What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy (DM), also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), is a spinal condition that impacts a dog’s ability to walk and stand independently. As the disease progresses, dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy will lose strength in their back legs which will progress to their front legs later on. The symptoms result from degeneration of the white matter of the spinal cord. DM is similar to some of the forms of human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In most cases of DM, a dog usually begins to show signs between the ages of 8 and 9, although onset can start at any age.
The Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy
By nature, DM is a progressive condition, which means symptoms will worsen over time. Generally speaking, dogs with degenerative myelopathy go through the following three stages:
Early Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy
Uneven wear on the innermost nails of the rear paws is an early tip-off of DM. Early degenerative myelopathy symptoms can be easily confused for natural signs of aging or arthritis. If similar symptoms occur, additional attention should be paid to the subsequent changes in the dog’s physical symptoms.
Early to Mid-Stage
- Have difficulty standing up.
- Unable to maintain balance sometimes.
- Scrap nailsperiodically while walking.
- Begins to lose muscle mass in the hind end.
- Response time may be delayed.
- Paw pain. May begin to walk on their toes and upper paw to compensate.
Late Mid-Stage DM
- Scrap nailsconstantly while walking.
- Stumbling or tripping due to faulty foot placement.
- Significant muscle atrophy especially in the hind end and thighs.
- Exaggerated movements, such as high stepping onto curbs.
- Tail movement becomes less active.
- Rear legs may begin to cross as they weaken and lose sensation.
- Their strength and agility will experience a steep decline, and dogs commonly struggle with balance.
- Erratic movements in the back legs and tail.
- No longer control their leg movements.
- Can not stand or walk on its own.
- Cross Extensor Response: touching one paw and the other paw reacts.
- Maintaining balance is impossible.
Late Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy
- Dog is unable to bear any weight on its rear legs for any length of time.
- Unable to stay standing without support.
- Urinary and bowel incontinence.
- Weakness begins in the shoulders, causing front end weakness.
- Complete paralysis throughout the body.
What causes degenerative myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy is associated with a genetic abnormality in dogs. The most common form is due to a genetic mutation in a gene coding for superoxide dismutase, a protein responsible for destroying free radicals in the body. Free radicals are part of the natural defence mechanism but become harmful when they are produced in excessive quantities causing cell death and a variety of degenerative diseases. The same gene mutation can also cause a form of motor neuron disease in humans.
What breeds are most commonly affected?
While any dog can suffer from degenerative myelopathy, by far the most common dog breed to be diagnosed with DM is the German Shepherd. Other breeds that face an increased risk of this disease include:
- German Shepherds
- Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Golden Retriever
- Wire Fox Terriers
- Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog
How can degenerative myelopathy be treated?
Unfortunately there is no treatment for DM, and surgery is not indicated because there is no compression on the spinal cord that can be alleviated by an operation. However, there are some ways we can delay the deterioration of the dog’s condition, improve the quality of their lives and maintain muscle mass.
- Avoid them being overweight.
- Regular hydrotherapy are often beneficial.
- Physical therapy.
- In some cases progression of the disease may be slowed with a combination of supplements and medications including vitamins B, C, and E, epsilon-aminocaproic acid, N-acetylcysteine, prednisone.
Physical therapy has been shown to prolong quality of life and preserve muscle mass. Among them, the relief effect of hyperthermia is the most significant. Heat increases circulation, stimulates muscles, lessens pain and Increase local tissue metabolism and stretchability.
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