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Myasthenia Gravis

By: Dr. Arnold Plotnick

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Myasthenia gravis is a disorder characterized by muscular weakness that is aggravated by activity and relieved by rest. It is caused by an impairment of transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, which results in muscle weakness. The disease can be an inherited congenital defect (rare) or can be acquired later in life (common in dogs, rare in cats).

The acquired form is due to a defect in the immune system whereby antibodies are made against the animal's own muscle receptors, preventing signal transmission from occurring properly.

Both sexes are equally affected, and all breeds are susceptible, although a recent study shows Akitas, Scottish terriers, German shorthaired pointers and Chihuahuas to be at higher risk. Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, Dalmatians and Parson Russell Terriers had lower relative risk. The acquired disorder rarely strikes animals less than 1 year of age. There seems to be two age peaks for the disease: one at 2 to 3 years of age, and another peak at 9 to 10 years of age.

The disease causes generalized weakness that often affects the esophagus, causing difficulty eating and swallowing. This can lead to regurgitation and aspiration of material into the lungs, and subsequent pneumonia. Many dogs succumb to this type of pneumonia.

Myasthenia gravis sometimes occurs secondary to a tumor of the thymus gland, or possibly some other type of tumor.

What to Watch For

  • Muscle weakness that worsens with exercise and improves with rest

  • Concurrent esophageal weakness, manifesting as regurgitation and possibly pneumonia (coughing, fever)

    Diagnosis

  • Anti-acetylcholine receptor antibody test
  • Tensilon test
  • Electromyography

    Treatment

  • Anticholinesterase drugs
  • Drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Plasmapheresis
  • Thymectomy
  • Elevated feedings or gastrostomy tube placement

    Home Care and Prevention

    Administer medication as prescribed and follow any special feeding instructions.

    There are no significant preventative measures for myasthenia gravis.

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