Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy

Recognizing the subtle symptoms of degenerative myelopathy in its early stages is essential to treating and preventing the disorder from decreasing your pet’s quality of life. While degenerative myelopathy cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce pain and optimize physical functionality. The following signs could mean your pet has degenerative myelopathy:

Early Stages:

  • Loss of coordination in the hind limbs
  • Wobbling or tremors
  • Weakness in the hind end
  • Difficulty standing
  • Worn nails

Late Stages:

  • Hind leg paralysis
  • Depression
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence
  • Weakness in front legs
  • Muscular atrophy

The symptoms of degenerative myelopathy can also be aggravated by extreme exercise or extreme lethargy. It’s important for animals to strike a balance, so their condition doesn’t progress. With the proper care, symptoms of degenerative myelopathy can be slowed down, so animals can lead long, healthy lives despite their disorder.

Certain symptoms signify later stages of degenerative myelopathy. If your pet is experiencing difficulty breathing, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, or sudden collapse, they need immediate veterinary assistance.

Degenerative myelopathy is a chronic neurological disease that affects the spinal cord of adult canines. Over time, it causes white matter in the spinal cord and peripheral nerves to degenerate and impair function in the lower extremities, leading to weakness, shaking, incontinence, and paralysis.

Cause of Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a genetic disorder that is more common in certain breeds than others. There have been specific genetic mutations associated with degenerative myelopathy, making genetic mutations a major risk factor. The disorder begins with the deterioration of the spinal cord in the chest area. The white matter that communicates sensory information between the limbs and brain suffers from demyelination, making it difficult to transmit movement commands.

Though any dog can be diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, breeds such as German Shepherds, Corgis, Boxers, Poodles, Pugs, Golden Retrievers are at a higher risk of developing it than others.

Definitive diagnosis of DM can only be made with histopathology. However, accurate clinical diagnosis is based on a complete neurological evaluation and recognition of the appropriate clinical signs, advanced imaging (i.e. MRI) and exclusion of other possible causes, and genetic testing (SOD1 homozygosity). Results do need to be interpreted with care and in the context of the patient’s clinical signs. However, not all at-risk dogs will develop the disease. For patients with clinical signs compatible with DM and who are genetically at-risk, additional diagnostics are often considered to rule out other possible causes prior to establishing a clinical diagnosis of DM.

Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy

Unfortunately, there is no long-term solution for degenerative myelopathy and the prognosis for most animals is poor. However, a personalized treatment plan can significantly slow down the progression of degenerative myelopathy and maintain quality of life. With the help of a veterinarian, pet owners can manage their pets’ condition to extend their life for up to 3 years. Common treatments include:

  • Physical rehabilitation: Gentle exercise and hydrotherapy can strengthen muscles that work and increase posterior function. Walking, weight shifting, stretching, balance exercises, swimming, and receiving massages can all help your animal.
  • Pain management: Degenerative myelopathy isn’t a painful disorder, but pets can suffer from pain resulting to the loss of movement. This can be treated with acupuncture, chiropractic, and pharmaceuticals.
  • Assistive equipment: Animals will inevitably lose their ability to move, especially in their hind legs. To assist them with day-to-day activities, pet owners can fit them with equipment. Booties, slings/harnesses, and wheelchairs can all help prevent damage and improve quality of life.