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Increase Your Understanding of Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)

Is your dog dragging its back paws? Or starting to wobble? Here’s a quick primer on understanding Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) and what you might do to assist your dog.

Quick Facts About DM

Which Breeds Get It?

Although DM is most common among German Shepherds, Degenerative Myelopathy can occur in many different dog breeds. Berneses Mountain Dog, Boxer, Retrievers, Husky, and Corgi are just a few.

Dog breeds prone to degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive spinal disease affecting older dogs, usually between the ages of 4 to 14. Resulting in:

  • Lack of coordination and swaying back legs
  • Dog falls over if gently nudged from the side
  • Paw knuckling and dragging
  • Mobility loss with progressive worsening over time

As the condition progresses and the spinal cord deteriorates, dogs will experience eventual paralysis.

Degenerative Myelopathy is a hereditary disease that is passed down through bad breeding. DM is most prevalent in German Shepherds but also occurs in Boxers, Siberian Husky, and Corgis. Degenerative myelopathy is the leading cause of hind leg weakness in German Shepherds.

DNA Testing for Degenerative Myelopathy

DNA testing is available to determine if your dog is at risk of developing or carrying the genetic mutation that causes Degenerative Myelopathy. A degenerative myelopathy test determines whether your dog is clear of the gene if they are a carrier for the gene mutation, and if they are considered high risk for developing the condition when they’re older. Breeds at risk for the condition should be tested prior to breeding to prevent DM from spreading.

Can Young Dogs Get Degenerative Myelopathy?

Younger dogs can be affected by degenerative myelopathy, but it is rare. DM is usually diagnosed in older dogs between the ages of 8 – 14 years old. The average age of DM onset is around age 9.

What Are the Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy?

Symptoms and progression of DM in dogs

Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy will change and worsen over time. As a progressive condition, you can expect a dog with DM to experience significant changes in mobility as time goes on. The key to understanding DM, is knowing the different stages of mobility loss your dog will experience.

Early signs of DM include:

  • Loss of coordination in the hind limbs
  • Rear feet knuckling and dragging
  • Mild hind-end weakness

Symptoms at 6 Months:

  • Hind limbs become weaker
  • Dog has difficulty standing
  • Dog may lose ability to walk

DM Symptoms at 1 Year:

  • Urinary and fecal incontinence
  • Weakness in front limbs as well as rear
  • Eventual paralysis in hind limbs

Understanding the stages and progression of degenerative myelopathy is crucial to determining the future mobility needs of your dog. DM doesn’t follow a strict timeline, and the speed at which it progresses varies from dog to dog. Early signs of degenerative myelopathy are easy to miss, but the signs of mobility change soon become apparent.

Is Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Painful?

Dogs with degenerative myelopathy are not in any pain. Although DM itself is not a painful condition, as dogs grow weaker, they do place additional stress on other parts of their body, which can cause pain. As the hind legs weaken, a dog may experience pain in their shoulders, elbows, and front legs as they bear more weight on their front legs to compensate. DM dogs that are showing signs of pain may be experiencing pain from another health condition, such as arthritis.

How Do You Slow the Progression of Degenerative Myelopathy?

Degenerative Myelopathy progresses at a different pace for every dog. Some dogs will experience a rapid decline; others will slowly lose control of their legs over the course of months. Although we have little control over how fast DM progresses, recent studies have shown that exercise can slow the spread of Degenerative Myelopathy. For the best results, rehab therapy is best to give your dog regular, structured exercise that is tailor-made for their individual needs.

What Can I Do If My Dog Has DM?

There is no cure for canine degenerative myelopathy. Although there is no treatment for DM, there are many different ways to aid and support your dog as its condition progresses. Physical exercise is the key component to extending your dog’s life and slowing the progression of degenerative myelopathy. Here are a few ways you can improve your dog’s quality of life:

Assistive Equipment to Support DM Dogs

Your dog’s mobility needs will change throughout the many stages of DM. Here are a few assistive devices to help keep your dog moving.

  • Slings and harnesses for a lifting support
  • Pet boots to protect dragging paws
  • Utilize training tools to help with paw placement and gait training
  • Dog wheelchair

Holistic Care and Physiotherapy for Degenerative Myelopathy

degenerative myelopathy treatment

Work with your Vet and rehab specialist to come up with a treatment plan that includes a multi-modal plan. Physical therapy is important for dogs with degenerative myelopathy. The benefits of physical therapy include improved mobility, slowing down DM progression, and improved overall strength.

