Symptoms of ALS (degenerative myelopathy) in dogs are similar to those of osteoarthritis. In the early stages of the disease, veterinarians may have a difficult time getting to the correct diagnosis.
Degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the spinal cord in middle-aged to senior dogs, is a lot like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in humans. In dogs, it starts as a limp or a wobble in the hind legs. One of the telltale signs that it’s more than arthritis occurs when the paws begin to knuckle under when the dog walks.
Gradually, the signs begin to take on a more sinister appearance. This post will take you through the main signs and symptoms of the disease including treatment and prognosis.
Further Reading: Life Expectancy of a Dog with Dilated Cardiomyopathy
How Do I Know if My Has Degenerative Myelopathy?
In the very early stages, the signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs may look like osteoarthritis. It’s not unusual for aging dogs to feel stiffness when getting up after a nap. Senior dogs, like humans, begin to feel mild to moderate aches and pains as part of everyday life.
Dogs with degenerative myelopathy will show signs of loss of coordination and may appear wobbly on their feet. Onset typically occurs in dogs over 8 years of age.
One of the most difficult aspects of this disease is getting a diagnosis. To date, there is no specific test that will point to DM. Instead, veterinarians must go through a checklist of potential causes to rule out everything else.
What are the Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?
The signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs progress and worsen as time goes on. For example:
Early Stages – Signs of DM in Dogs
- In the early stages of the disease, dogs may appear lame on one side. It typically starts in one of the hind legs and progresses to both.
- As the disease worsens, you may notice your dog’s paws begin to knuckle under when he/she is walking. When this happens it looks as if the dog is dragging his/her feet.
- Worn nails from dragging them.
Middle Stages of DM in Dogs
Dogs with degenerative myelopathy have a poor prognosis. The following signs of the disease can appear anywhere from 6 months to a year into the diagnosis.
Some dog owners may choose euthanasia at this stage simply because the dog can no longer walk and the quality of life drops considerably.
5 . Dogs in this phase will have difficulty standing and may find themselves completely unable to walk.
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is an insidious condition (like ALS) that gradually shuts down bodily systems.
Late Stage Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs
The dogs who make it to this stage become paraplegic. The end stages of the disease include:
6. Inability to control bladder function (incontinence)
7. Loss of bowel control.
Degenerative Myelopathy typically paralyzes a dog within six months to a year after onset of disease.GVR, GA Veterinary Rehab, Fitness & Pain Management
What Other Conditions Cause Weakness, Limping, and Difficulty Standing?
Degenerative myelopathy is a disease that affects the spinal cord. However, there are other conditions that may have similar signs including:
- Herniated intervertebral disks
On assessment, a veterinarian will be able to rule out many of the above conditions based on your dog’s prior medical history. Blood tests, urinalysis, CT scans, etc. are not able to diagnose DM. However, a veterinarian can use these tests to rule out other possible causes.
What Breeds are Prone to Degenerative Myelopathy
As mentioned earlier, the dogs that develop this condition are usually middle-aged to senior. A dog is considered “senior” when he/she reaches the age of 7.
Although the disease can make an appearance in any dog breed, the predominant breeds include:
- German Shepherd (predominant)
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
- Standard Poodles
The disease can occur in male and female dogs.
Is Degenerative Myelopathy Painful for Dogs?
Thankfully, there is no pain associated with the condition.
What Does the Disease Do to the Dog’s Body?
The disease is caused by a mutation in the superoxide dismutase (SOD1) gene. Certain dog breeds (noted above) develop the mutation after inheriting two mutated genes (one from each parent). This is known as a autosomal recessive pattern.
The mutation of the SOD1 gene directly affects axons (long nerve fibers that move electrical impulses) and myelin (the insulating cover that surrounds the nerve fibers).
In a normal, healthy body, the brain sends electrical impulses that communicate with nerve fibers throughout the body. The brain tells the nerve cells in the spinal cord what to do. That message causes the nerves in the spinal cord to jump to action. In turn, the spinal cord sends the message out through the axons.
When those axons (long nerve fibers in the spinal cord) and the myelin are damaged (as they are with deteriorating myelopathy), the body loses its ability to function normally.
Can My Dog Be Treated for Degenerative Myelopathy?
Unfortunately, this disease is fast-moving and there is no quantifiable evidence that medical treatment halts or slows the progression.
The best a dog owner can do is treat the symptoms with the dog’s quality of life in mind.
Treating the symptoms as they progress can help maintain a good quality of life in a dog that has been diagnosed with this terrible disease. Physical therapy, special hind end harnesses to aid a dog in walking, preventing foot damage, and increasing traction by walking a dog on grass instead of concrete and placing rugs on slippery floors may help delay the need for euthanasia.
There may not be much you can do for your dog medically, but there are some things you can do to help your dog experience all of the things he/she still loves. For example, an assistive sling will help your dog get outside for potty breaks. Slings are useful tools for short walks as well.
As you dog slowly loses the ability to do the things he/she used to do (jump, for example), consider purchasing a supportive and comfortable dog bed that’s lower to the ground.
Depending on the size of your dog, carriages are a wonderful way to get your dog outdoors. Remember, your dog’s sense of smell and vision will remain acute for a while so getting them outside offers them familiar joy.
The stroller in the image below is especially nice because it’s lower to the ground. If you have a large dog you don’t want to be trying to lift him from a poor vantage point. This works great for big or small dogs. In fact, you could even add a small dog bed inside for added comfort.
It’s thought that physical therapy may help delay the muscle atrophy/weakness associated with degenerative myelopathy.
Regular walking (assuming the dog is still able to walk) may help maintain mobility for longer.
Strengthening & Conditioning Exercises
Exercises such as swimming and climbing stairs are two examples of strengthening exercises for dogs. It’s important to have a physiotherapist who specializes in canine recovery monitor any activities undertaken.
Exercise should be monitored and carefully planned depending on the dog’s abilities. Too much exercise can cause pain and injury. Proper execution of conditioning exercises may help to maintain strength, balance, and mobility for a little longer.
There is some thought to supporting dogs with degenerative myelopathy with a combination of mild exercise and nutritional supplements.
Although there are many types of nutritional supplements on the market, it’s unlikely they were formulated for the unique needs of a DM patient. The best advice for nutritional supplementation will come from your veterinarian.
It’s unlikely over-the-counter supplements made for dogs will harm the patient. However, the money and time might be better spent on products specifically recommended by the veterinarian.
Will a DNA Test Tell Me If My Dog Carries the Mutated Gene?
There are several canine DNA tests on the market, but the results may not be 100% accurate and shouldn’t be used as a diagnostic tool.
You can, however, discuss gene-testing with your veterinarian. In addition, you can obtain a legitimate DNA testing kit at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFFA).
The cost of the test is approximately $65 dollars and includes an explanation of the results. You’ll go through a series of questions about your dog and what/how-much information you agree to release to the public.
In order to benefit others in their research, the application process also asks if you would be willing to donate blood/tissue samples. There is also an opportunity to agree to free clinical trials for dogs with degenerative myelopathy.
At the end of the day…
Degenerative myelopathy is a slow progressing disease that breaks down communication to the spinal cord. Dogs with this disease typically live anywhere from 1 – 3 years. However, the majority of dogs are euthanized within the first year before quality of life severely deteriorates.
If you are dealing with this disease and need help coping with the loss, please read this article by HelpGuide.org.
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Merck Manual – Veterinary Manual
GVR – GA Veterinary Rehab, Fitness, and Pain Management
VCA Hospital Tufts University