When to Put Down a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy

When to Put Down a Dog with Degenerative Myelopathy

Important Note: This article has been checked and verified by a professional veterinarian for accuracy. However, you should always seek advice from your own vet before making any decisions on euthanasia as there are never black and white answers for this decision.

As a dog-owner myself, I know how harrowing it can be when you realise that your dog is seriously ill. Degenerative myelopathy is an incredibly complex condition that greatly impacts a dog’s life. My aunt’s German Shepherd was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy and had to be euthanised inside of 6 months after diagnosis.

The decision was an extremely hard once for her to make, but she knew that it was the right thing to do after consultation with her trusted vet. However, all cases are different.

In this guide I want to share with you what my family learned about when to put a dog down canine degenerative myelopathy, what the right time could be for you, plus details on how long your dog might have left before euthanasia becomes a serious consideration.

When to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy? In some cases, a dog with canine degenerative myelopathy may be put down / euthanized within 6 months to 3 years after diagnosis. Your vet will be able to advise on the decision to put down based on the stage of the illness and how it impacts their quality of life. Each case will be different. 

This life expectancy was found on a piece of published research you can see here. It suggests 55 to 255 days’ median survival time depending on the therapy undertaken. Bear in mind this is a median time, so your dog may have a longer lifespan – only your own vet can advise on this.

Before we can truly begin to unravel the question of when the right time is to put down a dog with degenerative myelopathy, we must first establish and explain the disease itself. By doing so, it might give you a better understanding on when the right time to euthanize is.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or a vet. Whilst this article is here for educational and informative purposes and has been checked by a vet, it should not substitute professional advice. I am talking to you as a fellow dog-owner, and as such I strongly advise that if you suspect your dog has any medical issues, you should take them to the vets.

What is canine degenerative myelopathy?

Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is primarily characterised by the degradation of the white matter in your dog’s spinal cord (view study). The nerves in the spinal cord gradually lose their ability to transmit impulses.

Although the progression of the disease is gradual at first, it’s not uncommon for your dog’s condition to deteriorate gradually towards the end.

The disease, unfortunately, is ultimately fatal, but you can take comfort in the fact that many dogs with the disease don’t feel any pain.

Symptoms

The symptoms of canine degenerative myelopathy vary based on what stage of the disease your dog is at. Clinically, the condition is divided into three main stages: early, intermediate and late. Your vet should tell you what stage your dog is at when they are diagnosed.

Once they approach the intermediate-late stage, this is the best time to think about putting the dog down, as their quality of life and condition will rapidly deteriorate.

Early to intermediate stage

  • Difficulty rising.
  • A loss of coordination (ataxia) in the hind legs.
  • Scuffing hind feet.
  • Knuckling of the toes.
  • Hind-end weakness (difficulty going for a walk, difficulty climbing stairs and difficulty going for a walk).
  • A slight occasional scraping sound of your dog’s nails along the ground.
  • Tremors on the rear legs.
  • Wearing of the inner digits of your rear paws.
  • Dragging of the hind feet (causing your toenails to wear down).
  • Loss of muscle in the rear legs.
  • Stumbling about.

Intermediate to advanced stage

  • Urinary and/or faecal incontinence.
  • Inability to rise.
  • Your dog’s back-end will lose muscle mass and appear to ‘sag’ as your dog struggles to support it’s weight.
  • Muscular atrophy.
  • Difficulty walking without support.
  • Poor balance.
  • Your dog will lose sensation of where he is putting his paws, leading to his hind legs crossing.
  • The tail will hang limp and wag less.
  • Knuckling; your dog will stand or walk on the top of the paw rather than through pads.

Very advanced stage

The vet I consulted for this article, explained that a dog should really have been put to sleep before getting to this stage.

  • Weakness in front legs and shoulders.
  • Jerky, uncontrolled movement with their tail and legs moving seemingly at random.
  • Complete paraplegia (paralysis of hind legs).
  • Respiratory issues and organ failure also happen if they aren’t euthanised before then.
  • Near-complete loss of coordination and balance; they need help walking, standing and squatting. They can’t stand or get up from a down position unassisted. If they aren’t euthanised at the very end, they won’t be able to support themselves in any way.

Causes

Although the full underlying cause of canine degenerative myelopathy is unknown, there are a few factors that make your dog more likely to have the condition including their age, breed and genetics.

