Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

We all know how beneficial physiotherapy is in humans and animals. Specifically, when treating Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) in dogs, physiotherapy has proven to increase life expectancy by an average of 255 days (Kathmann et al. 2006).

Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

DM is a progressive condition involving gradual paralysis of the hind limbs. It usually occurs between the ages of 8 and 14 and can over time can be fatal. But it’s important to know it is not a painful condition.

The cause

The reason as to why some dogs might suffer with DM is unknown but it’s thought a gene mutation might be the cause. It is known as a ‘large breed;’ condition commonly affecting German Shepherds however in recent years, its become more evident it can also affect terriers, pugs, poodles and other smaller breeds.


It usually begins with a lack of co-ordination in the hindlimbs which can range from minor to severe. Owners might see their dogs standing with their hind limbs wider apart than usual to help counteract their lack of balance. Others might drag their feet, scuff their nails or knuckle their paws when trying to walk. Over time its progressive nature does mean the limbs become weaker therefore standing can be difficult.

Its progression rate can be anything from 6months to 1 year. Over time incontinence can become a symptom alongside difficulty eating and swallowing.


DM unfortunately is not curable therefore management is based on managing symptoms through anti-inflammatories or corticosteroids and Physiotherapy.

What can Physiotherapy do?

  1. Maintain strength and tone whilst encouraging correct use of the limbs.
  2. Core strengthening
  3. Maintain flexibility and prevent joint stiffness
  4. Enhance circulation and nourish joints
  5. Enhances proprioception and balance
  6. Reduces pain caused by muscle tension, particularly in the forelimbs due to compensation
  7. Posture correction
  8. Maintain cardiovascular fitness
  9. Advice on paw protection and environment changes.

A fine balancing act

The key with managing this type of condition is to not push your animal into fatigue. If you suffer with an inflammatory condition yourself, you will understand the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days. This principle is extremely important for dogs with DM. The balance is about ensuring your dog has a good quality of life but is not being pushed into fatigue which consequently causes a ‘bad’ day. Now we know DM is not curable so its understandable there will naturally be ‘bad’ days, but the aim of physiotherapy is to have more good, than bad days.

An example might be;

Your dog wakes in the morning and gets out of bed with no stiffness, tail wagging and hungry for food. As an owner you might think he is having a ‘good’ day today, so you decide to add on an extra 20 minutes on to the walk. As the evening draws in you might notice he is tired but not noticing anything abnormal, however the next day he struggles to get out of the bed and you decide to not take him out that day.

The issue here is adding on too much to the walk on a good day which has triggered a flare in symptoms. Physiotherapy can guide owners through diary management and walking tolerance to help re-correct the balance so more good days are seen than bad. This might be adding on a percentage of time onto a walk whilst ensuring on a ‘bad’ day the dog is still able to do something instead of nothing.

It is all about a fine balance of doing something, but not overdoing it.

You can contact us for more information if you would like free advice for your own dog.