What Is Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)?
Canine degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a degeneration of a dog's spinal cord. It's progressive and incurable and results in a general paresis of the back legs. It has similar symptoms as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS) in humans.
Halfway through November 2003, our dog Tsjip got diagnosed with DM. By April 2004, she had more and more difficulty walking. Long walks had already been out of the question for a long time. She would potter around a bit outside to pee and poop, sniff around, and then go back inside. The disease progressed slow and painless, until her quality of life got compromised. At that point we faced one of the most difficult decisions pet owners have to make.
Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Symptoms
DM or ALS starts by losing control of back legs. It's causing weakness and loss/lack of coordination in the muscles. I'll describe what we saw happening to our dog from the start.
One day in November 2003 when Tsjip was 8 years old, we noticed that she was limping a bit on one rear paw. The limping was more like a series of short waggles and was hard to notice at first. At first, we thought she had misstepped, but after a few days, it didn't go away and even got worse.
We decided to see a veterinarian, and after many tests, he ruled out everything other than DM. This was awful news for us. We already had lost her litter sister Sarah who died two weeks earlier due to Addison's disease.
Canine DM Stages
- dog is dragging back leg(s)
- dog's back legs show weakness
- dog is losing control of back legs
- dog's back legs are collapsing
- dog becomes paralyzed
What Causes Degenerative Myelopathy?
It is still unknown what the etiology of this disease is. Research shows that a mutation in the SOD1 gene is a risk factor for developing degenerative myelopathy in many dog breeds. It presents similarity to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in humans.
Before diagnosing a dog with DM, you have to rule out all other spinal cord disorders. Disorders such as intervertebral disc disease or spinal cord tumors. Both present similarity to DM.
Varying opinions about degenerative myelopathy exist. Dr. Clemmens of the University of Florida likens DM to human MS. Upon the publication of his website in 1998, Dr. Clemmens expressed a desire to treat the disease like MS. These plans were not seen through.
Dr. Coates from the University of Missouri, likens DM to ALS, as most scientists do today. The University of Missouri currently runs a DNA test which detects a mutation in the SOD1 gene. SOD1 might be responsible for the enzyme superoxide dismutase. This enzyme manufactures the most numerous cell in the canine body. It's possible that DM genetic mutations are also breed-specific. Reason: two carier dogs and one noncarier dog still developped the actual disease.
Common Carriers of Degenerative Myelopathy
Degenerative myelopathy is most often seen in the following dog breeds:
- German shepherd
- Pembroke Welsh corgi
However, the gene mutation in SOD1 has been found in at least 43 other breeds, including:
- Wire fox terrier
- Chesapeake Bay retriever
- Rhodesian ridgeback
- Cardigan Welsh corgi
Tsjip and Early Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy
Testing for DM Is Possible
Nowadays it's possible to screen dogs for DM through a DNA saliva test. They perform this test at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals in Columbia, Missouri. By testing the high-risk breeds, it should be possible to reduce the occurrence of DM.
A veterinarian has to interpret the lab results and the clinical signs to make a proper diagnosis. The following table represents the probability of gene mutation carrier status.
Possible Lab Results for DM
Some cases report that N/N dogs have developed the disease.
The dog will not develop DM but can give it to their offspring.
Likely to develop DM.
DM Dogs: Breeding and Heritability Risks
If you want to know the probability that your pup is a carrier of or at risk of developing DM, this can be calculated using a Punnett square:
- If both parents are clear, then all of the puppies will be clear.
- If one parent is a carrier and the other one is clear, then each puppy has a 50% chance of being clear and a 50% chance of being a carrier.
- If both parents are carriers, then each puppy has a 25% chance of being clear, a 50% chance of being a carrier, and 25% chance of being at risk.
- If one parent is clear and the other one is at risk, then all puppies will be carriers.
- If one parent is a carrier and the other one is at risk, then each puppy has a 50% chance of being a carrier and 50% chance of being at risk.
- If both parents are at risk, then all puppies will be at risk.
