What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease of the spinal cord that results in progressive weakness and paralysis. Degenerative myelopathy is similar to the human disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” The exact cause of degenerative myelopathy is unknown, but a genetic mutation has been identified as a risk factor for developing degenerative myelopathy.
What are the clinical signs of Degenerative Myelopathy?
Degenerative myelopathy generally causes progressive weakness starting in the back legs. The weakness is mild at first and may present as feet dragging, loss of balance, or difficulty with jumping and stair climbing. Over time, the weakness will progress to full paralysis of the hind limbs and urinary and fecal incontinence. Eventually the front legs will become weak as well. It is important to note that degenerative myelopathy is not a painful condition, though dogs can develop pain from overuse of the front legs.
What breeds are most affected?
A genetic mutation, SOD-1, has been identified as a major risk factor for degenerative myelopathy (DM). Degenerative myelopathy is considered a disease of middle-aged to older dogs. Breeds commonly affected are German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, and Collies. Several other breeds have been identified as at risk for developing DM, including Bernese Mountain Dog, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Kerry Blue Terriers, Cavalier King Charles, Miniature Poodles, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Pugs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Standard Poodles, Welsh Corgis, Welsh Corgi Cardigans, Welsh Corgi Pembrokes, and Wirehaired Fox Terriers).
How is Degenerative Myelopathy diagnosed?
A saliva swab can be submitted to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to determine if a dog is at risk for developing the disease. However, if a dog is determined to be at risk it does not necessarily mean they will develop or show signs of degenerative myelopathy. A presumptive diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy is made when all other causes have been ruled out. Usually an MRI would be needed to rule out all other causes such as intervertebral disc disease.
How do we treat Degenerative Myelopathy?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy, but research has shown that dogs who participate in comprehensive physical therapy have longer survival times and remain ambulatory for longer than dogs who do not receive physical therapy. Rehabilitation focuses on maintaining proprioception, balance, and strength for as long as possible. We also address any compensatory pain and tightness. As the disease progresses, we can help with recommendations and fittings for assistive devices such as toe grips, booties, and carts.
A new study has shown that high doses of laser therapy along the spine results in significantly slower disease progression and longer survival times compared to patients getting lower doses of laser therapy. This is most effective when performed in conjunction with other physical therapy treatments.
Hydrotherapy has been shown promising to maintain walking longer. Short, frequent, moderate exercises is more beneficial than exercising until fatigue.