Hind-end Weakness is a Dog Disease You Should Know About

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Degenerative myelopathy, or DM,  is the veterinary term for a disease commonly called hind-end weakness. If you have a dog, or are thinking about getting one, hind-end weakness is a dog disease you should know about. I have most often heard of it affecting the German Shepherds, but authoritative sources indicate that it has been documented as afflicting a number of breeds.

Dr. Bernhard Pukay, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, discusses the cause of hind-end weakness, and some of the things you can do to slow the progression of the disease.

Hind-end Weakness is a Dog Disease You Should Know About

Q: A few months ago, we had to euthanize our 12-year-old German shepherd after she gradually lost the use of her back legs. She was eventually unable to walk and lost control of her bowel movements. She was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy and because her prognosis for a complete recovery was poor and she failed to respond to treatment, we had to have her put to sleep.

We are now considering getting a brand new German shepherd puppy but we read that German shepherds in general are particularly susceptible to hind end problems such as degenerative myelopathy as they get older. Is this true of all German shepherd dogs or is it a specific genetic defect that occurs only in some shepherds? Is there any way to prevent this disease from occurring?

A: There are several neurological conditions that manifest themselves with hind end weakness or paresis (i.e. partial loss of voluntary movement or impaired movement). Spinal or brain tumours, intervertebral disc disease (“slipped disc”), lumbo-sacral stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), and fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy (a piece of disc material plugs a blood vessel causing spinal cord damage) can all lead to hind end paresis or paralysis.

The specific degenerative neurologic disease called degenerative myelopathy (DM) that your previous dog had occurs more often in German shepherds than any other breed of dog, suggesting a genetic predisposition. The age of onset for DM is usually four to 14 years of age and has been reported on rare occasions in other dog breeds, including Labrador retrievers, collies, huskies, Weimaraners, Old English sheep dogs, Rhodesian ridgebacks and Great Pyrenees).

Degenerative myelopathy is thought to be an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system of patients, leading to a loss of insulation around the nerve fibres (a process called “demyelization”) and progressive spinal cord damage. The cause is not known, but genetic, toxic, and environmental factors are suspected.

Dogs with DM tend to show gradual hindquarter ataxia (unsteadiness) and weakness that can either wax and wane or become progressively worse over time. Most affected dogs lose the function of their hind legs within six months to two years after onset. Diagnosis can be difficult since X-rays, MRI’s, CT scans, myelograms (when a dye is injected into the space around the spinal cord) and other tests are often normal.

While there is really no proven effective treatment currently available, two medications are reported to prevent progression or lead to clinical remission in some patients: aminocaproic acid (EACA) and n-acetylcysteine (NAC). No effective surgery is currently available and steroids are ineffective.

Regular aerobic exercise such as walking and swimming has been shown to be helpful in preventing chronic degenerative diseases by improving muscle performance, memory and blood flow to the brain and this appears to be the case with DM as well.

Recent research has suggested that dietary regulation can also have a strong influence on the development and progression of chronic degenerative diseases and this may include DM.


To read more of what Dr. Pukay has to say regarding things you can do to lessen the severity of this disease, and things you should discuss with your veterinarian regarding degenerative myelopathy, click here. Hind-end weakness is a dog disease you should know about so you can be prepared to reduce your dog’s suffering, if it contracts the disease.



  1. she’s 14 years rescued off the streets at 10 years escapee from new Rochelle ny humane society pound part shepherd part lab angel from heaven got on great with my two bassets acted like a nurse maid to young children an seem to obey a young childs commands right off than an adult ;well the genetic disease has settled in rear hind leg going to visit the vet today aware of outcome but will try to keep her she seems not to be in any discomfort an eats well . she owns our fenced in property an she ventures out only to re-leave herself, some one once told me DOG SPELLED BACKWARDS ‘GOD’

  2. My German Shepherd she’s 14 yrs old and is going weak on her back legs can no longer get up the stairs what can I do to monitor her welfare I have had her from six weeks old she my companion friend and part of my family and life I will be absolutely destroyed if I was with out her

    • I have been giving my golden retriever a drop of frankincense on a dog cookie in the morning and evening. It must be pure frankincense with no synthetics. I use doterra brand. It has helped with energy and coming up and down stairs. She is going to be 16 years old in November.

      • Wow! 16 years is amazing for a Golden! Sounds like you’re doing everything right. As a parent to two Goldens myself, I’ll be sure to look into using frankincense! Thanks!

  3. Degenerative myelopathy is known to affect more than 125 brreds with Corgi’s and German Shepherds seeming to top the list. The two drugs you mention buy time but are not stopping progression in most cases. My dog was one used in 2 closed clinical trials (under Dr. Roger Clemmons at the University of Gainesville College of Veterinary Medicine) for the drugs you mentioed and while they slowed progression down just a bit, they did not stop progression. My dog was also using (via injection) an amino peptide that was formulated and shipped from New Zealand, again as part of a close clinical trial. While her mother was euthanized 4 months (with no treatments) after an MRI, CT scan, myelogram and xrays were done, her daughter lived two years (with the trial drugs) before we finally had to say goodbye to her as well. An NN rating after a DNA test will lessen the risk for breeding purposes but, and to date, there are NO guarantee’s that any dog (NN or not!) is immune. How I wish this was not the case. One day they will find the cure and when ghey do, I will look up to the Heavens and thank my baby-girl, Whitetoe for being such an important part of the studies that found it! I look forward to that day so that I can also say, “well done big girl, well done!”