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What are Leukodystrophies?

With the gradual loss of the myelin, your affected dog will start displaying a loss of coordination and balance due to the progressive weakness that this condition induces. Your dog may start to walk differently, having an irregular style or high stepping type of walk. As the condition gains momentum, your dog will find it harder to walk and finally be unable to rise from his resting position with paralysis being the final result. This is an inherited condition which shows within the first four years of your dog’s life. Breeds that are affected by this condition include the English Foxhound, Labrador Retriever, Jack Russell Terrier, Silky Terrier, Rottweiler and Scottish Terrier.

Leukodystrophies in dogs, a rare condition, relates to loss of the fatty substance called myelin that coats nerve cells and protects the normal conduction of the nerve impulses.

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Symptoms of Leukodystrophies in Dogs

  • Between the age of birth to four years of age, your dog may start to lose muscle coordination finding it harder to walk and control its motion
  • Usually this muscle incoordination starts in the rear limbs, and progresses to the front limbs over time
  • Inability in the last stages of the condition to rise from a lying or seated position
  • Some animals develop a muscle tremor from the effort to move
  • Unusual or exaggerated walking style
  • Tremors
  • Paralysis 

Types

This condition exhibits the usual symptoms for all dogs, but depending on the breed of your dog, the time frames for age vary.

  • Hereditary ataxia - Gradual muscle control loss from 2-6 months of age, tremors, and finally paralysis 
  • Hound ataxia (Beagles, Foxhounds) - Begins at 2-7 years in hind quarters worsening over the next 18 months
  • Spongiform leukodystrophy (Labrador Retrievers, Samoyeds, and Silky Terriers) - Starts as early as 2 weeks of age progressing rapidly, to inability to walk by 5 months 
  • Fibrinoid leukodystrophy (Alexanders disease) - Very rare, loss of myelin appears by 6-9 months 
  • Globoid leukodystrophy - Affects Cairn and West Highland White Terriers

Causes of Leukodystrophies in Dogs

  • Although a rare condition, the cause is the result of the progressive loss of the myelin in the white matter tracts in the nervous system (the brain and or the spinal cord) 
  • Myelin is a vital fatty type of substance that coats and protects the nerve cells 
  • Myelin functions to assist the passage of nerve impulses that relay messages to other body cells 
  • Without these messages being relayed correctly, bodily functions such as coordination are impaired

Diagnosis of Leukodystrophies in Dogs

This is thankfully a rare condition, but if your dog is demonstrating problems moving around or walking, take him to the veterinarian for an evaluation. After a thorough examination, awareness of the clinical signs, and a full neurological examination your specialist will base his diagnosis on the results. MRIs can be helpful to determine whether the characteristic demyelination has taken place and a nervy sheath biopsy may be helpful.  Conclusive diagnosis of the nervous system can only be confirmed by a post mortem examination (after death). 

Sometimes the condition is slow in development, but at other times it will be rapid, and the prognosis is poor. Consideration must be given to your dog’s quality of life at present and for the remainder of his days. Your veterinarian will be able to advise of how to ensure the remainder of your dog’s life is maintained in a way that offers both you and you pet the best experience. While ongoing research is still being done in this area, it seems that a cure is not in the immediate future due to the complexity of the condition and because this is a rare disease and there are other pressing research topics that need attention, leukodystrophies of dogs is not a huge priority.

Treatment of Leukodystrophies in Dogs

There is no treatment unfortunately for this disorder. Sometimes this disease is slow moving and may give you valuable time with your four-legged friend, but at the other end of the scale, it can progress rapidly producing paralysis in just a few months. With the progression of the loss the of hind leg strength moving onto the front area of the body, your dog’s fate is a total loss of control. As your dog’s condition deteriorates, your veterinarian will advise when euthanasia is the best option. 

Quality of life is the determining factor here in making the decision to terminate your dog’s life, as without the means to move around and fend for itself, your dog loses that vital self-control and choice which is what a meaningful life is all about. Because your dog inherits this condition due to an autosomal recessive trait, prevention is the next step to ensuring this condition is not passed onto another generation. Your dog and its close relations (mother, father and siblings) should be removed from the breeding pool. For globoid cell leukodystrophy, a blood test exists where it can identify the affected dog and the carrier state as well. Thankfully this is a rare condition.

Recovery of Leukodystrophies in Dogs

With recovery not being an option, management is the next thing to consider. The factors here include the mobility of your dog, how fast the disease is progressing, and your own situation and availability to care for the deteriorating health of your dog. You may have many months of happy times left with your dog, or you may just have a few. Your veterinarian will be able to answer any questions you have about your dog’s condition, with care and support being the only option available to your dog. As mentioned earlier, removing your dog or any of its immediate close relations from the breeding cycle is important as this condition can be passed onto the next generation of dogs.