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Degenerative Myelopathy German Shepherd Dogs

This article was written by pet owners and reflects opinion and anecdotal information. For the most up to date information about DM, including the latest research findings:
It is just 6 months since I was introduced to the term “DM.” Specifically: “Degenerative Myelopathy (in) German Shepherd Dogs.”
Now causing havoc amongst the larger breeds throughout the World. It seems that the more highly bred a dog is, the more likely they are to come down with DM.

dog in wheelchair

Just a few words, perhaps to help others along

As it is a genetic “auto immune system” disease, I assume rightly or wrongly that some unknown breeder, failed to comprehend what it was, and bred it into the stream that he/she was creating. Diseases like this normally are self-destructive, that is to say either it will not breed true, or kills its recipient, before it can be passed on. Degenerative Myelopathy unfortunately appears to breed true, and can be seen to have infected German Shepherds, and then passed across the breeds to other large dogs. This is only my theory, but I cannot see how any other diagnosis fits all the known facts.

Breeders know of this genetic fault and even though genetic testing is available, they have not failed to stop it being passed on. Irresponsible breeders will deny any knowledge of the disease. And even though DM is becoming more prevalent, some vets do not appear to be interested, although some have even had their own dogs come down with it. If you want to see just how massive this infection is, just run a search using either the full name or the initials Degenerative Myelopathy and see what results you get.

All over the world pet owners are crying out for help, some know what the disease is and others do not, or have been given incorrect reasons for their dog’s sudden demise. Support Groups are thriving all over the Web, all offering advice, but none being of any constructive help. If humans were dying this fast, it would be considered a catastrophe, but each owner, living in their own little piece of hell, believes that their pet is just another casualty, and are unable or unwilling to see the greater picture.

dog in wheelchair

First Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy

The best thing you can do as a pet parent is educate yourself so you can advocate for your dog and make sure they get the treatment they need. Here are the first signs of Degenerative Myelopathy:

  1. Dragging/scraping of either one or both rear feet.
  2. Hind Leg Cross Over: where the nerves scramble the signals to the rear legs, and the dog thinks that he is moving one leg when he is actually moving the opposite leg.
  3. Tripping: when one leg catches behind the other as the dog walks.
  4. Toe Down: where the foot or feet are curled under, and the dog rests his weight on the top of that foot. Another name for this is “knuckling”. An easy test is to manually curl the foot under and place the upper surface on the ground. If the dog resets that foot, to immediately place it down correctly, no current problem. However, if it remains standing, just as you placed the foot, without resetting; then Degenerative Myelopathy is entering its obstructive phase.

Learn More: Degenerative Myelopathy Stages and Progression

Shane’s DM Diagnosis

german shepherd dog wheelchair DM

Shane III the last of our 5 Shepherds was 8 years old when our vet diagnosed DM. This led me on a search around the world, via the Web, to try and gain some understanding of exactly what he had and why. We first noticed changes in his gait about 2 years previously, when I noticed that he was scraping his rear legs every now and again. I thought that it was only his laziness, and now wished to God that it had been just that. He started getting grazes on his back feet, and we would treat each scrape and cure it, but as soon as we removed his sock(s) he would reinjure his paws.

He was still able to leap into the car, up on the bed, pretty much wherever he wanted. As it happened, even if we had managed to get an earlier diagnosis, it would not have mattered or helped one iota.

A year and a half later, Shane starting to drag his right rear leg, not badly, but sufficiently to catch the top of his foot and break the skin. We took him to our local vet, who had looked after him since he was a puppy. He did x-rays, found lesions on his spine, between his ribs and his pelvis. Just a small white mark around his lower spine. His diagnosis was Degenerative Myelopathy. Our Vet didn’t know a great deal about DM, merely that there was no cure, similar to MS in humans, but that Shane would die sooner than later.

I couldn’t believe it, after all he was in the best of health (sic) and more agile than most 8-year-old dogs in any breed. Here I must say that Shane was the nicest natured dog we had ever had. He had no vices, was friends with everybody and as clean as you could ever want. When once he was caught out in the office and had to go, he even cleaned it all up, and of course was ill for a week afterwards. I tell you this, so that you will have some idea how this wicked disease affected him.

Improving Mobility for a German Shepherd with DM

His walks that he loved, became shorter and shorter as he tired quickly, and dragged his back feet more and more. We should have thought of a dog wheelchair sooner, but the progression of the disease caught us off guard. He suffered no pain from DM, and only yelped one time when he had overstrained his chest muscles, trying to pull himself along on his front legs. A short course of 500mg coated aspirin (two night and morning for a couple of days) fixed the pain, until it went away naturally.

