I have to be honest: Writing about degenerative myelopathy in dogs (DM) isn’t at the top of my “fun to write” list. It doesn’t even appear on that list. I wish I didn’t have to write this post, but here we are. And it’s important.
Why DM? For one thing, it’s a scary and overwhelming diagnosis. I want to shine a light on the realities and share some tips on making the disease progression easier for you and your dog, though it will never be easy.
For another thing, sadly, we’re facing our second case of this in our family. My beloved Emmett died of DM about five years ago, and we recently received a probable diagnosis for Cooper. I have a lot of personal stake in this topic. So, I’ve researched like crazy, chatted with experts, and learned a ton. I want to share, just in case it helps anyone else.
A quick disclaimer: I’m not a vet. I’m not a vet tech or therapist or anything useful. I’m a writer. A researcher. A dog mom. Everything you read here is for information purposes only. Always, always, always consult with your vet!
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So, let’s dig in, shall we? First things first: What is degenerative myelopathy?
Surrounding our and our dogs’ spinal cords is white matter. The job of the white matter is to send and process nerve signals up and down the spinal cord. DM occurs when that white matter degenerates. In the beginning, DM is often mistaken for osteoarthritis because the early signs are similar; however, as DM progresses, the spinal cord deteriorates, and eventually dogs become paralyzed on their hind end. It occurs most often in older dogs–rarely have dogs under four been reported to have DM–and most dogs are around age nine. Prognosis is usually six months to a year after diagnosis. If it’s caught early, maybe two years.
The most common comparison to DM in humans is ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Dog Breeds Prone to Degenerative Myelopathy
German Shepherd Dogs are considered to be the breed most commonly affected. However, many breeds can be afflicted. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of dog breeds prone to degenerative myelopathy according to clinical data:
- American Eskimo Dogs
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- German Shepherd Dog
- Golden Retriever
- Great Pyrenees
- Irish Setters
- Kerry Blue Terriers
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Soft Coated Wheaton Terriers
- Wire Fox Terrier
Why did I call this a non-exhaustive list when it’s really quite long? Well, as you can see, my dogs’ breeds don’t appear here. Emmett was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier / Plott Hound mix, and Cooper is an American Staffordshire Bull Terrier. And even though those breeds don’t appear on the most common lists of affected breeds, I did discover genetic research that found, “Degenerative Myelopathy is an inherited neurologic disorder caused by a Mutation of the SOD1 gene known to be carried by Staffordshire bull terriers.”
If you’re curious about your dog, and the breed doesn’t appear on this list, simply type into Google: “your dog breed name + Degenerative Myelopathy” and see what comes up.
What causes DM?
Unfortunately, the cause isn’t clear. Research suggests a genetic mutation–as noted above, the SOD1 gene–but some dogs with two copies of the SOD1 gene haven’t developed DM. For breeders, a screening test for SOD1 can help reduce passing on disease risk to the breeding dogs’ offspring.
Symptoms of DM in Dogs
Okay, so we know DM is a degeneration of the white matter surrounding the spinal cord, and we know there are some dog breeds more prone to the condition than others, but how do you know if your dog has DM? Often, the first signs you’ll notice are a sway in the back end when your dog is standing still, or your dog struggles to get up. Sometimes, though, those signs are incredibly subtle and come on slowly, so there’s more to watch for. Keep an eye out for these common signs of DM in dogs:
- Swaying in the hind end when standing
- Falls over easily if pushed (but please don’t push your dog)
- Paw knuckling, that is, the hind paws turn under so the toes drag upside down
- Feet scraping on the ground when walking, which can also cause your dog’s toenails to wear down in an atypical or unusual pattern
- Difficulty walking or, especially in later stages, an inability to walk at all
- Struggling to get up from sitting or lying down
Toward the end of the disease progression, symptoms often include hind-end paralysis and incontinence.
