German Shepherd Degenerative Myelopathy

 

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Degenerative Myelopathy (Degeneration of the Spinal Cord)

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a hereditary autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the dog's central nervous system. This attack leads to a loss of insulation around the nerve fibers (myelin) and of nerve fibers (axons). Once the nerves in the spinal cord are destroyed, the dog can no longer walk because, without nerve connections, muscles cannot work. The control pathways that make muscles work are located all throughout the spinal cord.

DM is an insidious disorder, the symptoms of which rarely show up before the age of 5, and possibly as late as age 14 years. The early stages of DM start with an almost imperceptible weakness in the hindquarters (also see 13, Hind Leg Weakness). In the last stage, the dog can no longer walk, nor hold balance when standing or squatting to defecate.

However, DM itself is not painful. There is zero pain because the nerve cells have died. The dog no longer feels the legs. A very stressful thought and physical experience, but without pain.

Who Gets Degenerative Myelopathy

German Shepherds are the breed that is most susceptible to Degenerative Myelopathy: Between 1 to 3% of German Shepherds worldwide are affected. However, in the USA alone, each year between 14,000 to 42,000 GSDs are diagnosed with DM - which effectively means that in the USA the proportion of affected GSDs is much higher. Simplified calculation: average 28,000 per year * average 12 years lifespan / 3.5 mio GSDs = 9.6%!

Since DM is hereditary, this means that GSD breeders have not yet taken enough care to avoid breeding affected parents. This reinforces the importance of finding the best German Shepherd breeders when you select your next GSD.

However, as with most hereditary disorders, both the outbreak of DM and its progression seem to be triggered by environmental intoxication. This means that you can indeed delay the outbreak of DM and slow down or even stop progression if you provide the right living environment for your dog.

Warning Signs

Recently the most important risk factor of DM, the defective gene, has been identified. It is recessive, which means both parents, the dam and the sire, must carry the defective gene for the puppies to develop DM later in their lives. A simple saliva-based genetic test was developed which can help determine the risk that a certain dog may contract DM later in life. The test costs only 65 USD.

This test is of course more relevant to GSD breeders who aim to try their best to use breeding dogs without hereditary ailments, however you too may wish to know whether your dog carries the defective A/A gene combination. In that case note that even a dog that carries the defective gene combination will not necessarily develop the symptoms of DM before the dog dies, because this depends on environmental factors and on how early the dog dies.

During early stage DM, occasionally you can hear the sound of your dog's hind leg toe nails scraping over the pavement during walking. Your dog will begin to show some difficulty getting up. If the dog is standing, (s)he may have difficulty balancing, yet the dog can recover on his own. If you turn your dog's toes under, (s)he may still be able to right the foot pad-down, but response time may be lengthened.

As DM progresses, difficulty getting up and rear feet nail scraping will increase. The rear legs will cross under your dog's body since (s)he is losing sensation in the hindquarters: The dog does not know where (s)he has placed the feet. Faulty perception of foot placement leads to tripping and stumbling.

When your dog is in a standing position, if you move the dog from side to side, using your hands, the dog will lose balance and topple over. Often, you will notice exaggerated movements, such as high stepping when going up a curb. If you now turn your dog's toes under, your dog will no longer place the foot in the proper pad-down position once (s)he can no longer feel the feet.

Soon, the tail will rarely become active and wag, however because of the length of the German Shepherd tail it may become tangled with the hind legs.

Ultimately, you will need to help a DM-suffering German Shepherd to walk at all. Up until the terminal phase, DM can take several years but ultimately the sense of feeling is completely lost, and the dog then loses control over bowel and bladder too.

Treating Degenerative Myelopathy

Although there is still no cure for DM or medication that would replace lost myelin and repair damaged axons, recent research has brought quite dramatic changes to the life expectancy and quality of life of dogs with DM. All these improvements are centered around the goal to provide the dog with a living environment that will at least delay, and possibly prevent, the outbreak or progression of DM.

