When to Put a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy Down. Signs, Causes, and Diagnosis

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Having a dog with degenerative myelopathy is a life-changing experience. It requires time, energy, patience, and determination. My Boxer, Rex, was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy in 2019. 

Three and a half years in the making, and Rex passed on with as much life and love in his heart as he did when I first adopted him.

Despite his disability, he was the most loving, affectionate, and playful dog that he was 11 years ago. Degenerative myelopathy is a non-painful condition where paralysis and weakness develop in the hind legs due to slow disintegration in the lower spine. 

When Rex was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, I had some pricey expenses to account for so that he could still live out the rest of his days comfortably. 

Based on my personal experience with degenerative myelopathy, I thought I would bring some light on this topic as it can be a very challenging and upsetting experience.

What is Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

Canine degenerative myelopathy is a destructive disease where the base of your dog’s spine slowly disintegrates over time. Degenerative myelopathy (DM) can start affecting your dog between eight and fourteen years old. 

In most cases, just the hind legs and hips become affected, which will lead to paralysis the more the disease takes its course. Degenerative myelopathy is closely related to what’s known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans, as some people are more familiar with the layman term Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

The cause behind degenerative myelopathy is not fully understood or known; however, dogs with this gene will pass onto their young if bred. 

Symptoms of Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

It can be challenging to diagnose degenerative myelopathy in dogs because DM shows signs of arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and hip dysplasia. Generally speaking, some symptoms of degenerative myelopathy include:

  • Crossed legs
  • Walking on knuckles
  • Problems with standing from a laying down position or vice versa
  • Stumbling 
  • Swaying as if they are tilted when standing or can’t catch their balance
  • Worn toenails (to the quick)
  • Eventually paralysis

A dog with degenerative myelopathy will eventually lose its strength and bowel or bladder movements. Degenerative myelopathy progresses quite quickly and, within six months to a year, will become a full-fledged paraplegic. 

Early Signs of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Early signs of degenerative myelopathy are subtle, so it is possible to have a misdiagnosis upon the first initial signs. However, since DM progresses rapidly, if you suspect your dog has degenerative myelopathy, the vet will diagnose within six months from the early stages.

Some early signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs include:

  • Slight weakness in dog’s rear legs (hardly noticeable)
  • Uneven or torn back toenails
  • Slight clumsiness when walking
  • Beginning weakness when standing, sitting or laying down
  • Feet start to curl, progressing to your dog walking on their knuckles
  • Loss of muscle mass near the spine and hind legs

Since there are very slight and hardly noticeable signs of degenerative myelopathy in the beginning stages, your vet may diagnose your dog with arthritis.

What Are The Final Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

 As DM progresses, you’ll notice more prominent signs of degenerative myelopathy. For example, when you lift up your dog’s paw, it will be difficult for them to place it directly underneath them. 

The final stages of degenerative myelopathy include:

  • Complete paralysis in the hind legs
  • Will not be able to stand or walk on their own without support
  • Total loss of control over bowel and bladder movement
  • Front end weakness in the shoulders
  • Keeping balance is impossible
  • Tools such as wheelchair assistance and a supportive harness are needed

During the final stages of degenerative myelopathy, it is heartbreaking and almost debilitating to watch your furry companion struggle. Nevertheless, your dog will keep up their appetite and personality as this disease is not a painful one. 

Degenerative Myelopathy: When To Euthanize

Everything inside you as a dog owner may be questioning, should I put my dog down and end their suffering, or should I wait for when they are ready on their own accord? Depending on the progression and vet’s advice, you’ll expect to euthanize your dog within three years after diagnosis. 

In some cases, dogs have lived out the rest of their lives with degenerative myelopathy with little to no complications during the process. On the other hand, if degenerative myelopathy interferes with your dog’s quality of life, your vet will ensure you know ahead of time. 

Stages of Degenerative Myelopathy 

The stages of degenerative myelopathy can be difficult to experience with your dog. However, knowing ahead of time what will happen may settle the nerves of any dog owner witnessing this degenerative disease.

Stage One: The Early Signs

Stage one of degenerative myelopathy is barely noticeable. This is the most common time when veterinarians may get a misdiagnosis. However, due to the subtle signs that anything is wrong, many dog owners miss this stage entirely. 

Similar to the early signs of degenerative myelopathy, the initial onset of symptoms includes:

  • Dogs’ nails slightly scrape hardwood floors and cement
  • Subtle clumsiness when walking
  • Climbing is slightly challenging, such as stairs, and inclined hills

Stage Two: The Advanced DM

Stage two is when a proper diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy is made. During stage two, it’s best to start considering taking time off work and planning to have supportive tools that allow your dog to live comfortably. 

Some symptoms during stage two you’ll notice are:

  • Scraping on the floor happens regularly
  • They’ll lose complete hind leg balance and coordination
  • Your dog’s legs will start to criss-cross as they walk
  • Feel in legs, lower spine, and the bowel movement will decrease reasonably quickly
  • Your dog will stop wagging their tail as a form of body language
  • There will be a sufficient amount of pain in the lower region of their body until all feeling is gone
  • A noticeable amount of muscle mass is lost

Stage Three: Paralysis (The Final Stage)

The final stage is perhaps the most unbearable stage to go through as your dog begins the paralysis stage, becoming a full paraplegic. At stage three, you’ll want to have all the necessities for your dog that will help them gain control over their life.

