Nothing is as horrible for a dog owner as to see their beloved pet slowly lose the ability to move without being able to do anything about it. Unfortunately for those dogs diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy this is just the case. The disease causes a malfunction in the signals between the brain and the hindquarters, resulting in gradual loss of functioning of the back legs that is similar to a paralysis.
The breeds most often associated with degenerative myelopathy are not typically the long backed breeds, although it would be logical to assume these breeds would have the most problems. German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and the Welsh Corgis are the breeds most commonly diagnosed with the condition. Since it is more prevalent in specific breeds there is likely a genetic component to the condition although it has not been isolated at this time. There are some other diseases that may occur in dogs with degenerative myelopathy but at this time these are not considered to be causative or contributing factors to the development of the condition. The condition actually starts in the chest area of the spinal cord and destroys both the sheath, or protective coating, of the spinal cord as well as the actual spinal cord cells.
Typically dogs with degenerative myelopahty first start to exhibit signs of the problem between the ages of nine to eleven years. The first obvious sign is a loss of coordination or muscle control in the hind legs, known as ataxia. Often the dog wobbles on the back legs, drags the toes on the ground or even crosses the back feet over each other when walking instead of keeping them parallel to the movement of the front legs. The disease may progress slowly or more rapidly, and the symptoms may initially be less noticeable at times and highly obvious at others. The amount of exercise does not seem to affect the condition. As the disease progresses the hind limbs become weak and will not support the dog's weight until he or she is unable to move them at all or support their weight. In the more advanced stages of degenerative myelopathy the dog will lose control of the bladder and bowels and may also lose control of the front limbs, virtually immobilizing the dog.
There is no known treatment of the disease and only an autopsy and microscopic examination of the spine can confirm the diagnosis. It is important to rule out other issues such as disc problems, tumors and even infections to provide the correct treatment and medical care. Dogs with the condition can benefit from physical therapy and dog wheelchairs and mobility devices to help them get around. Urinary infections may be a big problem and need to be actively treated to prevent further complications. Since there is a loss of feeling in the limbs there does not seem to be any signs of pain associated with the condition, however when the condition becomes so debilitating most owners choose to have the dog put to sleep.