The Challenge Of Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): Knowledge Is Power (Part I)

When faced with a particularly difficult challenge in life, I have always felt the best weapon of combat is knowledge. Along with that is keeping a positive attitude. 

As a physical therapist, dealing with canine patients diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy is both rewarding and heart wrenching. 

Keeping dog parents informed and equipped with management tools is essential to optimization of the condition.

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a PAINLESS, chronic, slowly progressive weakening starting in the hind limbs and lumbar region. 

There is diffuse muscle atrophy (wasting), the paws begin to “knuckle under”, the legs drag with a loss of coordination, and walking becomes very difficult. It tends to progress over 5-6 months. It is most common in certain breeds of dogs such a German Shepherds, Welsh Corgis, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Boxers, Collies, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Typically appears at 7-14 years of age. 

The diagnosis is “by exclusion” in ruling out other causes. 

Radiographs (x-rays) will be negative for dysplasia, IVDD, arthritis, tumors. In the near future, the diagnosis may be more definitive through the emergence of a blood test that detects genetic markers for the condition. OFA may be able to provide some DNA testing information for you, your breeder and Veterinarian.

DM is quite similar to multiple sclerosis in human beings 

Some dogs experience a form of it similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) that includes loss of function of the cranial nerves which control swallowing, facial movements, etc.. 

The cause is unknown although recent research has found a possible genetic link through a mutated gene. The mechanism is non-inflammatory and “demyelinating” (stripping) of the nerves in the spinal cord. 

DM is thought to be auto-immune in origin whereby the immune system attacks the myelin sheath. 

This is the outer covering of nerves, like insulation over electrical wires, so when it is stripped or covered in plaques; the nerve communication is decreased (similar to when your computer slows down because of ‘noise “on your cable).

The bad news is that at the present time there is no cure for DM. 

The good news is that the disease is not painful for the dog and is generally harder on the dog parents than the dog. 

There are many decisions that have to be made at various stages of the disease regarding the dog’s’ and the family’s maximum quality of life. If the family stays involved in the decision process, and can provide the best possible canine care, the dog will generally stay content and happy. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of a commitment from the family. 

Because DM is a difficult condition to manage, it is best shared by various family members who form a” care-giving team”. For older members, it can provide a routine and fulfillment. For younger family and kids, it can build responsibility. If everyone pitches in, the workload will be less and the dog will feel like a superstar. The family will also need a reality check as to goals, and be prepared to face regression.


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Further reading: 

Doggie Essentials/Quality Sanitary Products
Scout's House/Non-Slip Pet Socks
Eddie's Wheels
Help'Em Up Harness
Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery


  1. My first Newf had DM. He was about 7 1/2 when he was diagnosed. It started off with the dragging of the paws and over a few months he couldn't stand anymore. We tried a few things to try and slow down the progression, but nothing seemed to help.

    1. Sorry about your baby. Yeah, so far there doesn't seem to be anything out there to cure this. I'm wondering whether at some point they will experiment with stem cell treatment for this.

  2. Yes, there is something out there that helps for a time, for my Corgi a significant time--it is holistic medication in the form of Supple Spine, one mg of Prednisone twice a day (this is titrated to pet's size and needs), Marin is helpful to counteract liver issues with the Prednisone, chiropractic treatment, and most important ACUPUNCTURE. Yes, it is a hard road and there are no cures yet. But there are ways to work with this for quality time. PPA helps bladder muscle control as well. Cranidin will help with urinary pH balance. We all wish and I certainly wish it the most that our pets would never have to leave us. My prayers are that those of us with pets affected with DM will be able to find those daily smiles in the warmth of the sun on our pets fur as we hold them, the special food they thank us for, the cuddle moments, and the strength to give them the care they need.

  3. Stem cell therapies have been tried. The progressive nature of the disease quickly kills the cells. They may show improvement for a time but in the end the disease wins. Does not mean it's not worth trying though and new breakthroughs happen that may change it in the future. One can hope and dream. I lost my heart dog and soulmate to this disease and am fostering another who may likely have have it as well. It is devastating.

    1. Very sad. There is only so much the stem cells can do. Certainly worth of trying, even if just to buy some time.


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