Our Bernese Mountain Dog, Ketzl, is a great girl, but she’s been through a lot in her 8 years. Even knowing that Bernese have a tendency toward health issues didn’t quite prepare us for:

  • Entropion (eyelids turned slightly inward, which causes the eyelashes to irritate the cornea - surgically corrected)
  • OCD (lesions in the joint capsule - shoulders, for Ketzl - corrected surgically with a then-experimental method involving a scope)
  • Torn ACL ligaments, both sides, requiring corrective action (TPLO, in K’s case, which requires 12+ weeks of recovery for each operation, 6 of which necessitate putting no weight on the leg - quite the challenge)
  • Mast cell tumors, caught early

That’s a lot for any dog to go through (and I’m probably forgetting something): Ketzl has been great throughout—terrific attitude, enthusiastic… a great companion.

A few years after her last TPLO we noticed something unusual: an occasional tendency for Ketzl to scrape her right foot on the ground when moving it forward. Given her previous orthopedic issues, we booked a follow-up appointment with our surgeon to see if perhaps something had gone wrong with her recovery (although this was some time after the surgery, it seemed to be the best initial approach).

Dr. McCarthy at Tufts did an exam, and was positive after his examination that this didn’t look like an orthopedic issue, and referred us to the Neurology department. After a number of exams, it seemed pretty clear that the problem was something neurological, and an MRI didn’t show any significant spinal cord ‘pinching’…

It’s important to recognize at this point that some diseases are diagnosed as a series of “rule-outs”: as all the other possibilities were eliminated, one-by-one, only the worst remained… Degenerative Myleopathy.

DM is similar to Multiple Sclerosis in humans. The immune system attacks the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves, causing them to lose their ability to transmit signals. It starts in the back legs and moves forward, the end result being a completely paralyzed dog.

There’s no real treatment (and no confirmation of the diagnosis until an autopsy is done; basically, they remove the spinal cord and examine the nerve fibers—pretty horrible), though certain types of supplements are anecdotally helpful (and we’ve got Ketzl on them). It progresses relatively quickly, and within 6 months or so the dog loses control of their back legs.

Ketzl did quite well at first, and was able to actively walk and lead a relatively normal life, except she would lose her balance, fall, or cross her rear legs. (In general, the nerves that tell the dog where their legs are go first.) But, as time went on, the right leg became more and more paralyzed, and Ketzl was no longer able to use it effectively. The left side got weaker as well, and after a year and a half or so it was clear that she could no longer walk without hurting herself. But, this took longer than we expected: a good sign.

There are two big decision points with DM dogs. The first is when the dog loses mobility, which is where we are now. Fortunately, I work in a home office, and am able to be around her all the time: I can use a (really great) harness to help her get around the yard, and tend to her when she wants to go places she can’t stumble/drag herself to. We also take her to a place about an hour away, once a week, that does animal physical therapy. This includes massage, electric muscle stimulation, a water-treadmill that allows her to walk “normally” by supporting her weight in water, and controlled swimming.

All of this is designed to help keep Ketzl’s muscles as strong as possible for as long as possible—but even with all this, her muscles inevitably lose tone in her legs and back, and it moves forward. Today, she weighs about 13 pounds less than she did a year ago, and all that’s due to muscle wasting.

If that was all, it wouldn’t be the best life for a dog… and without the time to do all that (and, believe me, it takes a lot of time), many would choose to put the dog down.

Fortunately, we also found Eddie’s Wheels—a place here in Massachusetts that makes “carts”: wheelchairs for dogs. We had Ketzl measured for a cart, and right around Valentine’s Day we drove out to the shop, had it fitted, and took Ketzl for her first “unassisted” walk in months.

After some initial “what the heck is this?” hesitation, she took to it enthusiastically, and walked up the hill, tail wagging—also, for the first time in months. It was clear she was beyond happy, finally able to move again! (I’ve got a movie of this: maybe I’ll post it once I edit a little, as it’s a very happy moment.)

The Dog Wheelchair has really made a big difference for her, and for us. We can go for walks together again, and she can get exercise. If you’ve got a dog with similar problems, I enthusiastically recommend Eddie’s Wheels—they’re great people, and a cart will make a huge difference in your dog’s quality of life.

Unfortunately, the disease continues to progress. Zabeth is a veterinary student (Tufts ‘07), and with that and the web, we know far too much about the disease and its inevitable march. Soon, it’s likely that Ketzl will become incontinent (something I’m not looking forward to, as many dogs get depressed when it happens)—and that’s another decision point for most owners. I’m looking at it like this: as long as Ketzl is still happy, I’m willing to do what I can to help her continue.

As our veterinarian has said, DM is a trail of tears. And it’s true: it’s a bastard of a disease.

Yet there are little victories every day, and the sight of a dog, in a wheelchair, zipping along and greeting other dogs and people—ears flapping in the wind, tail wagging…

Trail of tears, sure. But sometimes, those tears are tears of joy.