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Viewer Viewpoint - Degenerative Myelopathy - Is It Stalking Your Dog?


This interview article was submitted by Marjorie Zimmerman

As many of you know, I lost my once-in-a-lifetime German Shepherd Dog, IKE. He died shortly after being diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM. His death was unrelated to that diagnosis. When looking for help, information and proactive steps to take in what I viewed as an upcoming battle, I was lucky enough to fall into the competent hands of Marjorie Zimmerman.

Her story, and the detailed information she so willingly shares, has special value for all working and sport dog breeders and handlers. IKE would want me to share this with you.

Let’s stop treating DM as a controversial disease, something never to be mentioned in breeding circles. Knowledge is power.


Q: Marj, tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I have been owned and loved by German Shepherd Dogs since 1967. I was a pet owner who had the rug ripped out from beneath my feet when my beloved Jack Flash got a diagnosis of a disease I’d never heard of before, degenerative myelopathy. My world imploded.

I may lead an ordinary life, but it isn’t my way to just sit back and accept the inevitable.

Q: How did DM become your “cause?”
A:DM did not become my cause – it became my enemy.

Jack’s courage and loyalty averted an attempted car jacking. Jack Flash saved my life, but I would be unable to save his. I am one of those people in this world who do not to commit to a lot, but when I do take on a project, hell could freeze over, and I would still keep plodding forward.

When DM took Jack Flash from me that commenced all out war!

Q: How did you start your war?
A: The more I investigated DM, the more I found it to be a big dark secret – an unmentionable to breeders. When Jack Flash was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy in 1997, I made up my mind not to accept the neurologist’s dismal statement that there was nothing to be done. I began searching the Internet to find out if someone was researching DM, and hoping such research could possibly help.

My journey for answers led me to the computer, the world of message boards and various online communities. Through the kindness of strangers, I was led to Roger Clemmons, DVM, Ph.D. He was actively engaged in researching degenerative myelopathy at the University of Florida, as he had been doing throughout his career. While no cure was on the horizon, Dr Clemmons had instituted a treatment program to slow the progression of DM. I found Dr. C to be wonderfully warm-hearted and highly intelligent.

Shortly after our first communication, I founded the Degenerative Myelopathy Support Group. Through his help, members are able to cope with the difficult times and the debilitating problems. Dr. Clemmons continues to share his knowledge with our group and I am the go-between.

Q: How did that treatment program work for Jack Flash?
A: Jack outlived his 2 to 3 month prognosis by 13 months, while maintaining quality of life. I promised Jack, as his eyes closed for the last time, that in his honor I would continue to battle DM, until the disease that took him from me would also be permanently laid to rest.

A: Facts about DM must be out in the open, and that’s why I’m talking.

Q: What exactly is degenerative myelopathy?
A: Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease involving the spinal cord. It is thought to be an inflammatory, autoimmune disease, variable in its presentation and course, in which the immune system attacks the dog’s central nervous system. This attack leads to a loss of insulation around the nerve fibers (myelin) and of nerve fibers (axons).

The animal can no longer walk, once the nerves in the spinal cord are destroyed, because without nerve connections, muscles cannot work. Control pathways that make muscles work are located all throughout the spinal cord.

Q: In which breeds is it most common?
A: So far, the following breeds have been found to develop the same type of DM as that seen in the German Shepherd Dog: Belgian Sheepdog, Old English Sheepdog, Weimaraner, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Labs and possibly the Great Pyreenes. Confirmation of diagnosis in other breeds is very important.

It is seen with relative frequency in German Shepherd Dogs; therefore, it appears there is a genetic predisposition in this breed. While many breeds suffer from a myelopathy that is progressive, the particular degenerative myelopathy of the German Shepherd Dog is unique, as it is believed to be an autoimmune disease.

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