As pet owners, we develop an extremely close connection to our dogs (and any other animals
that we call our own). However, despite that bond, our dogs can’t speak to us, making it difficult to determine what is wrong when they aren’t feeling well. Even if you know something is not quite right, it can be hard to put your finger on exactly what your dog is dealing with and what the next steps should be.
If you seek help from a vet to figure out what is going wrong, an unfortunate possibility is the diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy. We’d like to use the space below to explain a little
bit more about what that is and what the outlook is like for dogs in this situation. And, of course, you are welcome to contact us right away to discuss the various types of treatments we offer that may be able to improve your dog’s quality of life when faced with this concerning diagnosis.
What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
With degenerative myelopathy, the white matter that is found in the spinal cord gradually degenerates, and as a result, the dog will gradually wind up with various physical issues and functional limitations. You don’t need to be a vet to understand that diseases which affect the spinal cord are particularly serious, and that’s what we are talking about here.
It’s common for the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy to overlap with what is seen intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) or arthritis. So, you may think at first that your dog is simply dealing with back pain or arthritis, as these will look very similar early on. Initial signs and symptoms of degenerative myelopathy include:
Knuckling, where the toes curl under and the animal walks on its knuckles
Instability in the rear or a side to side sway
Dragging or scraping either leg while walking
Difficulty rising from lying down or sitting
If you see any of these issues in your dog, it doesn’t necessarily mean that degenerative myelopathy is the underlying problem, but it is important to seek treatment to determine the right course of action.
If there is any good news to be found in this difficult diagnosis, it is the fact that most dogs don’t seem to be in any noticeable pain as a result of the condition. As their movement deteriorates, it is largely weakness, rather than pain, that seems to keep them stationary. It’s still a hard process to go through, but no pet owner wants to watch their pet be in active pain day after day, and that shouldn’t be the case with this disease.
What Breeds are Commonly Affected by this Disease?
As is often the case with canine diseases, some breeds seem to be more likely to face degenerative myelopathy than others. For this disease, some of the breeds that are known to
be at risk include:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
Generally speaking, this is a disease that is going to be seen in older dogs. While it’s possible for
a young dog to be diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, it’s usually not going to be seen
until the dog reaches approximately five years of age or so. Of course, arthritis also becomes far
more common as a dog ages, so that factor only adds to the possible confusion regarding a
diagnosis in the early stages.
How is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?
There is no quick and easy option for diagnosing this serious disease. Instead, it typically takes quite a bit of time, and many tests, before a vet can be sure that DM is the cause of a dog’s health issues. It can be frustrating for pet owners to go through this experience of having one test after another performed, but that is the only way to be sure of what is going on with the dog.
At the start, a general physical exam will usually be performed, along with a risk factor review that goes over things like the breed and age of the dog. Radiographs or other imaging may be ordered, as well. In addition, genetic testing for mutation of the SOD-1 can be performed. The results can be any of the following:
Normal (no genetic mutation)
Carrier (one normal copy and one abnormal SOD-1)
Affected/At Risk (two abnormal SOD-1 genes)
If the genetic test comes back as Normal, degenerative myelopathy is highly unlikely. If the test comes back as Carrier, it is possible that degenerative myelopathy is present. However, if your test comes back as Affected/At Risk, and your dog shows signs and symptoms of degenerative myelopathy, it is likely that your dog has the disease. It is important to note that just because the test comes back as Affected/At Risk, does not mean your animal is suffering from degenerative myelopathy.
**A thorough assessment by your primary veterinarian, and/or neurology specialist, will help determine the likelihood that your dog has degenerative myelopathy.**
Can Degenerative Myelopathy Be Treated?
There is no present cure for degenerative myelopathy but rehabilitation is available and focuses on improving and maintaining quality of life to the greatest possible extent.
It is important to begin a neuro-rehabilitation program as soon as possible as it will focus on maintaining the current strength/coordination of the dog for as long as possible, and this can help slow the progression of the disease. Keeping the dog active through these kinds of treatments will help to maintain muscle flexibility and strength and keep your pet moving around as close to normal as possible. Still, as symptoms progress, there are other options to help your dog maintain his/her independence, with use of a wheelchair/cart, harnesses, and more. Also, maintaining a healthy weight is an important piece of the puzzle, as avoiding extra pounds will lessen the load on the dog’s muscular system and make it more likely that he or she will keep moving around freely for as long as possible.
Of course, it is difficult to deal with the reality of the disease as a pet owner, but you can still work to improve your dog’s quality of life in the present and make sure he or she enjoys each day to the best of their ability.
Reach Out to Happy Paws Today
At Happy Paws, we understand what you are dealing with while watching your pet face degenerative myelopathy, and we’d love to offer our knowledge and treatment options for the
situation. If you are in or around the Orlando area, get in touch today to discuss what we can provide. Thank you for stopping by and we hope to serve you and your pet soon.