Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive condition that affects the spinal cord of older dogs. If your dog has recently been diagnosed, you don’t have to face the journey alone. Today, Dr. Susan Davis, internationally recognized physical therapist for animals—and friend of Dr. Julie Buzby—shares hope-filled guidance so you can care for your beloved dog with compassion and confidence.
You know something is wrong. You see your dog struggle to stand up, and when he finally does, he strains to move, dragging his hind legs behind. If your dog is a breed genetically linked to developing degenerative myelopathy, you may have heard the name before and find yourself filled with a sense of dread.
Caring for your dog with degenerative myelopathy
Or maybe the condition is completely unfamiliar to you, and you find yourself sitting in an exam room, suddenly thrust into unknown territory. Your veterinarian has just suggested the possibility of this diagnosis, and you are wondering what that means for your beloved senior dog.
No matter which of these scenarios describes you, I am here to help.
As a physical therapist in the veterinary field, I’m very familiar with dogs who have degenerative myelopathy since treatment often includes techniques that fall squarely into my area of expertise.
When Dr. Buzby asked me to offer advice and encouragement to pet parents facing degenerative myelopathy, I knew she would want me to leave you better informed and better equipped to handle the situation you’re facing.
My hope is to do just that.
So let’s look at degenerative myelopathy. First, what it is, which breeds it affects, the most common symptoms, and how it’s diagnosed. Then, I’ll share five bits of advice that will help you put together a treatment plan you can easily begin to implement today.
But first, the good news
Before moving on, I’m compelled right off the bat to share the good news about having a senior dog with degenerative myelopathy. I’m guessing it’ll instantly lift your spirits and soothe your worries.
Degenerative myelopathy is generally painless, and while its symptoms are progressive, visible, and sometimes hard to watch, your dog isn’t in pain. He’s happy to be by your side eating up every snuggle, sweet word, and special treat. If you provide for your dog’s daily needs, as you have been doing for years, he will remain happy and content!
Now, with that good news in mind, let’s learn a little about degenerative myelopathy.
What is degenerative myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy, also known as DM, is a chronic, slow-developing neurological disease similar to multiple sclerosis in human beings.
DM causes demyelination—a stripping of the white matter covering the nerves—due to plaque buildup on the myelin sheath. The sheath acts as insulation to the nerves similar to the covering found on active electrical wires. When stripped away, communication along the nerve pathway slows down. This results in clinical signs of neurologic dysfunction.
Some dogs experience a form of DM similar to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which also affects the nerves of the face that control swallowing and facial movements.
Which breeds are at risk of degenerative myelopathy?
Breeds genetically predisposed to DM include:
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
What are the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy?
DM typically occurs in middle-aged to older dogs between seven and fourteen years of age. Generally, the condition progresses over several months to a year, and sadly, is fatal. Dr. Buzby and I have both had patients outlive a year, so that timeline is certainly not fixed.
As the disease progresses, you may observe:
- Weakening in your dog’s hind limbs and lower back
- Wasting away of muscle mass
- Knuckling of the paws
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty walking
How is it diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will diagnose DM by identifying its clinical signs, and by ruling out other causes of neurological disease. A radiograph will help determine if hip dysplasia, spinal disc herniation, or a tumor is the cause of the symptoms instead.
After ruling out other causes, your vet may also run a DNA test for potential blood markers through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. This is the most definitive diagnostic test for DM, yet it still doesn’t guarantee that your dog has or will have the condition, only that he inherited the genes to develop the condition.
The OFA classifies dogs as Normal, Carrier, or At-Risk. Normal dogs have no genetic mutations for DM and are highly unlikely to get this condition.
Carrier versus at-risk
A dog who is a “carrier” has one normal gene and one mutated copy of the gene for DM. Dogs are called carriers because one out of two of the genes are abnormal while the other is normal. Carriers are much less likely to develop DM than dogs who have 100% mutation (both genes are affected). These dogs are classified as “at-risk” because they possess two mutated copies of the gene.
The OFA website explains it best, “At this point, the mutation can only be interpreted as being at risk of developing DM within the animal’s life. For dogs showing clinical signs with a presumptive diagnosis of DM, affected “at-risk” test results can be used as an additional tool to aid in the diagnosis of DM.”
As practitioners, when we pair clinical symptoms in an older dog with “at-risk” genetics, we make a presumptive diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy.
How can I help my dog who has just been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy?
Caring for a dog with degenerative myelopathy is a team effort, but a job that’s totally manageable once you have a plan in place. Here are five ways you can pull together a solid treatment plan and provide a high level of care for your dog.
1. Engage your family.
Gather the family together and have a honest discussion involving the current and future needs of your precious dog. Each family member must be prepared to face the gradual decline of your dog’s health. Round the clock care may eventually become the new reality.
Nevertheless, as soon as a daily routine is set where everyone is involved and committed to the same goals, the workload is manageable—best of all, your dog will love all the attention!
2. Learn best practices from your veterinarian.
Your veterinarian and staff will advise you regarding medications, supplements, and dietary needs. They are also the best qualified to teach you how to assist your senior dog with bowel and bladder care.
As DM progresses, your dog may become incontinent, losing control of his bowels. Frequent trips outdoors to do ‘business’ will help avoid accidents in the house. Special padding and diapering can also help manage this issue. Taking one last potty break right before bed will be invaluable in helping to keep your dog comfortable, clean, and dry overnight.
