What does degenerative myelopathy look like?
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease of the spinal cord that happens in some older dogs. While any breed of dog can be affected, it is more common in certain breed like boxers, Pembroke Welsh corgis, and German shepherd dogs. The disease is slowly progressive and affected dogs usually begin to show signs between 8 and 14 years of age. It begins with a loss of coordination (ataxia) or subtle scuffing or "favoring" the back legs. As the disease progresses, dogs will wobble when walking, and may knuckle or drag their back feet. The signs are often noted first in only one back leg but always progress to involve both back legs over time. Eventually both back legs become weak and the dog begins to have difficulty standing up or walking without help.
The time frame from when owners first notice subtle signs until the dog is no longer able to walk without help is usually between 10 and 12 months. Once dogs lose the ability to walk, they may develop additional issues such as inability to control their bladder or bowel function and, eventually, problems using their front legs as well.
What else can look like degenerative myelopathy?
Several other spinal cord diseases can cause issues similar to those seen with DM. While DM does not currently have an effective treatment, many of these other diseases do! For this reason, it is important to follow through with testing to rule out other causes before settling on a diagnosis of DM. Other common causes of incoordination and trouble walking in older dogs include bulging or herniated discs, cancer of the spine, spinal cysts, infections, and stroke. Your veterinarian can help discuss which of these may be most likely for your dog and can guide you toward what tests are needed to help find a diagnosis. If necessary, your family veterinarian can also make a referral to a veterinary neurology specialist who can work with you on diagnosing and managing any of these conditions, including DM. To find a veterinary neurologist near you, visit www.acvim.org and use the “Find a specialist near you” link.