Degenerative myelopathy is a devastating disease.
Affected dogs develop weakness in the rear legs and gradually become paralyzed. Eventually they can’t control their bowels and lose motor control on the entire upper half of the body. This degenerative process can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years.
There’s no conventional treatment for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. It’s distressing to watch your dog struggle with decreasing mobility. But fortunately, it’s not usually painful. And holistic treatments can improve your dog’s quality of life.
Let’s review some information about degenerative myelopathy in dogs.
- What is degenerative myelopathy?
- Symptoms of degenerative myelopathy
- Breeds more likely to get it
- Diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy
- What you can do to help your dog
What Is Degenerative Myelopathy In Dogs?
Another name for degenerative myelopathy is chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy.
It’s a progressive disease that’s usually seen in dogs 8 years or older. There’s a nerve sheath called myelin around the nerve fibers of the spinal cord. Myelin insulates the spinal cord and conducts nerve impulses through the body.
In degenerative myelopathy your dog’s own immune system attacks the myelin sheath. This creates a local accumulation of inflammatory cells. The chronic inflammation destroys the myelin sheath, leading to progressive nerve tissue damage. The damage usually begins in the middle of the back.
This nerve damage results in loss of voluntary and involuntary motor control. Some neurologists have compared degenerative myelopathy in dogs to Multiple Sclerosis in humans. But new research shows it’s closer to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) … or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The Merck Veterinary Manual states the cause of the disease is “a mutation in the superoxide dismutase1 (SOD1) gene, inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern with incomplete penetrance.” But other experts don’t agree. I’ll talk about that when we get to Diagnosis below.
Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy
Degenerative myelopathy affects the rear legs first. Initially you may mistake it for other orthopedic problems. You may see your dog start to drag a foot on walks. The two middle nails on that weak paw may wear more than the others.
Eventually, you’ll see a lack of coordination and wobbliness in the gait. Your dog’s reflexes will slow in her hind feet and legs. Soon afterward, her thigh muscles will start to atrophy and her tail may be limp.
As the disease progresses, your dog will have difficulty standing for long. Getting up from a lying position will be hard. Fecal and urinary incontinence inevitably follow. The rear legs become so weak that your dog will need help getting up. She’ll have trouble holding a position to pee or poop. (Dogs with degenerative myelopathy often walk and poop.)
You’ll likely see some of these symptoms:
- Swaying in the rear end
- Easily falling over when pushed
- Knuckling or scraping of the paws when walking
- Difficulty walking
- Difficulty getting up from a sitting or lying position
- Falling down when walking or standing
- Inability to walk
- Paralysis of the hind limbs
Next, her front limbs will start to weaken as well.
Once the front limbs weaken, many owners choose euthanasia. The disease isn’t painful … but your dog’s biomechanics will shift to compensate for her lack of mobility. Eventually, that will cause discomfort through overuse of certain tissues.
Commonly Affected Breeds
The breeds most often affected include:
- German Shepherd
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Irish Setter
- Great Pyrenees
- Siberian Husky
- Miniature Poodle
- Standard Poodle
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Kerry Blue Terrier
- Golden Retriever
- Wire Fox Terrier
- American Eskimo Dog
- Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
There are several types of diagnostic tests to diagnose degenerative myelopathy. Your vet will usually do blood work (including a thyroid panel) and spinal X-rays. Other tests may include an electromyogram (EMG), MRI or CT scan, myelogram, or spinal tap. This is to help rule out other spinal diseases, like:
- intervertebral disc disease
- spinal cord tumors
- degenerative lumbosacral syndrome
- degenerative joint diseases such as dysplasia
The Test That May Not Help
Your vet may take a blood or cheek swab sample to test for the mutant SOD1 gene. Most vets use this test to confirm a diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy.
But there’s a problem with this test: it isn’t always accurate.
Homeopathic veterinarian Sara Chapman DVM is skeptical of this test in predicting disease.
She’s seen degenerative myelopathy patients with no abnormal copies of the SOD1 gene.
Other elderly at risk patients (with two copies of the abnormal gene) had no disease … but their owners panicked every time their dog dragged a toe.
Dr Chapman states: “No test is going to be 100% accurate, but there really doesn’t seem to be very good correlation at all between the At Risk / Clear state and disease.”
The recognized expert in degenerative myelopathy in dogs is RM Clemmons DVM PhD. He published the website Degenerative Myelopathy German Shepherd Dogs. It’s a useful source of information about the disease. I encourage you to visit the site.
Dr Chapman met Dr Clemmons and asked him about the SOD1 testing.
He told her the current SOD1 test is not is not predictive of the development of disease. It isn’t useful for definitively diagnosing disease or for eliminating breeders. The SOD1 seems to be near the locus for the degenerative myelopathy gene … so it gets associated with it in some cases.
Dr Clemmons also said that the focus on this test … means nobody is focusing on finding out what’s truly responsible for the disease. He’d like to see more work toward improved diagnostics.
Your Dog May Have A Different Disease
So … if your vet uses this test to diagnose your dog, she may have a different spinal cord disease.
Many older dogs develop mild proprioceptive deficits … so they don’t always know where their hind feet are. They may drag their toes at times. This is usually much less serious than degenerative myelopathy.