Treatment of a German Shepherd with the defective gene combination should ideally start before the first symptoms become visible (that's why I said above that you too may want to know whether your non-breeding GSD carries the defective gene combination). In this case, in fact we are talking about avoidance measures - which may be successful to differing degrees.

Today's recommended treatment of DM combines four components:

  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Medication
  • Other supportive measures

Exercise

The more varied the exercise is that you provide to your dog, the more you stimulate the various brain functions, nerve fibres and muscles throughout the entire body. Research shows that exercise and diet have the biggest impact when we try to delay or even to prevent the outbreak of DM. The exercise program should comprise weekly swimming and extensive walks but should give your dog a resting day between days of heavy workout to allow strained muscles and tendons to heal and to increase the build up of muscle strength.

In case you didn't provide your dog with much exercise in the past, you should slowly increase the schedule of alternative day exercise over the period of a month until your dog is fit. Also, if your GSD is already affected by DM, you may need to help your dog to get out of the water if (s)he can no longer negotiate the bank on her own.

Important is varied exercise. Should your dog then at some point suffer DM, (s)he is optimally prepared to substitute various body functions with others that are not yet affected.

Diet

We now know that the right diet has a major impact on the outbreak and progression of DM. To give a dog the right diet is a key part of controlling environmental intoxication - which seems to trigger DM - and likely many other hereditary disorders too.

This is another reason why we are against processed, industrial dog food and why we stress so much the importance of healthy dog meals, regular meal times, and a consistent feeding routine on MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG. In particular German Shepherds with their sensitive digestion need the right diet in order to be healthy and happy. Only a healthy and happy dog can behave in a way that makes you happy too.

We cannot go into details here what the right diet for the German Shepherd is, but the MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL regularly features this topic too.

Medication

Recently, two medications have been identified that seem to prevent progression or even result in remission of DM in up to 80% of affected dogs: These medications are aminocaproic acid (EACA) and n-acetylcysteine (NAC). For both substances exist cheap generic products, and they can also be compounded in a local pharmacy.

Both substances should be given orally - diluted with chicken broth or another compatible substitute. However, note that side effects can be Gastroenteritis (see 5), Vomiting (see 29), and increased bleeding time.

Other supportive measures

Since DM is an autoimmune disorder attacking the nervous system, whenever sensible in your region, you must avoid vaccinations, heartworm medication, and flea and tick medication - all of which increase immune responsiveness.

Stress reduction: For example, even minor invasive surgical procedures showed a marked increase in the progression of DM. Dental work can be most problematic for your dog.

Physical aids: If your dog is already severely affected by DM such that the dog can no longer use the hind legs properly, then the Lift Rear Harness can help your dog to walk for as long as (s)he shows walking motion (if you feel strong enough for this). The Lift Rear Harness probably is more suitable than the Support Sling:

  • You keep the walking motion alive/active - this trains the dog's leg muscles and gives psychological support ("hey, I can still walk")
  • You have less weight to carry!

However, if you can't get the progression of DM under control (see above how) then at a later stage there may be no way around getting the fully adjustable dog walkin wheels (when the dog's hind legs show no more walking motion because the nerve fibers are destroyed).

Sorry that this topic doesn't end on a happier note, but DM in dogs really isn't a happy topic at all. That's why it is so important that GSD owners - and more so GSD breeders(!) - take all preventative action they can (see above), and otherwise treat the CAUSE of Degenerative Myelopathy as early as possible. Not merely the symptoms. Thank you all.

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  11 Site Comments, ZERO SPAM Add one

  1.  

    I read as most people do quickly and did not fully unerstand the aminocaproic acid (EACA) as it appeared to be impossible to purchase and my vet told me it was only available in USA not here and only if the vetinary council granted a licence. Tim was right and I should have actioned it earlier as Boots do supply it under a prescription from their main office under Boots Contract Manufacturing. I have some on order so please take heed of the information given and the wealth of knowledge in Tims work.

    Les Bradley

  2.  