With Emmett, we knew something was up when he started knuckling. We’d be walking along, and his back toes would turn under. As his disease progressed, he struggled with walking and with incontinence, though he never experienced the swaying or wobbling so common to the disease. By the end, Emmett could not get up from lying down unassisted, nor could he walk more than a few feet without the use of some aids. (More on helpful tools in a bit.)
For Coop, we actually suspected arthritis because he seemed to have a bit of pain in his hips. His slow, stiff rising out of bed led us to think arthritis. Cooper is 12, and he’s been a distance runner his entire life, so it made sense. After the arthritis treatment did nothing for him, we took him in for a set of X-rays. In the meantime, I told our vet I noticed him leaning heavily to one side in his hind end. The X-rays showed no arthritis, so we now have a probable diagnosis of DM.
In fact, because there is no specific test to determine if your dog does have DM, if your pup is experiencing any of these symptoms, head to a vet to rule out arthritis first. Then, once that or any other suspected conditions are ruled out, DM might be the right diagnosis.
Treatment for DM
Let’s get this one simple–yet excruciating–fact out of the way: There is no treatment for DM.
The disease will progress, and there’s nothing to stop it, and that sucks. It’s awful. I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I’m sorry for what you and your dog face. It’s hard, and it’s terrible.
Setting aside that painful truth, there are things you can do to help your dog live well longer. Keep in mind that this is anecdotal, not clinical. Some things you can do to not “treat” your dog’s DM but potentially help slow the progression of the disease.
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “It is important to avoid obesity, so diet and exercise (walking and swimming) are vital components of treatment. The goal is to maintain the dog on its feet for as long as possible. Physical therapy has been shown to prolong quality of life and preserve muscle mass. Any dog with DM should be kept as physically active as possible for as long as possible. The progression of clinical signs has been shown to be slowed with a combination of epsilon-aminocaproic acid, N-acetylcysteine, prednisone, vitamins B, C, and E, and exercise therapy.”
I’ll add that, in addition to physical therapy and exercise, we treated Emmett with acupuncture done at home by a sports rehab vet. Clearly I don’t have clinical data to support this assertion, but I can confidently (and, yes, anecdotally) assert: Acupuncture helped Emmett immensely.
How to Support Your Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy
We learned a lot going through this with Emmett that we can now apply to our experience with Cooper. The name of the game here really is “support.” Each suggestion is geared toward helping support your dog’s mobility and stability, as well as a few troubleshooting ideas. That said, vet bills add up, I know. Don’t feel like you need to do or buy every one of these things. Instead, ask yourself which ones will support your dog’s specific symptoms and contribute to an improved quality of life. With each, I’m trying to share a few cost considerations, as well as our own experience.
Also, join your area’s Buy Nothing group on Facebook. You can find most, if not all, of these items for free. Seriously. Other places to check for free or discounted items include your local Goodwill or thrift stores, craigslist.org, and Freecycle.
So, here are a handful of things that can help support your dog through DM disease progression:
Ramps or pet steps
Depending on your dog’s size and disease progression, ramps or pet steps can provide access to your bed, the couch, and the car. We actually bought this ramp when Lucas had his amputation. Now, it’s pricey, so I have another suggestion, but I will say that it has been worth every penny. I got it in 2015, and it saw us through Lucas’ osteosarcoma, Emmett’s DM, and now Coop’s. A more affordable choice would be this (actually, that might be better because it looks lighter weight!!) or even pet steps like these. If you go the pet steps route, just make sure the steps are deep enough for your dog’s size. I bought a set to help Cooper get up the bed, but it’s too narrow for him to comfortably navigate… so the steps have been relocated to the catio.
In our experience, this is the single most important purchase if you have lots of wood or tile. But who knew how expensive rugs are?!?! Circling back, my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group often has rugs for free pickup, usually because someone is redecorating, so if you’re not picky about design, that can be a great way to cover your floors. We have a long runner from Ruggable at the back door so that, as Cooper comes in and out from bathroom breaks, he has a long runway to make sure his feet aren’t wet and if he’s moving quickly, he won’t slip. It looks like the design I bought is no longer available, but it’s similar to this one. They’re great because they’re washable. When I think back to Emmett losing bladder control, I really wish we had the Ruggable back then! I kind of want to get one like this for under his bed to help give him traction as he gets in and out of his bed.
