What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Veterinarians are still not completely sure what degenerative myelopathy is, but it appears to be autoimmune in nature, much like multiple sclerosis in humans. It seems to run in bloodlines, and is quite common in German Shepherd dogs, although it also regularly affects Huskies, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Weimaraners, and other breeds and their various mixes. While it starts off as weakness in the hind legs, the disease eventually progresses to complete paralysis. (Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 4th edition).
A more detailed description of what the immune system is doing in a German Shepherd Dog with DM can be found here: http://dog2doc.com/neuro/DM_Web/DMofGS.htm. This page also has information on medications and supplements that sometimes prove somewhat beneficial to German Shepherd dogs with the disease. Most research into the disease seems to be aimed at GSDs, since they are the most commonly affected breed. With this being said, I don’t see the hurt in using the information for a breed other than a GSD, as long as a veterinarian is helping alter the plan accordingly.
How is DM Diagnosed and what are the Symptoms?
DM is diagnosed through a process of elimination, because the only way to be certain a dog has the disease is to examine their spinal cord in autopsy (http://www.caninegeneticdiseases.net/dm/basicdm.htm). Other diseases that can have similar symptoms are hip dysplasia and slipped discs in the vertebral column. Dogs affected by DM are usually older dogs, aged 8 and above.
One of the ways a vet tries to determine if a dog has DM is by manipulating the dogs back paw so that the top of their foot is against the ground. A dog with a healthy spinal cord will correct this posture of the foot quickly. Dogs with DM that has progressed to a point will not “right” their foot automatically(http://dog2doc.com/neuro/DM_Web/Jack_Flash.htm). Dogs with DM will often drag their back feet, and their toenails consequently become worn down (Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 4th edition). As the dragging of the back feet becomes worse the dog may develop cuts and scrapes on the back paws.
As degenerative myelopathy progresses, the dog loses more and more control over her back legs, resulting in paralysis. This can result anywhere from 6 months to 1 year from initial diagnosis (http://www.caninegeneticdiseases.net/dm/basicdm.htm).
From what I have read, degenerative myelopathy is not painful for the dog. What is extremely painful is watching one’s dog slowly lose the ability to walk, especially as the animal is completely alert and mentally still very healthy.
Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy:
There is no cure for DM. With this being said, a veterinarian by the name of Dr. R. M. Clemmons makes several recommendations on medication and supplements that he believes prove beneficial for dogs affected by this disease. Dr. Clemmons specific recommendations can be found at here (http://dog2doc.com/neuro/DM_Web/DMofGS.htm) (same article referenced earlier).
This veterinarian emphasizes regular walks or swimming to help keep a dog with DM mobile for as long as possible. Because DM affects the nerves in the legs, it also results in muscle loss. Both walking and swimming will help the dog retain as much muscle tone as possible. The walks or swimming sessions don’t have to be extremely long according to Dr. Clemmons. He recommends working the dog up to two 30 minute walks and one hour long walk each week. Obviously, some dogs will be able to do more, and some dogs will need to do less.
In addition to regular exercise, Dr. Clemmons recommends a diet and supplement guidelines. Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, CoQ10, and omega 3 fatty acids are all recommended. As always, consult with your pet’s veterinarian before adding supplements to the diet, as not all supplements are safe for all dogs.
The two medications that may help dogs with DM are aminocaproic acid and n-acetylcysteine. Around 50% of dogs will positively respond to these drugs according to the Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 4th edition. Dr. Clemmons reports a higher number of dogs respond positively when medication, exercise, diet, and supplements are used in conjunction: “We always hope that all patients will respond to our treatment protocol. Unfortunately, it does not work in all cases; however, this combined treatment has been up to 80% effective in patients diagnosed at the University of Florida.”
Many problems could be causing weakness in a dog’s back legs and hips. One of these issues that could be the source is degenerative myelopathy. The disease is devastating as it results in paralysis of the hind legs. With this being said, certain medications and supplements may prove helpful for some dogs. Chances of these therapies working are best when DM is caught early. For this reason, it is important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you notice changes in your dog’s mobility.
Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 4th edition