Dog trains man

Monday, October 27, 2014

Degenerative Myelopathy Part 1: What Can You Do For Your Dog?

"Your dog probably suffers from DM, Degenerative Myelopathy".

For my friend Thomas, the vets' verdict was like hearing a death-sentence.

After months of testing, x-rays, blood tests, and CAT scans, several vets couldn't find the cause why Cliff was dragging with his rear right leg. And when no diagnosis can be made, the final diagnosis is always, "it's probably DM". DM is only diagnosed, when everything else has been ruled out.

Thomas knew it was severe. Maybe one year, two at best, for Cliff to have some quality of life.

That was more than two years ago. Maybe you remember when Thomas wrote on this blog, how he and Cliff fought back, and how they were able to celebrate life with Cliff, against all odds. Cliff sadly passed away some months after the story was published.

So what is DM, Degenerative Myelopathy? And what can you do about it?

DM is a disease of the spinal cord. The membrane that protects the nerves degenerates, and eventually the nerves themselves become affected. The disease progresses slowly, and symptoms start with dragging of the rear legs, until it progresses into paralysis of the rear legs, incontinence, breathing-problems, and finally complete paralysis when also the front-legs are affected. After this there is also a final stage with more complications like organ failure, but this is rare, as most dogs are humanly euthanized before reaching this stage.

DM usually first shows its face, when a dog reaches the age between 7 and 9 years of age.

The combination of several genes, together with perhaps some environmental factors, cause the disease. One of the involved genes has been identified, but which other genes exactly play a role as well, is not known, according to Dr. Elisabeth Dietschi from The University of Bern, Institute of Genetics. There is no cure for DM either.

That's a lot of bad news indeed. On the positive side it is worth mentioning though, that dogs with DM feel no pain, and by following a rigid daily physical therapy program, it is possible to slow the progress of the disease down. According to this research paper, Daily controlled physiotherapy increases survival time in dogs with suspected degenerative myelopathy, dogs with DM who follow a daily exercise program live on average 255 days longer, than dogs without such a program. Note that this research also involved Hovawarts.

Such a physical therapy program, according to the German physical therapist Anja Bulle, who completed her study with DM as a specialty, consists of massage, stretch- and active movement exercises, isometric training, balance exercises on a balance disc, and water therapy.

Although progress of DM is slowed down with physical therapy, it will progress nonetheless, and there is a need for tools to cope with this, like special protective boots, harnesses, and wheel chairs, as described in Thomas' blog post.

So far for what DM is, and what you can do about it. But what are breeders and breed clubs doing about this disease if it is hereditary? What can they do? As you probably noticed, some have started testing for one of the genes which seems to be mostly involved in causing DM. Will that help, or is it a knee-jerk reaction? Continued in Part 2: Should We Worry About The Hovawart's Future?


  1. I remember someone telling me that a good exercise to help maintain strength in the back legs is to push down gently on the dog's hips - this invites the dog to push back into your hand. All my dogs love this, and they each have their morning dance with me. How long this would stem the tide of DM is anyone's guess.

    1. It is, also one of the things on the list of Anja Bulle. I hope she will one day make her program publically available.


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