Having a dog diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy is heartbreaking. Degenerative Myelopathy (or DM), like it’s human-counterpart, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive disease that will continue to worsen and for which there is no cure. As a veterinarian, I’ve had to deliver these bad news to pet parents. I’ve also been on the other side of the exam table when my own dog was diagnosed with DM.
After the initial shock that your best friend and beloved family dog has a terminal disease, the next steps are confusing and unclear. The good news is that degenerative myelopathy is often slow to progress. There are some steps you can take to make your dog more comfortable during the process. There are even things that may prolong their life. With the right precautions, you’ll savor the time your dog has left and create an environment where they’ll thrive in.
Understand the Disease
Degenerative Myelopathy is a disease of the spinal cord. It is genetic, which means it’s inherited from your dog’s parents. There is a blood test available and your veterinarians may have used one to help diagnose this condition. Blood tests can only tell us if your dog carries the genes that result from their symptoms. Just because a dog carries the genes for Degenerative Myelopathy, does not mean that they will show symptoms. They are just a carrier of the disease. Unfortunately, this disease is one that veterinarians refer to as a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that there is no definitive test. Other diseases must be ruled out before we can say the patient has Degenerative Myelopathy.
While there are a large number of dogs that are carriers, there are three breeds that are most commonly affected by the clinical form of DM. German Shepherds, Boxers, and Welsh Corgis are all prone to DM at numbers greater than the average dog population.
Understand the Symptoms
Usually the first thing a pet parent notices is some incoordination or paw dragging. These occur during the early stages of the disease and can start very minimally. You may hear your pet’s nails drag occasionally as if walking on concrete. As the disease progresses, these signs will continue to worsen. As the lack of coordination continues to evolve, your dog may have a hard time walking on smooth surfaces. He may need assistance going up and down stairs. This can also lead to an increased likelihood of trauma from falls.
How Your Dog Will Change
Eventually, a dog with DM will be unable to use their back legs to support themselves or to walk. Many dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy spend some time in a wheelchair or cart in the later stages of their disease. Even during this stage, your dog may seem happy and indeed, they may have an excellent quality of life. However, more effort will be required from their caretakers to ensure that they remain in good health. Still, as the disease continues to develop, more concerning changes may come.
Many dogs lose the inability to urinate on their own. In this case, they may need their bladders expressed, and they’re more likely to develop painful urinary tract infections (UTI). Also, they may lose their ability to control their defecation. This can result in a messy situation if they are allowed to move freely throughout the house. Eventually, a pet with late-stage Degenerative Myelopathy may lose the ability to use their front legs and have difficulty breathing.
It’s important to know that not every dog will change at the same rate. Some dogs move quickly through the stages, others take months or even years to show severe progression. Many people who have had a dog with Degenerative Myelopathy describe a “stairstep.” This is when their dog may look the same for a while and then suddenly worsen. They’ll remain at that level of disease for months before developing another symptom. Many times, smaller dogs live longer after diagnosis, but it is often easier to care for a smaller paralyzed dog than a larger one.
Have an Honest Conversation with Your Dog’s Veterinarian
Your pet’s veterinarian, or perhaps team of veterinarians, has probably had to go through the process of caring for a dog with Degenerative Myelopathy before. Most likely, they have also seen a wide range of responses from pet owners.
It’s essential for you to have an open, honest, conversation with them about your ability to provide for your dog.
While some pet parents will not be able to invest the time and money required to care for a dog that can’t use their back legs, others will want to do everything reasonably possible to help their family member live the longest life possible. You should expect your veterinary team to understand your perspective and be respectful of your wishes.
Many times, a dog with Degenerative Myelopathy ends up seeing several veterinarians, including a general practitioner, a veterinary neurologist, and a veterinarian specialized in rehabilitation therapy or sports medicine. It is essential to have a frank conversation with them about reasonable expectations and abilities to care for your pet. They can help provide tools and tricks that make your life easier and Fido’s remaining time more enjoyable.
Rehabilitation Therapy is Important
Rehabilitation or physical therapy and exercise are the only things that have been scientifically proven to prolong the life of a pet with Degenerative Myelopathy. As their disease progresses, dogs will lose muscle mass and strength. By developing a consistent and challenging therapy routine, you can help your dog retain their muscle for longer. This therapy will probably include visits to a veterinarian, vet tech, or a human physical therapist, with special training in veterinary rehabilitation. They will help you develop a plan that includes exercises in their office and at home. Swimming and walking on a water treadmill are frequently part of this exercise plan and completed at a rehab center.
At Home Exercises
These may include:
Balance ball work
Stretching is also essential and will be incorporated into the plan. Regular checkups with your pet’s therapist will ensure that their exercises remain challenging but are also adjusted based on their current abilities. Your veterinarian or rehab therapist may also be able to help you fit your dog for a wheelchair when it comes time for that.
Up Your Pet’s Traction Game
Especially during the early phases of Degenerative Myelopathy, your dog will be learning to adjust their movements to compensate for their loss of coordination. They may frequently slide on smooth surfaces, like tile and hardwood, which can result in further damage or trauma.
There are several tools we can use to help them regain their sure footing. Options for dog boots are plentiful and there are surely some that your dog will tolerate. Look for boots with thick rubber bottoms and soft flexible tops that make them more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Boots may also prevent excessive wear on toenails, which is common in dog’s that drag their paws. When using these, it is important to take them off when your dog is resting or in rooms without smooth surfaces so that their paws don’t develop an infection.
For shorter periods of time, a rubber-balloon like boot is used, but these are typically less durable and not meant for outside use. Other traction options include toe grips which go around each of your dog’s toenails and provide a non-intrusive friction. Finally, there are products available that provide friction by gluing small rubber particles to the bottom of your dog’s paws. These products should be nontoxic and need to be reapplied frequently, but they are an option for in-home use.
Prepare Your Home
To help your pet age gracefully, there are several steps we can take to make our homes more comfortable and safer for them. First, providing more soft surfaces for them like exercise mats and rugs can help them maintain their footing. They may not need a whole room rug, but runners and even yoga mats can provide a defined walkway to make them surer of their balance. Eventually, you may need to limit your dog’s access to stairs as their lack of coordination while going up or down can lead to a disastrous tumble. Short sets of steps may help your dog maintain access to the couch or bed without risk of jumping.
Finally, consider the spacing of your furniture if you intend to acquire a wheelchair for your dog. These devices tend to be wider than your dog and may lead to some initial bumps and scratches to your home if your walkways are too narrow.
Understand Quality of Life
Many pet parents wonder if their dog will be happy living with the more advanced forms of Degenerative Myelopathy. This is a very valid question that is totally dependent on the individual dog.
We see many dogs that still love life even when living with a wheelchair or limited use of their back legs. These dogs still enjoy trips to the beach, walks through the neighborhood or just cuddling on the couch with their family. Eventually, the time will come when we have to say goodbye to our four-legged friend.
There is no definite point to make this decision; it’s up to you as the owner. Speak openly with your family and your veterinarian about your pet’s quality of life. Be open on the things they like to do and the things they struggle to do to help you with your decision. Until that time, savor the moments you have with your dog, spend as much time as you can doing the activities they love, and give them a hug from all of us.
About the Author
Danielle Churchill, DVM is a veterinarian and medical director of West Park Animal Hospital in Westchase, FL. She graduated from University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010 and through a variety of veterinary experiences, she has developed a keen knowledge of a wide range of animal health topics. She has a particular interest in dentistry, internal medicine, and progressive quality of life care, and is known amongst her colleagues as a thoughtful, caring veterinarian.