Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease that affects the spinal cord in dogs, causing progressive muscle weakness and loss of coordination. It acts similarly to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), in humans.
DM predominates in German Shepherds, Boxers, and Welsh Corgis, yet we have witnessed it in Beagles. The cause is unknown, but genetic factors are suspected. There is a non-inflammatory degeneration of the axons in the white matter of the spinal cord, causing nerve impulses from the brain to fail to reach the hind limbs correctly. Eventually, spinal impulse deterioration advances beyond the hind legs to bladder/bowel and front leg paralysis. In the final stage, labored breathing may be noticed.
Since DM occurs in the spinal cord, it often presents as rear limb weakness, incoordination, wobbling, scuffing, or crisscrossing. In Mrs. Wiggles' case, it was all the above.
How is DM Diagnosed?
It is not uncommon for a misdiagnosis of severe hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament rupture, or arthritis. Therefore, degenerative myelopathy is often a diagnosis by exclusion.
How quickly does degenerative myelopathy progress in dogs?
DM tends to progress very quickly. Most dogs diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy will become paraplegic within twelve to eighteen months.
Is DM Painful?
The condition is not painful to the dog but more so for the parent to watch. If you have a dog with degenerative myelopathy, it is essential to remember that it's about the quality of your dog's life and not the quantity of the days. We highly recommend visiting our Quality of Life Resource page.
There is no cure for DM. Our caregiving regimen focuses on maintaining a healthy weight and daily exercise to slow the progression of muscle atrophy.
The Five Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy
Understanding how the disease progresses is helpful to caregiving and setting objective benchmarks for making quality-of-life decisions.
Early Stage (slight signs)
Early to Mid-stage (neurological deficits noted)
Mid-stage (partial paralysis)
Late Stage (complete paralysis)
Final Stage (ascending paralysis to front limbs)
Loving Our Wobbly Mrs. Wiggles with Mid-Stage Neuro Deficits
A year ago, an observation of persistent balance loss in August resulted in a DM diagnosis. The clinical signs in early to mid-stage DM include:
Difficulty standing up (unassisted).
Swaying in the hind end when standing.
Scraping rear paw nails intermittently when walking (creating a click-click sound).
Early evidence of a loss of muscle mass in the hind limbs.
Tail movement becomes less active.
Rear legs start to cross each other when walking (worse when she turns).
Onset of urinary and fecal incontinence.
Mrs. Wiggles' quality of Life is still good, and given a little assistance to stand- she is off and exploring Life. Yet, the day will surely come when life quality will diminish to the point that joy and dignity are less attainable. On that day, our promise to Mrs. Wiggles would be fulfilled that she was profoundly loved until her last breath.
At Living Grace Canine Ranch, we feel honored and blessed to be the caregivers of adoption-disadvantaged Texas senior dogs. As domesticated animals, quality of life and Life depend on human compassion. Senior dogs have given their best years to Man and asked for little, and we believe they deserve the dignity of Life's ending by experiencing only Love.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.