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My 8 year old German Shepherd was recently diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy. Can physical rehabilitation help him?

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a progressive disease of the spinal cord. There is loss of nerve fibers which interferes with communication between the brain and the limbs. Clinical signs of the disease start with a loss of coordination in the hind limbs and progress to knuckling or dragging of the feet. Eventually the dog is unable to walk with the hind limbs. The disease can progress to involve the forelimbs as well. The course of the disease can range from 6 months to 3 years. Research has identified a gene mutation. A blood test can be done to look for this gene mutation. If a dog carries 2 copies of the mutated gene, then they are at much higher risk of developing DM. Several breeds are known to be predisposed to DM, especially German Shepherds, but also Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Pembroke and Welsh Corgis, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and Standard Poodles. There are no proven medications for DM.

One study showed that a physical rehabilitation program for dogs with DM can increase the mean survival time to more than 4 times that of dogs who did not receive any treatment. In this study, physical rehabilitation included hydrotherapy (either walking in an underwater treadmill or swimming) 1 or more times per week. It also included range of motion exercises to all joints, 3 times per day and active exercises, for 5-10 minutes, 5 times per day. These exercises included slow walking over uneven ground, walking uphill, stair climbing, sit-to-stand exercises and standing with weight shifting exercises.

In the light of this study I would definitely recommend a physical rehabilitation program for your dog.

June Hacker-Traiger, VMD, CCRP (Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner

Dr. Hacker graduated from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine. She completed an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Oradell Animal Hospital and remained on staff. She enjoys working with exotic animals. She sees appointments at both Oradell Animal Hospital and our Ft. Lee, New Jersey office. Dr. Hacker's hobbies include reading and bicycling. She enjoys spending time with her husband and three children.
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