By now, being a really intelligent dog, he worked out that inside it was easier to stick his nearly useless back legs out sideways, and slide along on his butt, pulling himself with his front legs. This meant that he didn’t have to try and raise himself onto his back legs and then fall. To get up onto his daybed (our couch) he would move himself, as above, and then wait for someone to raise him onto his rear legs. After he put his front feet onto the couch, he would wait for me to lift his back end, as he moved forward to lay on his blanket.

To go out, I bought a sling that went under his stomach, and he walked on his front legs with us lifting the back ones off the ground. At first when he reached his preferred spot, we could remove the sling and he would do his own thing, sometimes with my wife guiding him with his magnificent, but now almost useless tail. Finally, as winter approached, we had to support him with this tail, as the sling (he being a male dog) would be in the way.

Dog Wheelchairs and Degenerative Myelopathy

My wife and I had decided months before, that as long as his insides continued to be under his control, and he was happy being with us, we would continue to do everything we could to assist him in living. To this point he continued to have that control, and so we looked for a dog wheelchair to give him the exercise he lacked.

dog in wheelchair

The dog wheelchair arrived, and I assembled it. This part was easy, but the minor adjustments, to fit him comfortably took a week or so. We found that making small adjustments was the way to go, as some made things worse, and had to be immediately undone. Having finally found the correct height, length etc. we were faced with two problems: 1) He, being a male dog, had the usual male fixtures, which being where the saddle rested to hold his rear end up, tended to get in the way. In the end we found that we had to strike a happy medium. Not too far forward that the front edge of the saddle trapped his pee-pee, and interfered with his urination; and not too far back that his sack and contents couldn’t hang down freely, and out of the way when he wanted to poop. Even when correctly adjusted, pooping had to be accomplished by holding the top rear rail, and pulling back slightly, so as to draw his rear legs forward, and allow his rear end to face slightly downwards. Finally putting his tail over that rear bar, allowed him to poop cleanly and not soil himself.

At first we found that the saddle tended to rub the inside of his crotch, but adding a piece of soft cotton sheeting, over the saddle and securing it in place by catching the four corners and pinning them together below, seemed to work fine. Any red spots could then be treated with talc and diaper cream, so allowing him to go for exercise every other day.

He wasn’t scared of the wheelchair, and worked out almost immediately, how to move forward and even use his rear legs again. I adjusted the dog wheelchair to place his rear feet flat on the ground, fitted them with boots to stop any damage from dragging. At first, each time it would take him a couple of steps before the rear legs started to work again, but once started they continued to do so for each walk period.

Shane’s favorite toy was always a tennis ball, so we took one along on each walk, and after doing his official business, was quite happy to have it thrown for him so that he could chase it. I can still see him (from behind) galloping at full tilt, with his tail moving in circles. Stopping was another thing, but he managed to do so, by ceasing all leg movement and coming to a grinding halt. Not once did he manage to turn the dog wheelchair over, and had to be told when it was time to go home. Nothing was quite long enough. For those of you that are wondering about a dog wheelchair, I can tell you with no reservations that it was worth the price, even if only for a short while. The happiness that the wheelchair brought, far outweighed its cost.

Progressing to the Final Stage of DM

dog in wheelchair

Finally, as we knew it would, his mobility worsened. Our dog’s back legs became more and more useless, and it was evident that the disease would affect him to a greater extent. (Normally, if allowed to continue to its final state, it moves forward to take either the front legs, lungs and heart to the brain. Most dogs or their owners do not let it proceed that far). And then came the day, he finally lost control of his bowels. We thought this over carefully and considered this an unfortunate mistake and moved on. However, we did note that when trying to poop, it became irregular, and that he would move forward whilst doing so. The Vet informed us that this was a sign that he could not feel how he was doing, and to expect a worsening in the coming weeks.

Of course, it happened to him again, this time on his couch. I could see that he wasn’t even aware what was going on, but once he did realize, I could see in eyes an utter look of disgust. Even though we reassured him, he looked depressed. Perhaps if he had been a less than sanitary dog, it might not have affected him that much. But my wife and I knew that finally he was really unhappy and prepared to make that decision. We had the weekend to bring him back to almost being himself, and to prepare ourselves, but finally she drove him to the Vet’s, as I had to keep the office open, and there they said goodbye. As I had done in the past, she remained with him, until he was finally asleep.

If there is somewhere better, I am sure that there were two other Shanes waiting for him, along with Wolf & Sable I. My wife says she imagines them all running like the wind, through a field of long grass. Perhaps they will be there to meet us, finally when our time comes.

We have decided that because of the prevalence of DM, we will not have any further dogs, (Shepherds in particular) but we are happily left with Sable II, an Australian Female Kelpie that came in from the cold, as a stray, almost 6 years ago. She did so because she fell in love with Shane, and has stayed with us ever since, but that again is a whole other story.

Mike and Coby Werner,

Lubbock, Texas.

Worldwide Copyright: BSAP Consultant Services 2005

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