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, sadly, that's not reality. Many times, diseases develop and leave dog owners wondering how to proceed. Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is one of those diseases.
In this article, we will cover everything that dog owners should know regarding DM, 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 DM?
DM, is a comprehensive medical term that veterinarians use to describe a slowly progressive disease that affects the spinal cord or bone marrow. Many experts compare DM in dogs to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in humans. It's a destructive disease and one that is difficult to watch develop in a loved one of any species. Spinal cord degeneration ultimately leads to a loss of a number of bodily functions and can greatly affect a dog's quality of life.
How is the Spinal Cord Affected By DM
DM affects the white matter of the spinal cord. The white matter is responsible for sending movement commands from the brain to the limbs and carrying sensory information from the limbs to the brain. The degeneration, taking anywhere from six months to three years, ultimately causes paraplegia (paralysis) 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 healthy and happy for as long as possible. More on that in a moment!
Define Degenerate | Degenerative Definition
When referring to DM, the term “degenerate” means “to decline or deteriorate physically."
“Myelopathy” is defined as “a disease of the spinal cord.”
Therefore, the medical term DM specifically refers to a spinal cord disease that causes progressive spinal cord degeneration.
The medical abbreviation for degenerative myelopathy is DM. You may hear your vet refer to your dog's condition as DM.
Symptoms of DM According to Stage
There are three stages of DM: early, intermediate, and advanced.
It is important for dog owners to understand that the initial onset of DM is often very slow and can be extremely difficult to detect. On its own, DM doesn't cause the dog any pain. Therefore, pain-related symptoms aren't present until further degeneration develops.
Early Stages of DM
Early-stage DM typically lasts between three and six months. 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 limb at first, then affect other limbs.
Symptoms of early stage DM include:
- Hind limb tremors
- Knuckling of the toes when walking
- Loss of hind limb coordination (ataxia)
- Wobbling or uneasy movement when walking
- Swaying hindlimbs when dog is standing still
- Dragging of the rear legs and feet, causing their toenails to wear down
- Mild hind limb 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)
Importantly, these symptoms are also those of other health conditions like arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other spinal diseases. If you recognize any of these symptoms, it is imperative that you get a proper veterinary diagnosis. These diseases can rapidly worsen without appropriate lifestyle changes and medications.
Additional Information Regarding Early Stages
In DM’s early stages, you will likely have to modify the amount and type of your dog’s physical activity. With that being said, exercise is extremely important and is one of the crucial ways to prolong hind limb function. Many veterinarians recommend swimming or walking in water to maintain muscle without putting too much stress on the hind limbs.
Additionally, pet parents may want to invest in a product that will help their dog move around more easily. Many companies have created harnesses and slings that help support the hind limbs. These tools help the dog transition from lying down to standing up and can also help manage coordination issues.
Finally, the constant dragging of the back limbs damages the paws. Dog owners can purchase booties to prevent this from occurring.
Intermediate Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy
Intermediate Stages of DM
As DM progresses, dog owners will recognize a worsening of the clinical signs of early-stage DM.
The symptoms listed below are additional issues that often arise with intermediate stages of DM:
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Negative effect on quality of life
- Inability to walk without support
- Extensive paw damage because of dragging
- Increased difficulty with standing and laying down
- Problems with supporting weight on the hind legs
Additional Information Regarding Intermediate Stages of DM
In the intermediate stages of DM, pet owners should purchase front and rear harnesses that can help with movement. A wheelchair or cart can also allow the dog to move on their own.
To maintain muscle mass, exercise will be necessary. Many veterinarians recommend aquatic therapy.
Advanced Stages of DM
Unfortunately, as the devastating disease progresses, the symptoms can rapidly worsen. In most cases, all four limbs will suffer from a great amount of muscle weakness, preventing a dog from standing on their own. The disease can also move to the brainstem and to the cranial nerves causing them to have breathing difficulties.
Clinical signs of advanced-stage DM include:
- Hindlimb paraplegia
- Complete immobility
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Development of systemic infections
- Crying out from pain and/or anxiety
- Development of decubitus ulcers (bedsores)
Additional Information on the Advanced Stages
A forelimb and hindlimb harness will be necessary to move your dog around during the advanced stages of DM. You can also purchase a quadriplegic cart that will allow your dog to still experience the outdoors.
Dog owners must be aware of potential infections that can develop during this stage of DM. For example, 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 or anxiety, chances are that they are truly suffering. It is crucial for pet parents to be highly attuned to their dogs during advanced stages of DM. Administering a pain relief supplement such as the Relief CBD treats can be very helpful. More on that topic soon.
What Causes DM
Even with a substantial amount of research done on the topic, the underlying cause of DM in dogs is still relatively unknown.
Many experts believe that DM is an immune-mediated disease, comparable to multiple sclerosis or ALS in humans. In this circumstance, the dog's immune system would see the nervous system as being harmful and therefore attack it; in other words, the body starts attacking itself. The condition is believed to be an inherited neurologic disorder that results from a genetic mutation.
