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Degenerative Myelopathy (DM). An All Too Common, Merciless Disease in Older German Shepherds

Updated: Oct 26, 2022




Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a common, merciless neurological disorder in older German Shepherds that surfaces anywhere between 7 and 14 years of age and is seen more in males than females. It is a slow, progressive spinal cord disorder similar to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in humans, which starts with a loss of balance and coordination that progresses to muscle weakness. Then, in time the dog will be unable to support himself, leading to paralysis resulting in quadriplegia or paraplegia. Eventually, death occurs from respiratory failure due to paralysis of muscles around the chest cavity. There is no cure for Degenerative Myelopathy, but supportive care and Physical Therapy may slow down the progression of the disease. In this post, we'll share our experiences with DM, which will hopefully help you should your older German Shepherd be stricken with it.


What is Degenerative Myelopathy?

Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive neurological disorder that affects the spine of dogs. The cause of this condition is currently unknown, but it is thought to be caused by genetics (such as genetic mutation, SOD-1) and an autoimmune disorder in which the dog's immune system attacks its central nervous system. This attack leads to the deterioration of the myelin, or insulin, around nerve fibers and axons, otherwise known as the nerve fibers, which results in the inability of the brain to send a message to move specific body parts in the affected region.



In the section of a spinal cord from a dog who has died of DM (Left), the degeneration is seen as a loss of the blue color at the edges (arrows) compared with the spinal cord from a normal dog which is blue throughout (Right). http://www.caninegeneticdiseases.net/

How is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?


Degenerative Myelopathy can often be confused with other ailments such as a herniated disk, injury, stroke, or even cancer, to name a few, so it is important to have testing done to rule out other, treatable conditions. Testing for Degenerative Myelopathy is a process of elimination.


Testing includes blood work, samples to see if he is a gene carrier of DM, X Rays, CT, MRI, and neurological testing. An example of neurological testing would be to take the dog's back paw and flip it back, so the top of his paw is now upside down facing the ground.


If a dog demonstrates some neurologic trouble, such as DM, he will not attempt to flip his paw back to the correct position. This is called "Knuckling Under." I've attached an example of what a dog's paw looks like from knuckling under





Symptoms:

  • Loss of balance and coordination in the hind limbs

  • Knuckling under

  • Back legs crossing over

  • Atrophy of the back end

  • Inability to support back end while standing

  • Inability to get up from a sitting/lying position

  • Inability to walk

  • Incontinence

  • Weakened bark

  • Excessive panting

  • Nervousness/irritability

  • Loss of front legs

  • Respiratory failure


Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy:


As of December 2021, there is no known cure for Degenerative Myelopathy, only supportive care and physical therapy to help prolong the quality of life for as long as possible. We have found hydrotherapy and massage to be beneficial for keeping our older German Shepherds as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. We also add a high-quality CBD oil, such as Dr. Hempdog helps calm anxious dogs.


To try Dr. Hempdog and receive 10% off on us, go to: https://drhempdog.com/discount/WOODYSPLACE and enter discount code "WOODYSPLACE"


And when the time comes, we use supportive devices such as a harness and wheel cart. We like Blue Dog Help Em Up harnesses

and



Another important aspect of treatment is preventative care. As your older German Shepherd's disease progresses, he will need more preventative care, such as protecting his knuckles and feet from dragging across hard, rough surfaces, which will cause injury to his unsuspecting body.


Fortunately, you can provide assistance when keeping your DM dog comfortable, from doggie booties and socks to a device called a "Drag Bag" for when he is inside the house and not in his wheel cart.


Check out the video below to see our former resident. Gabriel in his drag bag. A drag bag can be purchased here => =>




Also, as your DM older German Shepherd becomes incontinent, we have found that reusable mats like Millie Mats are beneficial because they draw moisture away from the dog, are durable, last a long time, and are made from organic material.


If you want to learn more about these mats, click on the link:



In closing, Degenerative Myelopathy is a difficult time for both the parents of older German Shepherds and the older German Shepherd alike.


We feel helpless as our beloved companion becomes paralyzed and loses independence one step after another, and they feel helpless and frustrated because they are entirely cognitive, but their body is failing them.


For us, being a caretaker is no easy task, but we have found it helpful to live in the now as our fur friends do and to remember to make the most of the time we have with them because one day, all we will have are memories of the time we had together.



Jared out for a walk in his wheel cart in the snow


After he passed from DM, his wheel cart tracks left marks in the snow and in our hearts.


We have a DM support group on Facebook. To join, click on the link below

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2009914109023556https://www.facebook.com/groups/2009914109023556


To listen to the coinciding podcast, click on the link:



***** Disclaimer: Throughout the "20 Most Common Health Issues in Senior German Shepherds" series, each blog post is expressed explicitly from our point of view and is not to be substituted for the professional medical expertise of your trusted veterinarian.

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