Canine Degenerative Myelopathy
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Dogs are more than “man’s best friend”. Today, we consider them as something more than “just” pets. They are part of the family. We have a deep bond with our canine friends, and as much as we count on them for companionship, comfort, and protection, they too rely on us for their well-being, happiness, and proper healthcare. And with the many diseases that can affect our canine family members, likely none will have you feeling as helpless as Canine Degenerative Myelopathy (DM).
What is Degenerative Myelopathy?
DM is an inherited, progressive incurable autoimmune disease. In this disease, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of the spinal cord then ultimately the brain stem, and cranial nerves, which at the end stages results in complete paralysis and death. The closest human equivalent may be Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
What are the Stages and Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy?
❗ Emergency — Immediate veterinary help should be sought
Diagnosis of DM
As your veterinarian explained, Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord and discovered in older dogs that have the gene mutation. Disease onset typically ‘shows’ in dogs between the ages of 4 and 14.
The initial symptoms of DM can resemble those of other hindleg weakness conditions. A complete physical examination with diagnostic testing is necessary to exclude other causes of hindquarter’s weakness. Your veterinarian will review medical history, along with consideration of the breed and age of your dog. Diagnostic testing may include X-rays, CT and MRI scans, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis.
Which Breeds are most affected by Degenerative Myelopathy?
Walking Aids and Support for Dogs with DM
Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Life Expectancy
Unfortunately, DM is a progressive, incurable disease. Although bladder and bowel control are not affected initially. As the spinal cord continues to degenerate, a dog’s mobility becomes severely restricted, and he/she has increasing difficulty controlling the bladder and bowel.
Treatments for Canine DM
Physical therapy has been shown to prolong the quality of life and uphold muscle mass. Any dog with DM should be kept as physically active as possible for as long as possible. Walking and *Aquatic Therapy (*administered by a professional canine rehab clinic) has been shown to improve the quality of life and longevity. In addition, progression of clinical signs has been shown to slow with a combination of epsilonaminocaproic acid, N-acetylcysteine, prednisone, vitamins B, C, and E, and exercise therapy. The use of a mobility cart will also improve the quality of life when your pet’s hindquarters struggle to create momentum in walking. (See the closing statement for a ‘groundbreaking’ New Therapy!)
Unfortunately, there is no ‘cure’ for canine degenerative myelopathy at present. Treatment of other concurrent problems such as arthritis or hip dysplasia may provide some relief from pain or discomfort. It is important to avoid obesity, so diet and exercise (walking and aquatic therapy under the supervision of a PT professional) are vital components of treatment. There is some good news to mention … New ‘ground-breaking’ – Infrared Laser Light Therapy is becoming standard as part of the mix of treatments available to help your pet live a longer and healthier life while they are living with DM.
April 2020 a study was published in Photo biomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery, which identified that the use of intensive laser therapy could significantly increase longevity and the quality of life when done in partnership with physical therapy. The study concluded that delivering a very high dose of therapeutic infrared laser energy to the thoracic (T1 – T12) and lumbar (L1 – L5) spine regions, accompanied by intensive rehabilitation therapy, provided a convincing and favorable outcome for the canine patients in this study. In most cases almost doubling the initially diagnosed life expectancy of the study patients.
On the market today are handheld devices that distribute measured effective doses of red and infrared light therapy for use at home with your pet. For many years thoroughbred racehorses have benefited from infrared laser therapy treatments, and now it is available for pets. If you prefer to err on the side of caution, many veterinary hospitals will offer this treatment.