HOW TO Treat Your Dog’s Degenerative Myelopathy

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old German shepherdIf you have an older dog whose back legs seem to be losing coordination – for example, he drags his feet or is wobbly when he walks – he could have a condition called degenerative myelopathy (DM).

“Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord in older dogs,” according to the Canine Genetic Diseases (CGD) Network website. “The disease has an insidious onset typically between 8 and 14 years of age. It begins with a loss of coordination (ataxia) in the hind limbs.”

Within six months to a year, your dog’s hind legs could become paralyzed. As the disease progresses, your dog will become incontinent and the weakness will spread to his front legs.

DM strips away myelin, the white matter in a dog’s spinal cord. Myelin insulates the neutrons that transmit commands for a dog’s legs to move. The exact cause of this inflammatory, autoimmune disease is not known.

German Shepherds, Corgis and Boxers are most likely to get this condition, but many other breeds are also prone to DM.

Fortunately, DM is not painful (because the nerve cells have died), but unfortunately, there is currently no cure for it, and it is fatal.

The recent discovery of a mutation in a gene (SOD1) that leads to an increased risk of dogs getting DM could lead to treatments that could stop the disease from progressing. This same gene mutation is associated with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS) in humans, according to the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

What are the Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy?

degenerative myelopathy stance in dogs“The early stages of degenerative myelopathy start with an almost imperceptible weakness in the hindquarters,” writes Marjorie Zimmerman, founder of the Degenerative Myelopathy Support Group, on “DM is an insidious disease and it is all too easy to overlook, in its earlier stages, unless you are specifically looking. Even then, DM is elusive and hard to detect.”

Zimmerman notes that it is important to check the nails on your dog’s hind legs once a month for uneven wear, “especially on the innermost nails of the rear feet, as this is an early tip-off to DM.”

These are some of the other early symptoms, according to Dr. Jennifer Coates on

  • Difficulty standing
  • Dragging his rear paws
  • Loss of muscle in his rear legs
  • His rear legs tremble

As the disease progresses, Coates notes that your dog may show these symptoms:

  • Incontinence
  • Weakness spreads to the front legs
  • Anxiety
  • Unable to stand up
  • Pneumonia
  • Depression
  • Organ failure

How is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?

Your vet will perform a series of tests, such as X-rays and an MRI or CT scan, to rule out other common causes of weakness in a dog’s hind legs, such as hip dysplasia or herniated intervertebral discs.

There is also a DNA test available that, via a saliva swab, screens dogs for the SOD1 gene mutation. Dogs that test positive should not be bred. If you are considering buying a purebred puppy of a breed that’s predisposed to DM, you should make sure the breeder tests the puppy for SOD1.

How is Degenerative Myelopathy Treated?

corgis in swimming poolSince there is currently no cure for DM, treatment involves keeping your dog comfortable and mobile for as long as possible.

“The quality of life of an affected dog can be improved by measures such as good nursing care, physical rehabilitation, pressure sore prevention, monitoring for urinary infections, and ways to increase mobility through use of harnesses and carts,” writes the CGD Network.

Exercise, especially swimming and hydrotherapy, can help maintain your dog’s ability to walk.

Supplements such as reishi may help boost his immune system and slow down the degeneration of myelin.

PHOTOS: Jennifer McGinn, Joelmills, David Goodman

Find A Vet HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.

Do you have a question about degenerative myelopathy? Submit it to i Love Dogs’ Ask a Vet here.


Laura Goldman

Laura Goldman is senior social media writer for i Love Dogs, Inc. She does love dogs. And elephants and turtles. Along with writing about the loves of her life, Laura likes to play with her two pound pups and tell anyone who'll listen just how awesome Pit Bulls are.

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