Degenerative myelopathy is most commonly seen in the German Shepherd Dog, although other breeds are also predisposed, including the boxer, Cardigan and Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Siberian husky and the Rhodesian ridgeback. This disease is normally seen around middle age, and in general diagnosis can only be confirmed at post mortem examination. Breed surveys of some predisposed breeds indicate a fairly low occurrence rate, but most experts think this rate is actually much higher, due to the lack of post mortem follow up of the majority of suspected cases.
Signs are due to the immune-mediated destruction of a part of the nerves in the spinal cord, leading to loss of these nerve fibres. The first sign is knuckling of the hind feet, and hind limb ataxia. Once the spinal cord damage progresses past this initial stage (termed proprioceptive deficits), the effectiveness of treatment is much diminished. Hence early diagnosis is vital.
Following this initial stage, hind limb reflexes are affected, then weakness in the hind limbs develops, progressing to total paralysis. Once a dog shows these signs it will respond poorly to therapy. Eventually destruction progresses from the middle of the spinal cord to the upper cord and brain stem, leading to forelimb weakness and eventually interference with the muscles of breathing, causing death. Most dogs are euthanased for humane reasons before this happens.
Treatment is with specific supplements and drugs aimed at interfering with the immune destruction in the spinal cord, to slow further nerve damage. The effectiveness of this treatment is variable, but is only of benefit if started as early as possible. Once nerves are lost, they will not be replaced. Degenerative myelopathy cannot be cured.