Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): A Corgi’s Tale

Jacob Flynn was born December 23, 2011, a sable and white Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

We brought him home February 6, 2012. Just six weeks old. And only $300 “adoption fee” from a farm out on the east side of Michigan. I cannot bring myself to say that “we bought him;” that sounds so wrong. Moving on — I admit — the low cost of him rose a yellow flag to me. What’s the catch…? What’s wrong with him? Or with his parents? But then, at the end of it all, I knew that I didn’t really care- that I’d take care of him regardless.

When researching corgis as a new corgi-parent, I vaguely recall those few threads about the breed’s predisposition to various diseases and deformities. Obviously with the dwarfism, there’s bound to be some tricky complications over time, but, again, I was good with that and glossed over any of the details.

The phrase degenerative myelopathy didn’t register in my mind until our family’s first attendance to a Corgis In The Park event in our home city, Grand Rapids, MI in October of 2016. I only remember seeing a tent booth set up, with posters, brochures, and a corgi in a wheel cart next to the people tending the booth. I recall the photos of those carts and something about Awareness and whatnot…. I didn’t want to look. I thought it was a rare thing…whatever that was….

The following season, we attended as well, despite the dreary cold and rainy/borderline-snowy weather that is Michigan…. This time, I took a brochure. Whether out of genuine curiosity or courtesy, I don’t know. But now I had the name of that…thing. It was two long words. And it was very common to present in corgis. It’s only 2017. He’s barely 6 years old. Nah…wouldn’t happen…he’s fit, trim, healthy, active, spry — maybe it won’t present if we keep up our good work. Maybe we’ll be lucky. Maybe it’ll prevent such a fate.

Yeah…well… I didn’t actually read all of the brochure. After all, the main takeaways that I got was 1) diagnosis cannot actually, officially be diagnosed until after death via some spinal chord biopsy thing & 2) incurable.
Ok. Cool. So what’s the point anyway of learning about it now and freaking myself and my husband out about something that may or may not present itself, isn’t curable or preventable, and doesn’t even technically have a diagnosis officiated until after death? Pssssh — F that.

Let’s speed up to 2019.
PokemonGo was a thing. We live in the city. Right downtown. Lots of virtual pokemon everywhere. Lots of gyms, lots of raids. Jake loved it. Such a wonderful time — so many walks, jogs, a few sprints, occasional trots — his city walking etiquette was divine. Super sexy pup. Every crosswalk we had to wait for, he’d sit on command with my “T-t-” (the accented “t” in “sit”) and would happily sit pretty until I gave the go-ahead to cross the street. I’ve never seen him more fit — his endurance and his gait were just…beautiful to watch. I took so much pride in that — in him. I let myself think the thought of maybe we have already beat that…that thing, whatever it was. Maybe we’ve done enough right for those genes to not express themselves, if he even has them….

2020.
enough said, am I right?
During this year, there was less to do. PokemonGo lost all appeal for me; being seen outdoors on a walk without an airway covering would be heinous; political atmosphere was polarizing; my work life was at an increasingly stressful high — going out became…a catch22. I wanted to, but I also didn’t want to. Jake’s walks were far less frequent than the previous years. Even so, that was the summer I noticed.

I noticed that he resisted my requests for him to sit at the crosswalks. He only would to appease me, but he looked less comfortable. So of course, I stopped my requests. He still stood pretty and patiently. I was hoping it a pulled leg muscle or something…that it’d go away.
It didn’t.
So then I was hoping it was just the onset of the usual and customary arthritis.
It’d make sense; he’s 8 years plus 6 months old. Still young, in my opinion…but, having dwarfism…maybe this is the average age?

But my mind began to flit about that booth those years ago…. I really needed to look into that. I really didn’t want to look into that….
But I did. In July 2020, already preparing to quit/retire from my retail pharmacist job in early autumn, I was ready to focus on my family, rather than my thankless, set-up-for-failure and thankless career, where speed matters more than accuracy and copays matter more than actual medicinal outcomes, I looked.

I finally mentioned my concern out loud to my husband. He, more than me, didn’t want to consider it. But I kept a weary eye on Jake’s gait and apparent comfort. I called the vet that same month, asking if I could have him tested. I’m very disappointed in the direction and acknowledgment that I received from them at that time; they just said that they don’t test for Degenerative Myelopathy, it cannot actually be diagnosed until a special autopsy is performed, and if he does have it? that there’s nothing they or I could do. Check out Facebook groups. That’s what they said.
Well? I don’t have Facebook.

Jake’s vet office’s response to my inquiry sort of stalled any further action or research on my part. So I just kept my eyes on him. And, now, more than ever… on his back legs.