  • Physical therapy and hydrotherapy for increased muscle strength
  • Massage and acupuncture to help with blood flow
  • Laser therapy to stimulate the nervous system
  • Balanced nutrition

Combine natural treatments for degenerative myelopathy with rehabilitative exercise to promote overall physical health. Regular rehab sessions with a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Specialist help to slow down DM progression. It’s crucial to follow your CCRP’s exercise guidelines. Over-exercising a dog with degenerative myelopathy can lead to muscle fatigue and exhaustion.

Dog Wheelchairs for Degenerative Myelopathy

Eventually, every dog diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy will need the support of a dog wheelchair. Paralysis is the hallmark of DM, and your dog will require a mobility cart to stay active. Here are a few of the ways a dog wheelchair can support your dog:

  • Keep pets active and mobile
  • Increase strength and lower the chance of muscle atrophy
  • Offers progressive support that adapts to a pet’s changing needs
  • Enhance degenerative myelopathy rehabilitation sessions with wheelchair support
  • Aid dogs with DM with balance struggles
  • Dog wheelchairs promote mental wellbeing and lower risk of a dog becoming depressed from inactivity

A dog with Degenerative Myelopathy will lose strength in their legs, usually starting in the hind end first. A wheelchair provides a DM dog with the support it needs to walk and exercise. Regular exercise can help to slow down the disease progression, so helping your dog to stay active can truly keep them healthier.

I am a very grateful client. My dog Dennis the Menace has DM and his ‘wheelie’ has given him his life back. It took a month for him to get the hang of using the ‘wheelie’ but now he is speed demon! We go to the park and take long neighborhood walks where he can smell and greet his friends again. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

– Nita Metz

About a year ago our dog, Samson, a springer spaniel, was diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy. The disease progressed to a point where his quality of life was no longer acceptable and we put our friend of 12 years to sleep. He had your wheels the last 6 months of his life and it was his only way to walk, and he loved to walk, and stand with dignity. The wheels were a life saver for us and Sam and we hope we can someday pass them on to another needy dog!

– Samson’s Family
German Shepherd dog wheelchair

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  1. […] Degenerative Myelopathy or DM is the the most common mobility condition impacting the German Shepherd breed. At least 35% of all German Shepherds carry the genetic mutation for DM. Although that does not mean that they all have the condition, it is possible for them to pass it along to their puppies. Signs of DM usually present later in a dog’s life, although not preventable, the only way to know if your dog is at risk is to have genetic testing done. The disease is impossible to cure and will eventually lead to progressive German Shepherd mobility loss. […]

  2. everything I read or look at does not take into consideration that a dog needs to squat to eleminate. Why does nobody address this issue with a dog that has DM.

    • Hi Ginny, many dogs with DM are unable to squat due to their weakened back legs. In these cases the dog is able to use a wheelchair to defecate while standing, although they are no longer able to squat many DM dogs adjust to this new stance pretty readily.

    • Hi Jaime, the wheelchairs are designed to help your dog get the exercise they need and is designed specifically not to collapse on a dog’s legs. Dogs should use their wheelchair to help them run, play, go to the bathroom, and go for their daily walk. When your dog is ready to rest, they should come out of their cart until they’re ready to play again. Please call us at 888-253-0777, we would be happy to answer any questions you may have,

  3. This is the best article about all the aspects of caring for your best friend out of the many articles about this horrific disease! I appreciate you so much.

  4. Is there record of ANY dog that has been cured of the DM symtoms with therapy supplements massage homeopathic etc. “off the wall treatments”? My shepherd has his good days and bad ones.

    • Hi Pat, there is no known cure for DM although there have been studies done that have shown that continued exercise can slow down the progression of DM. I would recommend working with a specialist and a canine rehab therapist to make sure that your dog is staying active for as long as possible.

  5. Thanks so much for this article its very helpful. Is there anything available to purchase to assist dogs getting in and out of vehicles or up and down steps to house. I have a 100lb Lab, recently diagnosed with DM. Our vehicle is a Ford F150 so its fairly high up off ground and our house has 4 steps to get into. Lifting him is challenging and he does not like the make shift ramp we have currently.

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