Your dog’s bladder, on the other hand, may lose the ability to void urine, causing it to accumulate and stretch the bladder. You will need to encourage regular emptying to promote bladder health and avoid urinary tract infections.
Your veterinary team will teach you how to express the bladder manually using gentle hand pressure over the lower abdomen. Urine scalding, similar to a burn, may occur on the delicate areas of the groin and under the tail if urine soaks into your dog’s coat.
As a part of bowel and bladder care, remember to check the skin and fur for soiling and keep the areas clean and dry.
3. Consult a veterinary physical therapist.
Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary physical therapist trained in rehabilitative techniques. I strongly recommend adding a physical therapist to your dog’s healthcare team.
A veterinary physical therapist can provide your dog treatment methods largely unavailable in a traditional vet clinic—such as strategic exercises, massage, electrical stimulation, and cold laser.
Though the disease is incurable, strategic exercises will help your dog stay active, strong, and feeling comfortable.
Here is a sampling of exercises to treat dogs with degenerative myelopathy:
- Range of motion movements with stretching of tight muscles
- Placing the dog over a physio-ball to take the pressure off weight-bearing joints
- Massages and light exercise to preserve mobility
Some of these are performed daily, and others just two or three times per week. A physical therapist can develop a custom rehab schedule tailored to your dog’s needs.
Electrical stimulation and cold laser
In my practice, I have also had success adding electrical stimulation and cold laser to my DM exercise programs. What’s even more exciting is the recent scientific studies that support such methods.
One study was conducted by Dr. Debbie Torraca, a world-renowned physical therapist and owner of Wizard of Paws in East Haddam, Connecticut. She and her research partners found evidence that adding cold laser to a dog’s physical therapy program added more time to the dog’s lifespan and slowed the disease progression.
Their study collected and tested data compiled over eight years, comparing 20 DM dogs who received varying dosages and wavelengths of cold laser to the spine—in addition to rehabilitative exercises. The statistical results showed a slower decline in the disease progression and an extension in the time from onset to euthanasia by 11 to 12 months!
DM study results explained
The study hypothesized those wonderful joules of light coming from a cold laser unit, emitting wavelengths of 980 or more nanometers, helped suppress the cells attacking the nerve covering. This is really exciting for senior dogs facing a degenerative myelopathy diagnosis.
Please be aware that you will not find at-home lasers that meet these specifications sold to the public. You will need a veterinary PT professional to administer this type of laser therapy.
4. Research supportive aids for your dog.
In addition to exercise, electrical stimulation, and cold laser, there are wonderful products and resources out there to help you care for your dog.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- ToeGrips® dog nail grips: If you see your dog slipping on tile or hardwood floors, dog nail grips provide a wonderful solution for traction and stability. Because DM dogs “scuff” their paws, I recommend affixing the ToeGrips to the nails with super glue. ToeGrips have the added benefit of providing “proprioceptive stimulus”—meaning they help draw the brain’s attention to the paws and improve the dog’s gait.
- Dogs unable to control the “knuckling under” of their toes need extra assistance for raising the paw and placing it properly on the floor. Try Dorsi-flexion assist supports with ankle cuffs and straps from Thera-paw or Handicapped Pets.
- In the most severe cases where walking is too difficult, a wheeled cart provides a handy mobility solution that your dog will enjoy.
- For shorter, quick trips outdoors, use a belly sling or body harness to assist the task of walking, such as the GingerLead® rear support harness or the Help ‘Em Up™ Harness 2-handled harness.
5. Put your blinders on.
Now that you have a plan to care for your dog, a healthcare team in place, and several convenient supportive aids to make life easier for your dog, the final thing you need to do is to put your blinders on.
Wait, hold on there…what?
Well, this may be easier to explain if I simply share a story that encompasses a multitude of experiences told to me by many DM dog owners over the years. It usually sounds something this:
“Dr. Davis, you won’t believe what happened to me in the parking lot at the vet’s office last week! I was helping Jessie back to the car with a belly sling and a woman asked, “Oh, what’s wrong with your dog? Why can’t he walk?”
I answered, “He has a neurological disease called degenerative myelopathy. Don’t worry, he’s fine.”
She replied, “Well, he doesn’t look fine; he looks like he’s in pain and is suffering! What a poor thing! How can you let him live like this? Doesn’t the vet tell you to put him down?”
Ugh! How my heart aches for my clients who’ve been on the receiving end of such harsh comments from strangers, neighbors, or even friends and family.
Here’s when you need to put your blinders on, stick to your thoughtful plan of care, and not allow unsolicited opinions to derail what you know is best for your dog. The truth is, the average person doesn’t know enough about DM to even have such an opinion.
It may also be helpful to have a response ready when such comments come your way. Something like, “Thank you for your concern. Have a good day.” should suffice. Wink.
When it’s time to say goodbye
Degenerative myelopathy is a diagnosis no dog owner wants to hear, but you and your dog can still enjoy many months, or even years, on the back side of a diagnosis.
And when it is finally time to say goodbye to your dog, trust your faithful companion and your veterinary team to let you know. Until then, be confident as you courageously face degenerative myelopathy side by side with your beloved friend.
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Have you walked through degenerative myelopathy with your dog?
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