Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a progressive, degenerative disease of the spinal cord in dogs. It is a horrible debilitating condition that affects the dog’s ability to walk, and it eventually leads to paralysis. The disease is similar to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in humans, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The exact cause of DM is not well understood, but it is believed to be an inherited condition. The disease typically affects middle-aged to older dogs, with a peak incidence in breeds such as the German Shepherd, Welsh Corgi Cardigan, and the Welsh Corgi Pembroke.
The early symptoms of DM include a loss of coordination (ataxia) in the hind legs, which can appear as swaying or knuckling of the paws. As the disease progresses, the dog may have difficulty standing and eventually will be unable to walk. In the advanced stages of the disease, the dog may have trouble urinating and defecating and may become incontinent.
There are several tests that can be used to diagnose degenerative myelopathy (DM) in dogs. The most definitive test is a genetic test, which can identify the presence of a specific genetic mutation that is associated with the disease.
To diagnose DM, your vet will likely perform a physical examination first, which may include assessing your dog’s gait and coordination and taking note of any muscle wasting or weakness in the hind legs. They may also perform a spinal tap, which can show an increase in protein in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) consistent with myelitis.
Imaging studies such as an MRI or CT scan can help confirm the diagnosis and assess the extent of the damage to the spinal cord. These imaging studies will reveal the characteristic degeneration of the spinal cord seen in dogs with DM. These may not options may be more expensive that an typical physical exam.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for DM, but there are several management options that can help to slow the progression of the disease and improve the dog’s quality of life. These include physical therapy, the use of wheelchairs and carts, and supportive medications.
It is important to consult a vet if you suspect that your dog might have DM, to rule out other potential causes of hind-limb weakness and to get recommendations for treatment and management.
Life Expectancy with DM
In the early stages of DM, when the dog is still able to walk, the life expectancy can be normal or near normal, with the dog living for several years with appropriate management and treatment. As the disease progresses and the dog becomes paralysed, the life expectancy may be shorter. Some dogs may live for several years in this stage, but others may have a shorter life expectancy of a few months to a couple of years. A average life expectancy would be 1-2 years from being diagnosed, but it could be as short as 6 months or as long as 3 years.
It’s important to note that the end stages of the disease can be uncomfortable for the dog and is a difficult decision for the owner to consider euthanasia (putting your dog to sleep), to prevent the dog’s suffering. Euthanasia should be discussed with the vet and your family if the dog’s quality of life has decreased significantly. It’s one of the hardest decisions a dog owner will make.