When to Put Down a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy?

When to Put Down a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy? Photo of a sick dog with myelopathy with a veterinarian.

Has your dog been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy? If so, you are facing the heartbreaking decision of putting your dog down to ease their suffering. Not sure when to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy? Read on.

If your dog is diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, you can expect them to survive anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. Anytime within that, you’ll have to face the idea of euthanizing your dog to relieve their suffering.

You’ll consider details such as their stage of myelopathy, how it impacts their daily life, and their broader and essential overall quality of life. These all help you get a sense of the timing when considering putting your dog down.

What is degenerative myelopathy in dogs?

Canine degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a progressive disease with no cure. It’s considered a genetic mutation and will impact the spinal cord and the nerves. Most dogs will have DM set in the middle of their back, and it will spread from the top and then to the bottom. There are different stages to it, which we’ll discuss in-depth below.

DM ends up causing weakness in the hind limbs, which leads to nerve death and eventually paralysis. This paralysis could be in certain limbs or all of them, depending on where it starts, how it progresses, and the stage that they are in.

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Causes for degenerative myelopathy in dogs

There is no set cause for degenerative myelopathy in dogs, but there are two leading vulnerability factors that can put a dog more at risk than another one. These are:

  • Dog-specific genetics
  • Breed predispositions

In the first case, this is much like human genetics. If one parent has DM, the resulting puppy is much more likely to have DM. If both have DM, this likelihood gets stronger and stronger. This genetic link doesn’t necessarily have to be active in the parent dog for it to pass on to your dog. And having one or both parents with the DM gene mutation doesn’t guarantee that your dog will have it. It just strengthens the likelihood.

Certain breeds will be linked to specific health problems like many other traits. There is a strong link between DM and German Shepherds. So much so that it used to be called “GSD,” or German Sheperd Disease! However, it can be across many breeds, which is why doing your research on breeds before buying is so important.

Symptoms of degenerative myelopathy in dogs

The symptoms of degenerative myelopathy vary in severity and number based on your dog’s stage. Some of the most common mild to moderate symptoms that lead pet parents to realize there is a problem include:

  • Difficulty rising
  • Loss of coordination
  • Tremors
  • Dragging feet
  • Incontinence
  • Limp tail
  • Walking on top of paws (knuckling)

Sometimes pet parents will assume that these indicate arthritis or perhaps hip dysplasia. So, the diagnosis tends to take longer, and you’re immediately at a disadvantage as far as treatment options.

Whenever you see a change in coordination, it’s essential to have your vet look at this change to see if it could be DM or something age-specific like arthritis. While it can always be unsettling to worry about which it is, it’s better to know than not know, especially for determining what comes next.

Are there treatment options for degenerative myelopathy?

Finding out that your dog has degenerative myelopathy is devastating at the beat of times. We want our dogs to be healthy and happy, and DM is a terrifying disease that drastically and permanently changes your dog’s quality of life. As mentioned, degenerative myelopathy has no cure. However, there are treatment options that you can consider:

  • Acupuncture
  • Medical CBD oil

Acupuncture can help dogs improve some improvement with limb control and give them ease of movement while in the moderate stages. This is especially recommended for dogs who want to be up and moving and are happy to be active despite their diagnosis. This helps them do that easier.

Medical CBD oil can help ease discomfort and relax the body, which can become a problem more and more as the condition progresses.

Can CBD oil help dogs with degenerative myelopathy?

The best way to understand “help” is that it will help the symptoms. CBD oil isn’t going to reverse damage or stop the disease. If your dog is dealing with some pain or some nerve twitching, it can also be helpful in this way.

How long can a dog live with degenerative myelopathy?

Depending on your dog’s stage when diagnosed, dogs can live anywhere from 6 months to 3 years, as introduced above. The longer lifespan will depend on the stage and details like their quality of life, willingness to “rise above,” and your comfort.

Do dogs with degenerative myelopathy have pain?

Many deteriorating health conditions like this are painful for dogs, but degenerative myelopathy is not one of them. Since the condition is gradual paralysis, little pain is associated with it. It’s not uncommon for dogs to have some pain as the nerves die off, but it is often short-term, mild, and easily managed with pain medication or CBD oil.

Do dogs die from degenerative myelopathy?

Yes, degenerative myelopathy can be a cause of death for dogs. When it gets to its end stage, their organs will start to fail, and it can result in death as a direct response to the progression of degenerative myelopathy.

How quickly does degenerative myelopathy progress in dogs?

There is no set progress speed for DM in dogs. It depends on age and health, but the actual progress can be slow or fast. This is why the expected lifespan of living with degenerative myelopathy is so wide!

Photo of a dog with myelopathy with his owner in a vet clinic waiting to be put down.

