German Shepherd Degenerative Myelopathy


We've added an update to our most popular article:

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


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.


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.


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.


 Comments via our New Facebook Page Managed by Krystal! - Thank you xx

Just Note:

1. To fight SPAM anything with a link lands in SPAM
2. To go live any bark must be relevant to this page
3. Be polite, introduce yourself with what you found, not with a help request

  6 Site Comments, ZERO SPAM Add one


    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


    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 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'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.


    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.

Bark away ... just note:

1. To fight SPAM anything with a link lands in SPAM
2. To go live any bark must be relevant to this page
3. Be polite, introduce yourself with what you found, not with a help request

 Speak your heart out

Jonathan: "Thank you for your period advice. It is excellent! My GSD puppy is now 8 months and we read your advice regularly."
Dwayne: "I love this site and the info you post onto it. Thanks again!!!!"
Penny: "Thanks for making your great articles available to all of us. it's nice to know that a recommended product is actually available in my country."

Stay with us and your dog will stay with you, both of you healthy and well-behaved.
If you are ever unhappy with anything we write, do or don't do, we want to be the first to know, thanks.

Disclaimer: Always apply your own common sense when you follow anyone's suggestions. As much as your dog is special (s)he may react different too.

© MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG - All content is protected. You must not copy or spin or otherwise change our content to republish it in your name, another one's name or without a name. If you wish to make use of our Intellectual Property Rights contact MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG. Thank you.

There's nothing quite like a healthy and well-behaved German Shepherd who freely guards every corner of your home, who brings you peace, who brings you joy!
Welcome to MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG - we help you that YOUR DOG does not end up in a(nother) shelter!