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Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a disease that interrupts the way nerves communicate with muscles. In order to understand this disease, you must have some understanding of how things work in the normal situation.

A Neuron Is a Cell.

It has a head called a cell body at one end, a long strand called an axon , and a foot piece with small branching fingers called foot processes. The neurons that myasthenia gravis involves have their cell bodies (their heads) in the spinal cord and their foot processes (their feet) in the voluntary muscles that we use to move our bodies (our skeletal muscles.) The spinal cord sends a message to move a certain muscle. The neuron receives this message and carries it to that muscle.

A Nerve Is a Group of Axons.

The white fibrous structures we call nerves are actually groups of axons bundled together.

Neurotransmitters Are Chemicals.

In order for a message to be transferred between neurons, a chemical is released from the foot processes of the first neuron and is taken up by one of the branches of the receiving neuron’s head (or by the muscle.) After the chemical message has been successfully transferred, an enzyme destroys the neurotransmitter molecule in order to prevent on-going stimulation. The neurotransmitter we are concerned with in myasthenia gravis is called Acetylcholine and the enzyme which degrades it is called Acetylcholinesterase.

The Neuromuscular Junction.

This is the area where neuron and muscle interface. There are three types of muscle: heart muscle, smooth (or involuntary) muscle (the kind that moves food through your intestine, or constrict your pupils, for example), and striated (or voluntary) muscle (the kind you use to walk, type, sing, and control facial expression). It is the neuromuscular junction on the striated muscle which is stricken in Myasthenia gravis and now…MYASTHENIA GRAVIS.

Congenital Myasthenia Gravis

In this condition, the patient is born without normal neuromuscular junctions to striated muscles. There is no effective treatment. Myasthenia gravis has been described as a recessive genetic disease in the Jack Russell terrier, the Springer Spaniel, and the Smooth Fox Terrier. The miniature dachshund gets a congenital form which actually resolves with age.

Acquired Myasthenia Gravis

This is a so-called autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system is destroying neuromuscular junctions as if they were foreign invaders. What muscles are affected depend on which junctions have been destroyed. Therapy centers on stopping this immune reaction and prolonging what acetylcholine activity is still present. This is done with a combination of immunosuppressive agents and medications to inhibit acetylcholinesterase.

Clinical Signs / Symptoms

Symptoms include muscle weakness affecting the eyes, muscles of facial expression, throat / esophagus (in dogs), and limbs. This translates into early exercise fatigue (in about 60% of patients), megaesophagus, voice change, or difficulty swallowing.

There is an acute form that is rapidly progressive and quickly lethal. This form is associated with thymoma, a tumor of the thymus gland (located in the chest).

Because myasthenia gravis is so common, any dog with general muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, or megaesophagus should be tested for myasthenia gravis.


In older times, testing was more complicated. Muscles were biopsied. Response to rapid acting intravenous drugs were examined in what was caked the tensilon test. Nowadays, a simple (though not inexpensive) blood test can be done to check for antibodies against acetylcholine receptors. This blood test is falsely negative in only 2% of cases. These same antibody blood levels can be used to monitor treatment progress. When antibodies drop to less than 0.6 nmol/L, clinical signs generally resolve.

Once a dog or cat has been found to have myasthenia gravis, it is important to consider that immune mediated conditions often go together. There may be other problems afoot.

A chest radiograph set should be taken to check for thymoma.


Myasthenia gravis often goes into remission without treatment. In one study of 53 dogs, 89% went into remission an average of 6.4 months (and within 18 months) after diagnosis. In this study, the dogs that did not go into remission all developed cancer within 3 years of their myasthenia diagnosis.


In megaesophagus , the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat and stomach and transports food) becomes flaccid and useless. Patients with this condition regurgitate their food because they cannot effectively move food into their stomachs. They lose weight because they cannot retain food. They are also highly predisposed to aspirating (inhaling) food and saliva and developing especially intractable pneumonia as a result.

It is important that this condition be recognized quickly so as to prevent debilitating weight loss and pneumonia.

Removing the thymus gland?

The thymus gland, located in the chest generally shrivels up after childhood/puppyhood/kittenhood. It is involved in the maturation of the immune system. In humans, tumors and excessive growths of the thymus frequently accompany the development of myasthenia gravis. Thymectomy (removal of the thymus gland) is a well-accepted part of treatment for myasthenia gravis in humans but is still unproven to help in the treatment of dogs and cats.


Pyridostigmine (brand name Mestinon®) is the usual medication used to prolong the action of acetylcholine. By inactivating acetylcholinesterase, the receptors that have not been destroyed by the immune system can bind acetylcholine longer. It is typically given orally 2 to 3 times daily and is associated with some nausea. This can be dealt with by diluting the medication or by giving medication on a full stomach. Other side effects can be excess tearing of the eyes, and drooling.


Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, and similar drugs can suppress the production of the antibodies that are destroying the neuromuscular junctions. In general these medications are avoided unless the anticholinesterase therapy does not yield acceptable results. Other stronger immune suppressive drugs (such as azathioprine) are only used if there are reasons that corticosteroids cannot be used due to diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, concurrent infection etc. or if the myasthenia is especially severe.

Vaccination should be postponed, as vaccination has been shown to exacerbate active myasthenia gravis.

Early diagnosis is important to successful therapy.

If you are worried about this disease, there is nothing wrong with asking for the antibody test as long as one does not mind the expense.


By Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, DipABVP

32 thoughts on “Myasthenia Gravis

  1. is it possible that this condition will be lifelong?

