Jake was a character.
Of course everybody says that about their dog, but honestly Jake the Dalmatian really was a character – probably from a Dickens novel.
There was something very Victorian about Jake you see. Handsome in a well-worn way, as rough and as tough as they come, with a skull that no highwayman could ever have breached. (He once ran into the side of a moving taxi and dented the door).
He was a big dog, without an ounce of fat. He had a chest that a deep sea diver would envy – nothing like a normal dog’s chest, no pointy sternum on him. He was all chest, with lungs that would have allowed him to run all day next to any coach you might care to choose; even one being pulled by a locomotive. Dalmatians can be trained to pull carts; Jake could have pulled the horse as well.
Jake was the sort of loveable rogue who would sneak out of the house, by ways never identified, and not come back until he had been through every available dustbin in the village. Often this would result in a stomach distended in the best cartoon dog style – sometimes with the shape of something suspiciously like an anvil poking out. He would then lie on his side for a day or so, while you opened the window and reached for the air freshener.
And of course Jake grinned, just like a burglar getting clean away with a bag of swag over his shoulder.
It is well known that Dalmatians ‘laugh’, greeting friends and family by curling their upper lips, so that their upper front teeth are visible. (Not a form of snarl!) However, Jake’s ‘laugh’ really was a grin and it wasn’t reserved for greetings.
It was usually done ‘over the shoulder’ that didn’t have the bag of swag as he disappeared off to do something he wasn’t really supposed to do. That particular list was very long and usually involved food – especially barbecues.
In the United States locals will know that Dalmatians are sometimes called ‘firedogs’, because they are associated with the fire service – running next to the fire wagons - and are not particular worried about fire. Jake wasn’t worried about a fire at all, not if it was cooking food; no problem at all with hot coals then, thank you.
Now, I do not want to give the impression that Jake was an appallingly badly behaved and disobedient dog. Yes, he was a rescue dog and he had been re-homed twice before he came to us, but he soon settled in here. He was an excellent chum and affectionate loyal house dog, full of life and fun and would always come to the whistle. Well, he would always come to the whistle if he actually wanted to. This was a dog sent to befuddle dog trainers of every calibre.
Dalmatians are well known for being prone to hearing problems. Jake could hear a sausage drop from a mile away. Unfortunately Dalmatians are also prone to degenerative myelopathy and that is what laid our Jake low. Ironically, if that’s the right word, I had been a neuroscientist and I knew all about degenerative myelopathy.
In fact it had always been my ambition to work on such degenerative nerve and muscle diseases. The myelin of the ‘myelopathy’ in the disease name refers to a fatty white substance that surrounds the axon of the spinal cord (and other myelinated nerve cells) in mammals to form an electrically insulating layer. If this sheath starts to deteriorate then nerve signals from the brain do not reach a dog’s back legs and they become progressively weak and uncoordinated. The disease shares similarities with human motor neurone disease.
It is inherited and hence is not curable. It is not clear whether exercise helps or hinders the disease’s progression. Generally it is found in older dogs, in Jake we noticed it first – as a dragging on his right back paw - when he was around 13. As the normal lifespan for a Dalmatian is given as 10-13, this wasn’t too ‘bad’, which is of course no consolation. Fortunately, in itself, it is not a disease that causes pain.
Of course, you need to get the diagnosis confirmed by your vet because spinal cord tumours and disc disease can cause compression of the spinal cord, giving rise to symptoms similar to degenerative myelopathy. The vet confirmed our fears.
The progression of the disease can lead to incontinence and then front limb and respiratory problems. A dog can go downhill rapidly over a few months we were told, or may manage for another three years.
Jake wasn’t hearing any of this. He wasn’t going to let something as stupid as the loss of a fatty sheath affect his lifestyle. He would go on walks like he was used to and at least attempt to remain the character he always had been.
Four years later he was still insisting. I think the first time he really realised that something was the matter was when he couldn’t get himself home. He looked up to me as if to say: ‘sorry, I don’t understand this at all!’ I had to carry over 5 stone of Dalmatian back home. It was a sad day.
You can get "dog wheelchairs" for breeds of dog that are prone to this condition (e.g. German shepherd dogs, Pembroke Welsh corgis, and boxer dogs), and I’ve known smaller dogs that cope admirably with such carts. For a dog like Jake we just knew it wasn’t the right thing. The choice is always about the quality of life. By this stage Jake was not only having trouble with walking but was becoming double incontinent. He hated that.
One morning my partner came down and found Jake in a very sorry state and she came back upstairs, upset but determined, because she knew that Jake had had enough.
It was a traumatic day WHEN Jake left us – it always is, but we were both with him and he went peacefully. He never feared the vet. He never really feared anything. After all, Jake was a character - a character and a half.
snugglezzz would like to thank Terry and Sue for sharing their experiences with Jake and his Degenerative Myelopathy condition. If you would like to share your story, please get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org