Additional Possible Causes for DM in Dogs
Other potential causes of DM in dogs include:
- Oxidative stress
- Underlying spinal injuries
- Vitamin E or B12 deficiencies
Dog Breeds at a High Risk of DM
Extensive studies have proved that certain dog breeds, listed below, have a high risk of developing DM. In fact, there are over 40 breeds, including those listed below, that have the defective gene responsible for DM.
- Irish Setter
- Siberian Husky
- Great Pyrenees
- Wire Fox Terrier
- Miniature Poodle
- Standard Poodle
- Golden Retriever
- Kerry Blue Terrier
- German Shepherd
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- American Eskimo Dog
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
Interestingly enough, when DM was first discovered and given a name, it was called German Shepherd Myelopathy because so many German Shepherds developed this disease. However, with further research, it was determined that DM can exist in other purebreds and mixed breeds of dogs.
Age and Sex of Affected Dogs
In the vast majority of cases, canine DM affects older dogs, typically between eight and fourteen years old. However, 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 sex.
Secondary Conditions of Canine DM
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:
- Skin lesions
- Muscle loss
- Weight gain
- Urinary retention
- Urinary tract infections
Pet parents can do certain things to avoid the development of secondary issues. For instance, keeping your dog's hair short will help prevent skin lesions. Turning your dog’s bed regularly or investing in an orthopedic dog bed will help prevent bed sores. Monitoring your pet's weight and staying alert for signs of urinary tract problems are also important.
What is Spinal Degeneration
Spinal degeneration can develop as a secondary condition stemming from DM. Spinal degeneration can also be caused by several diseases including intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), spondylosis deformans, and lumbosacral stenosis.
Thankfully, spinal degeneration resulting from IVDD, spondylosis deformans, and lumbosacral stenosis can be effectively treated with specific treatment that depends on disease severity.
Sadly, spinal degeneration resulting from DM has no cure. For this reason, seeking veterinary intervention at the earliest signs 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 DM 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 perform specific laboratory tests, including thyroid function tests and tissue biopsies, to look for other signs that would explain your dog’s severe muscle weakness.
Then, your vet will conduct imaging tests (magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT), and x-rays) to look for spinal cord damage. Spinal cord fluid will likely be examined to rule out an inflammatory disease within the spinal cord. If your veterinarian does not have advanced imaging equipment, they will refer you to a veterinary facility that can perform an MRI and CT.
If the results of testing for all other diseases come back negative, a preliminary DM diagnosis will be made. It is preliminary because a true diagnosis can be made only by examining the spinal cord under a microscope. This can be performed only after a dog passes away.
First of all, we just want to say how awesome science is. There is now a DNA test made available by The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals that allows pet owners to have more knowledge about their dog's risk for developing DM. Results of the DNA test can help your veterinarian determine whether your dog is a carrier of the mutated gene, lacks the gene mutation, or is 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 DM in dogs. The sole treatment available is supportive care that aims to relieve symptoms and prolong your dog's happy life for as long as possible.
There have been several recent studies regarding physical rehabilitation for dogs with DM. Continued research is proving just how beneficial it can be. These studies have reported that dogs with DM who had physical rehabilitation outlived those dogs who didn't have physical rehabilitation. Again, physical rehabilitation is not a cure. Nonetheless, it is proving to make a considerable positive difference for dogs with DM.
As we previously mentioned, assistive equipment can help your dog carry out day-to-day activities, thus improving 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. 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.
Additional Treatment: The Power of Diet
We mentioned the importance of regular exercise and physical therapy. 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. Bioavailability refers to how much of a particular nutrient gets absorbed by the body and used for important bodily functions. High bioavailability indicates better absorption.
Next, feed your dog anti-inflammatory foods and herbs (we'll provide a list of some of our favorites to check out). Because dogs do not produce fatty acids naturally, adding in polyunsaturated fatty acids to the diet is very important for a dog with DM. Fatty acids help to maintain a healthy coat and immune system, among other important functions.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Dogs with DM
The following foods have anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit a dog with DM:
- Sweet potato
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.
- Curcumin (turmeric)
- White Willow
- Yucca root
- Yucca leaves
- Grapeseed extract
- Dry mustard
- Pine Bark
- Gingko leaves
Degenerative Myelopathy: A Final Thought
For dogs with DM, the most important thing a pet parent can do is fill their dog’s remaining time with as much love and comfort as possible. By providing appropriate physical therapy and exercise and adding all-natural forms of anti-inflammatory supplements to their dog’s diet, pet owners can also help prolong their dog's mobility.
Trust us when we say that we know how devastating a DM 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.
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, she pursued a non-traditional career path as a veterinarian.
JoAnna completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, then became a medical writer. As founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company, JoAnna is passionate about educating pet parents about pet care and responsible pet ownership.
Although she does not currently have any pets to call her own, she loves living vicariously through other pet parents and watching Nat Geo!