It’s easy to miss the early signs of cat and dog degenerative myelopathy (DM), a fatal condition in which the spinal nerves and area around them degenerate, leading to a loss of muscle control and tactile sensation. In its early stages, your pet might have some weakness in the back legs, but dogs (which are more likely to suffer from DM) and cats might mask their disability, or you might chalk up the slowness and difficulty getting up to old age.
By the time most pet parents realize that there’s a serious problem and get a positive diagnosis of DM, pets often have only months to live. Those can be difficult months. If your pet has been diagnosed with DM, knowing what to expect can help you care for your cat or dog, letting you make the most of your remaining time together.
Mid-Stage Degenerative Myelopathy
As your pet’s condition becomes worse and the symptoms of DM become more evident, dogs may scrape their nails while they walk. Pets may also have obvious trouble getting up from a reclining position and not be able to balance on their own, so you should be prepared for tripping and stumbling.
Pay special attention to your pet’s paws. Since animals with DM cannot feel their feet, they can’t right their digits when a paw is placed on the ground incorrectly. That may lead them to walk on their knuckles, which can cause injury and bleeding. Some pet owners immediately assume that booties can help protect the paws, but actually, booties can cause more harm. Covering the paw could cause a dog or cat to fall more often and to come down in a way that could cause knee injuries, cruciate ligament tears, or further spinal damage.
At this stage, you may also start to notice that dogs and cats rarely wag their tails. As the condition progresses, pets may get their legs tangled in long tails, which can interfere with walking, or the tail may move up and down without reason and without your pet being able to control it.
Late-Stage Degenerative Myelopathy
Nerve impulses will increasingly go haywire as pets enter late-stage DM. In addition to the tail’s random movements, the hind legs may jerk and kick out without reason. You may also notice a phenomenon called cross extensor response, in which your pet will have a reaction in one foot if you touch the opposite one.
Balance is nearly impossible for pets at this stage. They may need support for their hindquarters just to remain standing. Animals may fall over when they defecate, and eventually, pets with DM become completely incontinent.
Supporting a Dog with DM
As dogs and cats with DM become weaker, they become more and more dependent on you. Don’t wait until the morning when your pet cannot get up to think about what you will do to help your dog or cat perform everyday functions.
Talk to your vet as soon as you get a diagnosis about appropriate ways to help pets who can’t move on their own. Your vet will let you know that you should never try to hold a pet up by their tail. You may have heard of pet parents using towels to lift a dog’s hindquarters (called towel walking). This is not a good way to support your pet either, though, since it can cause your pet to urinate.
There are a growing number of tools and mechanisms that can help lame pets get around. Canine and feline wheelchairs are one of the ways that pets with disabilities can gain some independence and a better quality of life. Nutritional changes and keeping your pet as active as possible can also go a long way.
With a DM diagnosis, you also need to consider end-of-life plans for your pet. Some pet parents want to figure out beforehand when they think it will be most humane to euthanize. It’s important to discuss this issue with your family and your vet.
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