Studying Potential Treatments for Degenerative Myelopathy

Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM, CCRT

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a progressive, degenerative disease of the nervous system in dogs. It is challenging to diagnose, and the lack of effective treatment options leaves owners of affected dogs feeling frustrated and helpless as their beloved pet declines.

Bubba and his owners Molli and Doug Cook.

That’s exactly how dog owners Molli and Doug Cook felt. “Bubba was our sweet, loving Boxer and our baby for 11 years,” Molli says. “At the age of nine he was diagnosed with DM and our journey with this disease began. He transitioned from paw dragging, to swaying his back legs, to a wheelchair over the course of two years, but he never stopped smiling and enjoying life with his family.

Thankfully, a recently awarded grant from the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) offers hope for slowing the progression of DM in dogs. With funding from CHF Grant 03139: Riluzole as a Neuroprotectant in Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, investigators will study the drug riluzole as a potential treatment for dogs with DM.

Clinical signs of DM appear later in life and include worsening weakness and paralysis starting in the hind limbs and progressing to involve the front limbs, swallowing muscles, and diaphragm. The disease has characteristics similar to some forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in humans. Riluzole, the drug being studied, was the first FDA approved medication to treat ALS in humans in 1995. It prevents the build-up of excitatory nerve signaling molecules that can kill nerve cells in affected dogs and humans.

“This drug addresses a pathophysiologic mechanism shared in DM and ALS,” says Dr. Joan Coates, the study’s Principal Investigator and veterinary neurologist at the University of Missouri. “Riluzole is shown to prolong quality of life in human ALS patients. This new study will evaluate safety and efficacy of Riluzole in treatment of DM.”

The study has three aims: to evaluate the safety of oral riluzole use in dogs, conduct a multi-site clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of riluzole treatment, and show the utility of a recently discovered biomarker to track clinical progression of DM in dogs. This research is the first step toward the long-term goal of studying multiple DM treatment options simultaneously at several institutions in the United States. To support that effort, Dr. Coates and her colleagues (Dr. Sarah Moore at The Ohio State University, Dominik Faissler at Tufts University and Natasha Olby at North Carolina State University) started Project DM (, a network of canine DM researchers working together to accelerate progress in developing treatments for this disease.

“This collaboration allows us to collect reliable data at multiple veterinary hospitals,” Dr. Coates says. “We can therefore efficiently recruit more cases and study more potential treatments than if the research was being done at only one location. It really allows more dogs and their owners to participate in clinical trials.”

The potential for rapid progress in our understanding of DM sparked the interest of Molli and Doug Cook. “We started our non-profit, Bubba’s Buddies (, with the mission to raise money for DM research so that no dogs or dog parents would have to go through the same journey we did,” Molli says. “We started out partnering with Project DM, who introduced us to the AKC Health Foundation and the process of supporting canine health research through CHF. Bubba passed in November 2022, but we continue to honor him through Bubba’s Buddies and our partnership with CHF.”

“Bubba’s Buddies research sponsorship will help pay for the in-depth screening tests that are needed for a dog to enroll in the riluzole clinical trial,” Dr. Coates says. “We need an accurate diagnosis to collect meaningful data and this financial support will allow more dogs and owners to participate.”

CHF and its donors are committed to funding studies like this clinical trial to help develop more accurate diagnostic tests and effective treatments for canine DM. Their investment has already been rewarding. With funding from previous CHF research grants, Dr. Coates and her colleagues identified a genetic mutation and gene modifiers that increases the risk of developing DM in certain dog breeds, described the structural changes in the nervous system that define DM, and studied a molecule that can be measured in the fluid surrounding the central nervous system to monitor disease progression.

The riluzole study marks the first CHF-funded study exploring a potential treatment for DM. Participants are currently being recruited at the University of Missouri, Tufts University, The Ohio State University, and North Carolina State University. Learn more about this research, including information on participation, at

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