Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds is a progressive neurological disorder that affects the spinal cord and muscle coordination in their hind limbs. The disease affecting dogs exhibit similar symptoms as found in the case of humans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis problem. Your German Shepherd suffers from the degeneration of the “white matter” – the outer layer of the spinal cord in the thoracic section, particularly with the loss of myelin sheath around the spine. This white matter contains fibers that transmit movement signals and commands from the brain to the limbs and links sensory information from the limbs to the brain.  

Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds: The Reason

According to a 2009 study, degeneration myelopathy in German Shepherds may be due to the presence of large amounts of Reactive Oxygen Species molecules (ROS) that can damage cell components. The large amount of ROS is because of a mutation in the gene that regulates the superoxide dismutase-1 (SOD1) enzyme production. These enzymes are supposed to help break down ROS and limit the damage they might cause. This means that breeders should consider ruling out this gene mutation in their dogs before breeding them. The OFA suggests for DNA testing by breeders to avoid degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds and other breeds susceptible to the disorder.  Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds is not painful. However, the weakness caused by it in some parts of the affected dog’s body induces compensatory movements in other parts causing the walking disability. Some dogs need to drag their hind legs for longer periods, causing them to develop pain in other body parts, such as shoulders, neck, chest, and front limbs. 

Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

Here are the most common signs of degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds.  Initial to Intermediate Stage 

  • Claw scuffing 
  • Knuckling of toes 
  • Poor foot placement 
  • Tremors in the hind legs 
  • Muscle weakness or loss of control in the hind limbs (may begin in only one hind leg) 
  • Muscle atrophy 
  • Difficulty in standing up, walking, or defecation 
  • Dragging of the hind legs and feet 

Advanced Stage 

  • Incontinence (urinary and fecal) 
  • Front limb weakness 
  • Inability to swallow and/or bark 

Signs of degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds mostly appear in dogs aged between 5 and 14 years old. The disorder progresses very slowly and has no known cure. However, medical and therapeutic interventions can delay its progress. If left unattended, it may paralyze your German Shepherd’s rear body in 6 months to 1 year.  Some symptoms of degenerative myelopathy are similar to that of other orthopedic diseases, such as hip dysplasia. But poor foot placement is often an early sign of degenerative myelopathy that is often not indicative of other orthopedic illnesses. 

Diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds

If you suspect that your German Shepherd has degenerative myelopathy, you should consult your vet immediately. After assessing the clinical signs, the vet may also suggest for MRI scans and myelogram to rule out inflammatory diseases and spinal cord compressions, which can be fixed via surgery. 

Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherds: The Treatment 

There is no known treatment for degenerative myelopathy. As the disease has very poor prognosis at the advanced stage, a lot of veterinarians recommend putting the dog to sleep. For owners who wish to keep their dogs alive for a longer span of time, vets advise giving vitamin supplements and amioncaproic acid along with other therapies to help maintain muscle strength from the early onset of the disorder.   Some owners also opt to get carts for their dogs to let them remain pain free while walking. It is recommended to maintain cardiovascular fitness and the strength of the front legs to make sure that the dog’s everyday life – even with the cart – goes well.    

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