How to Treat and Exercise Your DM Dog
Once a dog definitely has DM, it's irreversible and it can't be cured. All you can do is making sure your dog is comfortable. Exercising is good, but don't overdo it. Your dog will tell you when enough is enough.
We kept Tsjip going for as long as we could. She slept on a blanket because climbing in or onto something was difficult for her. This way, she had full sight of us and we had full sight of her. Her bed was also close to the outside door.
Today physical therapy or water therapy for dogs is a possibility. It might help to stall the disease process. In Tsjip's lifetime these options were not available, at least not where I live. While doing my research for this article, I found the following on Wikipedia:
Use of a belly sling or hand-held harness allows the handler the ability to support the dog's hind legs for exercising or going up and down stairs. A 2-wheel dog cart or "dog wheelchair" can allow the dog to remain active and maintain its quality of life once signs of weakness or paralysis of the hind limbs is detected.
We used a belly sling to support her at the end. I had never seen or heard about a 2-wheel dog cart, but I think that even if I had known, I would've chosen not to take it that far.
Tsjip and Late Progression of DM Part 1
Wheelchair or Euthanasia
The reason why I'm not in favor of a dog wheelchair is the following: A dog wheelchair might look like the invention of the year. Many videos want to convince us that it's helping the dog to get around again. They show us happy dogs running around, but how do they pee and poop?
They only show you one small part of the dog's real-life circumstances. They don't show you the dog's life inside the house when he/she gets disconnected from the wheelchair. Will the dog still be a happy dog when they're not able to do the things a dog should be doing? In a 24-hour period, how many hours will the dog run around in their wheelchair? Two or three hours at most?
So if you decide to put your dog in a wheelchair: are you doing it for the dog's sake or are you doing it for your own peace of mind. Think about that.
Tsjip Stayed Playful Until the End
Tsjip stayed playful until the end and loved to tear our plastic bags apart. She never swallowed the pieces, as you can see in this last video. We recorded this video towards the end when she had a hard time standing up.
She was never in pain through the whole ordeal. It's very difficult to pick the right time for euthanasia. The creterion for us was the following. The moment she either became incontinent or could not reach her water bowl by herself. The latter came first and so we decided to put her down.
Tsjip Playing and Late Progression of DM Part 2
We Lost Both Dogs Within 6 Months
It's hard to lose both your dogs within 6 months' time at a rather young age. We lost them due to two different diseases, both irreversible and incurable.
Degenerative myelopathy is a painless process. Yet it's heartbreaking to see the fast progress in the dog.
Dogs with Addison's disease can still live a happy life. Yet at some point they will die either by the disease or by the heavy medical regimen they have to follow.
Keep a Close Eye on Your Dog
Be alert if you notice a change in gate or mobility impairment of the hind legs of your dog and it doesn't go away. It could mean that your dog has degenerative myelopathy. Consult your vet.
More About Degenerative Myelopathy
March 2018 Update: Gene Therapy for Canine Degenerative Myelopathy
The other day I got an email from an USA dog owner, telling me that her 10 year old corgi recently had been diagosed with MD. The reason she send me this email was the following and I quote: "they would like to do a Gene Therapy study on my dog to possibly slow down the progression and ultimately it would help humans with ALS" and she wanted to know if I had heard about this study.
I had not heard about it so I searched the internet and found a lot about gene therapy, what it is and how it works. However I also found something interesting on the website of the AKC Canine Health Foundation about Gene Therapy for Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. Let's hope they will get some good results in due time.
Update July 2018: Message from a Dog Owner
The other day a mand called John contacted me through HP and he wrote:
"Thanks for the article. July 3rd i lost my 14 year old lab to what I believe was DM. It wasn't diagnosed, there wasn't time to diagnose it from the moment I noticed back leg problems to the complete inability to use them. Maybe 2 weeks at best. I've done research and initially thought it was hip displaysia, but after I came across this disease and watching videos such as yours and comparing my dog, it was spot on. I agree with you about the wheelchair idea. In fact, today I saw a man with his 2 dogs and one was with wheel chair. I had a brief moment of guilt bcause I could have extended my girls life with the wheelchair. However I came to my senses and realized it would only be good for walks, which is a very small portion of her life. It hurts but she was 14 and to the very last day she still wanted to eat. She loved to eat. For that I am grateful and she lived til 14. My first dog ever and she will remain in my heart til I die. Thanks for sharing your experience. I will keep an eye out on my second dog that I have".
