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Nando’s story: living with Leonberger Polyneuropathy

Nando’s an adorable gentle giant of a dog- the size of a small Shetland pony, he towers over some of the kids he meets while he’s out on his work duties as a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog! Like all PAT dogs, he’s passed strict temperament and behaviour tests, and he just loves the attention that flocks his way. People are so busy being surprised by his size and then rushing to fuss him, that it sometimes takes them a while to notice that there’s something not quite right about the way he moves.

Nando is only a youngster and he had a big show career ahead of him. At just six months of age, his responsible owner was one of the first to take up the opportunity to have Nando blood tested for an emerging disease particular to his breed, Leonberger Polyneuropathy. It’s a nasty disease which causes progressive deterioration of patient’s nerve function- steadily the messages between the dog’s brain and the rest of the body stop getting through. The longest nerves are affected first, so the patient’s back legs get weak and clumsy, and often the larynx or voicebox becomes paralysed too, making it hard to breathe. Currently, there’s a lot of research going on into the problem, and we know there are at least two inherited forms; and the test to see if a dog’s genes contain the affected version of one form is very new.

Nando’s owners were devastated to find out that Nando has two copies of the affected gene, making him not even a carrier, but putting him into the category of affected dogs in which the disease starts young- usually before three years old. Distraught, Nando’s mum did a lot of research straight away, and learned that rehab exercises might help Nando train his muscle strength and control up to help him withstand the effects of the disease for longer. Just a couple of days later, he arrived with us for the first time.

When we first met Nando, he was healthy, happy and in normal control of his legs (although a bit of laxity in his hip joints made his life just that little bit harder still.) We set about training Nando and his owner in physiotherapy exercises to turn him from a gangly puppy into a strong young dog with excellent fine control of his muscles. This involved a lot of ‘homework’ for mum Julie, and it all had to be adapted to fit too- regular visitors to the local supermarket got used to seeing Nando weaving in and out of the long line of bollards in front of the shop that were just the right size! Meanwhile, the ARC team got quite adept at ducking when Nando played at tap dancing while his water levels were adjusted in the underwater treadmill.

Things went swimmingly for a while, but before Nando was a year old, Julie started to get worried about the noise he was making while breathing, and about the way he would occasionally walk when he was tired. Sadly, Nando became affected at a very young age indeed. Initially, he coped really well and his preparation work stood him in good stead; but his breathing started to become a real problem with him getting unable to get enough oxygen in through his paralysed larynx. At this stage, he visited the specialist surgeons for an operation to fix half of his larynx open so he could breathe. It’s a challenging op: there are risks during the surgery, and also afterwards, when the patient can very easily breathe food or drink into his lungs. Fortunately for Nando though, it went extremely well, and after a long gradual recovery period, he was ready to get back in action.

Returning to ARC after his extended break, it was clear there were problems. In the time when Nando had been forced to rest following the surgery, he had lost a lot of the muscle power and control that had been painstakingly built up, and the muscle supplied by one of his longest nerves, that helps him to bend his hock or ankle joint, had shrunk to smaller than the width of a pencil and he could hardly lift his back feet off the ground: walking in the water was too hard for him to do alone. It was time for more drastic measures. First of all, Nando had electrotherapy- we used neuromuscular electrical stimulation or NMES to get his weak shin muscles working. Next, vet Rhona joined Nando in the treadmill (it’s a very good job we’ve got the super-large HP300 model..) so that with  a bit of breath holding practice and a very fetching wet hairdo, she could hold Nando’s paws and help him to get walking again.

Undeterred by the setback, Nando and Julie worked hard and we’re delighted to report that before long, he was up and walking just as far as he had been before (he is very partial to a few sausages to encourage him though!) As we write this, Nando lives a pretty normal life, going walks with the family, welcoming a new puppy to the house, school visiting on PAT duties and generally enjoying himself. It’s going to be an uphill struggle to keep him as mobile, because there is no cure for his disease, and no way we know of to stop the deterioration in his nerve function. We can just battle to keep him strong and more in control of is balance so he can stay on his feet for longer. Nando’s not a very portable size of dog- nursing him later on will be a demanding task, but one that Julie is ready for. The ravaging effects of Leonberger polyneuropathy are upsetting and it takes courage for owners to get the tests done, and to deal with the results. There’s no easy answer- at the minute, only by careful breeding can we reduce the number of affected dogs. Julie wants people to know about Nando’s story to help cast light on inherited diseases like this, on what can be done to make them less common and on what can be done for patients like Nando. We are delighted to help her share their story.