Canine degenerative myelopathy is a progressively devastating disease that impacts the spinal cords of older dogs. According to Andys Veterinary Clinic, the disorder develops when the myelin sheaths that protect a dog’s spinal neurons begin to fall apart, uncovering the underlying nerve fibers in a process known as myelathropy. As difficult as it can be to watch your dog go through the stages of this ailment, you can take heart knowing the disease itself is not painful for your pet.
You may notice first a seeming lack of coordination from your dog. He may stumble or drag one or both rear legs. You may see severe scraping on his back paw nails and the fronts of his feet as he starts to drag his limbs more frequently. The symptoms will continue to become more pronounced as the disease progresses, and you will notice continued weakness in the hindquarters as paralysis starts to set in. In advanced stages, your dog may be unable to control his bladder or bowels; eventually, the front legs may show signs of weakness.
Cause and Prevention
There is no known cause of degenerative myelopathy and, therefore, no prescribed forms of prevention. Some speculate the disease may be genetic, as it presents most commonly in purebred dogs, particularly larger breeds. Early diagnosis can help you understand the progression of the disease and take steps to make your dog comfortable as the degeneration advances.
It can be difficult to diagnose degenerative myelopathy because other disorders, injuries and conditions present similar symptoms. Herniated disks, tumors, infections and even stroke can be mistaken for degenerative myelopathy. A vet typically rules out other potential disorders as a way of coming to a conclusive diagnosis. He may employ the assistance of a veterinary neurologist to aid in the process.
Unfortunately, no known cures for degenerative myelopathy exist. You can help reduce symptoms and delay progression of the disease through some forms of physical therapy and superior physical care. Some dogs can get around more efficiently with wheel carts, provided their front legs still function. Owners must watch for bladder and bowel issues as well as must ensure sores and infections don’t develop due to leg dragging. It can take several months to several years for the condition to fully manifest, though six months is the average length of time from symptom development to full paralysis.
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.