degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy

At Walking Paws Rehab we have many patients that we care for with degenerative myelopathy. We assist guardians through the process from diagnosis, change in lifestyles needed, assistive devices, and prevention in progression.
Check out Georgia. Georgia was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy and has been working with our team regularly to maintain her mobility. She receives hydrotherapy, strength building, and a research based laser protocol to keep her walking as long as possible.

Learn More About 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. 

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.

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).

  • Type I. The pet may present with a plantigrade stance due to complete disruption of the tendon. In type 1 the ankle is dropped to the ground.
  • Type IIa. The pet may present with increased flexion of the ankle. The injury is often at the musculotendinous junction. The ankle is slightly dropped closer to the ground.
  • Type IIb. The pet may present with increased flexion of the ankle. The injury may have a ruptured tendon, however the paratenon (outer sheath around the tendon) may be intact.
  • Type IIc. The pet may present with hyper flexion of the ankle and excessive digital flexion (claw stance). In this case the gastrocnemius/common tendon may be ruptured, but the superficial digital flexors remain intact.
  • Type III. These patients may not present with excessive flexion of the ankle. In fact, they may have a normal stance. However, they may have tendinosis or peritendinitis that present with a swelling/thickening on the tendon.

The most common area for tendon rupture to occur is along the length of the tendon within 2 to 6 cm of the calcaneal insertion (bone at the back of the ankle). This is also the area of tendon with the poorest blood supply and therefore the least likely to heal primarily without interposing inferior scar tissue.

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. 

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.

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