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What Is Canine Degenerative Myelopathy?


Dogs are more than “man’s best friend.” Today, we consider them as something more than “just” pets. They are part of the family. We have a deep bond with our canine friends, and as much as we count on them for companionship, comfort, and protection, they too, rely on us for their well-being, happiness, and proper healthcare. And with the many diseases that can affect our canine family members, none will likely have you feeling as helpless as Canine Degenerative Myelopathy (DM).

What is Degenerative Myelopathy?

DM is an inherited, progressive incurable autoimmune disease. In this disease, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of the spinal cord then ultimately the brain stem, and cranial nerves, which at the end stages results in complete paralysis and death. The closest human equivalent may be Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

What are the Stages and Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy?

Beginning Stage

  • Progressive weakness of the hind limbs
  • Knuckling of the toes and worn nails
  • Tremors of the rear leg
  • Difficulty laying down and getting up
  • Stumbling
  • Scuffing hind feet
  • Wearing of the inner toes of the rear paws
  • Loss of muscle in the rear legs

Late Stages

  • Incontinence
  • Unclean appearance
  • Inevitable front leg weakness
  • Inability lay down and get up
  • Muscle atrophy (starting in the hind end)
  • Anxiety
  • Pneumonia
  • Infection (Sepsis)
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Pressure sores on elbows and hips
  • Organ failure
  • Susceptibility to other illnesses
Walkin’ Wheels Wheelchair
Dog uses rear support harness for weak back legs
Walkin’ Lift Rear Harness
German Shepherd DM harness
BuddyUp Harness

Emergency – Immediate Veterinary help should be sought:

  • Incontrollable vomiting or diarrhea
  • Sudden collapse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Prolonged seizures
  • Profuse bleeding, internally or externally
  • Crying or whining from pain

Diagnosis of DM

As your veterinarian explained, Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord and is discovered in older dogs that have the gene mutation. Disease onset typically ‘shows’ in dogs between the ages of 4 and 14.

The initial symptoms of DM can resemble those of other hindleg weakness conditions. A complete physical examination with diagnostic testing is necessary to exclude other causes of hindquarters weakness. Your veterinarian will review your dog’s medical history, along with consideration of the breed and age of your dog. Diagnostic testing may include X-rays, CT and MRI scans, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis.

Which Breeds are most affected by Degenerative Myelopathy?

Chocolate Lab in a Wheelchair

The dog breeds predisposed to Degenerative Myelopathy include:

  • German Shepherd (and German Shepherd crosses)
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Siberian Husky
  • Boxer
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • Chesapeake Bay Retriever
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
  • Miniature Poodle
  • Standard Poodle
  • Cardigan Welsh Corgi
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgi
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Wire Fox Terrier
  • Pug

Pet parents of DM-affected dogs often write off the signs, assuming their dog has arthritis, hip dysplasia, or is “slowing down” due to age. However, many dogs may be suffering from this inherited issue.

Walking Aids and Support for Dogs with DM

  • Up-n-Go Rear Support Leash: A simple leash that slips on your dog’s legs while they’re lying down, allowing you to help to get them up on their feet. Once up, you can slip it off or continue to assist them in case they ‘wobble’. Great for quick trips outside!
  • BuddyUp Harness: A handy harness that’s comfortable enough for your dog to wear all day and progresses with them as they weaken. Not only can it be used as a lifting harness, but it can also even attach to the Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair.
    • Rear Weakness only: Start with the Walkin’ Rear Combo Harness.
    • Front Weakness only: Although not typical with DM, if your dog does have weakness in their front legs, only use the Walkin’ Front Combo Harness.
    • Front & Rear Weakness: Use both the Walkin’ Rear and Front Combo Harness system to provide total body support.
  • Walkin’ Wheels Rear Wheelchair: Perfect to help dogs with rear leg weakness or paralysis stay mobile, active, and part of the family. It’s even great for dogs who can still walk on their own but need help with their balance or taking the weight off their legs and hips.
  • Walkin’ Wheels Full Support/4-wheel Wheelchair: For dogs experiencing weakness in their front legs. A front wheel attachment can be added to any Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair to adapt to the progression of DM and your pet’s changing mobility.
  • Walkin’ Bootie Splint: Help your dog with their paw placement, while protecting their paws and nails from scraping injuries.
  • Walkin’ Hip-EEZ System with Cross-Assist attachment: The Hip-EEZ Cross-Assist attaches to the Walkin’ Hip-EEZ hip support and sits high between the legs to prevent weakened rear legs from crossing as they walk.

Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Life Expectancy

Unfortunately, DM is a progressive, incurable disease. Although bladder and bowel control are not affected initially. As the spinal cord continues to degenerate, a dog’s mobility becomes severely restricted, and he/she has increasing difficulty controlling the bladder and bowel.

Treatments for Canine DM

Physical therapy has been shown to prolong the quality of life and uphold muscle mass. Any dog with DM should be kept as physically active as possible for as long as possible. Walking and *Aquatic Therapy (*administered by a professional canine rehab clinic) have been shown to improve the quality of life and longevity. In addition, the progression of clinical signs has been shown to slow with a combination of epsilonaminocaproic acid, N-acetylcysteine, prednisone, vitamins B, C, and E, and exercise therapy. The use of a mobility cart will also improve the quality of life when your pet’s hindquarters struggle to create momentum in walking.


Unfortunately, there is no ‘cure’ for canine degenerative myelopathy at present. Treatment of other concurrent problems, such as arthritis or hip dysplasia, may provide some relief from pain or discomfort. It is important to avoid obesity, so diet and exercise (walking and aquatic therapy under the supervision of a PT professional) are vital components of treatment. There is some good news to mention … New ‘ground-breaking’ – Infrared Laser Light Therapy is becoming standard as part of the mix of treatments available to help your pet live a longer and healthier life while they are living with DM.

In April 2020, a study was published in Photo Biomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery, which identified that the use of intensive laser therapy could significantly increase longevity and the quality of life when done in partnership with physical therapy. The study concluded that delivering a very high dose of therapeutic infrared laser energy to the thoracic (T1 – T12) and lumbar (L1 – L5) spine regions, accompanied by intensive rehabilitation therapy, provided a convincing and favorable outcome for the canine patients in this study. In most cases, almost doubled the initially diagnosed life expectancy of the study patients.

On the market today are handheld devices that distribute measured effective doses of red and infrared light therapy for use at home with your pet. For many years thoroughbred racehorses have benefited from infrared laser therapy treatments, and now it is available for pets. If you prefer to err on the side of caution, many veterinary hospitals will offer this treatment.

German Shepherd dog wheelchair

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