Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Corgi walking
Degenerative myelopathy affects how easily dogs walk.

Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

Degenerative myelopathy affects dogs in a major way but initially it may be confused with other conditions or disease processes. By understanding more about this genetic issue, a dog owner that is seeing signs of degenerative myelopathy can be better prepared for how to manage this condition in order to provide the best quality of life possible to their pet.

What is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

Degenerative myelopathy is often abbreviated as DM and is a disease that affects the white matter of the spinal cord. With DM, this part of the spinal cord starts to break down, or degenerate, and results in weakness of the hind limbs that eventually progresses to paralysis. With time the front legs can also be affected. It is similar to some of the forms of human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This disease is obviously devastating to a dog owner since it eventually results in the loss of many of a dog's normal activities.

Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

As symptoms of degenerative myelopathy progress they become more obvious to the owner but initially they may not be so apparent.

Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

  • Swaying in the hind end when standing
  • Easily falls over if pushed
  • Wobbling
  • Knuckling of the paws when trying to walk
  • Feet scraping on the ground when walking
  • Abnormally worn toenails
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty getting up from a sitting or lying position
  • Falling down when walking or standing
  • Inability to walk
  • Paralysis of the hind limbs

The first signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs are subtle. They usually occur in dogs over 8 years of age. Initially, a dog with DM may wobble or sway a bit when standing still. It may have trouble getting up from a sitting or lying position and easily falls over if it loses its balance. As the disease progresses, symptoms worsen and the hind limbs get weaker. The feet may scrape on the ground when the dog tries to pick them up to walk and knuckling of the paws may occur. Excessively worn toenails and/or wounds to the feet may occur as a result. Eventually a dog with DM will fall down when trying to walk and develop complete paralysis of the hind limbs. In dogs that are not euthanized, the disease will eventually progress to affect the front limbs as well.

Causes of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Unfortunately the cause of degenerative myelopathy in dogs is not fully understood, but genetics plays a big role. In many dogs, a mutation of the SOD-1 gene leads to damage within the white matter of the spinal cord.

Risk Factors for Developing Degenerative Myelopathy

A DNA test to check for the SOD-1 gene mutation is available and is often recommended for at-risk breeds. This test is offered through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.

At-risk breeds include:

Diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

The initial symptoms of degenerative myelopathy can look like other diseases so a full physical examination and often some diagnostic testing must be performed to rule out other causes of hind limb weakness. A full medical history along with the consideration of the breed and age of the dog will also be taken. Diagnostic tests such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI's, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis may be performed as well but a biopsy of the spinal cord is the only way to truly diagnose DM. This is not commonly performed though and the diagnosis of DM is typically made after ruling out other potential diseases.

Treatment of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

There is no cure for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. Treating the symptoms as they progress can help maintain a good quality of life in a dog that has been diagnosed with this terrible disease. Physical therapy, special hind end harnesses to aid a dog in walking, preventing foot damage, and increasing traction by walking a dog on grass instead of concrete and placing rugs on slippery floors may help delay the need for euthanasia.

animals with degenerative myelopathy illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

How to Prevent Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

The only way to prevent degenerative myelopathy in dogs is to selectively breed. Before purchasing an at risk dog, ask the breeder to show you the results of SOD-1 gene mutation testing on its parents proving that both carry two copies of the normal gene.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.