August 2020, there still was no improvement in his stiffening gait or resistance to sit. So I hoped for just arthritis. Stiff hips. Something like that.

But September 2020.
Age 8 years & three-quarters.
I’ve been watching those sexy back legs…those sexy back feet…and I was still watching. My heart sank.
Tightrope walking. His back feet…it was like he was doing a runway strut down, well? a runway.

No! This cannot be happening — not now!?

I should add a couple of details about myself at this point:
I quit my job September 1st.
Back in June, blood in the toilet. From bowel movements. Bright red. Figured it was some superficial cut or something. Blood from your lower GI tract is only bright red if it’s stemming from near the exit. Problem was…it didn’t go away. So I tried trials of food and/or beverage removal to allow it to heal or be less irritated. No good pattern. Late August, it became apparent that I really need a colonoscopy…but I’d need a referral, and then schedule it, which they’re book out months, and taking no new appointments for pandemic’s sake….

September was supposed to be me, retiring at age 32, no student debt, able to live life finally to live, not to work. Just to give my time to my boys….

More pronounced foot dragging, this backpack was our first investment

But this tight-roping hind leg walk…oh, fuck. I called his vet that day. First week in September. I wanted to have him seen to see if they could determine if it was arthritic symptoms I’ve been seeing or if it is that ever-dreaded DM that corgis are prone to….
I got the same response: No way to determine it…he is almost 9 years old, so it’s reasonable to see some stiffness. Gee, thanks. Again, I asked about testing or if they knew of an office in Michigan who does, and the tech didn’t bother to ask the doctor for an actually helpful answer and basically blew me off. :shrug: I get it. I just left my retail+healthcare job. I know what it’s like. All the pressure, all of the interruptions, all of the problems piling up every 15 seconds, with seemingly no time to sift and sort and fix them all….

You see? The entire point of my inquiry was because I NEEDED TO KNOW IF HE WAS IN PAIN OR NOT! That’s all I care about! If it’s arthritis? Give him anti-inflammatories! If it’s DM? THEN I NEED TO LEARN SHIT FAST — and how to prevent injuries, etc., and what to expect, and reputable resources to utilize!
But nope. That’s fine. I’ll figure it out.

My eyes.
My eyes were watching.
Watching his feet.

By October, I told my husband that I really do think he has it, that this is the beginning. Even then, I didn’t look into any forums or blogs or sources online… I didn’t want to learn of a timeline. I psyched myself into thinking it’d be a 3 year or so phase. He didn’t take my theory too seriously; ignorance is bliss.

But my eyes were watching.

I couldn’t remain ignorant.

January 2021
By this point, regarding me, I was at my all-time low with my gastrointestinal health; already, I had lost 5 pounds that wouldn’t come back — mostly from not eating because, all the puns intended, I felt like shit when I ate or drank. Even drinking water — anything — all I got out of my GI was blood and mucous. And extrapyramidal symptoms had been occurring for the last couple of months, too. But I figured it was stress. Stress is a bitch. Stress coaxes on all of the symptoms I had been having.
I wasn’t allowed to schedule a physical back in September; I was told that I couldn’t call to schedule one until 2021. Well, January 2nd, 2021 (a Monday), I called at 8am. They scheduled my physical for January 6th. Yay.

They focused on my extrapyramidal symptoms, therefore sending me for imaging about that, instead of my hunch…my colon. Check my descending colon, puleeez! But whatever, back in November, they scheduled my colonoscopy for the first Thursday in March. Almost there. Then I’ll have answers. Ulcerative Colitis or… something else.

Jake’s dainty tightrope walk never improved. It never reverted back to a regular gait. More pressure was being applied to his front paws. His nails were dragging in front more and more, because of this added pressure/reliance. But it was finally “bad” enough and for a long enough duration that I fuck’n wanted to know if he had the genes — how likely it was for it to be expressed. A third time, I called his vet office. I wasn’t messing around anymore.

I asked the right question this time:
What facility performs the DNA testing for Degenerative Myelopathy?

Now, to all of you pros out there — I know — I realize now that I could have just Googled the shit out of this, and I finally would have stumbled across corgiaid.com, and I would have found the OFA website etc. Yup.

The tech said she was unsure.
I told her to call me back after she found out. You know, like, ask the DVM?

The doctor called me back and left me a voicemail. She gave me the OFA website informed me that we would swab the saliva sample at home and send it back to them, and then they’d email us the results. Her caveat, of course, warning that the results do not technically diagnose DM, but it puts its risk in categories.

Okay, then.
Let’s Go!

We filled out the appropriate fields for the DNA kit to be sent our way in the last week of January 2021.

The kit arrived 14 days later.

