Degenerative Myelopathy vs. Arthritis in Dogs

German shepherds are especially prone to degenerative myelopathy.
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Degenerative diseases that reduce a beloved pet's mobility can be heartbreaking to experience. And of all the diseases that drain mobility, two of the most common are degenerative myelopathy and arthritis. But though they are both progressive and incurable diseases, they are very different.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy, or DM, is a spinal cord disease, the cause of which remains unknown. Certain breeds, particularly German shepherds, corgis, retrievers and poodles, are especially prone to DM, but it can affect any breed at any age. It is, however, most prevalent in older dogs. Once it develops, the spinal cord deteriorates slowly, leading to loss of numerous bodily functions and the ability to move. No cure is known, but DM itself typically is not painful unless complicated with arthritis.

Symptoms of DM

DM affects the central nervous system and may, in later stages, affect the cervical and lumbar portions of the spinal cord. The disease often generates lesions on the spinal cord and may affect neurons in the brain stem. Symptoms include increasing muscle atrophy and the inability for the dog to maintain her posture; full or partial paralysis in the limbs; inability to control bowels and bladder, particularly in early stages of the illness; loss of muscle mass; and exaggerated spinal movements or reflexes.


Arthritis, or osteoarthritis, is a degeneration of the joints and can be mild, moderate or severe. It can also be painful. Osteoarthritis affects about one in five dogs and can strike young dogs as well as old. Joint conditions such as hip dysplasia, ruptured cruciate ligaments and patella luxation, as well as joint trauma or injuries, can trigger arthritis. Weight and size play a role, as heavier, larger dogs are more prone to arthritis.

Symptoms of Arthritis

Depending on how advanced the condition is, the symptoms may be easy to spot. Arthritic dogs typically favor one limb or side; they may have trouble standing or sitting, or may squat awkwardly when trying to sit or relieve themselves. Because their joints are sore, arthritic dogs move less often and more slowly and may sleep more. Consequently they tend to put on weight, which, unfortunately, tends to aggravate the condition. They may also become more grumpy and disinterested in play, and become less alert.


The only thing to do with either DM or arthritis is to manage the symptoms. Exercise may help dogs with arthritis in particular, and a more natural, preferably homemade or prescription diet can also help. For dogs with DM, however, paraplegia typically sets in in about six months, at which point you will have to affix your dog to a rolling cart or carry her. Weight control and warm, dry surroundings can lessen the effects of arthritis, and acupuncture may help. Vet-prescribed pain medication, however, may be the best option for relief in either case.