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Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs and Cats

About This Disease of the Spinal Cord

By Madeleine Burry. June 25, 2013 | See Comments

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Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs and Cats

A rare disease that most often strikes large breed dogs, German Shepherds, and Corgis, degenerative myelopathy is a sad diagnosis. Find out what this disease is.

Degenerative myelopathy may be a rare diagnosis, but it’s equally a heartbreaking one, since life expectancy once the disease is identified is generally just six months to a year. This incurable disease most commonly strikes German Shepherds, although other large dogs can also be afflicted, as well as Corgis.

Degenerative myelopathy impacts the spinal cord and the muscles. In particular, the disease causes the area of the spinal cord that sends messages from the dog’s brain to their body to degenerate, decreasing their ability to function and control their muscles properly. The most common symptom you’ll notice is a loss of coordination in your dog’s hind legs. If your dog has this diagnosis, they are most likely fairly old, or at least middle-aged -- degenerative myelopathy typically strikes when dogs are older than five. While cats can get degenerative myelopathy, it’s quite rare.

Causes of Degenerative Myelopathy

The causes of degenerative myelopathy are still unfortunately unknown, although it’s possible that a genetic mutation leads to the development of the disease, particularly since it only affects some breeds.

Symptoms

Some of the symptoms that can be a tipoff that your dog has degenerative myelopathy are difficulty getting up from a sitting or lying down position, and generally being challenged when walking around, jumping, and moving. Your dog may become clumsy, and you may observe the nails of their paws dragging on the floor. Your dog’s hind legs will likely tremble. All of these symptoms put together point to your dog’s weakened back legs.

As the disease progresses, your dog will have increased difficulties moving and even breathing. If the diaphragm, the muscle that helps control breathing, becomes affected, the dog will likely have to be put down since they'll soon be unable to breathe. Symptoms will become more severe in later stages of the disease -- dogs can experience incontinence, organ failure, and physical symptoms as a result of their difficulty moving, like sores and muscle atrophy.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for degenerative myelopathy, nor are there any proven treatment methods. Degenerative myelopathy is a grim diagnosis -- life expectancy is generally six months to a year from the time of the diagnosis. As the disease progresses, incontinence can be a problem for your pet, so it’s helpful for you to clean your pet carefully. Walking and movement is a challenge for your dog, so aim to avoid slippery tile floors or other smooth surfaces, particularly in areas where your dog frequently lies down. It’s possible that exercise -- particularly in the early stages of the disease -- can help your dog stay mobile longer, and slow down the degenerative process. Vitamins and nutritional supplements are also sometimes recommended as a potential treatment solution. Again, it’s important to note that no treatments are known to scientifically help your dog recover or lessen the impact of the disease.

Degenerative myelopathy is diagnosed through a process of elimination -- since the symptoms could indicate several different conditions, most notably hip dysplasia, your vet will rule out these other illnesses through a general physical, x-rays, neurological exams, and blood work. Once the other potential diseases have been eliminated as possibilities, degenerative myelopathy will be diagnosed.

More on Dog Health

Cancer in Dogs and Cats
Arthritis in Dogs and Cats
German Shepherd Health Problems

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Degenerative Myelopathy at a glance

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  • 1It is rare in cats, and tends to affect only a few dog breeds: German Shepherds, large breed dogs, and Corgis.
  • 2Symptoms include weakness in the hind legs, which can become noticeable through difficulty moving.
  • 3The exact causes of degenerative myelopathy are unknown, although it’s likely that there’s a genetic factor.
  • 4Life expectancy is usually just 6 months to a year.