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Does Degenerative Myelopathy Shorten a Dog’s Lifespan?

One of the heartbreaking moments of keeping a pet is those times when the pet develops a disease or health complication. We would do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering of our pets. To some extent, we can overcome these hard times with sufficient help from the vet, but the serious debilitating illnesses are difficult to confront.

One such illness is degenerative myelopathy. It is a rare disease caused by a gene mutation and it causes dogs to slowly lose control of their limbs. If you have a dog with degenerative myelopathy, you may be wondering what this means for your pal’s life and/or the quality of life. This article sheds some light on that important concern.

Does DM shorten the lifespan in dogs?

special needs dog enjoys life

Yes, degenerative myelopathy does shorten a dog’s life. Given that this condition develops gradually, is non-reversible, and with no known cures, degenerative myelopathy does affect the lifespan in dogs. Unfortunately, the mobility of your furry friend may be severely limited within six to twelve months since the first signs appear.

Further than that, the disease may affect your dog’s ability to pass urine or stool properly. The good news is that the disease does not seem to be painful for dogs and there are measures you can take to ensure a good quality of life as your pal battles this disease like a champ. For starters, physical rehabilitation therapy can help cope with this disease, and, secondly, assistance devices for mobility such as a cart or harness can be used at various times of the disease’s progression. Even with Degenerative Myelopathy, the fun doesn’t have to stop.

What causes Degenerative Myelopathy?

Scientists do not know exactly what causes the gene mutation that leads to Degenerative Myelopathy. The gene mutation disrupts the nervous system pathways in the spinal cord.

Therefore, the brain is not able to ‘communicate’ or signal the limbs in terms of movement and stability.

As such, the dog begins to develop difficulty walking among other mobility issues.

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How do I know if my dog has Degenerative Myelopathy?

German Shepherd with DM

A major way through which you can know if your dog has DM is through testing. A DM mutation (SOD-1) hints at the likelihood of the dog developing Degenerative Myelopathy.

SOD-1 mutation means that the SOD-1 gene has not developed as it should.

However, the test is not a hundred percent.

Some dogs with the mutation never develop DM. This is because some of the dogs are designated as “carriers” of the destructive gene that causes DM while others are termed as “at-risk” of developing DM.

And even those “at-risk” dogs may not develop DM throughout their lifetime.

Typically, DM occurs around the eight to the ninth year in the life of larger breeds of dogs whereas smaller breeds may have an even later onset of DM (around year eleven).

That is to say that a designation of “at-risk” is not a death sentence. The dog still has a lot of good years in front of him/her before DM comes about – if it even does. Dogs are at a higher risk of suffering from DM than any other pet.

Anyway, you can catch the onset of DM by observing for the following signs:

  • The hind legs appear uncoordinated and they appear weak as they seem to sway when the dog is standing. DM typically begins at one rear leg and then moves on to the other rear leg and so on as to the hind legs.
  • The dog collapses easily when pushed gently from its side.
  • It seems like the dog is walking on its knuckles in its hind paws because they are turned under, what some people call “knuckling” of the paws.
  • Difficulty arising after lying.
  • Wear on the knuckles of the hind paws because of scraping the ground with them.
  • Loss of muscles in the hind legs.

Caution: You cannot simply diagnose DM with these symptoms. Some diseases that affect the spinal cord may mimic these symptoms. It’s always good to get the degenerative myelopathy diagnosis from a neurologist.

How long do dogs live with Degenerative Myelopathy?

Dogs generally live with DM for anywhere between six months and three years. Rehab therapy and regular exercise can help improve the quality of life for dogs with DM.

Unfortunately, Degenerative Myelopathy has no cure at the moment. What is certain is that the symptoms worsen as time progresses. Most dogs with DM are unable to walk within six to nine months after the onset of this disease.

Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy

dog in wheelchair playing

The progress of Degenerative Myelopathy are normally grouped into three stages: the earlier/onset, intermediate stage, and advanced stage.

We’ve already covered the onset symptoms, so we can jump right ahead to the intermediate symptoms of DM:

  • Inability to walk without assistive devices.
  • Atrophy of muscles.
  • As the dog’s rear end loses more muscles, that part of the body seems to ‘sag’ especially as the dog strains to support its weight.
  • Difficulty maintaining balance.
  • Knuckling of the paws whenever standing or walking.
  • The tail is limp and the dog does not wag it often.
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence – Difficulty passing stool and/or urine.

Then, degenerative myelopathy progresses to the late or advanced stage, which is marked by:

  • Erratic motions of the tail and legs.
  • The front legs and shoulders become weak.
  • Complete paralysis of the hind legs.
  • Respiratory issues and organ failure.
  • Complete loss of coordination and balance. The dog must be assistance for all movements including standing, squatting, walking, and rising.

When to put down a dog with Degenerative Myelopathy

Euthanasia is a huge concern for owners of dogs going through canine degenerative myelopathy, especially the appropriate time to euthanize.

Obviously, this is a sensitive issue and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The decision of when to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy depends on the progression of DM for your dog and the quality of life that he/she is having.

Once again, your vet can probably give better advice based on the condition of your dog.

Nonetheless, I will note that most dog owners normally euthanize in the intermediate to late stages of DM; to avoid the seriously escalated symptoms of respiratory issues and organ failure, and the total lack of coordination and balance for the dog.

Taking Care of a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy

German Shepherd Wheelchair

The comforting thing about DM is that dogs generally do not appear to be under pain due to their condition. So at least in the earlier stages, you sustain a good quality of life by remaining patiently attuned to the needs of your dog.

