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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Degenerative Myelopathy

    • Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive (worsening) spinal cord disease.
    • The disease eventually causes severe weakness or paralysis (loss of function) of all four legs as well as other complications.
    • Currently, there is no cure. Nursing care can help keep affected dogs clean and comfortable, but most dogs die from complications (or humane euthanasia) within 2 years of diagnosis.

    What Is Degenerative Myelopathy?

    The myelin sheath is a thin layer of tissue that covers many nerves in the body, including nerves of the spinal cord and to the limbs. Myelin helps protect the spinal cord and nerve cells and promotes faster nerve conduction. In degenerative myelopathy, the myelin covering certain areas of the spinal cord and associated nerves begins to break down. Eventually, the nerves are damaged, leading to impaired nerve conduction and progressive muscle weakness that usually starts in the rear legs but develops into severe weakness or paralysis of all four limbs.

    Degenerative myelopathy has been shown to be a genetic condition. Affected dog breeds include the German shepherd, corgi, Siberian husky, and boxer. Mixed-breed dogs can also be affected. Cats are rarely affected. Dogs are usually middle-aged or older when they develop signs of disease, so early signs may be mistaken for arthritis or other conditions affecting the lower back and rear legs.   

    What Are the Clinical Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy?

    Early during the course of disease, affected dogs may develop weakness in the rear legs. They may stumble with their rear feet and seem unaware of the location and position of their feet. Affected dogs may knuckle with the rear paws (walk so the tops of the paws contact the floor or ground) or drag the tops of the paws along the floor or ground. This leads to abnormal nail wear and scrapes on the tops and sides of the toes.

    As the disease progresses, weakness in the rear legs can progress to complete paralysis. Muscle atrophy (wasting) can occur from reduced limb use and damage to the nerves in the area.

    By the end stage of the disease, all four legs are severely weak or paralyzed as nerves higher up in the spinal cord are affected. Urinary and fecal incontinence may be present in some cases, and body-wide muscle wasting can occur.

    How Is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?

    Degenerative myelopathy is considered a diagnosis of exclusion. This means the diagnosis is generally confirmed by ruling out other spinal cord and neurologic conditions that could be causing the patient’s clinical signs.

    Your veterinarian will likely begin the diagnostic process with a medical history and thorough physical examination (including orthopedic and neurologic evaluations). Blood work (such as a chemistry panel and a complete blood count [CBC]) and urinalysis may be recommended. Although these tests are likely to have normal results in a dog with degenerative myelopathy, they can be important for ruling out other illnesses.

    Additional testing may include spinal radiographs (x-rays), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT). These test results may be normal in a dog with degenerative myelopathy, but they can often rule out other diseases. 

    Treatment and Prognosis

    Unfortunately, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy, and the long-term prognosis is poor. Fortunately, the disease is not painful, but nursing care is essential to preserving a pet’s overall well-being, cleanliness, and quality of life for as long as possible. Soft bedding (to help minimize bed sores), physical therapy (to help slow muscle atrophy), and frequent bathing (to manage urinary and fecal incontinence) are just a few of the things necessary to help manage a dog with this condition.

    Dogs that can’t walk are often reluctant to urinate, so dogs with degenerative myelopathy may   hold their urine for too long. This can lead to urinary tract infections. Assisting the dog outside frequently to eliminate may help, but this can be difficult if the dog is very large or heavy. Antibiotics may be needed periodically to treat urinary tract infections and skin wounds (from urine scalding and bed sores); your veterinarian may also recommend periodic bacterial culture testing of urine to make sure infections are appropriately treated. 

    Sadly, most dogs with this disease are partially paralyzed (starting with the rear legs) within 9 months after diagnosis and are severely weak or completely paralyzed in all four legs within 2 years. Many owners elect humane euthanasia before the disease progresses to the end stage.