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Possible degenerative myelopathy.

Species: Dog
Breed: German Shepherd
Age: 11-15 years
Hi Dr. Marie,

My 11 year old German shepherd has been taking prevacox, tramedol, glucosamine etc.. Since june 2010 and now adequin injections for 2 weeks for arthritis. Although I don't feel she was ever examined/tested to find out exactly what is wrong with her.

We took her to the vet early June because she was having trouble getting up and down and slipping and falling. The vet felt her legs and that's about it and then prescribed all the meds above. Since then she has progressively gotten worse. She can get up on her own and stand for a few seconds before swaying and falling. Her knuckling is severe if you ask me. She has scrapes on her feet and her toenails are extremely worn to the point where one is exposed and bleeding every time we take her outside. She cannot walk without knuckling. This is all in her rear legs.

While I'm still assuming she has arthritis and this is just what happens, I decided to get her a canine wheelchair. While researching carts online today, I kept seeing information about DM which I'd never heard of. Once I read about it, I realized that she has all the symptoms. my vet has never mentioned DM to me.

I guess my question is, is it possible for her to have arthritis/hip displaysia with these symptoms to this extent? I called the vet today today to let them know that my dog has all the symptoms for DM and they are supposed to call me tomorrow.

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Oh, I am sorry to hear that Princess is having these problems. German Shepherds are wonderful dogs, but they often do get problems with their joints or nerves as they get older.

What you have described sounds really typical of degenerative myelopathy. As you have likely discovered in your reading, DM is most commonly found in German Shepherds (although any dog can get it).

What happens with DM is that the nerves affecting the back end are affected. At first it is difficult to tell the difference between DM and arthritis. And, as many Shepherds have arthritis in their hips, many dogs with early DM will be treated for arthritis. Really, this is not a bad thing because most dogs with DM have some arthritis as well, so if we can make the dog more comfortable regarding the arthritis then this will help.

The knuckling that you have described is really typical of degenerative myelopathy. When a dog knuckles her hind legs this means that there is a problem with the nerves traveling down the spinal cord. Then, the weakness very slowly gets worse. We start to see more muscles in the legs being affected. Eventually, as the disease progresses most dogs will lose control of their back legs.

When this happens some dogs can do ok in a wheelchair for a while. However, often the disease continues to progress and it can affect the muscles that are needed for breathing. Unfortunately DM is a disease that is usually fatal but it can take a long time to get to this point.

I should mention that we can see similar symptoms (knuckling and weakness) if a dog has severe arthritis in their spine, or a problem with a bulging disc in the spine. However, given that Princess is a Shepherd, DM is much more likely.

Until recently we haven't had a test for DM. Apparently there is a new test available. However, most vets do not run a test because the disease is usually easy to diagnose on physical exam.

Unfortunately there are not any drugs that will slow down the progression of the disease. I will usually use the types of drugs that Princess has been on to help, but at some point we usually end up talking about euthanasia.

I'm so sorry for this bad news. Please let me know if you have more questions.

Dr. Marie.

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Disclaimer: Although Dr. Marie is a qualified veterinarian, the information found on this site is not meant to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. and Dr. Marie do not accept any responsibility for any loss, damage, injury, death, or disease which may arise from reliance on information contained on this site. Do not use information found on this site for diagnosing or treating your pet. Anything you read here is for information only.

Customer reply:

Thank you so much for the quick informative response. I forgot to mention that she now drags her hind legs to get through the house and has fecal incontinence about everyday. Does this also occur with arthritis and/or disc disease or is it most commonly DM?

She was also prescribed gabapentin but I slowly removed her from this because I did not like the way she behaved on it and saw no improvements. Do you feel this medicine will help?

DM scares me so much and I have not found definitive information online regarding the life expectancy of this horrible disease. I've read it can vary significantly. What are your thoughts on this?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

You're very welcome. Unfortunately the fecal incontinence is likely part of the DM as well. This is one of the steps of the progression of DM.

Ultimately the decision on whether or not to use the gabapentin should be made between you and your vet. Gabapentin is best for dogs with pain related to their nervous system. Degenerative myelopathy is not painful. But, if there is arthritis pain along with the DM then the gabapentin may help. I have had mixed results with it. So, if you do not feel that it is helping then likely your vet will advise you to stop it. You have to be careful to wean a dog off of gabapentin and not stop it all of a sudden as a sudden stop can cause some dogs to have seizures.

I always hesitate to answer questions about life expectancies, but I can tell you about some of my experiences with dogs with DM. I have had some dogs who have lived for years with mild DM symptoms. However, in my experience once we start seeing a noticeable decline in the ability to walk, and especially if we are seeing fecal incontinence the disease tends to progress even faster.

Your vet will be able to help you with decision making and to help you determine what kind of quality of life Princess has.

I wish I could give you more positive information.

Dr. Marie.

Customer reply:

I appreciate your response as tears run down my face. Princess has been my life since I got her at 2 months old. I will talk to my vet but will do everything and anything to keep her here and healthy as long as possible.

Thank you, again.

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

You are very welcome. Princess is blessed to have such a loving owner.

Dr. Marie.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

Is an online vet visit just as good as a trip to your veterinarian? No! But, many times, asking an online veterinarian a question can help save you money. While Dr. Marie can't officially diagnose your pet or prescribe medications, she can often advise you on whether a vet visit is necessary. You can also ask Dr. Marie for a second opinion on your pet's condition.