I asked him permission to add his story to my article because I thought it could be important for other people to read that DM can progress very quickly as John just experienced with his old dog. So stay alert when your dog isn't moving the rear legs like a dog should.
Update September 2018: Message from a Dog Owner
Today a woman called Tracy contacted me through HP:
Hello. I want to thank you for this article. I believe this is what my 13 year old lab had although not diagnosed. We made the very difficult decision to put him down yesterday after being incontinent and immobile for 2 days. My husband had used the belly sling for about 3 weeks. We had bought a wheelchair, but he just collapsed in it so it was not usable. This article makes me feel better that we did the right thing. I was feeling very guilty that we could've done more. So thank you again!
Update December 2018: Message from a Dog Owner
Today a woman called Tina contacted me through HP:
Yesterday we lost our 11 yr old Wire Haired Pointing Griffon to DM. Your Tsjip reminded me of him so much. Your story and videos have given me such comfort in deciding to let our sweet boy go. My husband and I would have spent every dime we have on helping him, to keep him with us. But this disease is a thief. It robs our friends of every dignity and progresses so darn quickly, especially in latter stages. Our hearts are broken...our home is empty without him.
Update June 2019: message from a dog owner
June 15, 2019 I got this email from Aideen from Ireland:
I just wanted to say our baby Scamp who is only 6 years old was diagnosed with DM. She’s a Bernese Malamute cross. She had a massive behavioral change about 4 months ago where she started to have panic attacks daily. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong - blood tests turned up nothing. It progressed to lameness, dragging her feet, depression and sleeping all day. We found out she had DM and three compacted vertebrae in her neck and made the hardest decision of our lives to euthanize her. She hasn’t been herself in the last three months and the light has gone from her eyes. We are heartbroken but I wanted to let you know younger dogs can and do get this horrible disease. She also has an under active thyroid and severe arthritis from previous ACL inquiries which we thought we had managed successfully with rehabilitation and hydrotherapy. In hindsight I wish we had done the surgery, it may have given us more time. She’s our beautiful girl and I’ll never get over losing her.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: How does Degenerative Myelopathy affect the dog neurologically? My very sweet border collie has become randomly aggressive.
Answer: As far as I know, it does not neurologically affect the dog in the sense of becoming aggressive as described. The dog never experiences any kind of pain, because it becomes paralized in a slow way. In all the reactions I've got on this subject, aggressive behavior has never been an issue. Aggressive behavior points to pain and in that case it's always wise to consult a vetenarian to see what's wrong.
© 2017 Titia Geertman
Seddonia on October 09, 2019:
Our beautiful King Charles Spaniel has this dreadful disease. Ruby is 14 years old and is otherwise in perfect health. She is now unable to walk so we carry her to her food bowl etc and also carry her outside to pee and poo.
Strangely she seems totally unfazed by any of this. She loves her cuddles on the sofa, her rides in the car and walks in her buggy. She's bright eyed,alert and happy. We know that one day we will have to make the heartbreaking decision but we believe that this will be when she begins to look unhappy. At the moment she's not and fortunately she's small enough to carry so for now we'll do all we can for her until she lets us know she's had enough
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on April 08, 2019:
#George: If your dog has severe pain, it seems to me that your dog is not suffering from DM, but from something else. A dog with DM is not in pain at all, because with DM the dog gets paralized. I certainly would get a second opinion from another vet.
George on April 08, 2019:
Hi..my dogs is 3years old and recently was diagonised to have CDM (degenerative myelopathy) and within a week he can not use his hind limbs. A CT scan shows the problem in his spine,he is constipated I guess cos of the pain involved..what shocks me is it all happened in a very short time span. Painfully considering having him put down.
