Canine degenerative myelopathy (DM) is an uncommon disease that primarily affects purebred dogs. DM disrupts the normal communication pathways between the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of coordination and eventual paralysis. There is no cure or current treatment for DM. However, there are things that owners can try to help delay progression of the disease and improve their dog’s quality of life. These are the goals of treating this progressive disease.
Meticulous supportive care is the only available therapy for dogs with degenerative myelopathy. Once an affected dog starts losing its ability to stand and walk, its owner must do a number of things to maintain its quality of life. Moderate exercise and other forms of physical therapy are encouraged, to delay muscle deterioration and atrophy and help maintain mobility and strength in the pelvic limbs. “Range of motion” exercises, where the owner stretches, extends and flexes the dog’s rear legs, are especially helpful. This sort of activity seems to slow the progression of DM and helps affected dogs maintain strength, balance and the ability to walk for a longer period of time. Swimming exercises, underwater treadmill use and other water-based techniques (hydrotherapy) also can benefit dogs with DM.
The dog will need well-padded bedding, such as an air mattress, waterbed, lounge chair pad, human bed mattress, fleeces, sleeping bags, blankets, straw or other lofty, soft and comfortable things to lie on. The outer layers of bedding will need to be changed frequently, and the dog will need to be cleaned and dried regularly to prevent bed sores, urine scalding, skin ulceration and other lesions caused by urinary and/or fecal incontinence. The hair under the tail and around the anus should be trimmed in long-haired breeds. Owners should manage their dogs’ diet to prevent excessive weight gain. Recumbent dogs should be turned frequently to prevent pressure sores and possible lung collapse (atelectasis). A wheel cart – essentially, a wheelchair for dogs – can be used for dogs that have lost mobility in their hind legs. As long as the dog is able to use its front legs normally, a wheel cart will keep it comfortable and mobile.
No drug has proven effective in stopping or slowing the progression of canine DM. Vitamins and omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been advocated as potential therapies, but are not as yet proven. Vitamin E, Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C are under investigation as possible useful supplements for managing this disease, although their usefulness remains unknown. Other chemical therapies are being studied, including administration of aminocaproic acid and the potent antioxidant, acetylcysteine. These experimental treatments can have adverse side effects, are expensive and may require long-term use. A veterinarian is the best person to recommend a treatment regimen for a dog with degenerative myelopathy.
Unfortunately, there is no cure or effective treatment for canine DM, and the long-term prognosis for dogs with this disease is poor. Most dogs will lose the ability to walk normally within 6 months of being diagnosed with this disorder. However, early detection, diagnosis and supportive care may be helpful. Owners of affected animals must provide scrupulous supportive care to maintain their pet’s quality of life, especially once it loses the ability to stand and move on its own. Smaller dogs may survive longer than larger dogs, because it is easier for their owners to provide supportive care. Owners may want to ask for a referral to a veterinary specialist with experience managing this disease.