, being a pet parent isn't always a walk in the park. Watching your beloved four-legged friend suffer can be impossibly hard for a pet parent and we are so sorry that you're having to go through it. We wish that our pets could live forever and have a life free of any sickness, but tragically it's not the case. Many times, diseases develop and leave dog owners wondering how to proceed. Degenerative myelopathy is one of those diseases. 

In this article, we will cover everything that dog owners should know regarding degenerative myelopathy, including clinical signs of the disease in its varying stages. Additionally, we'll discuss several all natural anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements that you may want to consider implementing into your dog's life. Let's get started. 

What is Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a comprehensive medical term that veterinarians use to describe a slowly progressive disease affecting the spinal cord or bone marrow. Many experts compare degenerative myelopathy in dogs to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (also referred to as ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in humans. It's a destructive disease and one difficult to watch develop in a loved one of any species. The degeneration of the spinal cord ultimately leads to a loss of a number of bodily functions and can greatly affect the dog's quality of life. 

How is the Spinal Cord Affected By DM 

Degenerative myelopathy affects the white matter of the spinal cord. The white matter is that which is responsible for sending movement commands from the brain to the limbs. It is also responsible for carrying sensory information from the limbs to the brain. The degeneration, taking anywhere from six months to three years, ultimately causes paraplegia in dogs as the brain cannot transmit the necessary signals to the hind limbs.  

As you can imagine, the disease can be devastating for a pet parent to witness. With that said, there are ways to ensure that your dog stays as healthy and happy for as long as possible. More on that in a moment! 

Degenerative Myelopathy

Define Degenerate | Degenerative Definition  

When referring to degenerative myelopathy, the term degenerate is defined as 'to decline or deteriorate physically.'

Define Myelopathy 

The term myelopathy is defined as a disease of the spinal cord.

Therefore, the medical term degenerative myelopathy specifically refers to a spinal cord disease which causes it to progressively deteriorate. 

DM Meaning  

The medical abbreviation for degenerative myelopathy is DM. You may hear your vet refer to your dog's condition as DM. 

Symptoms of DM Based on Stage 

There are three stages of degenerative myelopathy: early stage, intermediate stage, and advanced stage. 

It is important to dog owners to understand that the initial onset of degenerative myelopathy is often very slow and can be extremely difficult to detect at first. On its own, degenerative myelopathy doesn't cause the dog any pain, therefore, pain-related symptoms aren't present until further degeneration develops. 

Early Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy   

The early stages of DM typically last between three and six months, before worsening. The associated symptoms typically affect the hind limbs and may start with something as simple as mild difficulty jumping onto the couch. DM can develop in one leg at first and then the other. 

Symptoms of Early Stage DM include: 

  • Mild hind leg weakness and difficulty in movements (dog owners will notice this sign when the dog squats to the bathroom or attempts to jump into the car)
  • Loss of coordination in the hind limbs (also referred to as ataxia)
  • Wobbling or uneasy movement when walking
  • Knuckling of the toes when walking 
  • Dragging of the rear legs and feet (causing their toenails to wear down)
  • Tremors in the hind legs

Additionally, it is important to note that the aforementioned symptoms are also those of other health conditions including arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other diseases of the spine. If you recognize any of the mentioned symptoms, it is imperative that you get a proper veterinary diagnosis. The diseases can rapidly worsen without appropriate lifestyle changes and medications. 

Additional Information Regarding Early Stages 

In the early stages of DM, you will likely have to modify the amount and type of physical activity that your dog participates in. With that being said, exercise is extremely important. It is one of the crucial ways to prolong the function of the hind legs. Many veterinarians recommend swimming or walking in water to maintain muscle without putting too much stress on the hind limbs. 

Additionally, pet owners may want to invest in a product that will help their dog move around easier. Many companies have created harnesses and slings that help to support the hind limbs. These tools help the dog transition from laying down to standing up and can also help manage coordination issues. 

Finally, a side effect of the dog constantly dragging their back limbs is damage to the toenails. Dog owners can purchase booties into order to prevent this from occurring. 

Degenerative Myelopathy symptoms

Intermediate Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy 

As degenerative myelopathy progresses, dog owners will recognize a worsening of the clinical signs of early-stage DM. 

The following symptoms are additional issues that often arise with intermediate stages of DM: 

  • Increased difficulty in standing and laying down 
  • Problems with holding their weight with the hind legs
  • Inability to walk without support 
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence
  • Extensive damage to the feet due to dragging 
  • Quality of life is greatly affected 

Additional Information Regarding Intermediate Stages of DM  

In the intermediate stages of degenerative myelopathy, pet owners should purchase front and rear harness which can help with movement. A wheelchair or cart can also allow the dog to move on their own. 

