Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)

June, 2012   Denby’s Second Chance


Bubbles in a water dish is how it all began nearly 7 years ago.

In 2005, I laughed watching my 4 year old Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Denby, blow bubbles in a bowl of water while visiting a neighbor one hot August night. What a talented dog I thought until my neighbor pointed out something unusual. Despite Denby’s “lapping” at the water, the water level hadn’t changed. Was it possible he wasn’t drinking a drop of water? Suddenly, I thought back to the late nights I heard Denby’s dog tags clanging against his metal water bowl yet every morning the bowl was still full. Alarmed now, I searched the internet for “dogs blowing bubbles” and found several videos celebrating such behavior. Even now, years later, I often think back to that initial internet search and realize what a terrible mistake I made. If you see something unusual with your pet, don’t search the Internet; take your pet to see a vet.

At my husband’s urging, I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Robert Fryer at the Animal Clinic of Oak View. I told Dr. Fryer what Denby was doing and he said, “Show me.” A bowl of water was brought into the room and Denby willingly demonstrated how he would completely submerge his nose underwater and blow bubbles. Dr. Fryer smiled, the vet tech laughed. I was relieved. If they thought it was cute then I had nothing to be concerned about. Little did I know that visit would change Denby’s life forever.

After a brief exam, Dr. Fryer spoke the words every pet owner dreads hearing, “Your dog is very sick.” “Denby exhibits abnormal cranial nerve responses and I suspect that he has a fast growing brain tumor.” How could that be? Just that afternoon, Denby had been playing Frisbee. How could he possibly be so ill? What else hadn’t I noticed these past weeks?

Dropping Denby off the next day at Dr. Fryer’s for further testing, I held out hope that he was mistaken.  But when I went to pick Denby up, Dr. Fryer showed me Denby’s lack of normal cranial nerve responses. He was unable to control his tongue. He no longer blinked his eyes and he could not make any facial expressions. In stunned silence, I took Denby home trying to make sense of what I had just seen.

While we were trying to find the cause for Denby’s loss of cranial nerve function, I needed to find creative ways for him to eat and drink since it was apparent now that Denby was losing weight and becoming dehydrated. Tilting his head back, he learned to swallow tiny pieces of watermelon I hand fed him. He learned how to swallow crushed ice. (Syringes of water caused excessive coughing.) I tried hand feeding him chunks of dog food, but most of it would drool out of his mouth.  It was quickly becoming apparent that my efforts were not working. I needed to make a decision about Denby’s future.

But before I made any decision, Dr. Fryer encouraged me to take Denby to a neurologist in Tustin, CA and have an MRI. When the neurologist called to say that there was no tumor. I was elated.  However, she somberly pointed out, while the MRI ruled out a brain tumor the fact remained that for some inexplicable reason, Denby had “irreversible idiopathic cranial nerve damage.” A fancy way of saying for some unknown reason Denby could no longer eat, drink or blink. Unless something was done quickly, Denby would die of dehydration and malnutrition.

Denby’s determination to adapt to the changes he was experiencing only encouraged me to help him as best I could.  It was then Dr. Fryer suggested I consider surgically implanting an esophageal feeding tube in Denby. “Put a feeding tube in a dog!” I remember saying in disbelief. I didn’t even know they could put a feeding tube in a dog. But after watching Denby’s determination for several weeks, the decision was easy. I said yes to Denby’s first esophageal feeding tube.

Hearing the blender mixing his special food, Denby runs to the couch, plops himself on a pillow and waits for me to begin feeding him.  It is a process repeated 3 or 4 times a day, 365 days a year and takes about 30 minutes. I can also give Denby water and his medications through his tube.

While totally dependent on me for food and water, Denby is no different than any other dog except for that floppy little red tube sticking out of his neck. Despite obedience lessons when he was a pup, he  pulls me down the street on our nightly walks, chases critters from our yard, leaps several feet into the air grabbing his Frisbee and can deflate a squeaky toy in seconds.(I call that Denby’s form of physical therapy for his now droopy mouth muscles). Craving attention, he wiggles his Corgi stub at anyone who passes by waiting for a pat on the head or a rub of the tummy. Living the life of a happy dog.

