Whole Dog Journal's Blog December 13, 2018

Frustration and Heartbreak on the Road to Saving Sick Puppies

Posted at 12:11PM - Comments: (24)

A friend who mostly keeps up with me through this blog and via my Facebook posts called to ask me the other day, “Nance, I’m afraid to ask: How is Otto? Is he still . . . alive?”

I have had the same instinct when talking to friends who have older dogs. It’s easy to forget exactly how senior one of your friend’s dogs actually is and worry about asking about the dog, in case you are in for an hour of crying together on the phone.

whole dog journal otto


So I thought maybe I should start out this post by saying, Otto is doing great. He had some dental work in November at the veterinary teaching hospital at UC Davis – a broken canine and a cracked carnassial extracted – and came through all that with flying colors. He enjoyed eating canned and soaked dry food for a few weeks afterward, and has looked rather disappointed with me any time I am in a big hurry and only spill “crunchies” (what my husband calls dry food) into his bowl.

But his recovery from those two big extractions was otherwise smooth sailing, and he even trotted with his head up into the hospital, slippery floors and all, for his follow-up visit two weeks later, so he couldn’t have had too much of a traumatic time there. Of course, I primed the veterinary student in charge of him to know that Otto was a celebrity dog, and that thousands of people would be upset if anything bad happened to him. I brought along copies of the 2019 Whole Dog Journal calendar, which has Otto on the cover, and a couple copies of the magazine that feature his photo, too, so that everyone would know that Otto is a supermodel. And of course Otto was his usual friendly-but-dignified, well-behaved self, and the student kept telling me how much he enjoyed taking Otto out for potty walks and what a good boy he was.

But Otto has certainly taken a back seat to all the drama going on related to the Camp Fire and then the latest litter of foster puppies. Otto’s main job when I have foster pups underfoot is to stand stock still, snarling and growling ferociously at them when they come near him. If they don’t heed his warnings, he will give them a mighty roar “AHWOOF!” and send them running for their lives. He’s never hurt one, and this is actually a good thing for puppies to learn – to approach grownups with respect and caution, not careless abandon. But I don’t force these interactions, and Otto increasingly chooses not to enter the fray when puppies are present.

woody and foster puppies

Woody and pups.

In contrast, Woody always helps with my foster pups. He takes a big interest in their care, often watching with his big head resting on the baby gate as I feed and medicate pups in the kitchen, and only jumping over the gate to lick the bowl and faces clean when I give him the word. He guides the troops out the back door and, when they are old enough, down the stairs into the back yard for potty time and back inside when it’s over. I can give him directions, and the pups all follow; it’s really a great system. (I only have to watch that he doesn’t steal their toys; the most appealing puppy toys don’t last a minute in his jaws and paws.) So Woody ends up in a lot of photos and videos I take of the puppies, whereas Otto does not.

I’m backing into all this.

You guys, this litter of puppies is definitely the most challenging, heart-rending bunch I’ve ever taken on. And some of the most adorable and sweet. Why do those things always seem to go together?

My Current Foster Puppies: Found in a Field, on the Brink of Death, But Getting Better!

dog behind baby gate

Woody waiting to come in and play with the pups (and lick their bowl).

A week ago, my biggest concern was their bendy legs. Shortly after I had written that post, I found out that the local orthopedic specialist I had been referred to was booked for weeks on end, so I made an appointment at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) for this week, instead. I just wanted someone to look at all those terrible legs and tell me what to do about them: Diet? Exercise? Splints? Casts?

While that is going to be an ongoing concern, yesterday the VMTH vet told me not to worry, that all the bending and bowing and such would very likely resolve with a few dietary considerations and we wouldn’t worry unless there were still significant problems in a month or two.

The bigger concern was the life hanging in the balance of one of the puppies.

Four days earlier, I had the pups outside, soaking up a bit of sunshine. Woody was leading them around the yard, and I was taking pictures and video, trying to capture their gaits and postures. That was the first time that I noticed that one of the pups was walking in an exceptionally weird way, with her head bent downward, as if she had hurt her neck and couldn’t lift up her head. What happened?