In any case, here are some suggestions for what you can do to ensure a comfortable time for your dog:

  • Exercise the dog’s limbs regularly by turning and massaging the limbs. This helps to prevent the limbs from contracting and bedsores from developing in the limbs.
  • At the onset, dogs that suffer limitations to their ability to move about can be assisted with a cart or harness.
  • If it’s feasible for you, you could consider placing mats all over the house or where the dog moves about. This will prevent the dog from tripping up now and then since it’s easier to maintain balance on the rough mat surface.
  • Consider adopting a personalized therapeutic plan for your dog with the help and guidance of your vet. This plan may include such activities as aquatic walking or swimming, specific diet, supplements, and medication.

Personalized therapeutic plans have been shown to slow the progression of DM. Therefore, getting one that is suited to your dog may be the best thing you give him/her under these conditions.

How dogs react to life with degenerative myelopathy

Most dogs adjust well to new routines of mobility or life under DM generally. Nonetheless, the temperament of the dog also matters to how he/she copes with the disease.

Either way, maintaining good communication with your vet is important in ensuring a good quality of life. You may not have all the answers and that is okay; the vet may help to navigate this new chapter in your pooch’s life.


As much as you may be concerned about the well-being of your pooch, you should also take care of yourself. Degenerative Myelopathy takes a toll on the owner and some of the adjustments and decisions will require you to be in the right frame of mind to take care of your pooch. So, take some me-time once in a while to recharge your energy levels and reach out to loved ones for help if/when you need it.

understanding degenerative myelopathy in dogs

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  1. I have one of your chairs for my girl. THANK GOD for you and your chairs! You have helped me feel good about caring for my girl!

  2. We’re losing our 13 yr old Saint Bernard to this insidious affliction! This article was very informative. We did not know DM caused breathing issues, we know now why her breathing is so labored after very little walking. Thank you again for this sad, but fact filled article.

  3. My 14 year old GSD just passed today from this horrible disease. Your dog can live quite a long time with this disease but I must worn you that when the dogs second hind leg starts to fall victim to the disease your going to have to assist your dog in just about everything they do. My baby carried on for approximately 4 years with this disease before it ultimately took her from us. I could not let my best friend go so I bought her diapers as she could not control her bowels whatsoever and assistive devices. I fought with her every step of the way and it’s mostly in part that she didn’t seem to be in any pain. I’ll warn you once your dogs front legs become paralyzed and she can not move the dog is going to die within a week or so. Please find a cure for this disease!

  4. In Nov. 2018, we noticed our Chandler (a rescue, what we believed was a Pittie/German Shepherd mix) developed what we thought was hip dysplasia.
    Chandler was about 8-9 yrs old at that time.
    We took him to our local vet but he couldn’t confirm an exact diagnosis but it wasn’t hip dysplasia. The vet recommended that we schedule Chandler w the Ohio State Univ. Vet. College but unfortunately we did not have the funds for a through ‘battery” of testing ($10,000), plus we did not want to put Chandler through extensive tests.
    After searching/googling his symptoms, we came upon the symptoms of Degenerative Myelography (after a close friend passed away from ALS and their symptoms were so similar from early on).
    We found a local vet who was both conservative, yet progressive and agreed w our findings. (We vowed to keep Chandler as comfortable as possible, as long as possible.). We built ramps for him to go outside and eventually had a two-wheel harness made. (Although Chandler was never incontinent.)
    By late May 2019, we realized, that we would have to make ‘a difficult decision soon.’ In just 5 months, Chandler’s quality of life had declined and did so much more rapidly in May. We decided to do the most humane and kind thing was ‘to let him go,’ on June 8, 2019. 😥
    We told ourselves, “no more big pups,’ but the local animal shelter that we support, asked if we would at least foster until we ready to adopt again.
    Enter Rosie, a gorgeous 7-8 y.o. Australian Shepherd in late June 2019. We fostered Rosie for 6 weeks (when the average time to foster wa 2-3 wks). After a month and a half, the family decided that they didn’t want Rosie. 😟
    After giving Rosie her “freedom ride and freedom treat” (vanilla cone), 6 weeks before, we didn’t have the heart to return her to the shelter to live in a crate for goodness knows how long.
    Rosie has taken on a lot of Chandler’s qualities and mannerisms. We say, “Chandler brought her to us.” We didn’t rescue Rosie, she rescued us.
    In late August 2019, I was in a horrific 3-vehicle accident. I loss the use of my legs for a month and in a wheel chair for four months. When I began physical therapy 6 months after the accident, Rosie had become my therapy dog while I was in the w/c and beginning to walk again.
    Sorry to go on and on, although I did not grow up w a dog, they have been such incredible companions in my ‘golden years.’

  5. I have a German Shepherd named Sindre. I know Sindre has this horrible disease. Sindre’s mother was just euthanized about 3 months ago with it. Magic was only 9 years old when she started with the first signs of DM. Sindre is 7 years old and has been showing early signs of this disease. Magic was tested and was confirmed to have DM. I am afraid to have Sindre tested because I know what the results will be. I have done a lot of reading on DM and I understand the long road that is ahead of us. I made a promise to Sindre that I will not keep from doing the right thing for him because I want him around. I am very fortunate that I have Magic’s Mom for support while we head down this road together.

  6. Hi my girl Bonnie also a GSD was only 9 when I had to put her down. I was told up and down it was hip dysplasia before the other leg went a year later. Oddly, she had a bizarre episode around 7-8years of age when she suddenly collapsed and yelped with hip pain(me immediately after doc visit dysplasia. I did all exercises and suplliments since I could not afford.the surgery). I think I’m the end it was both. I put my girl down end of September. I still feel horrible. I hope you the best and understand 1000% what ur going through.

  7. My dog Harley has this disease. He has been in aquatic therapy for about a year. It really helps. A few days ago he started muscle spasms with his holder area.
    Today he sees his vet and I don’t expect much.
    It’s a hard situation.

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