Dogs can also develop disc problems that mimic the disease. But treatments for disc diseases are different than for degenerative myelopathy. So you. may want to work with a vet who’ll pursue a more definitive diagnosis.
Clinical traits that may be unique to degenerative myelopathy include:
- Disease progression
- Asymmetric UMN (upper motor neuron) weakness at onset
- Pelvic limb proprioceptive ataxia
- Lack of pain
If your dog does have degenerative myelopathy, there are steps you can take. They’ll help her feel better and prolong her quality of life. Dr Julie Mayer, the founder of Integrative Pet Care in Chicago, recommends a number of holistic approaches.
How You Can Help Your Dog
There’s no conventional veterinary medicine treatment for degenerative myelopathy. Even the Merck Veterinary Manual states there’s no evidence that steroids or other drugs work.
But there are natural approaches that can improve your dog’s quality of life. Treatments that do help include acupuncture, homeopathy, exercise, diet and nutraceuticals.
Acupuncture can help by stimulating the nervous system. Your practitioner may use electroacupuncture. After inserting the acupuncture needles, he’ll connect small electrodes to a few needles. This creates a microcurrent between them, driving the acupuncture effect deeper.
It’s very beneficial for paralyzed or partially paralyzed patients. Treatment is usually once or twice a week for a few sessions in a row.
Exercise is probably the most important therapy for degenerative myelopathy in dogs. Constant stimulation of the nervous system helps keep the nerve impulses firing. Studies show that physiotherapy can improve symptoms and prolong the dog’s mobiilty.
A 2006 Swiss study of 50 dogs showed this effect. Animals receiving intensive physiotherapy had longer survival times than others in the study:
- Intensive physiotherapy: 255 days mean survival time
- Moderate physiotherapy: 130 days
- No physiotherapy: 55 days
Hydrotherapy is the safest and most effective form of exercise for these patients. Free swimming and underwater treadmill therapy benefit the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Water therapy provides the safest, gentlest form of exercise.
Walks and structured therapeutic exercise are also very important. They help maintain:
- Balance and proprioception
- Flexibility of the joints
- Muscle tone
- Good circulation
Find a canine rehab facility that can teach you some exercises to do with your dog.
Eventually, weakness or paralysis of the hind legs may set in. Then a wheeled cart can allow your dog to remain active and prolong her enjoyment of life
A balanced nutritional protocol will support the body. It helps control inflammation and regulate the immune system.
First and foremost, consider the quality of protein you feed. The higher the bioavailability of the protein, the better off your dog will be. The digestion process takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of heat. That’s not what the body needs … so the less work the intestines have to do, the better.
This means stop feeding kibble! Processed and starchy foods like kibble can aggravate degenerative disease symptoms. A Swedish study by Dr Kollath fed young animals a cooked, processed diet. At first they seemed healthy. But once they matured, they began to age rapidly … and develop degenerative disease symptoms. The control group receiving a raw diet did not age as fast … and showed no degenerative disease symptoms.
So make sure your dog gets a fresh, whole food, raw meat based diet for maximum digestibility and health.
Degenerative myelopathy can stem from an over-reactive immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to immune health. We’re cautious about recommending fish oil supplements, because they oxidize so easily. Rancid fish oil is worse than no fish oil. So, if you use it, make sure it’s a high quality brand, in a dark glass bottle. Keep it refrigerated … and always sniff it for that telltale fishy smell before giving it to your dog!
You can also feed your dog whole fish. Good options are oily fish like mackerel, herring or sardines. It’s OK to use canned fish. If you feed ruminants (like beef, lamb, goat), give 1 oz fish for every pound of meat. If you feed poultry, give 4 oz fish for every pound of meat.
Another great option for Omega-3 fats is to give your dog phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are tiny ocean plants that fish feed on. They’re rich in Omega-3s as well as minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on dosing. Some supplements contain more fillers than others.
Inflammation anywhere in the body creates free radicals. They’re unstable electrons that can damage cell DNA and cause cell death. Antioxidants can neutralize the free radicals and help maintain proper levels.
Some antioxidants that can help dogs with degenerative myelopathy are:
- Vitamins C, E and A
- Glutathione peroxidase
- Super oxide dismutase (found in phytoplankton)
- Coenzyme Q10
- S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe),
Look for food sources of these nutrients. They’re much better absorbed than synthetic supplements made in a lab.
Here are some foods to add to your dog’s diet to lower inflammation.
Dr Mayer also recommends adding some anti-inflammatory herbs. Work with a herbalist or holistic vet to find the right herbs and doses for your dog’s specific issues.
Another important ingredient, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), is an effective anti-inflammatory substance. But again, use foods rich in MSM rather than giving a supplement. MSM is naturally in red meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, garlic, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, kale and wheat germ.
Lecithin can also help. It’s composed of fatty substances and phospholipids that make up a portion of the nerve cell wall membrane. It may provide building blocks for the myelin sheath and nerve tissue in the spinal cord. Most unprocessed nuts, unprocessed grains, unprocessed soy, and eggs contain lecithin.
Degenerative myelopathy is a horrible disease. It’s not painful for your dog … but it’s agonizing for you to watch your dog lose her mobility. Don’t give up! You can use a combination of therapies to slow the disease or even stop it from progressing.