Back problems aren't only for old dogs, especially when it comes to German shepherds. While this stout breed is often vigorous and youthful well into adulthood, it is also prone to a degenerative spine disease. The disorder, called degenerative myelopathy (DM), is a recognized hereditary problem in purebred German shepherds.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of DM is how little concrete information there is about it. While the condition is widely recognized as one of the breed's main health hazards, its cause is not known. Some hypotheses have emerged in recent years, including a Florida researcher's idea that an autoimmune disorder in the breed could be responsible, according to German Shepherd Rescue of Southeastern Pennsylvania. DM is not exclusive to German shepherds, although it is a much more common problem for the breed than it is for most dogs.
So what signs can you look for to figure out if your shepherd has, or will have, this degenerative spine disease? Strangely enough, the first place you should look is his feet. One of the initial clinical indicators of DM is curled toes, which cause your dog to drag his nails as he walks, according to Michigan Veterinary Specialists. As the disorder worsens over time, your dog's leg muscles will shrink and he will have trouble walking at an even pace. In most cases, DM has a pronounced effect only on your pup's hind legs, so he will still be able to move around on his own.
You should always consult a vet when your pet has trouble walking, even if you believe the problem is temporary or minor. If you own a German shepherd, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility of a DM diagnosis at some point in your pet's life. Not all shepherds have spinal problems, but it is a common malady of the breed. While your vet may suspect DM after a simple physical examination, he will probably still run a few tests to rule out other possible causes, since there is no way to detect this disorder directly. The testing required to pinpoint DM can be quite extensive and may include blood tests as well as X-rays and other scans.
Degenerative myelopathy is a manageable condition. It does not spell the end of your dog's life or happiness by any means. The bad news is, no cure currently exists. You may feel helpless over the chronic condition that is plaguing your furry friend, but there are plenty of things you can do to help. Encourage your dog to exercise throughout the week and keep his stress levels down. Avoid placing your dog in unpleasant or demanding circumstances, but don't let him mope around the house all day either. You may have to invest in mobility aids for your dog as the disease progresses. While there are some medicines available to treat the symptoms of DM, the possibility for positive results from drug treatment are questionable, according to Michigan Veterinary Specialists.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Quentin Coleman has written for various publications, including All Pet News and Safe to Work Australia. He spent more tan 10 years nursing kittens, treating sick animals and domesticating semi-feral cats for a local animal shelter. He graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor's degree in journalism.