Ginger Edwards on March 08, 2019:
I'm going through this now. My Shepherd Molly was diagnosed April 2018 and almost a year later she has declined so much. When you look at her she doesn't seem like herself she also lost her hearing. We have made the decision that we will have to let her go soon, she will be 13 on March 17th so after that we will come together as a family and let her go. We had to let her brother go in October 2018 due to cancer and still haven't gotten over that so this will be very hard but I don't want her to suffer anymore.
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on December 30, 2018:
#DW Davis: Sorry to hear about your son's dog. It's never the right time to lose a dog, but at least we humans can have a saying in it to prevent them from suffering when there's no hope of recovery.
DW Davis from Eastern NC on December 30, 2018:
We lost my oldest son's dog to DM several years ago. Our son had raised Scout from a puppy of about 9 weeks. Scout had been rescued from the flood waters of Hurricane Floyd in the fall of 1999.
Scout's symptoms progressed exactly as you described and our vet diagnosed correctly. We kept him comfortable as long as we could and the day we made the decision that keeping him going might be more about us not wanting to let go than it was about him, we knew it was time.
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on October 21, 2018:
#Debie: Sorry to hear about you dog and yes, it's a tough decission you have to make, but you are the only one who can make it. About the cbd oil I wouldn't know. I'm not a doctor nor a vet but if it helps at all, I doubt it will help in the stage your dog is in now. Has you dog officially been diagnosed for MD? In that case your vet should know and can give you advice about cbd oil. Don't let your decission depends on what and how you feel but think carefully about what kind of life lays ahead for your dog. Only then you will make the right decission.
DEBIE on October 20, 2018:
Thank you for this article.. i jave a Belgian Malinois going through this now.. he showed signs three years ago slightly dragging one leg a tiny bit. Hearing the nails scrape. One day two years ago.. he couldn't stand. I'm at the cross roads now.. wait or put him down. His spirit is still 100%.. but his body is rapidly declining now. So heart breaking... i hear cbd oil has worked well but i dont know at what stage... hes pretty advanced so im skeptical if it will work. . . Such a beautiful soul.. i cant bear the thought of playing this hand... doesnt seem fair...
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on September 01, 2018:
@Robing Flemish: I'm so sorry to learn about the condition of your old lab. know it's a tough decission you have to make, but reading your story I know you'll make the right one on the right time.
Robin Flamish on August 31, 2018:
Hello all, so glad to have come across this information..I too have a chocolate lab soon to be 12 years of age ...of course need I say the love of my life. Last year i noticed my girl having problems breathing..heavy panting..difficulties dealing with the humidity and heat, we of course made an appointment and discovered she was dealing with the flaps in her throat were not allowing air to get in to her lungs, so we opted to have surgery to tie back one side to relieve the problem and give her a new lease in life. One year later all was much better until a month ago when she began to loose the ability to jump on my bed..stand up..go for walks etc. I cant begin to express how painfully emotional all of this is to see..absolutely crushing! I have since learnd that whatever causes the flaps in the throat to collapse is as well connected to the nerves in her back and hind legs which has resulted in this degenerative condition you speak of through these threads.Needless to say, when she can no longer walk or needs to be lifted up...it will be time to lay her down. My heart is heavy...keeping her alive with no quality of life would only prove to be selfish and with no regard to her. Love your pets, take good care of them with all your heart! They depend on us to give them a good life.
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on August 22, 2018:
#Rininta Sen, so sorry to hear about your dad. Yes it can happen to dogs too, but quite often the vets don't recognize it.
Rinita Sen on August 22, 2018:
I lost my dad to ALS. I didn't know it could happen to dogs as well. I still keep reading up on what is new with ALS research, and I need to look up the gene therapy. Your dog was beautiful, and I am glad she went without much suffering. Thank you for your article.
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on July 27, 2018:
As I stated in my article, Lou Gehrig's desease (ALS) in humans and DM in dogs have very similar symptoms.
Theresa Christensen on April 14, 2018:
Lou Gehrig's disease