Does this mean that Denby hasn’t had his share of medical challenges? Not at all. There have been many but the most challenging was in 2008, when Denby suffered a severe corneal tear and I had to make the decision whether or not to try and save his eye. I knew I made the right decision when the day after surgery I tossed a Frisbee without thinking and Denby jumped in the air catching it without hesitation. Yes, a one eyed dog Corgi can catch Frisbees!

Do I have any regrets saving Denby? An emphatic, “No”.  While it may not be the right decision for other pet owners because of the high financial and emotional cost, it has been for me. While modern veterinary care can extend the life of a sick pet, should you?  It is not a simple answer.   For me, Denby’s quality of life has always been my compass.  It has definitely been a balance of the heart and the head. But as long as he is able to lead the life of a happy dog, I will provide Denby with all the care he needs and deserves as a treasured member of our family. A promise we make to our pets when we bring them into our homes and into our hearts.

Addendum/Spring 2012

Denby’s story took an unexpected turn this past December when I noticed that he was having hind leg problems (I could hear the clickety-clack of his nails on our nightly walks and his right rear paw began knuckling under). This time I didn’t look to the internet, I took him to the vet.

The appointment suddenly took on an all too familiar tone when I heard the list of possible diagnoses. Solemnly Dr. Fryer told me, “It could be a back injury, which with rest, may improve but I also see symptoms suggesting Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)”.  (DM is a horrific disease that I knew about from reading a newspaper story by Colleen Cason. Her Corgi, Dylan, valiantly fought the disease before succumbing to it.) Hoping it was a back injury, I contacted Wiggleless and before I knew it, Lisa and Cindy had made Denby a custom back brace which Denby happily wore for several weeks. However, his symptoms did not improve and the “knuckling under” of his rear paw became more pronounced and his hind legs wobble.

The diagnosis of DM can only definitively be made at necropsy.  In a living dog, it is a diagnosis made by excluding other possibilities.  It is a fatal nerve disease similar to the human form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). DM slowly robs the dog of their ability to stand, than walk, than eliminate waste on their own and eventually leaves the dog unable to move without assistance.  Because of the difficulties caring for a dog with this illness, most owners make the decision to euthanize their pet early on.

While an expensive MRI would demonstrate if Denby had a back injury, a more affordable alternative was to test Denby’s DNA to see if he had the affected genes. Thanks to extensive research and funding by AKC breed groups, a DNA test has been developed that shows if a dog has the genes suggesting the likelihood of the dog developing DM. The test, while not a definitive diagnosis, would be a piece of the puzzle.

Sadly, the DNA test revealed that Denby does have the “affected genes” making it very   likely (combined with his symptoms) that he has this dreadful, silent stalker of a killer. Ironically, I had just reread Mitch Albom’s, Tuesday’s With Morrie, the inspiring story of Morrie Schwartz who battled ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is similar to DM.   As his disease progresses, Morrie says. “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hold on too long.” Words which poignantly ring in my head.

Denby’s journey is not over yet. He happily celebrated his 11th birthday and his DM is relatively stable for the moment. He can run better than he can walk (apparently common with neurological problems).  He still stands guard over his backyard protecting it from intruders and is still able to jump up on the couch to be fed but our walks are now shorter and take place on grass instead of concrete sidewalks to protect Denby’s rear paws. I have been told by fellow Corgi owner’s whose pets are living with DM, that I should fit Denby with a cart while he is still able to stand.  Knowing Denby, I am sure he will adapt to having wheels for rear legs. I can see him now, rolling down the street while I run to catch up. So much for those obedience lessons!

Denby is a tube fed, one eyed, now wobbly legged dog. My favorite picture is of him wearing his Super Denby costume. On the back of his cape it says, “Wonder Dog”. No truer words were ever written about such a brave, determined dog.

Denby’s Day Out on Vimeo

Read more on DM:

Degenerative Myelopathy – disease basics