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How I Learned My Dog Has a Rare Auto-Immune Disorder

Maybelle was biting her nails and limping. It took several visits to the vet before we got a diagnosis and final treatment plan. Here's what I learned along the way.

Theresa Cramer  |  Oct 24th 2016


Onchodystrophy. It’s quite the mouthful, and until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of it. Today, I’m practically an expert…but it’s been a long, strange trip.

It started innocuously enough. Maybelle was biting her nails, which I thought might be a helpful gesture since she refuses to let anyone cut her nails. After a week or so of this, I turned to Google, which told me to head to the vet because it might be caused by an allergy.

Itchy feet didn't keep Maybelle from running around in the field and rolling in mystery poo.

Itchy feet didn’t keep Maybelle from running around in the field and rolling in mystery poo. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

As you might imagine, a dog who won’t let anyone cut her nails is not inclined to let a vet get a good look at her troublesome feet—especially the one she’d chewed most of the nails off of. But from what my vet could see, there were few signs of allergies. Nonetheless, we tried some allergy meds, I changed her food, and decided to see if anything changed. The chewing decreased a lot, but didn’t go away entirely.

Then the limping started, the night before we were headed out for our first camping trip. It seemed likely that the limp was related to the nail problem, but she may have twisted an ankle while bouncing off the oak tree in the backyard in search of squirrels. So I made an appointment for the following Monday, we packed up the tent, and headed into the woods.

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I told Maybelle we’re getting a bear box for the kitchen. She was sad. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

Despite a thunderstorm, we had a nice time and kept the hiking to a minimum, but the limp didn’t subside so we found ourselves back at the vet’s office, this time with a different doctor. They didn’t get a much better look at her feet this time around, but could see that many of her nails were broken and/or chewed to the quick. They sent me home with an anti-inflammatory and antibiotics, the suggestion that the chewing might be a behavioral issue, and the idea that we might just have to get Maybelle all whacked out on drugs in order to get a better look at her feet.

The limp faded quickly, but a few days into her latest round of meds, we were out for a walk when we found ourselves walking by one dog running and barking along their fence line and another barking from their window. She reared up on her hind legs—as she often does—and when she came down she immediately stopped to lick her toe. I noticed one of the few remaining nails was standing at an odd angle. It was lifted up just ever so slightly. (This is where I should point out that the mere thought of ever losing one of my own nails makes me want to pass out.)

Hanging out a little too close to the fire.

Hanging out a little too close to the fire. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

The next morning, I dropped her off at the vet to get loopy on drugs and have her toes looked at (along with what the vet called a spa day of teeth cleaning and anal sac squeezing). That night we finally had a real diagnosis: onchodystrophy. A fairly rare auto-immune disorder that causes Maybelle’s body to attack her nails—leading them to break and just lift right off. *Shudder*

Normally there is a pretty easy fix for this problem. Doxycycline—which may or may not have to be taken indefinitely—along with over-the-counter supplements niacinamide and vitamin E. I headed over to Whole Foods, bought the supplements, and undertook the task of getting Maybelle to take a total of 14 pills per day (including the previously prescribed anti-inflammatories). A few days in, the “episodes” started.

Maybelle woke me up one night, whining and unable to get off the loveseat where she sleeps. I sat with her for a few minutes, petting and reassuring her. When I stood up, Maybelle jumped off the bed, crawled under my bed, and went back to sleep. But a few days later it happened again, and the whining and pacing went on for hours. Three nights in a row, Maybelle paced and whined and was inconsolable.

One vet suggested anxiety might be behind Maybelle's chewing--but I doubted it.

One vet suggested anxiety might be behind Maybelle’s chewing—but I doubted it. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

After talking to the vet, we decided to do an experiment and discontinue the niacinamide (I’d already stopped giving her the anti-inflammatory). The episodes stopped just as mysteriously as they’d begun. We chatted a few days later and the vet was mystified—and frankly, so was I. All my internet research told me that niacinamide is practically a miracle drug—used for everything from anxiety to making your skin look better—with few side effects. But I got a second call from the vet a couple of hours later. She’d stopped to tell one of the other doctors about what was going on with Maybelle, and the other doctor was not baffled. She’d read a report saying that strange behavior had been observed in some dogs on niacinamide…and that some people had reported tingling in their hands. Tingling that a dog would be confused and distressed by.

But I had one more question for the doctor. Several years ago, Maybelle had very similar episodes (that I wrote about for Dogster), only they were months apart, and much shorter. They stopped completely after I took her off her combination flea and heartworm preventative. Well, apparently some dogs have similar tingling sensations with topical flea treatments! And it just might be that the dogs who are sensitive to the flea treatments are also sensitive to niacinamide.

The good news is, the tingling issue seems to be resolved by simply lowering the dosage, and so Maybelle will get the vitamins she needs to help her deformed nails grow back. And I have learned more about rare nailbed disorders than I ever wanted to know.