    Our dear pet, Millie was diagnosed early this year with DM. She had been slowly losing control of her rear legs, ie dragging nails, trouble standing up, losing control of her bowels, (not bladder yet), etc for the past couple yrs. Though it's comforting to know she's not in pain, it is progressing. She's now 14 yrs, mostly deaf with cataracts and our vet. told us to enjoy her over the summer & fall but that come winter, she won't be able to navigate through snow & ice. It's already difficult for us to get her outside to do her business...as she mostly wears a diaper which we change for her. Having said this, she's such a trooper and so strong in her front quarters that she insists on dragging her back legs around the house to sit close to us and/or to eat or drink from her bowls. Her appetite is still excellent & she looks forward to meal-time, though she only seems to have a big drink once or twice a day now. My husband (who's had her her whole life) and I (only 5 1/2 yrs) know the big decision is imminent but it's soo difficult because she's still very loving and responsive to us and really tries hard to be as normal as possible...tho she does sleep several hours a day. We pray she'll simply pass in her sleep but honestly she still seems fairly strong and not wanting to give up yet. I know her quality of life has diminished and we're in our late fifties, so it's getting to be a challenge for us to assist her without risking a fall or injury ourselves. We're looking for a significant sign from her that she's ready to say goodbye...we were going to make "the" appointment this week, but just couldn't...she's still sharing her love, provides happy licks on us, loves her dinner & still looks fwd to my husband coming home from work ea. night. She's been my best friend these past 5 1/2 yrs and love her soo much, but this is the hardest decision I've had to make (my hubby won't make it & is leaving it to me to make the call & take her to the vet...it's too traumatic for him :(
    Thanks for listening everyone....guess we'll take it from here & see how she is next week & if winter comes soon, that may facilitate "the" decision. Bless our Millie, the most beautiful & loving german shepherd in the world!

    •  

      Thanks for sharing Laurie. You are going to take the right decision, I know.

      •  

        I READ your letter about your shepherd and know how you feel,as my shepherd has been afflicked with the same problem.I don"t know what to do,and it is breaking my heart. I know I will have to face the reality in the near future,but all I have is hope.Sam is my best friend,and I feel so helpless,any advice you can give would be great.

      •  

        Letter? Not sure if you mean our member Les? Their dog meanwhile sadly deceased. But they were the best caretakers through to the end.

        I would do exactly like I wrote on this page above Larry.

  3.  

    I am on my fourth German Shepherd. My first died at age 5 of bone cancer. My second, at age 9 of gastric torsion, and my third, at age 14 from degenerative myelopathy. Our situation was so much like Lauries, its remarkable. Our dog was so healty otherwise, it was all the more tragic. She got to the point where she couldnt really walk at all, and kept falling down, and yet she still tried. It was heartbreaking to see, and yet she was fine as long as she could just be with us. We waited, and our vet said she will let us know when it was time, and she did. It was a sorrowful day for us, she was the best dog ever; so loyal and true to the end. We know, though, that we did the best we could for her. So to Larry, I say, do the best you can and if you know your dog, you will know when he tells you its time.

  4.  

    Our 12 year old sheperd Jax is starting to lose control of back left leg. So glad I read your stories! We kept saying we didn't think he was in any pain... glad to know this!

    Going to vet & see about the meds suggested above! We too love our Jax & breaks our hearts to think of life without him! We rescued him 10 years ago & has been the best dog ever! He rescued us!!? God bless all of you who are loving these sweet, beautiful GSD!

  5.  

    Ok here I go.... this may be long but I need to be very detailed to understand my situation. I have a different kind of question....one that everyone may not understand or like but I really need some support.

    Our German Shepard is Harley and he will be 10 in January. This past March is when Harley had his first fall and was diagnosed with DM.
    Now before I go on, I need to rewind back a few years to understand what I am going to ask.

