Canine degenerative myelopathy (also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy) is a progressive disease of the spinal cord in older dogs. The disease has an insidious onset typically between 7 and 14 years of age. It begins with a loss of coordination (ataxia) in the hind limbs. As of July 15, 2008 the mutated gene responsible for DM has been found present in 43 breeds including German Shepherds, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and both breeds of Welsh Corgis. The disease is chronic and progressive, and resulting in paralysis.
The myelin is an insulating sheath around neurons in the spinal cord. One proposed cause of degenerative myelopathy is that the immune system attacks this sheath, breaking it down. This results in a loss of communication between nerves in lower body of the animal and the brain.
Degenerative myelopathy initially affects the back legs and causes muscle weakness and loss, and lack of coordination. These cause a staggering effect that may appear to be arthritis. The dog may drag one or both rear paws when it walks. This dragging can cause the nails of one foot to be worn down. The condition may lead to extensive paralysis of the back legs. As the disease progresses, the animal may display symptoms such as incontinence and has considerable difficulties with both balance and walking. If allowed to progress, the animal will show front limb involvement and extensive muscle atrophy. Eventually cranial nerve or respiratory muscle involvement necessitates euthanasia.
Progression of the disease is generally slow but highly variable. The animal could be crippled within a few months, or may survive up to three years.
Degenerative myelopathy is a non-reversible, progressive disease that cannot be cured. There are no treatments that have been clearly shown to stop or slow progression of DM.