Handling a Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosis

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), can be a challenging diagnosis in many ways. Whether your dog has been living with DM for a while, or you’ve just found out your dog has DM, it can feel good to take the time to educate yourself on the disease and its progression. It can also help you feel more confident in helping your beloved furry family member achieve the best quality of life possible.

Anatomy and Function

DM, which is similar, in some ways, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), is a spinal cord disorder that progresses over months or years and results in pelvic limb weakness and paralysis. Beginning in the thoracolumbar region, the white matter of the spinal cord degenerates over time, resulting in lost communication between the brain and the pelvic limbs. Eventually, the disease progresses in the other direction toward the head, leading to loss of thoracic limb function.

Signs and Symptoms

Early to intermediate stages:

  • Loss of coordination in the pelvic limbs, ataxia
  • Wearing down of the toenails and top surface of paws due to dragging the pelvic limb feet
  • The pelvic limb paws “knuckle” or turn under so that the dog walks on its knuckles, especially when turning
  • Difficulty getting up from a laying position
  • Difficulty climbing stairs, walking, or jumping into the car
  • Swaying of the hindquarters when standing still
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence

In the advanced stages, Degenerative Myelopathy leads to paraplegia, or paralysis of the pelvic limbs, as well as weakness of the thoracic limbs.

While it can be difficult to watch your furry friend struggle with daily activities, it’s good to know that weakness, rather than pain, is the main problem. Typically, dogs remain alert and energetic with a full appetite, no matter how far along the progression of the disease.

Diagnosis

Degenerative Myelopathy is diagnosed through ruling out other diagnoses. Other conditions to rule out include intervertebral disc disease, trauma, infection, tumor, hip dysplasia, and osteoarthritis. This is often done via diagnostic testing including blood and urine testing, advanced imaging (such as MRI or CT scan), spinal fluid analysis, and physical and neurological examination performed by a veterinarian. DNA testing for the SOD-1 mutation is recommended in any at-risk breed displaying clinical signs consistent with DM. The way to definitively diagnose DM is through a spinal cord biopsy, which can be done only post-mortem.

Who gets DM?

Although the genetic mutation, SOD-1, has been identified as a major risk factor for DM, and Degenerative Myelopathy is an inherited disease, there is still not exactly a known cause. Typically, middle-aged, and older dogs are affected, however it is possible for a younger dog to be given the diagnosis, although it is rare. Breeds most commonly affected include German Shepherds, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Siberian Huskies, Collies, Boxers, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks, amongst others.

How is it treated?

So far, there is no cure for the disease, however there is some research to support the use of intensive physical therapy as a means of slowing the progression and increasing the lifespan. Physical therapy combined with paw protection, nursing care, pressure sore prevention, and urinary infection monitoring can all help improve the quality of life in our beloved furry family members with DM. To assist with mobility, the use of adaptive equipment such as slings, harnesses, booties, and doggy wheelchairs, is something to consider. Although not all dogs are good candidates for doggy wheelchairs. The nature and temperament of the dog can help determine if the use of a doggy cart will be helpful or not.

There are actions you can take to make your dog as mobile and happy for as long as possible, so know that you are not alone when caring for your dog with DM. A certified canine rehabilitation professional at CSVSR can help educate you on ways to maintain your dog’s mobility via exercises, stretches, and adaptive equipment. If your dog has DM, don’t hesitate to get the assistance you and your furry friend need. Contact the certified canine rehab professional at CSVSR to find out more about how you can help your dog live their best life during their white whisker years.

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