    Harley was our first love, He stole our hearts. Years went by and we had a baby girl, they played great together. Then in 2012, we had triplets and they came super early...3 months early. They spent months in the hospital and when they came home, we were warned by the medical staff that it was very important to keep them away from all germs cause their immune system is very week.
    A few months later, Harley stopped eating and was peeing in the house. Took his to the vet and he was diagnosed with leptospirosis.
    Our world was turned upside down. Not only was I feeling bad for Harley but I was freaking out they my kids would get sick. Harley was quarantined for a few months in our sun room until all his blood work came back that he was good. His kidneys did get a hard hit from it and only function at about 25%. We also noticed spots on the floor and realized he would drip spots of pee.
    Because I was so fearful and traumatized by the lepto, I no longer wanted Harley to interact with our children. Plus because he was separated from the triplets shortly after they came home, I was afraid he may not "like them" being he was taken away from the family.
    So..Harley's quality of life from that point on changed and was closed off to the kitchen at all times. A gate separated him in the kitchen from the rest of the house and I no longer let the kids go into the kitchen in fear of them stepping on his urine.
    Naturally as a mother and being all that we had gone through with our 2 pound triplets and Harley's stuff, I became a germaphobe. I couldn't help but think Harley was still infected with the lepto. My kids quality of life too became compromised because I won't let them walk in the kitchen barefoot. They have to ask me for water or a snack. (go ahead, think I'm crazy but I have been through A LOT)
    Fast forward back to March of this year when Harley was diagnosed with DM. I knew we couldn't care for him the way he needed it with 4 kids and did I forget to mention the biggest and hardest part of all this.....one of the triplets, our son Luca was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He cannot sit, stand, walk or talk. He is severe and I spend many many hours back and forth to therapy amongst everything else with my other 3. Life is very busy to say the least. We knew we couldn't afford to pay for any meds for Harley with all of our sons expenses and decided we would let the DM take its course. It was so great to know that he was not in any pain from this.
    Now.....to date, Harley is still holding strong, he eats a lot and drinks a lot, I think because of his kidney failure, and is still very excited like a puppy when my husband gets home from work and loves chasing the kids outside. The last vet appointment we went to mentioned that Harley is also showing signs of some pain from possible arthritis. He walks still but slides around and falls a lot, nails bleed when he's outside and he will have poop accidents in the house. He also has a skin rash in his old age that makes him stinky and very itchy.

    Ok so here is my question......ready......do you know where I'm going with this......
    With our crazy life of 4 kids, a special needs child, not being able to afford meds for Harley and not being able to wait till Harley is on his deathbed......Is it ok, knowing that he is terminal to put him at peace before he gives me the signs he done?
    Remember.....life these past four years has been an emotional and physically draining roller coaster with having all that Harley went through with the lepto and me becoming a germaphobe - to my life being consumed with my 6 year old and three 4 years olds, one that takes up every minute of my day with his special needs.
    We can not wait till he needs a diaper or can't get up. The stage he is at now is very hard for us to manage but is it too soon?

    I find myself so stressed out over this and crying a lot. My family, who are dogs lovers, feel I am very overwhelmed and think it is time and our vet said she is ok with any point we decide. But I feel like he's not ready and am I? How much longer does he have? How much longer can I deal? Am I giving up on him? Am I being selfish? ugh....I am so sad and torn. I can't look at him with tearing up. My heart hurts.
    I guess I'm looking for some support though I may get some hatred as well.

    •  

      AnnaStella, Thanks for sharing your thoughtful story. I think you need to make the decision is right for you and it'll be ther ight one. Fear not, you did all you could do and your dog will be at peace.

  6.  

    My GSD lost all use of all legs today. She seems to be stressed and winces sometimes while trying to stand. I think she might be in pain. I don't want her to suffer.

    •  

      No age, no information other than the page that you posted on. IF DM she won't be in pain but very stressed, yes. But DM doesn't come full force overnight!

      Even if you won't give your vet more info either, at least (s)he will see your dog. That should make an assessment easy. So I'd suggest you visit a quality vet?

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