DM – One Owners Perspective

This post was originally written and posted to Corgi-L on August 15, 2010. Since that time we find ourselves facing DM once again in our now oldest Corgi Helen. My thoughts haven’t changed.

I’ve been fairly quiet on the topic of DM (“Canine Degenerative Myelopathy“) since Guido passed away early last year. In part, it’s the grieving process, and in part it’s taken me that long to get my head around the issues and understand where I wanted to land. I actually wrote the majority of this months ago, deciding to let it sit to make sure my thoughts were clear and emotions reasonable.

My perspective is simply as a pet owner, and in particular as a pet owner who’s had a DM dog progress through the disease from start to finish, as well as having had other dogs over the years. And as a pet owner with enough science and engineering background to understand a few of the genetic issues as well.

DM Testing

In my mind this is the simplest: testing is good. The engineer in me easily accepts that more data is good. I actually see no reason not to test other than, perhaps, whatever cost might be involved in doing so. Even so, the cost is minimal compared to the other costs of caring for our pets.

My concern, of course, is how that information gets interpreted, misinterpreted, used and abused.

DM Itself

I’ve heard many people refer to DM as a horrible disease. I don’t want to minimize the impact of DM, both on the animals that are afflicted with it, as well as the families that care for them. DM is a disease that can have incredibly high impact to the lifestyles of both. I get that, deeply, because I lived that.


One of the things we must accept by choosing to bring into our lives these creatures with lifespans so much shorter than our own is that someday they will die, and that we will experience that death in whatever form it takes – perhaps even helping it along in a final act of kindness.

My experience is that when it comes to sickness and death, there are much worse things than DM.

Guido in his Stroller
Guido in his Stroller

Guido had over three years of what I to this day consider a very good quality of life from the time we realized that there was a problem to his death. Three years. A slow progression during which there was little pain, and in comparison only occasional frustration on all our parts. He was a happy dog, and he was “all there” until the end.

Contrast that with our Jerome who lasted one month from diagnosis of lymphoma to being euthanized.

Personally, I would have chosen 3 years of DM over the one month we had for Jerome as well. In a heartbeat.

Personally. Others may feel differently. I can understand that.

Like I said, I don’t want or mean to minimize the impact of DM – or ignore the fact that not all dogs will react to it the same way, or ignore the fact that we were very blessed to have the resources and lifestyle to accommodate and support Guido during his decline. There are dogs and situations for whom DM is significantly more traumatic. But there are also many situations like ours, where a DM or otherwise “disabled” dog can lead a long and happy life.

Guido did. Others do.

Things are simply not that black and white.

DM is awful, but then so is cancer. In fact, so is whatever it is that will eventually kill all of our pets. The end result is the same, it’s the journey that matters. Some paths are more difficult than others, but DM does not in and of itself necessarily imply a horrific journey or a horrific end.

Breeding Out DM

I believe that awareness of DM, testing for DM, and factoring those results into a breeding program makes absolute sense.

My belief, however, is that over-focusing on any trait or characteristic in a breeding program is a massive mistake. I believe it can only harm the breed in the long run.

The risk is simply this: while focusing so closely on a single trait breeders may allow into the breed some other trait that may result in different, or perhaps even worse issues for our dogs of the future.

That’s why I say it needs to be factored in — along with all the other characteristics that breeders look for for a healthy breed overall. It’ll do the breed no good if, in 10 years, we find ourselves fighting some other major issue or issues just so that we can say “but at least they’re all DM clear”.

Honestly, I personally would now avoid a breeder who focused excessively on eliminating any single characteristic, be it DM or something else. It’s not that I don’t want DM eliminated – I do. It’s more of a concern about what else they’re missing and allowing into the breed in the single minded quest to eliminate a single trait. I want a breeder to factor in everything that makes sense and make a balanced, rational decision that’s appropriate for the breed as a whole. I don’t want them to focus on any single characteristic to the potentially unhealthy exclusion of others that may be equally, if not even more important.

Like I said, the issue simply isn’t that black and white, and I’d be concerned by those treating it as if it were.

Obviously what we as pet owners do is ultimately up to us. If, particularly after experiencing a dog with DM yourself, you feel that you can’t deal with that again then you shouldn’t have to. That’s actually one of the reasons I do support DM testing – not only is more data good, but individual data can help potential owners make more informed, more intelligent decisions. But I hope that as potential owners we, too, know not to focus too heavily on any single characteristic, and not allow ourselves to be unduly swayed by those who are.

Helen in her cart in the snow.
Helen in her cart in the snow.

We’ve come to see that our 11 y.o. Helen is starting to show a little weakness in her hind end. We’ll do the genetic test — it will not tell us if she has DM, that’s still not possible — but it could rule it out, and if that’s the case, we’ll know to investigate and treat a somewhat narrower range of possibilities.

But even if it is, she remains a happy (and somewhat demanding 🙂 ) girl. I’m grateful for whatever time we have had with her, and also for what we have left with her, which we hope will be measured in years.

DM or not

Me – I want a dog that will live a long and happy life. If part of that life has wheels, then so be it.

It beats so many of the alternatives.


Helen, mentioned above, tested “at risk” for DM. She did, indeed, show the stereotypical progression of the disease until her death as well. And like Guido before her, she had a wonderful life — even the part that included DM.