The final stage symptoms:

  • Weakness and muscles mass loss will spread to the front end and shoulders
  • Total loss of balance and control involving movement
  • Jerks or twitches in their hind legs and tail, which your dog has no control over
  • Paralysis

Near the end of your dog’s life, they’ll experience organ failure, which is when the degenerative myelopathy has taken over the entirety of your dog’s body and bones. At this time in the process, your vet will let you know that it is time to euthanize your friend. 

How is Canine Degenerative Myelopathy Diagnosed?

Since there are many conditions based on symptoms of degenerative myelopathy, it can be difficult for a vet to determine a definitive diagnosis. Some testing that is required to obtain a correct diagnosis are:

  • CT and MRI scans
  • Xrays
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis
  • Biopsy of the spinal cord

Once DM is diagnosed, your vet will recommend a DNA test to give you the best advice for whether or not you should breed the dog. If there are traces of SOD-1 mutation in the DNA, this means your dog’s young can pass on degenerative myelopathy. 

Is There Degenerative Myelopathy Treatment?

The best type of treatment for diagnosed degenerative myelopathy is care, love, and patience throughout the complex process for the rest of your dog’s life. There is no cure for degenerative myelopathy.

Once diagnosed, your vet will recommend physical therapy and provide you with a list of essentials your dog will need to live out their days. You may want to consider switching your dog’s diet to food high in vitamin B, C, and E, as this has seemed to decline the progression of DM.

Pain medication is the only other treatment option available; however, the main goal is to keep your furry friend on their feet as long as possible. 

Degenerative Myelopathy Life Expectancy

It is rare for a young pup to develop degenerative myelopathy as it is more common in older dogs eight to eleven years old. Once your dog is diagnosed with DM, the progressive disease takes its life within or up to three years. 

Progression of the disease happens rather quickly, making the final stage begin within 6 months to a year after diagnosis. Depending on how your dog is handling degenerative myelopathy, your vet will request euthanization at the most appropriate time. 

Caring For a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy

Upon the onset of degenerative myelopathy symptoms, your dog will feel little to no pain. Still, there will be pain and discomfort as the disease progresses until the final stage. 

The first thing you need to do is buy your dog some dog boots or nail protectors for your pup’s feet. Dog boots and nail care will protect your dog from experiencing more pain than they need to. 

Next, a supportive harness for your dog is a good investment so that when you see that they are struggling, you can help them out with a bit of lift. The best harness equipped for degenerative myelopathy is a full-body harness. 

Other good ideas for caring for your dog are:

  • Always stay patient and calm around your pup
  • Find a supportive community or forum where others are in the same shoes you are
  • Keep your vet on call for any immediate changes or questions
  • Ensure your house is suitable for a disabled dog with DM
  • Pay attention to your dog’s body language – know when they need help
  • Keep a healthy and strict diet
  • Follow all physical therapy requirements.

FAQ’s

Degenerative myelopathy can be a scary and stressful time. Other common questions people have asked are as follows.

How Fast Does Degenerative Myelopathy Progress in Dogs?

Degenerative myelopathy is a fast-paced progressive disease. In most dogs, they make it one to three years. The progression rate for dogs with degenerative myelopathy reaches the paraplegic state six months into the diagnosed disease. 

Is There a Cure for Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

No, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy. The best type of treatment is hydrotherapy, a good diet, and a strict physical therapy routine. Inevitably, your dog will not return to its previous physical state after being diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy. 

Which Breeds Are At Risk for Degenerative Myelopathy?

German shepherds are the most common breed with the genetic mutation for degenerative myelopathy. Most large breeds are at risk for DM, but other breeds include Golden Retriever, Boxers, Bernese, Mountain Dog, Pembroke and Welsh Corgis, Wire Fox Terriers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Borzoi, Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog.

Is Degenerative Myelopathy Painful for Dogs?

Degenerative myelopathy itself is generally not painful for dogs; however, the symptoms leading to the final stage of DM can be. For example, worn down toenails and loss of muscle mass may become painful as the condition worsens. 

When to Put Down a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy: Conclusion

Degenerative myelopathy is a demanding, stressful, and challenging time for your dog and the entire family. Also, it is the time to be grateful, positive, and lighthearted through this experience. 

As hard as it may be, you must keep a positive attitude, as your dog will feel your emotions and try to please you most of the time. 

Although there is no cure for DM, all the moments that last until the end of your dog’s life will stay in your memories, and they will thank you and love you for the support and love you give even more.

After the final stage of degenerative myelopathy, expect to euthanize your dog within a year or two. Remember to always care for yourself during this process and spend as much time as you can with your furry companion. 

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Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Our resident DVM helps review every article to ensure we always provide scientifically accurate, up-to-date information. She’s proud to help provide pet parents everywhere with the info they need to keep their pets safe, healthy, and comfortable.