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Ask the Vet: Treatments Help Dogs With ALS-Like Disease

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: Gretchen, our 9-year-old German shepherd, recently developed hind leg weakness. Her veterinarian recommends testing for degenerative myelopathy.

Many years ago, another of our shepherds had degenerative myelopathy. His condition deteriorated quickly, because there was no treatment for the disease.

Is effective therapy available now? If so, we will undertake the recommended testing and treatment.

A: While there is still no cure for degenerative myelopathy, new therapies improve quality of life and extend survival.

Degenerative myelopathy, or DM, is a progressively debilitating disease caused by deterioration of the spinal cord. It is not seen in cats, though it is similar to human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, often called Lou Gehrig's disease.

DM is inherited in German shepherds and many other pure- and mixed-breed dogs. Genetic testing is available to help breeders decrease the prevalence of the disease and assist veterinarians in diagnosing it in dogs like Gretchen.

Clinical signs begin between 8 and 14 years of age with loss of coordination and weakness of the hind legs that is often mistaken for arthritis or intervertebral disc disease. DM progresses to hind-end paralysis, loss of urinary and bowel control and, eventually, paralysis of the front legs and death. The only positive aspect of the condition is that it does not cause pain.

Progression of the disease can be slowed with physical therapy, or PT. In one study, dogs with DM that received PT retained their ability to walk longer and lived longer than those that did not get PT. Survival times were: 255 days in dogs that received intensive PT, 130 days in dogs with moderate PT and 55 days in dogs given no PT.

In addition, photobiomodulation, often called cold laser therapy, can prolong survival. In a separate study, one group of dogs with DM received PT plus high-dose laser therapy while a second group received the same PT with low-dose laser therapy.

Dogs in the high-dose laser group averaged 31.8 months from onset of clinical signs to inability to walk and 38.2 months until euthanasia, while the dogs in the low-dose laser group averaged 8.8 months until they couldn't walk and 11.1 months until euthanasia.

If your veterinarian diagnoses Gretchen with DM, ask for a referral for physical therapy and laser treatment.


Q: Our cat Turbo has recently become so stressed by visitors that he hides until they leave, which presents a problem when house guests stay for several days. What can we do to ease his anxiety?

A: "Guest stress" is a common problem among cats. Fortunately, you can do a few things to help Turbo with his anxiety.

Start by adding Feliway plug-in diffusers to your home. When guests visit, mist some Feliway spray where Turbo normally spends his time, such as his kitty condo.

Feliway is a synthetic version of the feline facial pheromone that cats deposit when they rub their cheeks on furniture, door frames and other locations to mark them as their "happy places." Feliway relaxes anxious cats and helps them feel secure.

If one of your guests knows and loves cats, invite that person to sit with Turbo for a short time to offer tasty treats or meat baby food and play with a laser pointer or feather toy.

Ask your veterinarian to check Turbo for arthritis and other potentially painful conditions. He may be reluctant to greet visitors because one of them may once have picked him up and inadvertently hurt him.

If these suggestions don't help, talk with your veterinarian about an anti-anxiety medication you can give Turbo when people visit.


Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

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