In order to maintain muscle mass, a form of exercise will be necessary. Many veterinarians recommend aquatic therapy. 

Advanced Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy

Unfortunately, as the devastating disease continues to progress, the symptoms can rapidly worsen. In the majority of cases, all four limbs will suffer from a great amount of muscle weakness, inhibiting the dog from standing on their own. The disease can also move to the brain stem as well as to the cranial nerves causing them to have breathing difficulties. 

Additional clinical signs of advanced stage DM include: 

  • Paraplegia (paralysis of hind legs)
  • Complete immobility
  • Development of systemic infections
  • Development of decubitus ulcers
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence
  • Crying out from pain and/or anxiety

Additional Info on the Advanced Stages 

A forelimb and hindlimb harness will be necessary in order to move your dog around during the advanced stages of degenerative myelopathy. Pet owners can purchase a quadriplegic cart which will allow your dog to still experience the outdoors. 

It is also imperative that dog owners are aware of potential infections that can develop during this stage of degenerative myelopathy. For example, bladder infections and urinary tract infections are often diagnosed. It is important to know whether your dog is at risk and do what you can to prevent the infections from developing. 

Finally, we want to note that dogs are notorious for hiding pain. It's instinctual for them. Therefore, if they are vocalizing their distress and/or anxiety, chances are, they are truly suffering. It is crucial for pet parents to be highly sensitive during this time. Implementing a pain relief supplement such as the Relief CBD treats can help significantly. More on that topic soon. 

What Causes Degenerative Myelopathy  

Even with a substantial amount of research done on the topic, the underlying cause of DM in dogs is still relatively unknown. 

Immune-Mediated Disease

Many experts believe that degenerative myelopathy is an immune-mediated disease, comparable to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans. In this circumstance, the dog's immune system would see the nervous system as being harmful and therefore attack it. The condition is believed to be an inherited neurologic disorder which results from a genetic mutation.  

Additional Possible Causes for DM in Dogs

Other experts speculate that the following could be causes of DM in dogs. 

  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Toxicity in the body
  • Oxidative stress 
  • Underlying spinal injuries

Dog Breeds at a Higher Risk of DM 

Furthermore, extensive studies have proved that certain dog breeds are at a higher risk of developing DM than others. In fact, there are over 40 breeds that have the defective gene responsible for Degenerative Myelopathy. The dog breeds at a higher risk of DM include: 

  • German Shepherd
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgi
  • Cardigan Welsh Corgi
  • Boxer
  • Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
  • Pug
  • Samoyed
  • Briard
  • Siberian Husky
  • Miniature Poodle
  • Standard Poodle
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Irish Setter
  • Dalmatian
  • Weimaraner
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Golden Retriever
  • Wire Fox Terrier
  • American Eskimo Dog
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Kerry Blue Terrier

breeds most susceptible to Degenerative Myelopathy

Interestingly enough, when the disease was first discovered and given a name it was called German Shepherd Myelopathy due to the fact that so many German Shepherds were diagnosed. However, with further research, it was determined that DM can exist in other purebreds and mixed breeds of dogs. 

Age and Sex Affected 

In the vast majority of cases, canine degenerative myelopathy affects older dogs, typically between eight and fourteen years old. With that said the disease has been diagnosed in dogs as young as four years of age. Studies have not proved one sex to have a higher prevalence than the other. 

Secondary Conditions Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Because of the weakness of the hind limbs, a substantial amount of pressure is inevitably placed on the shoulders, neck, and front limbs. This added weight can cause your dog to experience a considerable amount of pain as the disease progresses. 

Additional secondary issues include: 

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Urinary retention
  • Weight gain
  • Bed sores
  • Skin lesions
  • Muscle loss

Pet owners can do certain things in order to avoid the development of secondary issues. For instance, keeping your dog's hair short will help to prevent skin lesions and turning their bed on a regular basis will help to prevent bed sores. Additionally, it is important to dog owners to monitor their pet's weight and stay alert of signs of urinary tract problems. 

What is Spinal Degeneration

Additionally, spinal degeneration can develop as a secondary condition stemming from degenerative myelopathy. Spinal degeneration can also be caused by diseases including Invertebral Disc Disease, Spondylosis Deformans, and Lumbosacral Stenosis. 

Thankfully, spinal degeneration resulting from Invertebral Disc Disease, Spondylosis Deformans, and Lumbosacral Stenosis can be effectively treated, with specific treatment depending on the severity of the disease. 