I believe we performed the swab February 6th and sent it out February 8th. Yes. Yes, that is correct. I know because…well…we’re almost there:

March 2021
really sucks, by the way.
Me first: Colonoscopy March 4th: Proctologist thinks I have cancer
Jake and Myself: March 8th: I do have cancer. Jake does have degenerative myelopathy (DM) — because both alleles are afflicted with that mutation.

So in one, glorious, tragic Tuesday in March — my husband’s world if flipped upside down.

His wife and best friend since age 15 has Stage IIIC colorectal cancer;
His dog and best friend & pseudo-child does, indeed, have DM.

fuck.

I emailed his vet office the results. I listed a couple of symptoms. I requested information of what to do.

I think the best advice I got (and even with all of my evidence, the office was still hesitant to join in my belief of him having this…arrrrg) was the mindfulness that his feet will begin to drag…which will wear down the nails to their quicks…and then infection risk is heightened…and that when this happens: don’t. let. him. lick them. #infection Get him socks or protective footwear.

I wanted to do that that day. My spouse, however, is a perfectionist, and no boot is good enough until all of the research has been done and the reviews are good — so, pun intended — he figuratively dragged his feet on pulling the trigger to selecting a boot or sock.
Can’t blame him, though. I have the cancer thing going on. My, time flew by…. What a horrible 4 weeks. More than I can ever express because it’s just TMI and it’s my shit (punny, lol) — but f u u u u u u c k. . .

April 2021
Getting real.
This is why I’m writing this down. This is why I want to “share the story” — the timeline — Jacob’s symptoms — Jacob’s Tale -

Easter — the 4th of April — his predicament became real.

No longer is just the fancy footwork of an unsteady tightrope walker or an overexerted, exhausted supermodel strutting down the runway regarding his back feet — but now — it finally happened.

Romping around the backyard with his pal on Easter, a rare and wonderful sunny and blue-skied day in Michigan, despite our comfort in believing that he was predominantly running through grass and mulch (because pavement is the devil at this point, and living in the city…you can understand…) — despite all of that — I look down at Jake, lying next to my feet on the patio blocks, because I heard licking.

Licking.

fuck. No, please, no —

Yes.
His back left leg, middle toenail, worn to and beyond the quick — the blood was so much, so profuse, it had to be a millimeter beyond the quick’s edge — this slow, pulsating blurb of thick red blood pumping out of that quick — I saw it first.

My husband drove to PetSmart to buy the styptic powder while I tried to create a makeshift bandage with the materials my in-laws had on hand. 20 minutes later, styptic powder in my hand now, blood still pumping out, I packed the powder on that nail nub. It took three applications to stop the bleeding.

I bandaged his back feet as best I could, so that taking one step wouldn’t reopen the wound immediately.

This was the day that we really had to face this fate. That we really need to look at this information.

This was two days ago.

Home by 5pm, looking online for protective and/or corrective footwear, I stumbled upon corgiaid.com — the wheel carts, the stories, the few blogs I could still access — no, I don’t have Facebook and I don’t want it. But for this, maybe I will — if I get desperate.

We bought a book, Corgis On Wheels, by Bobbie Mayer, to arrive tomorrow. We bought a bed with lower edges, for better ease to enter and exit.
We bought protective non-slip sock booties from handicappedpets.com

Not ten minutes later, I witness his ankles locking. He got up from laying on the floor, was walking towards the office on the left…and his left foot stayed planted while his front pivoted, and his right foot came from behind his left to continue the walk…but it was blocked by his stationary and wobbly left. Literal ankle lock. I cried out in some manner of horror at how fast this was all…is all…happening.

And we watched some videos, read some heartbreak, felt our own hearts break — and — for our sake and for Jake’s sake — we tried to figure out where the line is….

Where do we draw the line…?

When do we draw the line…?

The most asinine factor is that DM is painless.

That makes the judgement of his Quality of Life so. much. harder. to gauge.

His happiness is paramount.

April 6, 2021

But I can tell you, I don’t like looking forward right now.
Almost nothing has beauty in it anymore.
We’re moving into a condo in a month. Cool. But will Jake even be there for Christmas…?
I hate this.
My second chemo infusion is tomorrow. Will I be too weak to enjoy his last really good days? fuck —
The acceptance that…by the time I’m healed? Early summer next year??? That he’ll have no control over his hind legs?? Hell, even possibly before I even have surgery — this holiday season — fuck!

He’s my boy.

And I literally cannot think of that fucked up reality without fucking shattering into pieces of denial — I want to find other timelines, other stories — tips for making his transition into this wretched phase most bearable and uplifting — his spirit means so much to me, to us….

…help.

I have stage IIIC cancer & my corgi is early-mid stage degenerative myelopathy (DM) #fml