Degenerative myelopathy (DM), previously known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), is a progressive degenerative spinal cord disease. It causes paralysis of the hind limbs and can move forward along the spine, eventually affecting the forelimbs. Sadly, there is no treatment for degenerative myelopathy, only palliative care.

What is Canine Degenerative Myelopathy?

Degenerative Myelopathy in dogs is a genetic mutation that produces excessive free radicals. Free radicals are part of the natural defence mechanism but become harmful when produced in excessive quantities, causing cell death and various degenerative diseases. Canine degenerative myelopathy results in a gradual onset of spinal cord paralysis, leading from hind limb weakness to paralysis and incontinence.

Stages of DM in Dogs

There are 4 stages to degenerative myelopathy. A dog will generally progress through the stages within a year to 18 months; most dogs are then euthanised as their quality of life is significantly reduced.

Stage 1: The dog can walk but shows weakness in the hind limbs, stumbling or crisscrossing. The paws can start knuckling over, and it has difficulty getting up from lying.

Stage 2: The dog becomes increasingly weaker in the hind limbs until he cannot walk on his hind limbs.

Stage 3: The dog has paralysis of the hind limbs and weakness involving the front limbs. Fecal and urinary incontinence are now present.

Stage 4: The dog is completely paralysed in all four limbs and has other associated difficulties with paralysis, such as incontinence and problems swallowing and breathing.


Degenerative myelopathy is an inherited genetic condition. It is not something you are responsible for, nor do you have any control over it. If you are buying a puppy, always choose a puppy from a responsible breeder to improve your chances of buying a healthy pup. Good breeders will screen their dogs for inherited conditions the breed is prone to. Do your research, and make sure you know what tests your breeder should be carrying out on their breeding stock.

Breed Predisposition

As with many diseases, degenerative myelopathy is more common in certain breeds. Historically, it was associated mainly with German Shepherds. However, it can be a concern in a range of different breeds, including:

  • Boxers
  • Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis
  • Wire Fox Terriers
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Borzoi
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Golden Retriever
  • Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog
  • Kerry Blue Terriers
  • Poodle
  • Pug
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers

Signs and Symptoms

Degenerative myelopathy usually occurs in dogs older than 8 years. It can be initially confused with standard symptoms of old age, with one hind limb presenting with weakness or stiffness. It also has a similar presentation to other spinal cord or neurological diseases. However, degenerative myelopathy will progress steadily after the initial onset, and the crisscrossing walk will begin to be seen, often contributing to the final diagnosis.

Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prognosis

Degenerative myelopathy is diagnosed by a combination of techniques. Your vet will take a thorough history, combined with a clinical examination. X-ray imaging and other spinal radiograph techniques will show the great detail. This will help to rule out other conditions which could have similar presentations. Sadly, there is no treatment for degenerative myelopathy. We can help you to provide palliative care for your dog, such as physio, but the disease will progress. Most dogs either pass away or are euthanised within 1 to 2 years from diagnosis.

What Can Trigger DM in Dogs?

Degenerative myelopathy is a genetic condition. This means that certain dogs will have a predisposition to getting the disease. However, a genetic predisposition does not mean a dog will get the disease. Some dogs with genetic markers could never get the disease, and some with a low likelihood of developing it could.

Is Degenerative Myelopathy painful?

Degenerative myelopathy is painless to the dog. However, the consequences could make the dog uncomfortable as the disease worsens. There are ways to help manage the condition, such as boots to protect the paws when they knuckle over. If your dog becomes incontinent, frequent washing will prevent urine burn. Dogs with degenerative myelopathy can be prone to falling over, which could hurt them, so making sure your floor is non-slip and easy for your dog to walk on will help.

How Long Can a Dog Live with DM?

Most dogs live for 1 to 2 years after their diagnosis. The disease will progress over this time, and most owners decide to have their dogs euthanised as the symptoms become more extreme and their quality of life deteriorates. This is a highly distressing disease for both dogs and their owners, and making that final decision is difficult and upsetting. However, most owners find that their dogs reach a point where the symptoms become too extreme to manage and make that final decision.

NW Referrals Can Support You and Your Dog With Degenerative Myelopathy

Here at NW Referrals, we understand what your dogs mean to you. We can help you obtain a precise diagnosis and prognosis for your dog, which can be helpful if you have been unsure about the problem. Whilst degenerative myelopathy does not have a proactive treatment, we can help you provide palliative care for your pet to ensure he is happy and comfortable during his final months. We can provide support and comfort during the last stages of your dog’s life when you must make that difficult decision. We can be there for you throughout this difficult time. At NW Referrals, we are committed to providing exceptional care to the animals we treat, and our state-of-the-art facilities give us the tools for advanced diagnostics. Our friendly, helpful and compassionate team are always on hand to help you. To book your appointment today, simply call 01942 242001