We also have non-slip mats all over the place: where he eats his dinner, in front of the water dish (I’ll show this on Instagram), at the bottom of the stairs, at the step leading inside from the garage, etc. Each one is placed to give him traction. Again, if you’re not picky about design, you can snag them for free or just get whatever’s on sale. The majority of the mats I have, I got at Target when they were on clearance.
Have you guys seen ToeGrips?!? Small but mighty, these little bands fit on your dog’s nails to help provide traction. We used these for the early stages of DM with Emmett, and they were immensely helpful. They’d be helpful for any senior pup, to be honest! While they are available on Amazon, the ToeGrips website has tons of helpful additional information.
That said, as Em’s disease progressed, the grips weren’t quite enough, so we turned to…
Because Emmett knuckled, the ToeGrips became less effective in helping keep him up, so we ended up buying him boots that he wore, first, whenever we were outside, and eventually at all times (except for when we cleaned his feet and let them air out or washed the boots when he was asleep and supervised). I’m partial to Kurgo and Ruffwear. The good thing about both those options I linked is that you can choose to buy a set of two because, for dogs with DM, you might only need two boots for the back legs.
You will need to help your dog get up. It’s a hard reality of this disease. Again, depending on the size of your dog and the disease progression, you might need something specific or different. Here are three we’ve used and liked the best:
GingerLead: Best for potty breaks and big dogs. We used this for Em for ages and ages. We actually passed it along to another dog with DM after Emmett passed. I need to think about buying another for Cooper!
Ruffwear harness: Best for walks, assisting with swimming, or around the house. Cooper wears his a lot. If he needs help getting up or stabilizing, we can quickly grab the handle and help him. It’s easy to wash and easy to get on and off. Also, we have had this harness for YEARS. Definitely an investment that lasts.
EzyDog Convert Trail-Ready Dog Harness: Best for practical, pinch-free assistance on walks or helping your dog in and out of the car. The handle is substantial, and the fit is snug. Anytime someone asks me for a harness rec, this is it.
We never went this route, so I have no first-hand knowledge to share. That said, I know many dogs who thrive in a wheelchair. It’s worth considering, anyway!
Here’s a brief list of additional treatments to talk to your vet about:
- water therapy
- nutritional blood analysis test, nutraceuticals, and Chinese herbal therapy, each of which is a suggestion in The Goldstein’s Wellness & Longevity Program
- physical therapy
- diet changes, especially if your dog is overweight
What do we do next?
Love your dog.
Love your dog well and thoroughly and joyfully.
That means different things for different dogs. For Emmett, it was all the snacks and treats and sandwiches. For Cooper, it’s all the squeaky toys. We actually renewed his BarkBox subscription to keep him in fresh, fun toys every month. Watching him play with his squeaky toys has brought so much joy to my heart because he is actually playing again. It’s so nice to see. But, more importantly, it’s his joy. That and evening snuggles by the fire. For your dog, it might be something else entirely: extra time outside, cuddling under the covers, chewing toys, belly rubs, barking at the postman, whatever.
Bottom line: Love your dog. It’s impossible to enjoy every moment–I always cringe at that advice–because with DM, some of the moments are really, really sad. Instead, focus on loving your dog to the best of your ability for as long as you have left. I guarantee that’s what your dog is already doing.
And hit me up if you need to talk. Leave a comment or connect on Instagram. This is hard. You’re not alone.
Maybe I’ll write about degenerative myelopathy someday.
Everything you ever wanted to know about senior dogs and mobility
Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs (quoted above re: treatment) from VCA Animal Hospitals
The Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy: This is a comprehensive resource for what to expect in each stage of progression.
Degenerative myelopathy from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine