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Degenerative Myelopathy in German Shepherd Dogs

GSDs are susceptible to diseases or genetic defects. One of the disorders they inherit is Degenerative Myelopathy. Keep reading to find out more about this fatal disease, what causes it, and what treatments are available.

Definition and Causes

Definition– Canine Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a progressive degeneration of the spinal cord. It usually affects adult GSDs between 8 to 14 years of age. Some are affected as early as 5 to 6 years of age. Affected GSDs develop a loss of coordination of the hind limbs. Eventually, after 6 months to 1 year, the GSD becomes paraplegic and unable to stand or move. This doesn’t cause any pain to the affected GSD but it’s certainly inconvenient for him. 

Causes– According to studies, the cause is a mutation in a certain gene. If both parents have the defective gene, then their offsprings will inherit this defect. However, even though the offsprings inherited the defect, it doesn’t develop in some cases. Stress, lack of vitamins, underlying spinal injury, and toxins are other potential causes.

Signs and Symptoms

DM typically progresses through 3 stages.

  • Early Stage

Since DM is a progressive disease, it begins with less serious symptoms. The GSD with Degenerative Myelopathy will sometimes sway and wobble when attempting to stand, walk or climb upstairs. Sometimes only one leg is affected at first. You might think your GSD has Hip Dysplasia because its symptoms are similar to DM in the early stage. Because GSD’s movement is affected, he has difficulty exercising. This will result in the loss of some muscles in the rear legs. To identify if your GSD is affected with DM or hip dysplasia, your vet will use diagnostic tests like myelography and MRI. You may also notice your GSD dragging of his rear limb causing his inner rear paws digits to wear down easily. Other signs and symptoms include tremors and knuckling of the toes when walking.

  • Intermediate Stage

As the disease progresses, the signs and symptoms also worsen. The GSD couldn’t stand without support. He will start losing the sensation of his feet so he will stumble most of the time. His paws will be improperly placed on a surface because he couldn’t feel them.  

  • Late Stage

As time goes by, urinary and fecal incontinence occur so it affects his hygiene. His hind limb will be paralyzed completely and if allowed to worsen, the disease will affect all 4 hind legs. Other signs and symptoms include anxiety and infections.

Tests

The only definite way to diagnose DM is through an examination of the spinal cord of the dog. That’s only possible when he passes away. However, some tests can help diagnose DM in GSDs who are still alive.

  • DM DNA Test

This test can help the people identify which dog has the mutation gene carries the disease. This can help the breeders determine if a dog carries the disease. It’s simple because DNA samples are collected easily using cheek swabs. There are 3 possible genotypes for this test. The ‘clear’ genotype means both parents don’t have the mutation gene. The ‘carrier’ genotype means one parent has a mutation gene. The ‘at risk’ genotype means both parents have the mutation gene.

  • Blood Tests

These tests are the usual will help the vet to rule out diseases that may be causing the dog’s moving difficulties. Blood tests such as the complete blood count (CBC) and blood chemistries help the vet detect disorders.

  • Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 

These tests allow the vet to check the spinal diseases of the dog. MRI and CT are more sensitive than radiographs.

  • Collecting and Analysis of the Cerebrospinal fluid

Analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid helps the vet to determine if the dog has an inflammatory disease in the spinal cord. 

Treatments

There is currently no treatment for DM but personalized supportive care can relieve the symptoms. 

  • Assistive Equipment

Booties, harness, carts, and beddings are important equipment that can support the affected parts of the GSD. Put some booties on the GSD’s feet to prevent damage due to scraping. However, avoid using the booties all the time. Booties overuse can prevent the GSD from using his hind legs. If you exercise outdoors, use a lightweight cart. You can also use a bottom’s up leash, a hind-leg support harness. Use high-quality supportive bedding that is well-padded since your GSD might spend most of his time lying down. Make sure to maintain cleanliness.

  • Physiotherapies such as massage, heat treatment, and exercise 

Massage, heat treatment, and exercise can help the GSD become comfortable. Reports showed that dogs who exercised regularly had delayed muscle atrophy which is associated with DM. Even though you are using a cart or a harness, exercise is still important. Let your dog stand or walk indoors or outdoors. Do simple activities for your dog’s well-being. Lack of exercise will lead to boredom and muscle atrophy.

  • Healthy Food and Natural Supplements

Feed your dog a nutritious, balanced diet that appreciates for his age, weight, and disease. Work with your vet for suggestions. Choose foods that have anti-inflammatory benefits. You may also give natural supplements as advised by your vet.

  • Nursing Care

Your GSD completely depends on your care. Continue grooming him by brushing his coat, bathing or trimming his nails. GSDs with DM usually soil themselves so you have to clean their beddings daily.

When your dog spends most of his time lying down, he may develop bed sores or pressure sores. To prevent this problem, encourage him to move once in a while. If he’s too sick to do so, change his position from time to time.

If everything fails and the GSD can’t still manage his bodily functions, you may want to consider long-term care or long-term rest. Consult with your vet about the best course of action.

 Conclusion

We know how hard it is to have a GSD with Degenerative Myelopathy. It can be stressful for you and your dog. However, you can make him as comfortable as possible by following our tips above. 

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