What is canine degenerative myelopathy?

Canine degenerative myelopathy (CDM), also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy, is a progressive, degenerative disease that affects a dog’s spinal cord along with the brain and cranial nerves.

It occurs when the white matter of the spinal cord, which transmits sensory information to the body, degenerates and is often compared to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in humans as it affects the communication between the brain and the limbs.

The condition greatly impacts a dog’s mobility and causes a gradual paralysis over time. While symptoms can start off minimal they will usually worsen over the course of 6-18 months.

What causes canine degenerative myelopathy?

Often present in older dogs, the exact cause of CDM is unknown, however, there are certain breeds that are more predisposed to the condition. This is down to the genetic mutation SOD-1, which has been found to greatly increase the risk of developing the disease.

The breeds more predisposed to develop canine degenerative myelopathy include:

  • German Shepherds
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Boxers
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • Welsh Corgis

What are the symptoms of canine degenerative myelopathy?

The first symptoms of canine degenerative myelopathy are subtle and usually occur in dogs over 8 years old.


These symptoms include:

  • Weakness in the back legs
  • Wobbliness when walking on standing
  • Tripping and unsteadiness
  • Feet scraping on the ground
  • Dragging of the paws when walking
  • Maltese
  • Difficulty getting up or climbing stairs

As the condition progresses, your dog may show symptoms including:

  • Jerky movements
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty standing

When the condition is at its worst, your pet may experience:

  • Paralysis of the back legs
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Incontinence
  • Front leg weakness
  • Collapsing

If your pet is displaying any of these symptoms or signs, please contact a veterinary professional immediately.

How is it diagnosed?

There is no way to confirm a CDM diagnosis until an autopsy is undertaken, and so the condition is presumptively diagnosed once other conditions have been ruled out.

First, a full examination will take place, including blood work and urinalysis, along with a full medical history check. There are also a number of diagnostic imaging tests that your neurologist is likely to make use of when diagnosing the condition. A spinal X-ray, or an MRI or CT scan are often used to take a closer look at the spine and to rule out conditions with similar symptoms such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, spinal cord tumours and lumbosacral disease. A sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) may also be taken to further investigate whether elevated protein levels are evident.

How is Degenerative Myelopathy treated?

Unfortunately, as it is a progressive disease, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy, and owners usually work to provide palliative care. However, there is a range of treatment options available to manage the condition, help to keep your pet comfortable and provide the best quality of life.

Physical rehabilitation and physiotherapy is a great way to help your dog recover some strength while investing in the right assistive equipment, such as harnesses or carts, can help your dog to stay active despite being less mobile.



How to help your pet if they are suffering from canine degenerative myelopathy

If your pet is suffering from the disease, it’s important that you make some adaptations to keep your dog happy and healthy. As the condition worsens, your dog is likely to have trouble with their mobility, and so there are a few things you can do to keep them comfortable.

  • Avoid obesity: ensuring sure your dog isn’t overweight is important to avoid putting too much pressure on the weakened legs, so encourage exercise, where possible and feed your dog a healthy high-protein diet.


  • Make some home adaptations: if your pet is struggling to get up, it might be worth investing in a low, flatbed, while dogs suffering from incontinence might benefit from something absorbent, such as a puppy pad, to keep them dry. Similarly, if your dog is dragging its feet around, it may be a good idea to chat to your vet about pet boots for protection.

In more serious cases, your dog may present with weakness or numbness in the limbs, nerve paralysis or an inability to regulate their own body temperature. It’s also important to note that symptoms may appear worse when your dog is exercising, late at night or first thing in the morning, and in extreme temperatures.

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