Degenerative Myelopathy | Spinal Cord Disease In Dogs

Spinal cord disease in dogs is a serious disease that affects the spinal cord.

This disease can limit how a dog walks, his motor control and even the inability to control normal bodily functions. It can be very hard to watch the effects of dogs with spinal cord disease because they might limp or even lose their balance and positioning.

However, there are many things we can do to help slow the progression of the disease and help our dogs continue to maintain a good quality of life.

What Is Spinal Cord Disease In Dogs (aka Degenerative Myelopathy)?

The medical term for spinal cord disease in dogs, degenerative myelopathy, is when the damage to the spinal cord is so severe that it cannot regenerate.

It is not only the spinal cord that can be affected but also your dog’s bone marrow.

While older animals are more prone to spinal disease, it can occur at all ages and in any breed of dog.

Breeds Most Affected By The Disease Are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Corgis
  • Boxers
  • Poodles
  • Pugs
  • Boxers
  • Golder Retrievers
  • Shetlands
  • Other medium to large dogs

Unfortunately, any dog with spinal cord disease has a very hard time recovering from it if at all. However, the progression is usually slow and your dog will not be in pain, just moving a lot slower.  Some compare it to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans.

What Are The Symptoms?

degenerative myelopathySpinal cord disease typically affects a dog’s central nervous system and can later progress to the cervical and lumbar areas of the spinal cord.

It can even lead to neuron damage in the brain and lesions on your dog’s spinal cord.

The disease first affects the back legs and your dog will typically drag his foot on walks. This can later turn to a wobbly gait and slower reflexes in the back legs.

As the disease progresses, dogs will have a hard time standing for long periods and it will take longer to get up after sleeping or lying down.

Some of the signs of spinal cord disease that you might see in your dog:

  • The weakening of your dog’s muscles making it hard to stand up
  • Paralysis of the limbs
  • Inability to control bowel and urinary functions
  • Muscle loss
  • Difficulty in walking

How Is It Diagnosed?

There is no real direct way to diagnose spinal cord disease so your vet does so by eliminating other causes that might damage the spinal cord.

Your vet will try to rule out other causes that might affect the spinal cord such as a tumor, illness, infection, or a herniated disc.

The only true way to diagnose the disease is that an autopsy but that can only be done post-mortem.

Therefore your vet will perform an extremely comprehensive physical and neurological exam of your dog, a blood/urine test, an MRI or CT scan as well as spinal fluid collection and analysis.

A vet who specializes in neurology is generally the recommended veterinarian to perform and diagnose such tests.

When the spinal fluid collection is fully analyzed, there are other diseases or conditions that might be occurring such as:

  • Intervertebral disk disease
  • Orthopedic or joint disease
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Spine or pelvic disease

What Are The Causes?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific known cause for degenerative myelopathy.

There seems to be a genetic component for the disease to occur but it is a variation of genetic combinations so it is not as straightforward to really determine the gene factor.

Treatment For Spinal Cord Disease

Unfortunately, there is no specific cure or treatment for spinal cord disease. There are many ways, though, to keep your dog comfortable and hopefully minimize the atrophy of the spine and any pain your dog might have.

Exercise and weight control are very important to keep your dog’s spine from being too rigid. Any excess weight can also cause undue stress on your dog and all his joints.

It is important to maintain regular visits with your vet to see how your dog is progressing.

There are also many supportive care measures that can help with the stress on the spinal cord:

Harnesses

With the correct harness or slings that support your dogs’ back legs or spinal area can help your dog with balancing issues on walks.

Physical Therapy

Aquatic therapy, swimming or walking in the water can be very effective in getting exercise for your dog while keeping the spine from atrophying

Mobility Cart

There are mobility carts that can help your dog’s mobility and quality of life.

Monitoring Your Dog

It’s very important to keep an eye on your dog and make sure you note if there are any significant changes.

When the disease really progresses, you will need a comfortable pad where your dog can sleep with frequent turning to prevent bed sores.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture might help your dog as it tends to stimulate the central nervous system.

Some acupuncturists might even use electro-acupuncture which is an increased current of acupuncture that goes deeper and helps with paralysis. This can be typically done a few times a week.

Is There A Way To Prevent Degenerative Myelopathy?

Unfortunately, there are no preventative measures for spinal cord disease.

While spinal cord disease is nothing you would ever want for your dog, there are ways to manage it and keep your dog comfortable.

So, don’t despair as you might have to manage your dog’s life and your own expectations, but your dog can still be happy and live comfortably with the condition.

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