  2. my dog pet April has MG since May 2015 and has been under medication since, but the stomach has blotted double its normal size…is there any medication conventional or alternative to reduce the swelling of the stomach?

  3. Alyssa Estes says:

    My dog has had Myasthenia Gravis for 6 months, and I believe he is going into remission. His pyridostigmine dose is down to .6ml every 8 hours. He’s gone 2 months with no weakness and 2 weeks without vomiting, until last night. I don’t know if this is a sign that we should lower his medication or increase it. Any help is appreciated it. It has been a very long road.

  4. Robyn says:

    My dog has acquaried myasthenia gravis we found out last week my dog does not want any food at all today and when she drinks water it comes up as a thick gel how can I get her to take any food

    • David says:

      Definitely sounds like your dog has developed megaesophagus (my dog just went through this). Look up Bailey Chairs and what/how to feed your dog with this condition. Good luck!

    • Martie says:

      My 12 year old Golden Retriever has acquired MG and Mega esophagus. We ruled out the Bailey’s Chair because of his hip and spine issue. We used the couch to feed him. He sat with his paws on the back of the couch while he ate. That worked but he resisted sitting for the 30 minutes after eating.

      The next thing we tried was to use his bed and two wedge pillows that I put underneath his bad to create a high enough angle for him to sit up. He likes this better and is willing to sit there longer.

      I have a little timer and we set it for 30 minutes. He has learned “up up” when he starts to slide down and I give him ten licks of doggie ice cream each time I have to give him the “up up” cue to get him back in place. It has become a game for him now and he enjoys it much better.

      Experiment to find what works for your dog. The main thing is to find a way to keep him/her up long enough to let gravity pull the food down into the stomach.

      The last thing we did was buy a big bean bag for him to sleep on. This keeps him elevated at night and I don’t have to worry about him spitting up in his sleep.

      Hope you find something that works.

  5. Yvette says:

    My Jack Russel puppy about 4months now has a strange condition. About two weeks ago she started crying if we picked her up from under her fore arms, (now we can only pick her up from under the tummy), then her neck started to go stiff as if she was having an epileptic attack. Also cried if you try to change the position of the neck. Sometimes she is just mowning as is she is in pain we she is changing position on her pullar. She also shivers most of the time as if she is cold. Does not move around a lot the last few days. She does look sick. However the vet did blood tests for animal illnesses and could not find anything, he then said it could be that her neck is just soare, he gave something for pain and also medicine for a worm in the brain. She sometimes also looks as if she looses her balance a bit. Can anyone advise on what this might be, please, thanks

  6. Sara says:

    My sweet pug developed myasthenia gravis as a vaccine reaction when he was about 8 years old. The first sign was drooling which progressed to vomiting and weakness. He developed megaesophagus and aspiration pneumonia. By the time the diagnosis was made he was on his deathbed. By some miracle he turned the corner and recovered even though we had stopped all medications except antibiotics at that point. He did eventually recover, doing coupage for the pneumonia seemed to help a lot. Doing elevated feedings and being held in an upright position for 30 minutes after meals was needed for months but eventually he progressed to normal feedings and his strength and weight returned. I do think the ordeal shortened his life but he did live to be 12 years old and healthy mostly through age 11. I still vaccinate my other dogs but watch for reactions, my pug got worsening allergic reactions each time he was vaccinated in the years prior to the myasthenia.

  7. Carol says:

    My dog has been on prednisone since 1 yr old. They were thinking he had polymyositis all this time. Now they are saying it’s possibly MG. Just sent in for the test but they put him on pyridostigmine asap. How long does it take for the medication to start working? It’s been only 1 full day but I want it to work fast. He has slight leg weakness but the main thing is, he chokes after drinking water only. Food goes down great. So puzzling. Thanks for any answers.

  8. Myasthenia gravis can be treated with the help of herbal supplements which are safe to use with no symptom. Herbs provide Myasthenia Gravis Herbal Treatment to reverse diseased condition. It principally takes a shot at underlying driver of disease and manages with the symptoms with the help of herbs.

    • Diane Shruntz says:

      What herbs do you suggest? My chihuahua has been on herbs since she was 5 years. Can I give her Qiancengta ?

    • Maija Davlouros says:

      You make a hopeful statement without listing helpful herbs…is this your belief that herbs will help, or is it proven?

  9. Cindy King says:

    My 12 yr. old Labradoodle was just diag. wth this.. What herbs an perscribed amount should be given for 90 lbs. Also where would I find information on these herbs??

  10. Dana Koenig says:

    My dog has Myasthenia and Megaesophagus. I think she will go into remission if she continues as she is – as she is responding really well to therapy and we hold her up for 15 minutes after she eats or drinks anything. Question:
    1) If dogs go into remission do they STAY in remission?
    2) If dog’s myasthenia goes into remission do they still have the megaesophasus problem for the rest of their lives?

  11. Jerry Atson says:

    I had myasthenia gravis since 2015. I got medically discharged out of the Army, a job I loved well. My heart had 5 myasthenic crises, 3 being severe enough to be ventilated or require CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) helmet. I have had countless plasma exchanges as my veins are bad. I also needed Hickman lines inserted. I have been on azathioprine, mycophenolate (CellCept), methotrexate and none have worked. I’m currently done with my herbal remedy I purchase from totalcureherbsfoundation .com which has totally cured my condition with a surprise after almost four months of their usage, I was discouraged and never thought I would be myasthenia gravis (MG) free ,to me the best to get rid of this condition is totalcureherbsfoundation com treatment because all medications I used never worked include mycophenolate (CellCept)

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