When a fellow animal writer asked if I wanted to talk with a pet mom about life after her dog was diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It was a chance to get answers to questions that I’m often asked by pet parents who are worried they won’t be able to take care of their pet.
I quickly reached out to introduce myself to pet mom, Sue Torres. Then during our conversation, I learned that Sue is a snowbird who spends her winters just outside of my hometown of Las Vegas. We both realized this was probably the real reason our mutual friend, Lauren, wanted us to meet.
Sue explained that several years ago, her treasured dog Oscar, started to show the early symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy. In Oscar’s case, the signs started with a slight limp in his hind leg that progressively got worse. Over the next 3 years, Sue and her family dealt with all of the ups and downs of the condition.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Degenerative Myelopathy, the disease is a painless, but progressive illness that attacks a dog’s spinal cord. The condition is similar and often compared to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Louis Gehrig’s Disease; which is seen in humans.
The symptoms of DM start with weakness in a dog’s hind legs. Eventually the rear limbs become paralyzed. The symptoms then move to the front limbs. Dogs become incontinent as the disease progresses and ultimately the DM attacks the respiratory system and other organs.
Dogs typically succumb to DM in 2-3 years. The majority of victims are senior large breed dogs, like German shepherds and Boxers. But DM also strikes Corgi’s and a growing number of other dog breeds.
Oscar’s story, by Sue Torres
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I got what I had wanted my whole life – my very own dog. In 1981, at the age of 26, I bought my first house, and my first dog Emily came with it. The family was moving and couldn’t take her, so she stayed. Emily was mine for the next sixteen years.
She passed on August 1, 1997. By now I also had a son and a daughter ages 12 and 8. Eleven months to the day after Emily left us, my kids convinced me to stop at the local shelter to “look at the dogs.” A few hours later we were on our way home with Oscar.
Even though I wasn’t really ready for another dog, he made my kids so happy and, in the way, only dogs can Oscar won me over. As far as we could tell he was a shepherd/husky mix and was said to be about eight months old.
For the next thirteen years he was part of our family. He went everywhere with us. He traveled with us on vacations and went to the kids’ sporting events. Other spectators often told us that if Oscar wasn’t there things just somehow didn’t feel right. There wasn’t a single person he met who didn’t love Oscar. One day, when he was about ten or eleven, we noticed he was walking with a slight limp. Over time it got worse. Our vet thought it was just age-related arthritis, but we knew our dog and we knew it was more than that. It had become clear that he was losing the use of his hind legs. I began doing some research and also changed to a new vet and the consensus was that Oscar had developed Degenerative Myelopathy (DM).
Life with DM
It was like a punch to the gut when I learned that this was a progressive disease and there was no cure. Immediately I began reading everything I could about DM and began adding various vitamins and supplements to his meals.
Although there was a test for DM, we opted not to do it as the result would not have really changed anything. Instead, we began physical therapy with him. He went several times a week for water therapy and we were given exercises to do with him at home, which we did several times a day.
Even with all of that, mobility was becoming more and more difficult for him, so we took him to get fitted for wheels. As hard as it was for us to accept that he was losing the ability to walk on his own, it was even harder for Oscar. He absolutely hated the wheels and refused to walk with them. We kept trying and trying and one day, lo and behold, he just took off and both his life and ours changed for the better.
The wheels gave us two more good years with him until his front legs also started to fail him and he let us know it was okay to let him go.
The final days
Oscar was truly remarkable. He was friends with everyone, both two legged and four legged. In his last few days, he did a farewell tour of the neighborhood in his wheels so everyone could say goodbye to him. There wasn’t anyone he met whose life he didn’t touch.
Caring for a disabled pet is truly a full-time job but for us it was a labor of love. Oscar was family and we would have done anything to make his life the best it could be. Once we knew what we were dealing with there was never a question that we would do whatever it took – after all, this is what we do for those we love. He was brave and smart and we knew without question that he loved us with all his heart. He deserved that same love from us – his family.
Since Oscar we have had and loved other dogs. Our experience with him taught us patience and compassion for all living beings. He taught us to embrace life and to welcome each day with joy and appreciation.
We hope that wherever he is now he knows that we will always remember him with admiration and great love.
Facts about Degenerative Myelopathy
DM is a disease that’s close to my heart, just as it was for Sue and her family. It was the condition my dog Sophie was suspected of having and it’s the reason I started teaching pet owners how to care for a paralyzed dog. It’s the reason I started dogwheelchairlife.com.
Here are a few facts about DM that pet owners should know:
- DM causes paralysis by slowly attacking a dog’s central nervous system. It strips away a protective coating in the spine called myelin which is responsible for movement.
- Dogs typically show the first signs of DM between the ages of 8-14 years old.
- Researchers have identified a genetic mutation responsible for DM. The gene is called SOD1. An at-home DNA test is available from the ofa.org. It will identify whether a dog has one of two copies of this gene. Dogs with two copies are the most likely to develop DM.
A list of dog breeds prone to Degenerative Myelopathy has also been identified. More breeds are added each year.
Here are the most common dog breeds that develop DM:
- American Eskimo Dogs
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- German Shepherd Dog
- Golden Retriever
- Great Pyrenees
- Irish Setters
- Kerry Blue Terriers
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Soft Coated Wheaton Terriers
- Wire Fox Terrier
Here are the common early symptoms of DM:
- Weakness in the hind limbs that gets progressively worse
- Difficulty getting up from the floor
- Wobbly legs
- Walks by swaying the hips
- Worn down nails
- Knuckles under the back paws
- Dragging the back feet
- Tremors or spasms in the hind leg
- Paralysis of the back legs
Learn about research studies at Shade Out DM.