Degenerative Myelopathy German Shepherd | Causes, Symptoms, Treatment
Degenerative myelopathy in a German Shepherd dog is a serious and often tragic illness. First identitified in 1973, degenerative myelopathy is often diagnosed when a German Shepherd dog is between 5 and 14 years of age. Scientists at the University of Florida, currently studying the disease, suggest that this disease results from an autoimmune condition which causes the immune system to attach the myelin sheathing that insulates nerve fibres and the axons that carry signals from the nerves to the muscles. A neurological disease, which may present as similar to multiple sclerosis in humans, although the causes are unlikely to be linked. As the disease progresses it leads to a point at which the nervous connections between the spinal chord and muscle tissue are so damaged that the dog can no longer walk. The condition is known to be hereditary, so once diagnosed in one dog it can be traced through the genes to descendents.
Symptoms rarely occur before the dog is five years old, and the condition may not manifest until it is as old as fourteen. The disease is not painful, since the nerves which are shredded as it progresses are unable to transmit impulses to the brain. Dogs reach a stage where they simply cannot feel their legs. German Shepherds are the breed most susceptible to contracting degenerative myelopathy, with something between 1 and 3% of dogs affected. In the USA alone anywhere from 14,000 to 42,000 cases are diagnosed each year.
There is a saliva-based test available to seek the defective gene which causes degenerative myelopathy, and this can be administered by a veterinarian. Early symptoms include the dragging of the hind feet on the floor as an affected animal walks, and some difficulty standing. As the disease progresses, a German Shepherd dog will become less aware of how it is walking, and progress will be erratic. It will also lose its sense of balance as it loses feeling in its legs, being liable to topple over when pushed. Exaggerated movements, and a marked decline in wagging of the tail will contribute to the owner’s awareness of his dog’s condition.
Degenerative myelopathy is ultimately terminal, although the process of decline may take years. Eventually, the German Shepherd will lose control over its bowels and bladder, and death will subsequently result. Bedsores and infections are more likely as the lack of mobility becomes chronic.
Recent advances have improved both longevity and quality of life for dogs with degenerative myelopathy. Although there is no cure, nor any means of replacing damaged myelin sheathing or axons, a regimen of exercise, medication and a carefully controlled diet are effective strategies for addressing the disease. Varied exercise is important in order to stimulate the dog’s mind, body-consciousness, nervous system and muscles. Weekly swimming and extensive walks allow dogs to develop disparate clusters of muscles, such that they are better suited to substituting working muscular functions for those they can no longer control as the condition worsens.
Regular meal times and a menu of meaty, non-synthetic foods can help prevent the environmental factors thought to trigger myelopathy. Aminocaproic acid (EACA) and n-acetylcysteine (NAC) may be prescribed by your vet in support of a healthy diet, although the side effects, including vomiting, should be watched out for. It is also beneficial for affected dogs if the levels of stress they experience are low.