Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) in dogs is a disease that most pet lovers have never heard of.

Most German Shepherd owners fear hip dysplasia in their German shepherd and are unaware that this breed is also one of the top breeds known to develop Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. DM is progressive and, to date, has no cure.

Degenerative Myelopathy is a degenerative neurologic disease that was recognized in 1973. Since then, steps have been taken to understand the disease better.

DM in dogs is caused by an autoimmune disease that attacks a dog’s nervous system.

It leads to increasing neural tissue damage that culminates in the dog’s paralysis and eventual death.

Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive degeneration affecting the white matter of the spinal cord that starts in the rear and works its way forward.

The disease starts out slowly and gets worse over time.

The first signs of DM are usually very subtle; a slight drag of one rear foot, the back toenails becoming worn down, or random spurts of instability in the hindquarters.

Degenerative Myelopathy may start in both rear legs simultaneously or may begin in one and gradually move to the other one.

As Degenerative Myelopathy progresses, so does the loss of muscle control and coordination in the hind legs.

degenerative myelopathy stance

A dog will begin to lose feeling and control over their back legs, causing them to stumble or trip.

They will eventually struggle to get up and move around until complete paralysis in the hindquarters sets in.

As the disease progresses, organ failure, along with paralysis, can occur.

If you have never experienced this disease, you should consider yourself very lucky. Most dog owners become aware of Degenerative Myelopathy only after a diagnosis has been presented.

Degenerative Myelopathy can occur in any breed or mixed-breed dog, but years of research show certain breeds are more likely to get it.

Degenerative Myelopathy Occurs the Most Often In:

  • German Shepherds
  • Welsh Corgis

Other Breeds Predisposed to Degenerative Myelopathy:

  • American Eskimo Dogs
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Borzois
  • Boxers
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Kerry Blue Terriers
  • Poodles
  • Pugs
  • Rhodesian Ridgebacks
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers
  • Wire Fox Terriers

Suppose you suspect your dog might have Degenerative Myelopathy. In that case, your veterinarian should first be checking for a herniated disc in the back, a stroke, an infection, or a tumor, which all can give similar signs.

There is no clear-cut test for Degenerative Myelopathy, and the process of elimination determines a “diagnosis.” The only accurate diagnosis at this time is with an autopsy.

DM used to be considered an old dog disease, but it is starting to be common in German Shepherds as young as five to six years old.

Managing Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy has no cure, and treatment options can be equally frustrating.

Western medicine’s treatment varies. Some Veterinarian’s only treatment plan is keeping your dog comfortable through anti-inflammatories and pain medication.

Aminocaproic acid (EACE) and n-acetylcysteine (NAC) are drugs that may slow down the rate of degeneration.

It’s believed Aminocaproic acid can slow the breakdown of the sheath that is a protective layer around nerves in the spinal cord. N-acetylcysteine is an anti-oxidant that prevents or slows damage to cells.

These medications have no medical guarantee when it comes to managing DM but they are an option for owners to look into.


Food plays an important role in your dog’s health. A dog diagnosed with DM will benefit from a diet that is not highly processed.

A better quality commercial food along with fresh meat and vegetables may provide vitamins and minerals that will assist with nerve health.

Vitamins and Supplements to Support Nerve Function 

  • Vitamins B,E, C, and Selenium = Anti-oxidant nerve protection
  • Vitamin B6, B12, Folic Acid, and Cobalamin = Slow or maintain nerve damage

Eastern medicines treatment focuses on aggressively slowing Degenerative Myelopathy progression and keeping the dog comfortable and functioning for as long as possible through a combination of exercise, diet, supplements, acupressure, acupuncture, and other supportive methods.


If your dog has been diagnosed with DM, your first instinct may be to stop walks or exercise. This is the last thing you should do.

Dogs with DM benefit physically and mentally from exercise. Exercise is needed to keep muscle tone and maintain brain function.

Exercise needs to be controlled and adjusted accordingly as your dog’s health and mobility decline. When taking your dog for walks, let them set the pace and don’t overdo it.

Swimming is an excellent alternative to walks as it maintains muscle tone and does not cause stress on joint.

The only good thing about this horrifying disease is this: the nerves that control pain disappear along with the nerves that control movement. Your dog will not be in physical pain due to Degenerative Myelopathy.

People familiar with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) will notice the similarities of Degenerative Myelopathy.

Both experience progressive loss of muscle function, weakness, paralysis, and eventual death.

Researchers at the University of Missouri recently found a genetic link between these two diseases.

A study funded by the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (and participating breed clubs) revealed that dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy have a mutated SOD1 gene that resembles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The good news about this disease; there is now a DNA test to determine if dogs carry the Degenerative Myelopathy gene.

The test is easy to do in the comfort of your home, and results will determine the following:

  •  A/A = Affected
  • N/A = Carrier
  • N/N = Clear

Dogs diagnosed as “Affected” may develop DM later in life. In contrast, others will never show any signs of the disease or may die of something else before they develop Degenerative Myelopathy.

Owners should watch for the early signs of Degenerative Myelopathy as their dog ages.

A Dog diagnosed as a “Carrier” should not develop DM but could pass it to offspring depending on their breeding partner’s status.

A Dog diagnosed as “Clear” should not develop DM or pass it off in any offspring regardless of the breeding partner’s status.

For breeding purposes, if a dog is a carrier or affected, they should only breed to a clear partner.

Breeders will hopefully take advantage of this DNA testing to make better breeding decisions by adequately choosing the best breeding partner and lessen the frequency of Degenerative Myelopathy in future generations.

Degenerative Myelopathy is an agonizing disease for an owner and their dog to experience.

DNA testing is an easy way to prevent Degenerative Myelopathy and help breed the healthiest dog possible.

If you have a predisposed breed for DM and have no intentions of breeding your dog, you still may want to consider testing your dog to learn its status.

The DNA test is a kit that can be ordered from the following sites: OFA, DDC DNA Diagnostics Center, and Animal Genetics.

When the kit arrives, follow the simple directions, consisting of using the swabs provided and swirling them around inside your dog’s cheek.

Send the swabs and required information back to the provider and wait for your results.

Learn about my journey battling DM with my German Shepherd Bruno (RIP) here.

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