Dog degenerative myelopathy timeline stages

Let’s take a moment to look at the different stages on the timeline for degenerative myelopathy. These can help each pet parent understand what their dog is experiencing and how to approach the concept of putting their dog down. The stages are mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild degenerative myelopathy

You’ll most likely notice symptoms that look like they’re dragging their feet or clicking their nails as they walk during this stage. Sometimes they may stumble when first getting up, or they might be a bit wobbly. 

Moderate degenerative myelopathy

During this stage, dogs will deal with the beginnings of life-changing symptoms. These can include slight muscular decay, from an inability to use muscles properly, knuckling as they try to walk, and severe balance issues even on flat floors. You might start to notice symptoms like their tail not wagging.

Severe degenerative myelopathy

Once a dog is diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy in this stage, the symptoms will have become very obvious. Dogs will need assistance getting up and lying down. Many will be incontinent. They will twitch and struggle to move around even familiar spaces since they will be severely uncoordinated. Their tail won’t be able to wag, either. If it can wag, it won’t be under their control.

This stage is very distressing for pet parents, as it can be hard to watch their dog go through these kinds of symptoms constantly. Typically, vets will strongly recommend euthanasia when dogs are diagnosed with, or progress to, degenerative myelopathy. If not, they will eventually die due to their symptoms.

How does degenerative myelopathy kill a dog?

As mentioned above, organ failure is the common method of degenerative myelopathy killing a dog. In most cases, it would be their lungs failing, which will cause them to no longer be able to physically use their lungs for breathing. Sometimes the heart will go first, but the lungs are often the fatal stage.

How to know the right time to euthanize your dog with degenerative myelopathy?

Makin this decision is impossible to do by yourself. Your vet will be the one to tell you when you can consider it as an option. Any time after that will be a matter of your personal preference, of course. Vets use the following details to help them make a recommendation on euthanasia:

  • The diagnosis and progress to stage 3 degenerative myelopathy
  • The number and severity of symptoms
  • Your dog’s overall quality of life

There is no right or wrong time to consider ending your dog’s life, but when a vet is professionally recommending it, you’ll want to take that into serious consideration. Ending your dog’s discomfort and making their passing as pleasant as possible

Should you walk a dog with degenerative myelopathy?

If your dog is in mild or even moderate degenerative myelopathy, you can safely take them for a walk. Exercise won’t worsen or progress anything, and many times this can give dogs a great way to enjoy their days. 

As it progresses, you’ll need to be careful how and where you walk your dog. They will lose their balance, and it might be unsafe to take them out somewhere where erratic movements can be dangerous (such as on the street). You can certainly take them out front in your yard and walk them around, but taking them for actual walks might not be wise. Your vet can help you with safer suggestions for the dog that still wants to go out and explore.

Can a dog with degenerative myelopathy wag their tail?

A dog with mild to moderate degenerative myelopathy can wag their tail. As the stage progresses further, the paralysis will spread to their tail, and they will no longer be able to do it as easily, and the tail may twitch instead. Once it gets severe, most dogs can’t consciously wag their tail, though twitches can still happen.

Why consider euthanasia for my dog with degenerative myelopathy?

It’s a valid question. After all, if their organs will eventually fail and lead them to pass away eventually, is euthanasia required?

Technically, no. It’s not required. Many dogs will pass naturally from degenerative myelopathy. The thing is, this is often very hard for pet parents to watch. It is not a “pretty” or “peaceful” way to go. Their dog will be twitching and gasping for breath, and it is downright heartbreaking.

While it isn’t painful for dogs, it’s confusing and scary since they don’t understand what’s happening. Sometimes this stage is quick, and sometimes it’s dragged out.

Euthanasia, on the other hand, is quick, blissful, pain-free, and your dog is calm and oblivious to anything other than the positive sensations and the fact that you are right there at their side.

When you compare the two directly, it’s easy to see why euthanasia is the better choice for dogs in their end stages. 

When considering which is the right choice and when the right time is, make sure you think about your dog’s comfort and quality of life. You don’t want them to suffer, right? You want them to be as comfortable as possible and as free as possible from symptoms and the frustrations that they cause.

In brief

Putting down a dog diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy is going to be making a decision based on their stage of DM, their quality of life, and what your vet recommends for your dog’s best interests.

A dog will be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe degenerative myelopathy. Their expected lifespan will be anywhere from 6 months to 3 years, depending on its severity and your dog’s quality of life.

In deciding whether to put your dog down or not, you must consider their comfort, pain level, quality of life, and what’s best for your dog in a general sense.

While it is always a heartbreaking situation to have to be in, you don’t have to go through it alone or without the information. You need to make the decision properly.

Do you know someone facing this heartbreaking situation right now? Share this with them to help them see the best path for them.

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Dog Advisory Council

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