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

Updated: Apr 10

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a common, merciless neurological disorder in senior 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, which will lead 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 senior 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 his/her 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).

How is Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?

Degenerative Myelopathy can often be confused for 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


  • 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