Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Overview of Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a slow, progressive spinal cord disorder of unknown cause that is most commonly seen in aging German shepherds and a few other large breeds of dogs. Effective therapy has not been reported. Most dogs deteriorate over the course of 6 to 12 months and are eventually euthanized.

The cause of the condition is unknown, although it is believed to be an autoimmune disease – a condition in which the body’s immune system begins to attack its own nerve cells. The age of onset is 5 to 14 years, with an average age of 9 years. Males are affected more than females.

The disorder is seen almost exclusively in German shepherds, although it has been diagnosed in a few other large breed dogs, such as Belgian shepherds, Rhodesian ridgebacks, standard poodle, Boxer, Chesapeake Bay retriever, Irish Setter, collies and Weimaraners. Other breeds affected include Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh corgi. The high incidence in German shepherds suggests a genetic basis for the disease.

The disease is slowly progressive. Affected dogs get progressively weaker and more uncoordinated as the disease process progresses. Many dogs progress over 4 to 6 months from the time of initial diagnosis.

What to Watch For

Signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs may include:

Diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Diagnostic tests are needed to identify degenerative myelopathy and rule out other diseases with similar clinical symptoms. Diagnostic tests include:

Treatment of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

There is no effective treatment for degenerative myelopathy. A few treatments have been recommended, but no controlled studies have been performed to show any proven benefit.

These treatments include:

Home Care

Give all medications and supplements as prescribed. Exercise appears to be helpful in delaying the progression of the disease. Dogs should be placed on an increasing, alternate-day exercise program including walking and swimming, if possible.

In-depth Information on Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Degenerative myelopathy is a slowly progressive neurologic disorder mainly affecting German shepherds between the ages of 5 and 14 years. The condition bears many similarities to multiple sclerosis in people. The initial clinical sign is usually an increased difficulty standing up. The rear legs become progressively weaker, and the dog becomes more and more uncoordinated. The rear legs may cross during walking, and the paws may begin to knuckle, causing the nails to be worn from dragging and scuffing. If forced to turn quickly, affected dogs will often fall. The front legs remain normal, as does pain sensation. Late in the course of disease, bowel and bladder incontinence develops.

The diagnostic tests recommended will help differentiate degenerative myelopathy from the following:

In-depth Information on Diagnosis

Diagnostic tests for degenerative myelopathy are performed mainly to rule out other causes of slowly progressive weakness and lack of coordination. Tests may include:

In-depth Information on Treatment

There is no consistently effective treatment for degenerative myelopathy and affected dogs usually progress to severe weakness and lack of coordination within a year of the onset of disease.

Although no controlled studies have been performed to test their efficacy, the following experimental treatments have been recommended by some researchers:


Long term prognosis for dogs with degenerative myelopathy is poor. The disease generally progresses over 4 to 6 months from the time of diagnosis ultimately causing loss of limb function and ability to walk and incontinence. Advanced disease will often progress to affect the front legs.

Follow-up Care for Dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy

Optimal treatment for a dog with degenerative myelopathy requires both home care and professional veterinary care, with follow-up being critical. Administer prescribed medications, supplements and diets and alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your dog. Follow-up includes serial physical and neurologic examinations by your veterinarian to assess the progression of the disease

Homemade Diet for Dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy

The following is a recipe for homemade diet for German shepherds with degenerative myelopathy.

2 oz. boneless pork center loin chop (boiled or baked)
4 oz. tofu
8 oz. long grain brown rice (3 oz. cooked in 6 oz. water)
2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup molasses
2 whole carrots (boiled, then cut up)
1 cup spinach
4 tbsp. green bell pepper (chopped and steamed)
4 broccoli spears (boiled, then cut up)

The above recipe makes one serving for 30 to 50 lbs of body weight. Portions may be prepared ahead of time and frozen. Just before serving, add:

1 tsp dry ground ginger
2 raw garlic cloves, crushed
½ tsp dry mustard
1 tsp bone meal