If you share your life with a pug, you’ll want to know about an important study on spinal cord disease in pugs that is nearing completion at Michigan State University. The study examined a recently identified condition called Pug Myelopathy that is believed to be widespread in purebred pugs.
Although researchers are in the process of writing their results for veterinary journals, there is interesting information we can share now.
Before we get started, I want to thank Kathleen Smiler, DVM, DACLAM for her contribution to this story. One of the perks of writing this blog is that I get to meet people who are dedicated to making life better for disabled pets. Dr. Smiler’s love for her pug Lily, spearheaded interest in the research that is explaining Pug Myelopathy.
This story is more technical than our typical posts, but it includes some of the most important information we have ever shared. Please feel free to leave any questions you have in the comment section.
It all began with a pug named Lily
The path to discovering Pug Myelopathy began with Dr. Smiler’s beloved pug, Lily. She was part of the family for 14 years. In a story for Lessons From A Paralyzed Dog, Dr. Smiler referred to Lily as her “best friend and her biggest fan.”
Lily’s hind legs were paralyzed and she was incontinent for half of her life. At the time her condition was compared to another neurologic disease called Degenerative Myelopathy, but Lily’s disease was completely different. DM begins with rear limb weakness and progresses to paralysis in the back legs. Eventually the paralysis moves to the front legs and the respiratory system. Dogs typically pass away after 2-3 years. The disease is seen in a number of large dog breeds, but is prevalent in German shepherds and Golden retrievers. A genetic mutation identifies susceptibility to DM. Very few pugs have had this genetic mutation, or a confirmed diagnosis of DM.
Dr. Smiler realized that Lily’s symptoms of hind limb paralysis and incontinence was a problem for many pugs. She tried to stimulate interest by veterinary scientists to study the condition, but it wasn’t until Lily passed away that this happened.
That’s when Dr. Smiler asked that Lily receive a full post mortem neurological exam. She also took with her a detailed medical history of Lily’s condition. Dr. Jon Patterson, a well-known veterinary pathologist at Michigan State University performed the exam.
Dr. Patterson’s initial findings about Pug Myelopathy
Dr. Patterson discovered some very unique findings in Lily’s condition. It sparked him to initiate a study to examine multiple ataxic pugs. Ataxia is the medical term for “lack of muscle control.” Dr. Patterson performed in-life imaging by MRI and characterized what causes the disease. It is hoped this will lead to early diagnosis, new therapies, a screening test, and the eventual decrease in the prevalence of the disease.
The condition was originally given the name Constrictive Myelopathy and is now known as Pug Myelopathy.
What the Michigan State University study has established to date
Patterson and his team identified that Pug Myelopathy is a spinal condition unique to pugs. It begins with rear leg weakness and dog’s dragging their feet, but it is actually caused by a complex of abnormalities causing pressure on the spinal cord.
- Abnormalities of the vertebral bones.
- A complex of one or more related lesions that can cause spinal cord compression.
- Eventual permanent damage to the spinal cord resulting in paralysis.
Dr. Patterson’s goal was to unravel the relationship between each of these conditions. The study was conducted over a multi-year period and funded by the Pug Dog Club of America.
Neurologists in private practice, such as Dr. Michael Wong of Miami, Florida, are sharing their experience and knowledge of pug spinal disease to enhance the research efforts.
What you can do as a pug owner
As the pet parent of a pug here are signs you should watch in your dog:
- Most affected pugs are 9-12 years old with symptoms appearing as early as 7 years old.
- The dog may be reluctant to climb stairs or walk on slippery surfaces.
- The pug has noticeable changes in bladder and bowel habits.
- The rear legs seem uncoordinated with loss of rear limb muscle strength.
- Feet may appear damaged and have worn down nails on the rear legs.
The Pug Dog Club of America recommends that owners become aware of this disease and seek veterinary care if symptoms appear. There is limited published information about Pug Myelopathy and many veterinarians are not knowledgeable about the disease. Owners can alert veterinarians about the Michigan State University Study, and the Pug Myelopathy website that Dr. Smiler started.
PDCA also shares health information and breeder selection tips that help pug owners educate other dog families about the condition. We want to share how afflicted dogs benefit from physical therapy, and that early use of a dog wheelchair, as an exercise device, may help keep dogs’ mobile longer.
Waiting for the publications
Dr. Patterson’s research will be published in veterinary journals. It will be exciting to read the official results and increase awareness for owners learning about this condition and how they can care for their dogs.
In the meantime, you can keep up-to-date on new developments on the Facebook page Dr. Smiler started for pug owners. You can also join the Facebook page, Wheelie Pugs, which is a knowledgeable community of caregivers of disabled pugs. It provides moral support and encouragement, and helpful techniques for long term nursing care at home.
Pet owners should be hopeful improved therapies will be identified. With potential genetic studies, rehabilitation protocols, new surgical techniques, and improved care, the impact of Pug Myelopathy on this beloved breed will be lessened.
Thank you to the Genberg, Mazzenga, Trometter, and Denz families for sharing pictures of their Pugs.