by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
A Friend for Life
His owners first noticed him being occasionally weak and wobbly on his back legs, several months ago. When they brought him to the animal hospital, at that time, they thought arthritis might be causing Duffy's problem. After all he was 14 years old and most dogs of that age will have a bit of arthritis. But, after a thorough physical examination, the veterinarian told them it was something else that was affecting Duffy. Duffy was showing the usual symptoms of degenerative myelopathy.
The syndrome is characterized by the slow, progressive degeneration of certain parts of the spinal cord. It is suspected to be a hereditary disease affecting German shepherd, German shepherd mixed-breed and Siberian husky dogs. Other large and medium breeds are occasionally affected - collie and collie cross, Labrador retrievers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Kerry blue terriers and Welsh corgi. It is rare in other breeds of dogs and cats.
Duffy's owners were told the disease begins insidiously. Although weakness and unsteadiness are noticed in the back legs, the front legs are strong and unaffected. Knuckling and scuffing of the toes on the rear limbs almost always occurs. Crossing over and swaying of the rear legs often occur when the patient is turning. In most cases both back legs are affected but not necessarily equally. Voluntary control of urination and defecation is retained until late in the course of the disease.
Sadly, there is no treatment for the disease and it is progressive. The muscles of the back legs and spinal muscles waste and weaken. Eventually the back legs lose the ability to function. This state of paralysis is reached in most animals over a period of 6 months - 2 years after clinical signs are first noticed. Fortunately, pain or discomfort is not evident in dogs with degenerative myelopathy. Duffy could continue to enjoy life until his quality of life was being affected.
Now, almost six months to the day from Duffy's diagnosis, his family had arranged another visit to see us. Duffy's disease had followed the predicted course. A terribly difficult yet necessary decision had been reached for their trusting and loving friend of fourteen years. His family wanted to be there with him as I performed the euthanasia. A testament to the care and affection they felt for this member of the family who had shared a lifetime with them.
Such times truly are the worst of times for a pet owner. The sadness we feel, the grief we experience with the loss of a pet is lessened only a little with the realization that it is the most kind and compassionate decision for our pet. We have to try and remember the many, many good and joyful times we have had with our pet. Duffy's owners talked about some of the pleasure he had brought to their family. Such wonderful memories he had given them. Duffy had been just the greatest. And do you know what, they told me, Duffy had been a dog they rescued, adopting him from the Humane Society. Almost fourteen years ago, nobody had wanted him. He had been about to be destroyed. What a tragedy that would have been, had they never known him.
I hope this story can remind us what a difference we can make in the life of an unwanted animal. And, of course, what a difference that animal may make in our life. There are so many animals in our world who deserve a chance to do what Duffy did. There are cats and dogs and other pet species in every city in every humane welfare organization in Canada and the United States. Recently, you may have read about the need to try and find homes for some horses from Alberta. Drought and a lack of food have meant that volunteers across Canada are trying to organize relief efforts to save their lives. Contact http://www.themitchellcentre.ab.ca/ if you would like to learn more about how you could help in these efforts.