Back in late January, Barb and I took our dog Abbey to a specialist to see if they could determine what was causing the rapid deterioration of her back legs. Initially, we thought she had developed hip dysplasia — a bane to large dog owners everywhere — but Abbey seemed to be getting more and more hobbled as the weeks went on. She went from dragging her left leg last June, to teetering on her feet by Thanksgiving, to barely walking by Christmas. Clearly, something else was going on.
Back in January, I promised to give you the rest of the story, once we knew what was happening. Here’s the rest of the story.
Abbey was subjected to several X-rays and MRIs to see if, perhaps, she had a tumor on her spine that was causing paralysis. Both the X-rays and the MRIs came back clean — no sign of any trouble — and the vet put Abbey on prednisone as a preemptive strike, just to see if the drug might have any effect on whatever was going on in her system. But there was one other thing he wanted to check out.
Abbey was showing textbook signs of a new but relatively rare genetic disorder, a disease known as degenerative myelopathy (DM), a progressive and always fatal disease of the spinal cord. In general, a dog can begin showing signs of the disease anywhere from eight to fifteen years old. That put Abbey on the left end of the bell curve — she’s only barely eight — but her symptoms were shudderingly precise: dragging of the rear legs, lack of balance, and incontinence. While the disease can only be definitively confirmed by an autopsy, the vet wanted us to submit saliva samples to the University of Missouri, where most of the leading research has been undertaken, to see if she was, indeed, genetically predisposed to the disorder.
While we waited for the results, Abbey continued to grow increasingly worse. The prednisone had no effect, apart from making her horribly thirsty — which made her drink more and, in her condition, wet herself without realizing it — so we took her off the drug altogether. Moving became difficult, and she was eventually confined to our living room, where its concrete floor and easy access to the backyard made it easier for us to clean up after her and help her outside. But soon, she could only walk with the help of a sling under her back end — I would walk her outside the way a parent plays wheelbarrow with a child — holding her back legs slightly off the ground while she pulled herself with her front legs.
Despite her deteriorating physical condition, she was as spirited, social, and loving as ever. When we sat in the living room to watch television or read, she would drag herself across the floor so she could lay in the middle of things. When the enormous snowstorm crashed through the area, she would lay for hours in the spot we had cleared in the back yard, eating snow and watching the birds dive at the birdseed we had thrown out. As the sun melted the snow and warmed the ground, we would look out the kitchen window and see her sleeping contentedly in the sun, sprawled out full length.
Still, she was showing signs of unhappiness. More and more evenings, after the lights were out, she would continue her habit of softly barking until I came downstairs and slept near her on the living room couch. She was having accidents with greater frequency, which seemed to embarrass her — she would bark until someone came to clean her up, and then would drag herself away from the mess, ears down with humiliation.
Late last week, she began to eat less and less. It was clear she was continuing to decay — and sure enough, several days ago, we received the test results from the lab in Missouri confirming what we already knew: she has the genetic defect that causes DM on both genes. She wasn’t just a carrier, she was doomed from the start.
On Monday night, we took Abbey to our wonderful local veterinarian who helped us lovingly and painlessly send our dog onto her next adventure. She died peacefully as Barb and I patted and spoke to her softly. One deep breath and she was gone, still looking as if she were sleeping.
And I cried. Oh, how I cried.