Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aria's Tail

Three and a half years ago, our German shepherd Aria was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, the MS of dogs. This degenerative disease results in the dog's immune system attacking its own central nervous system. Nerve fibers and the insulation (myelin) around the nerves in the spinal cord degenerate. This interferes with the communication between the dogs brain and their hind limbs. The degeneration begins and is most severe in the middle back part of the spinal cord.

In the fall of 2006, we returned from a 5-week trip to India. When we picked up Aria from our friends, they told us, and we immediately noticed, that Aria could barely climb steps. We had not noticed this prior to our trip, but sometimes you miss signs in your own dog. She was not yelping in pain, but she was clearly having difficulty with the stairs. And she was a little wobbly on her hind legs when she walked. Before our trip we had noticed some loss of muscle tone and weakness in the hind legs.

Soon thereafter we took Aria to an orthopedic dog specialist. He looked at an x-ray of Aria's spine and decided it was degenerative myelopathy, because he did not find anything else wrong. That is a typical diagnosis for this disease - eliminate anything else. I was not entirely satisfied with his examination of Aria or his diagnosis. Maybe I just did not want that to be her fate. Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease, which often leads to paralysis within one year. We were sad and a bit fearful of what lay ahead for her and ourselves, since we might have to make some difficult decisions.

Time passed. Aria continued to walk and play. She managed stairs. At the time, we still had her best friend, Fargo. Aria continued to steal sticks from him. She continued to lose muscle tone in her hind legs and her back legs got a little more wobbly, but other times she would run or trot and remained strong otherwise. Since Aria also had an arthritic left elbow we were giving her Rimadyl 2x per day to reduce inflammation and she had been on Cosequin (glucosamine/chondroitin) for many years. Our first vet, Andrea LeBlanc, had recommended it many years earlier.

As months and years passed, Aria showed no new signs of degenerative myelopathy. I began to wonder if that was a correct diagnosis. Perhaps it was some other problem with her spine, maybe a physical problem, such as a herniated disc. Aria is still with us. We walk with her each morning. She comes up the stairs every night to sleep. She has slowed down and has lost some hearing and vision. But she can still smile and bark and occasionally she kicks up her front legs to play. She'll trot over to the neighbor's to see their little 15-pound terrier, Chaz.

One of the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy is that the dog stops wagging its tail. The nerves can no longer send messages that way. One of Aria's most beautiful features is her long, bushy tail -- a tail that she still uses and wags, although maybe not as high as before. Just yesterday though I was stunned. After I got home from being away for a few hours, Aria was happy to see me, as she always is. This time she came into the bathroom to see me and she raised her tail up and over her back as she greeted me. I had not seen her do that in a long, long time.

We do not know what is going on with Aria, but it does not seem like degenerative myelopathy. After being diagnosed with this disease at age 9 she is now 12 and a half. Each winter we wonder if she will live to see the next winter, and then she surprises us with her strength and otherwise good health. Her coat is beautiful. Her digestive system is still mostly working. Her hind end wobble seems stable. And she can still wag her beautiful tail, if a bit slowly.

Aria, at 12 and a half, winter 2010

Aria on her favorite futon

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