Articles from Dr. James St. Clair, DVM.

Founder of TopDog Animal Health and Rehabilitation

Degenerative Myelopathy Explanation


Degenerative Myelopathy was first recognized as a specific neurological disease in 1973. It is described as a painless, slowly progressive rear limb weakness or paralysis that affects dogs between the ages of five and fifteen years however, the average ages being nine to eleven. There may be some pain due to arthritis in the hip or lower lumbar (back area), but this usually improves with activity. It develops as a result of nerve function loss in the spinal cord, these nerves are protected by a sheath called Myelin. Myelin’s purpose is to decrease the amount of time it takes a nervous impulse to travel along the length of a nerve. When a dog develops Degernerative Myelopathy, or DM, the myelin that is surrounding the nerves starts to breakdown and the nerves begin to degenerate in the spinal cord. This results in changes to nervous signals as they travel up and down the nerves. Symptoms include, weakness in the hind end, toe nail wear and slow reflexes in the hind feet, trouble rising, loss of coordination and muscle mass, limp tail, dragging of limb and trouble standing to defecate. The cause of the condition is unknown, although it is believed to be an autoimmune disease, a condition in which the body’s immune system begins to attack its own nerve cells. DM most commonly affects larger breeds of dogs, and is seen almost exclusively in the German Shepherd but has also been seen in breeds such as the Welsh Corgi, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Irish Setter, Dalmation, Weimaraner, Great Pyrenees, Samoyed, Boxer, Briard and others. The higher incidents in German Shepherds suggest a genetic basis for the disease. The disease progresses over days, weeks or months and the dog becomes progressively weaker, which can be demonstrated as shuffling of the rear limbs and lack of coordination. Progressive stages include full paralysis and incontinence.


Veterinarians reach the diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy based on a physical exam, neurological exam, and it is also based on the history of symptoms and dog health information the owner provides, breed, age and health of the dog. Neurological procedures available at a specialist will also be performed such as myelography (contrast dye study of the spine, differentiates DM from Disc Disease), MRI, CT, and CSF however this may only be helpful in ruling out other spinal problems. Current research is hoping to lead to a blood test for this condition, involving the antigens present in the immune complexes formed in DM.


There are four basic treatments for Degenerative Myelopathy, exercise, supportive, medication, and minimization of stress. Exercise is the most important treatment because the building of muscle tone and maintaining good circulation is key. Gradually building up the dog’s level of activity to a faster pace, while also allowing rest days for the patient as well. Consistent, controlled building of muscle tone through exercise will help delay the progression of degenerative myelopathy. Vitamins containing Vitamin C, B, Omega-3 fatty acids, glucocorticoids, and nonsteroidal and anti inflammatory agents prove to be helpful with the regeneration and antioxidant qualities they offer. Available products are listed here. Medications commonly used to treat DM are Aminocaproic Acid and N-acetylcysteine, as they work to help correct the parts of the immune system that are dysfunctional in order to prevent progression of the disease and in some cases even remission in over 15% to 20% of patients. A physical therapy program and special supportive harnesses and slings are also recommended and beneficial for a dog suffereing from DM.


Degenerative Myelopathy can progress at different speeds in each patient. Stress plays a role in the speed and progression of DM therefore, minimizing stress is important. Long term prognosis is poor. The disease generally progresses over 4 to 6 months from the time of diagnosis ultimately causing loss of limb function and ability to walk and incontinence. Advanced disease will often progress to affect the front legs. Optimal treatment for a pet with degenerative myelopathy requires both home care and professional veterinary care, with follow-up being critical. Administer prescribed medications, supplements and diets and alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your pet. Follow-up includes serial physical and neurological examinations by your veterinarian to assess the progression of the disease Glycanaid A joint supplement created to improve and support your dog’s joint health, after surgery or can be used as a preventative.  It contains only the “best in class” ingredients such as Glucosamine HCL, Chondroitin Sulfate, Vitamin C, Methylsulfonylmethane, Cetyl Myristoleate. Glycanaid HA-Factor A joint supplement also designed to help your dog through the recovery process by improving joint health and support. Ingredients are the same as the original Glycanaid, but the added ingredient Hyaluronic Acid serves as a lubricant and shock absorber in the synovial fluid. Flexerna Nature’s most powerful Omega-3 naturally reduces inflammation and improves joint health. A patented, research proven powerful and natural anti-inflammatory using the Green Lipped Mussel of New Zealand, nature’s leading source of Elcosatetranoic Acid (ETA). It also contains low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, and is available in soft gel capsules or liquid pump. Other products you may find useful for your dog’s recovery and management of Hip Dysplasia: