Our six-year-old Boxer, Bella, has had difficulty walking the last couple of months, and our vet has just diagnosed her with degenerative myelopathy and wants to start her on a course of steroids. Are there any alternative treatments that can help Bella?
S.W., via email
Degenerative myelopathy, also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), is a slowly progressive condition affecting the spinal cord in dogs, thought to be caused by a genetic mutation. It’s painless, but it causes gradual paralysis of the hind legs. It’s similar to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in humans.
Dogs over the age of eight are most commonly affected, as well as certain breeds such as German Shepherds, Boxers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Great Pyrenees, Samoyeds, Irish Setters, Dalmatians, Siberian Huskies, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Golden Retrievers.
Symptoms include wobbling, swaying the hips while walking, tripping and falling easily, knuckling or dragging a paw while walking, struggling to get up from a lying or sitting position, scuffed nails, inability to walk and paralysis of the back legs. Over time, the forelimbs may also become affected.
To diagnose degenerative myelopathy, other orthopedic disorders and spinal diseases will need to be ruled out, so various tests such as X-rays and MRI scans are usually recommended. DNA testing is available, although dogs with a negative result can still have degenerative myelopathy, so this test isn’t considered definitive or even predictive.
Currently, there is no conventional veterinary medical treatment for degenerative myelopathy. Most vets prescribe steroids, but there is no evidence to suggest they help or alter the progression of this disease. Sadly, dogs with degenerative myelopathy usually end up being euthanized within one to three years of diagnosis because they cannot walk or even get up.
Alternative and holistic therapies, on the other hand, can help boost your pet’s quality of life and may even help slow down the devastating effects of this disease.
Acupuncture and acupressure
These traditional Chinese techniques are accepted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Stimulating the nerves using needle or electroacupuncture is a very popular and effective therapy for degenerative myelopathy; its effects are well documented in paralyzed patients. Try to find a vet qualified in acupuncture who can treat Bella once or twice a week. Between sessions you can try giving Bella acupressure yourself, using your fingers to apply gentle pressure to specific points on her body (see my book You Can Heal Your Pet for a detailed guide). Massage the following points for 60 seconds two or three times a day:
- GV 1 or “Lasting Strength” located on the dorsal midline in a depression between the anus and the base of the tail.
- BL 23 or “Kidney’s Transport” located on the second lumbar vertebra (about halfway down the dog’s back, just behind the last rib), on the rear side (facing the tail) of the “bump” of the backbone you can feel when petting the dog’s back.
- BL 40 or “Wei Zhong,” a master point of the back and hips located at the midpoint in the crease of the muscle behind the hind leg just above the knee.
- GB 34 or “Yang Mound Spring” located on the outer side of the hind legs in a depression in front of and below the head of the fibula where the thigh bone meets this smaller lower leg bone in the back of the knee.
- ST 36 or “Leg 3 Miles” located on the outer side of the back leg, just below the knee in a depression behind the tibial crest, the protrusion on the front of the lower leg bone (tibia) just before it joins the knee. This point, very useful in hind limb weakness, is claimed to energize a tired dog so much that he can walk a further 3 miles (5 km), hence it is known as the “3 Mile Point.”
Traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Traditional Chinese herbal remedies can be helpful for degenerative myelopathy, but they’re best used under the guidance of a vet trained in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine. Treatment will usually involve using a sequence of formulas beginning with anti-inflammatory herbs, followed by those that boost peripheral circulation by mobilizing blood stores, and finally a strengthening and supportive formula. Supple Spine by Kan Herbs is a very popular formula used to treat degenerative myelopathy, and the herb Solomon’s seal is used for all sorts of spinal issues.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a well-known adaptogen (a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress) that can be useful in degenerative myelopathy.
Suggested dosage: 50 mg/kg (23 mg/lb) of body weight 2-3 times daily of an organic formula
Turmeric. When used as a whole herb, this has excellent antioxidant properties. Try feeding Bella turmeric paste such as Golden Paste by The Golden Paste Co., or using one of the many recipes online for making your own “golden paste.”
Suggested dosage: start with a pea-sized amount, then gradually increase to ¼ -1 tsp twice a day, depending on the size of your dog
Avoid processed foods and feed your dog high-quality human-grade cooked meats or switch to a raw diet. See You Can Heal Your Pet for more information on the healthiest diet for your dog.
Omega-3 fatty acids can help your dog’s immune system, so make sure to offer Bella fresh oily fish like sardines, mackerel or herring. See the recipe above for a homemade treat high in omega-3s.
Phyto Synergy by Adored Beast (available at www.adoredbeast.com in the US and www.healthfulpets.co.uk in the UK) contains omega-3-rich phytoplankton, minerals and antioxidants. It’s said to support overall health and longevity.
Suggested dosage: follow the label instructions
Sanus Biotex is a formula specifically developed for degenerative myelopathy that includes four different probiotic strains plus vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, fatty and amino acids, and a blend of herbs and extracts said to soothe irritation as well as the inflammation from flare-ups.
Suggested dosage: follow the label instructions
Antioxidant supplements can also be helpful, including:
Suggested dosage: 10 mg/day for small dogs, 50 mg/day for large dogs
Suggested dosage: 25 mg twice daily for small dogs, 1,500 mg for large dogs
Suggested dosage: 50 IU/day for small dogs, 200 IU/day for large dogs
Suggested dosage: ½ tsp cod liver oil every other day for small dogs, 1 tsp for large dogs
Intensive physiotherapy vastly increases the survival times of dogs with degenerative myelopathy by keeping severe disability at bay. So definitely keep Bella mobile even if she is reluctant or hesitant to walk. Enroll your dog in a good rehab course where specialists can help with specific tailored exercise.
Using underwater treadmills and free swimming have both proven to be highly effective in slowing the progression of degenerative myelopathy. Both the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system can be stimulated safely – unless your dog hates water.
These fishy treats are rich in beneficial omega-3s.
2 × 4 oz (120 g) cans of sardines in sunflower oil
1 cup (120 g) self-rising flour
1 large free-range egg
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 heaped Tbsp honey
- Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an approximately 8 × 9 inch (24 × 21 cm) shallow baking sheet.
- Combine and mash all the ingredients together in a large bowl until the mixture forms a soft dough.
- Spread dough evenly over the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tray. Cut into small bite-size squares.
- Keep in an airtight glass container in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com