Degenerative Myelopathy

Crumpet in her wheelchair

Crumpet in her wheelchair

One of my favorite pets appears to have degenerative myelopathy and the disease is heartbreaking to watch, but in the midst of all the sadness is the happiness of this little dog. Sure she can’t walk as well as she used to but she loves going on walks in her wheelchair and she loves to eat!

Her mom is lucky because she can take Crumpet to work with her so Crumpet gets lots of interaction all day long. When Crumpet goes on walks in her chair people stop to talk to her and pet her — they are curious about her and she is just so damned cute.

The wheelchair can be a big distraction because I was walking Crumpet here at ARCC and people were coming to an almost stop to see her walking in the chair. Crumpet is also my number one pinterest pin-up consistently week to week.

Crumpet came to stay with me over the weekend and we worked on the underwater treadmill — walking she wasn’t quite so happy about but when the water was raised and she could swim — she loved it; you could just see how much happier she was swimming. Crumpet’s back legs have lost their ability to move her but there were times in the water when you could see that the right rear was trying to help. She is an amazing little dog — I enjoy her immensely but I hate her disease.

Degenerative Myelopathy is a slow progressive rear limb weakness or paralysis that is usually painless.  It is a degeneration of the white matter of the spinal cord and is most common in German Shepherds and Welsh Corgis but can be seen in other breeds.

It is most common in pets five to seven years of age and seems to have a genetic component to the disease but may have an immune mediated basis.  The disease moves from the rear of the pet up along the spinal cord and towards the brain until the pet becomes completely paralyzed with fecal and urinary incontinence.

Signs of degenerative myelopathy can be confused with arthritis or hip dysplasia.  The signs can include:

  • Decreased activity

  • Weakness in getting up or laying down

  • Stumbling, knuckling of the hind feet , or scuffing

  • Ataxia – staggering

  • Worn nails on the rear feet or wearing on the inner toes of the rear feet

  • Tremors and loss of muscle in the rear limbs

The signs can be prone to waxing and waning leading the owner to think the pet has just “overdone it”.

Diagnosis is rarely definitive and usually is determined by exclusion of other diseases.  This should not keep you from pursuing all that can be done for your pet.  An examination along with neurological exam should be performed.  Radiographs may be needed but myelograms, MRI and CTs are usually needed also.  A CSF tap (cerebral spinal fluid) may also be needed.

Treatment consists of four basic items:

  1. Exercise – keeping the pet’s muscle tone at a maximum, maintaining good circulation and condition.  A regular program of exercise on an alternate day schedule is recommended at this time with aerobic exercise consisting of thirty minutes twice a week and an hour once a week.  Physical therapy, acupuncture and other alternative therapies may be helpful.
  2. Supportive measures – casts, braces, and wheelchairs are among the items in this category.
  3. Medication – vitamin supplements such as vitamin E and B twice daily have been advocated but the results are inconclusive at this time.  Pain medications if needed should be added but vitamin E levels may need to be decreased.  Aminocaproic acid has also been recommended and it has seen some improvement in 15-20% of dogs but again the results are inconclusive at this time.
  4. Minimization of stress – stress seems to play a role in the advancement of the disease so keeping your pet as happy as possible is suggested.

Long term prognosis of degenerative myelopathy is poor so getting a diagnosis and plan early on in the disease is vital.

There are online support groups if your pet has been diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy and there is ongoing research in the disease.

Hoping, looking and wishing for a cure – Dr. Dicki and Crumpet

Crumpet in her life vest getting ready for underwater treadmill

Crumpet in her life vest getting ready for underwater treadmill

Crumpet and Jaws2


6 Responses to Degenerative Myelopathy

  • Pat says:

    Recently I adopted a GSD. Thinking she had dysplasia took her to my vet. He said moderate dysplasia and that her most debilitating issue was arthritis in lumbar spine. Cold weather definitely affected her, but in recent weeks has gone from slow/stiff moving to dragging her hind legs. She cannot put any weight on hind legs, now her front end is getting sore/tired. Is arthritis progressive?

    • Dr. Dicki Kennedy says:

      I have a couple of questions such as how old is your pet, what kind of floors do you have, where is her food/water bowl, do you have steps in your house and how many, how long has this been going on and is she on any type pain medication. Arthritis can progress but I would be concerned about another problem such as a “ruptured disk” in her back, degenerative myelopathy and possibly even cancer if it has progressed quickly.

      Pets can become very arthritic to the point that they will shift their weight to the front legs but will still use back legs somewhat. If she is dragging her hind legs – I would take her to your veterinarian for x-rays to make sure that she does not have IVDD which is “disk rupture” in her back. X-rays would be the least I would recommend because I would also recommend blood work; if the veterinarian can’t make a determination on the x-rays you may need to see the specialist in your area. The specialist in my area can do MRI and CT scans along with testing for degenerative myelopathy.

      Your pet will become sore in the front end if she is placing all of her weight there and using it exclusively to move. Rehabilitation facilities like this place offer options for your pet such as hydrotherapy, laser therapy, exercise, therapeutic ultrasound, pain management, pulsed signal therapy, acupuncture and can usually help fit your pet for a wheelchair if she needs it.

      Please take your pet in again to your veterinarian for a recheck and if you need a rehabilitation veterinarian you are always welcome here or look online at AARV for a rehab vet in your local area.

      Good luck

  • Hi! I recently discovered my dog may have GM. I have started with therapy (UWTM, hind leg strengthening exercises at home as per instructed by my rehab vet) However I am looking for more things to do to help with his rear leg placement. I wondered what is the best FITPAWS tool for this? I was thinking of purchasing the PAW PODS as it would target the rear legs specifically as well as the front. What do you think? My dog is a 11 year old pitbull. My vet does have exercises they do with the balls however the fees to have them do the exercises with the dog are costly… I’m looking to do them at home. Any suggestions would be appreciated!


    • Dr. Dicki Kennedy says:


      I’m sorry to hear about your dog but there are some great at home exercises you can do for not too much money. An underinflated air mattress or even stacked dog beds make a good balance exercise, sit to stand exercises are phenomenal, and homemade cavalettis (using broom sticks, pool noodles, pvc, etc) make a good way to exercise. Most rehab places have packages to help with cost so I would ask your local place about that also. Get online and join a DM group — they are very supportive and usually come up with some great ideas for exercise. Good luck and I will hold you in my thoughts– Dicki

  • Thanks so much for the response! We have started him on daily Cavalettis! 🙂 sit/stands and backing up exercises! As well as superman two legged exercises. Given to us by our rehab clinic 🙂 Seems we’re on the right track! I will look into the air mattress as well! In your experience with GM, how long does it take for a dog to become unable to use his back legs? With daily exercise, is 8-12 months unrealistic? Does the disease always progress past this point? Thanks again!


    • Dicki Kennedy says:

      Brad – it is hard to give you a good time line but I think you should be able to get at least 8-12 months. The disease does progress and usually does it in a waxing and waning type of transition where he will be good for weeks and then have a few bad ones. It is the worse type of disease because we just work with what we have and hope for the best. Good luck — Dickiu

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