Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a progressive neurological disease that affects dogs, particularly in their later years. This condition is often likened to human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), gradually impairs a dog’s mobility and coordination, eventually leading to paralysis.

While the exact cause of degenerative myelopathy remains elusive, it is believed to be multifactorial, involving genetic predisposition and environmental factors. A mutation in the SOD1 gene has been identified as a significant risk factor, particularly in certain dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Boxers, and Pembroke Welsh Corgis. Environmental factors such as diet, toxins, and trauma may also contribute to the onset and progression of the disease, although this has not been proven conclusively.

Degenerative myelopathy typically manifests in mature dogs between the ages of 8 and 14 years, although it can occur earlier. The initial symptoms are often subtle and may include mild hind limb weakness, loss of coordination, and difficulty rising from a lying or sitting position. As the disease progresses, these symptoms worsen, leading to muscle atrophy, dragging of the hind limbs, and eventual paralysis. Unlike conditions such as intervertebral disc disease, degenerative myelopathy does not cause pain. and always affects the rear limbs first.

Diagnosing degenerative myelopathy can be challenging, as its symptoms overlap with those of other neurological conditions. Veterinarians typically rely on a combination of clinical signs, breed predisposition, and diagnostic tests to reach a diagnosis. These tests may include neurological examinations, imaging studies such as spinal radiographs or MRI scans to rule out other diseases, and genetic testing to identify the SOD1 mutation. If the mutation is absent, then Degenerative Myelopathy is extremely unlikely.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for degenerative myelopathy, and treatment aims to manage symptoms, preserve function and improve quality of life. Physical therapy, including exercises to maintain muscle strength and range of motion, can help delay the progression of the disease and improve mobility. Acupuncture, particularly electroacupuncture, combined with rehabilitation, has shown the most promising results in slowing the progression of this disease. Assistive devices such as wheelchairs or harnesses may be recommended to support dogs with advanced paralysis. Antioxidants and fatty acids in dietary supplements may help slow disease progression, but no nutraceutical or pharmaceutical therapy has proved conclusively helpful to date.

Degenerative myelopathy is a devastating condition that affects dogs in their middle to senior years, gradually robbing them of their mobility and independence. While there is no cure, early detection and proactive management can significantly improve a dog’s quality of life and prolong their comfort, function and mobility. Continued research into the underlying causes of degenerative myelopathy may eventually lead to more effective treatments or preventive measures, offering hope to affected dogs and their owners.

Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, CVPP, CCRT, cVMA
Steele Pain Management & Rehabilitation Center

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