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Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

dog laying outside the front door

As a German Shepherd owner, you may have heard about a devastating disease called Degenerative Myelopathy. Often thought of as the canine equivalent of Multiple Sclerosis, this progressive neurological disease affects the spinal cord and ravages muscle coordination, starting in the hind legs and eventually affecting the front legs, as well. Over a few to several months, it progresses to the point where a dog can no longer walk. While it also appears in other large breeds, Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is most prevalent in German Shepherds, and usually becomes apparent in dogs from 5-14 years old.

Watch for these symptoms

If your German Shepherd displays one or more of these symptoms, consult your veterinarian right away.

  • Progressive weakness of the hind limbs
  • Dragging nails
  • Difficulty rising
  • Difficulty jumping
  • Stumbling
  • Knuckling of the toes
  • Wearing of the inner toes of the rear paws
  • Loss of muscle in the rear legs
  • Tremors of the rear legs

Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy

Sadly, there is no significantly effective treatment for DM, and the disease tends to disable within months. While the prognosis for a dog with this disease is grave, the quality of life of an affected dog can be improved by good care. Exercise and physical rehabilitation can be helpful in maintaining the dog's well-being, maximizing muscle tone and strength, and maintaining good circulation and conditioning. Since many dogs have lost muscle tone prior to their diagnosis, it is important to gradually build up their level of activity, so gently and easily increase the affected dog's exercise level.

The outlook

Hopefully, veterinary science will develop disease-modifying drugs similar to those used to treat Multiple Sclerosis to slow or halt the progression of the disease. In addition, the discovery of a gene that identifies dogs at risk for developing DM could pave the way for therapeutic trials of medications that will prevent the disease from developing. This discovery might also alert breeders about which dogs carry the genes, so they can choose not to breed them.

  • The Serious Benefits of Play

    dog carrying a frisbee in its mouth

    Playing and having fun helps to eliminate stress from your life—and the same holds true for your dog. In fact, incorporating various forms of play into your dog's daily routine is vital to helping him develop a healthy, loving personality.

    The benefits of play

    Here are some of the ways that playing and having fun is important:

    • Physical health. Active play helps keep your dog's heart healthy, keeps the joints lubricated, and improves his overall balance and coordination.
    • Mental health. Games with rules force your dog to use his brain, not just his body. This can help keep his mind sharp and focused.
    • Social skills. When your dog plays with other dogs and other people, it helps improve his overall social skills. He learns basic rules and how to play by them.
    • Bonding. Even if it's only for a few minutes a day, playing with your dog helps strengthen the bond between you.
    • Your health. What better way to alleviate the stress of a busy workday and get a bit of exercise than to come home and play with your dog? It's a win-win for both of you.

    How to play with your dog

    There are right ways—and wrong ways—to play. The most important thing to remember is that you're the boss. You decide what games should be played and you set the rules. This helps establish your credibility as the pack leader. It also helps keep your dog from getting overly excited and out of control while you play. If your dog does become difficult to manage, simply put a stop to the game until he calms down again.

    When you're teaching your dog a new game, reward him when he does well. Remember, rewards don't have to be just treats. You can also reward him with his favorite toys or lots of hugs and praise.

    When you start out teaching your dog a new game, keep it simple and go through the game slowly, until your dog fully grasps the rules. Also, wait until he fully understands one game before you teach him a new one, otherwise it will end up confusing him.

    Playtime tips

    • Avoid games like keep away, wrestling, or tug-of-war. Those games encourage biting or dominant, aggressive behavior.
    • Stay in control of the game at all times. Show your dog that you're the pack leader, not just another member of the pack. Retrieval games are good at teaching control.
    • Don't include your body or clothing as part of any game.
    • Incorporate the SIT or DOWN and STAY commands in every game.
    • You decide when it's time to end the game, not your dog. The best time to stop the game is when your dog is still eager to play.
    • If, for some reason, your dog doesn't seem to understand the game at some point, go back to the beginning, or simply leave it and try again a few days later. Don't get angry if you're dog isn't "getting it" right away. Remember it's supposed to be a fun experience for both of you!

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