  1. Age: Degenerative myelopathy is a condition that is often found in senior dogs, with most dogs being 8-9 years old when they are diagnosed. This is why some dog owners may struggle to identify their symptoms at first, putting it down to existing conditions like arthritis or just your dog ‘getting old’. However, considering how common this this condition in older dogs, it is definitely worth consulting your vet if you come across any unusual symptoms.
  2. Breed: Traditionally, it was thought that degenerative myelopathy was a condition that only the German Shepherd breed suffered with, with a lot of people calling it ‘German Shepherd Disease’. Recent research, however, has shown that degenerative myelopathy can happen to a range of breeds alongside German Shepherds, so you shouldn’t discount your dog’s symptoms solely on the basis that they aren’t the ‘right’ breed.

Yet, whilst it is accurate to think that some breeds are more disposed to the disease than others, as research has shown that a number of breeds have a disposition for the disease.

Those breeds are as follows:

  • American Eskimo Dog
  • Burmese Mountain Dog
  • Corgi
  • German Shepherd
  • Golden Retriever
  • Poodle
  • Pug
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Boxers
  • Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis
  • Wire Fox Terriers, Bernese Mountain dogs
  • Borzoi
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniels
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Great Pyrenean Mountain dog
  • Kerry Blue terriers
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Shetland sheepdog
  • Soft coated Wheaten terriers
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retrievers

And possibly more (this list is not exhaustive).

Genetics

Research has established that genetics is a primary reason for a dog’s development of degenerative myelopathy. If you are getting your dog from a breeder or a shelter, it is important to ask whether the parents have had any medical conditions such as this, since if one or both of them do, there is a good chance your dog will too.

The specific gene that causes degenerative myelopathy is the SOD1 mutation. If one of your dog’s parents has it, that makes your dog a carrier. If both of your dog’s parents have the mutation, that leaves your dog at risk.

If you are unsure of your dog’s heritage, the best course of action is to take them to a vet for genetic testing if you believe they are a high risk breed.

This will establish whether they have the genetic mutation, although it is worth noting that just because the dog has the genetic mutation, that doesn’t guarantee they will develop the disease.

How long can dogs live with degenerative myelopathy?

Now we know a little more about the causes and symptoms, what life expectancy can you expect your dog to have with this illness and how many years or months do they have left?

How long does a dog live with degenerative myelopathy? Most dogs will only live between 6 months and 3 years once they have been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy. Your dog’s life span and comfort can be extended with a personalized treatment plan, but once mobility stops, your vet will typically recommend euthanasia.

Is degenerative myelopathy in dogs painful?

Whilst canine degenerative myelopathy might look painful, the reality is different. It is not a painful condition and in most cases,  dogs can still exercise during the early stages, despite the disabilities they face.

How do you know if it’s the right time?

Knowing when to put your dog down with degenerative myelopathy boils down to a number of key considerations.

As you will have seen from our discussion of the symptoms above, there are multiple stages of degenerative myelopathy. As the disease progresses, the symptoms get more and more in the way of your dog enjoying their quality of life.

Your vet will be on hand to examine your dog and advise you, but that doesn’t mean that you should not have your say.

For example, you’ll know your best friend better than anyone else, which puts you in the unenviable position of being able to tell whether they are comfortable or not.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Do they have more bad days or good days?
  • Has their muscle weakness made it difficult for them to function?

A lot of first-time dog owners are recorded as regretting holding on to their dog for so long when it is time to put them down, so sometimes the harder decision is the best decision.

Given how horrible the later stages of the disease are, it is important to trust in yourself that you’re doing the right thing letting them slip away peacefully.

Conclusion

I know first-hand how hard this decision can be having seen my own aunt go through this with her dog.

If you’re asking should you put your dog down with degenerative myelopathy then it comes down to two things;

  1. What your vet says.
  2. What your gut feeling is about your dog’s quality of life.

But the reality is that there’s no straight-up right or wrong answer to this question.

It’s a decision you’ll make with a heavy heart, but your vet will be on hand to help every step of the way, and when the time comes there are countless charities and online forums specialising in pet loss and grief.

Although it is easy to get caught up looking after your dog, don’t forget to look after yourself too. Don’t be afraid to lean on the people around you and get help from your doctor or a charity if necessary.

Losing a dog can be extremely tough.

Marc Aaron

I write about the things I've learned about owning a dog, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips I've picked up along the way.

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