Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

dog lying 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.

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