Sadly, if the spinal degeneration is a result of degenerative myelopathy, there is no cure. For this reason, seeking veterinary intervention at the earliest sign of the disease is imperative. An early diagnosis can truly make a world of difference for your dog. 

Diagnosing DM in Dogs

Speaking of diagnosis, let's cover what to expect at your vet's office. 

Diagnosing degenerative myelopathy in dogs isn't as simple as you may think. An accurate diagnosis is often made after eliminating several other potential causes for your dog's symptoms. Your veterinarian will administer specific lab, thyroid function tests, and cultures in order to look for other signs as to why your dog is experiencing severe muscle weakness. 

Then, your vet will administer imaging tests (magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT), and x-rays) in order to look for spinal cord damage. Spinal cord fluid will likely be examined to rule out an inflammatory disease within the spinal cord. 

If all other diseases come back negative, a preliminary DM diagnosis will be made. The diagnosis is labeled as preliminary because a true diagnosis can only be made by examining the spinal cord under a microscope, a test that can only be performed once the dog passes away. 

diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy in dogs

DNA Test

First of all, we just want to say how awesome science is. Now there is a DNA test made available by The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) that allows pet owners to have more knowledge about their dog's risk for developing degenerative myelopathy. The DNA test can inform your veterinarian whether your dog is a carrier of the mutated gene, if they are clear of the disease, or if they are at a high risk of its development. 

If you are concerned about your dog's risk of developing DM, we recommend talking to your veterinarian regarding whether a DNA test may be an appropriate step to take. 

Treating DM in Dogs 

Sadly, there is presently no known cure for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. The sole treatment available is supportive care which aims to relieve the symptoms of the disease and prolong your dog's happy life for as long as possible. 

Physical Rehabilitation

There have been several recent studies regarding physical rehabilitation for dogs with DM. Continued research is proving just how beneficial it can be. In fact, dogs who had physical rehabilitation implemented in their lives showed to outlive those who didn't. Again, physical rehabilitation is not a cure, but it is proving to make a considerable difference for dogs with generative myelopathy. 

Assistive Equipment

As we previously mentioned, assistive equipment can make a substantial difference in your dog's day-to-day activity and thus, their overall quality of life. 

Tools such as harnesses, slings, and wheelchairs can also make a world of difference for pet owners. In many cases, dogs with DM lose mobility within three months time. This means their every movement will be up to you carrying them. As you can imagine, assistive equipment can really help, particularly if you have a larger dog. 

managing Degenerative Myelopathy in dogs

Additional Treatment: The Power of Diet 

We mentioned the importance of regular exercise and differing physical therapies. However, many experts feel that the most important form of treatment comes from diet. For dogs with DM, a diet that supports the immune system and controls inflammation is paramount. 

When it comes to proteins, look for meats with high bioavailability levels. The higher the bioavailability, the easier the protein will be to digest and absorb without taking up all of your dog's energy. 

Next, implement anti-inflammatory foods and herbs (we'll provide a list of some of our favorites to check out). Additionally, dogs do not produce fatty acids naturally, therefore adding in PUFAS (polyunsaturated fatty acids) is extremely important for a dog with DM.  

Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Dogs with DM 

The following foods have anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit a dog with DM: 

  • Apple
  • Apricot
  • Ginger
  • Pumpkin
  • Sweet potato
  • Beans
  • Currants
  • Beet
  • Celery
  • Cherry
  • Chard
  • Banana
  • Cucumber
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Carrot
  • Pepper

anti inflammatory foods for dogs

Anti-Inflammatory Herbs for Dogs with DM 

We also recommend talking to your holistic veterinarian about how anti-inflammatory herbs can benefit your dog. Here are some of our favorites to look into. 

  • Devil’s Claw

  • Comfrey

  • Curcumin (turmeric)
  • White Willow
  • Burdock
  • Rosehips
  • Yucca root
  • Yucca leaves
  • Grapeseed extract
  • Dry mustard
  • Yarrow
  • Pine Bark
  • Ginseng
  • Gingko leaves
  • Chamomile
  • Bromelain 

Degenerative Myelopathy: A Final Thought

For dogs with DM, the most important thing a pet parent can do is fill their remaining time on this Earth with as much love and comfort as possible. With appropriate therapy and exercise and by implementing all natural forms of anti-inflammatory supplements, pet owners can also help prolong their dog's mobility.  

Trust us when we say that we know how devastating a degenerative myelopathy diagnosis can be. It can truly turn your world upside down. However, knowing as much about the disease as possible can alleviate a lot of the anxiety associated with the unknown possibilities. We hope that we were able to help you along in this journey.


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