Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Picture of a bernese mountain dog

Degenerative myelopathy is a disease that causes severe damage to dogs’ spinal cord to the point that they might lose their ability to walk or perform basic movements.

In today’s article, we’re looking at several possible causes of this condition, its main symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and whether or not it can be treated.

What Causes Canine Degenerative Myelopathy?

A specific cause of this disease doesn’t exist (or hasn’t yet been discovered). However, the condition is more common in certain dog breeds, which has led scientists to assume that it is transmitted genetically.

There’s a genetic mutation that some dogs have that makes it impossible for these pets’ bodies to be capable of defending themselves against cell death and degenerative conditions.

The only way of preventing canine degenerative myelopathy is to avoid using dogs affected by it for breeding. There is genetic testing available today, and you can get in touch with your veterinarian to find out whether or not your dog is at risk of getting the condition.

A high likelihood that the animal doesn’t develop degenerative myelopathy by the time they die is also possible. The progression of the condition is gradual, so its development can vary a lot from one animal to the next.

While primarily, canine degenerative myelopathy does not have a cause, its continuation in terms of the clinical signs it causes can be complicated by other diseases, such as discospondylitis, spinal tumors, and any other type of spinal injury.

Since we mentioned the genetic factor, we’d like to note some examples of breeds that have a higher chance of developing degenerative myelopathy. Unfortunately, injudicious breeding has led to these breeds passing on the gene that mentioned to their offspring:

  • Boxer
  • Poodle
  • Pug
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Golden Retriever
  • Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog
  • Shetland Sheepdog

Make sure that you get your dog from the best possible breeder and that you ask them for detailed medical information on their parents. Just to be on the safe side of things, call the veterinarian that has examined the puppy’s parents and verify the information that your breeder has provided to you.

Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

All of the clinical signs that this condition leads to are related to the dog’s motor skills. For example, some dogs might have issues with regular walking while others might find it hard to get up after sitting for a while in a specific place.

Other signs that can be noticed in dogs affected by degenerative myelopathy are listed below:

  • Dragging the legs instead of raising them above the ground whenever taking several steps (which can also lead to skin lesions in those areas)
  • Falling over
  • Weakness in one or both of the limbs

It’s important to note that this disease tends to appear in dogs that are older than the age of 5. It’s even more common in those that have had their 8th birthday. This can regrettably make the diagnosis slightly more difficult as the physical examination might lead to confusion between this condition and normal degenerative orthopedic disease (arthritis or arthrosis).

Diagnosis

Diagnosing degenerative myelopathy can be challenging because a variety of tests are necessary to make sure that the dog is indeed suffering from it. Both DNA testing and a variety of physical and imaging diagnostic methods are going to be used.

Spinal imaging techniques are quite good at pointing out the specific lesions that the dog has so that a clear differential diagnosis is done between this disease and arthritis or other osteo-articular condition that the dog might be suspected to have developed due to old age.

All of these tests are expensive, so we strongly recommend you get pet insurance, especially if you are the owner of one of the dog breeds that we have previously mentioned.

Can Degenerative Myelopathy Be Treated?

No.

Unfortunately, this is a degenerative disease, which means that there is no therapy that can be effective in this case. However, the main purpose is to ensure that the dog remains capable of using their limbs for as long as possible.

If the dog is in pain (and many are not since their nervous function in the affected areas is lower or absent altogether), their discomfort can be relieved with medication or physical therapy.

It’s very important for the pet to remain active for as long as possible so as to prevent a decrease in muscle mass (which can only make the dog even less capable of movement).

Prognosis

Since canine degenerative myelopathy can’t be cured, pet owners will be faced with the responsibility of making their dog’s quality of life as good as possible. Although in the beginning, the pet’s urinary and bowel functions are not going to be affected, this can happen later on, so the dog will need even more care.

There are some options, at least in terms of movement – some dogs do well with using carts if they continue to have complete mobility in the first half of their bodies.

Talk to your vet to make sure that you are properly informed with regard to all of the treatment options you have available.

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