I palpated her neck and back and she didn’t make a squeak. It didn’t seem like she had been injured, but suddenly, she could NOT walk or stand or sit normally. I reviewed my videos of the pups playing. Videos from the previous day showed her playing with her usual vigor. She was fine that morning! Now, at midday, she was walking like a dog wearing a neck brace. I thought, perhaps it’s a joint thing like all these other joint things. I sent a text to the vet tech at the shelter and we agreed I would just keep her quiet and see what happened next.

The next day she was a bit worse. Eating, drinking, pooping fine, even trying to play, but with a stiff neck. The shelter vet tech suggested I give her some metacam for pain, to see if that made any difference. It did not.

The next morning, worse. She was uncoordinated and could barely walk. I fed and got the rest of the pups set early in the morning, and was at the 24-hour veterinary clinic with her at 8 am. We were there, running tests, until 6 p.m. (I went home midday, while a three-hour test was being run, to feed/clean up and let out the other pups and then went back.) Everything was inconclusive and the vet was stumped – and the pup was worse; she could no longer sit or even hold her head up. During conversations at some point in the day, I told her I would be taking everyone to the VMTH at Davis the next day, she was relieved. “Oh, they can get to the bottom of this.” We spent nearly $700 and had no answers.

Major Setback: Another Puppy Lost

I wasn’t certain the pup would make it through the night, but she did. And while she had, as the vet put it, “reduced mentation,” not responding like a well puppy, when I spoke to her and praised her, she would wag her tail and brighten. She lapped weakly at water and broth and watered/down canned A/D (food for debilitated dogs) that I syringed into her mouth or held in a spoon on her lips, but would get a little panicky if too much went into her mouth at once.

sick foster puppy

UC Davis VMTH vet examining one of the bendy-legged pups (dressed in protective gear in case the sick pup had something infectious).

We left for Davis at 7 a.m., with the five robust pups in the way back of my car and her on the front seat, wrapped up in towels. I sang to her and petted her as we drove and she would wag and follow me with her eyes. I held it together until we got right onto campus, and there was a construction detour that wouldn’t take me where I needed to go and it was two minutes to our appointment time and I could see but could not get to where I needed to be. I had a cursing and crying tantrum for a minute, and wanted to storm through the construction zone. And right then my phone rang, and it was a cheerful student asking if I was close by. I told her, through tears, that I was stuck on the wrong side of some construction and had had a meltdown, and she laughed in an extremely kind way and said, “Don’t worry, I will meet you out front . . . Do you know how to get around all that?” I did know the long way around; I have been bringing animals to this hospital, it seems, all my life. It was only insurmountable for a minute.

I’ll shorten all this. The good news: The vets thought that the legs of the five happy, scampering, playful pups will be just fine without major interventions. As alarming as they look to not just me, but everyone, the doctors said this is common for pups who have been so malnourished and are now on good food. They suggested dialing back the nutrient content of the food slightly for a bit, and checking in again in a month or two. No bracing, casting, or anything else. Sheesh.

The bad news: We have no conclusive diagnosis for the sick pup. Their first thought was distemper, which usually presents with either severe respiratory illness (with purulent goo from their eyes and noses) or severe digestive illness (diarrhea and vomiting) and advances to neurological symptoms, but CAN present with just neurological symptoms.

But to conclusively prove this, only a cerebrospinal fluid sample from a spinal tap can be tested for distemper at this point, not the usual eye, nose, and throat samples (because, like all the pups, she was vaccinated upon intake at the shelter, and would have circulating antigen in her other body fluids from that, giving us a positive result to those other tests no matter what). And the price for this test, including full anesthesia (the only way they will do the test) is over $1,000. AND, even if she HAS distemper, the prognosis is poor. Dogs who recover from distemper can have lifelong neurological deficits and outbreaks of the illness months later.

The other possible diagnosis offered: that she has a serious injury in her neck, one requiring surgery. The neurologist who examined her in a consult said that x-rays would not be enough to diagnose this, either a CT scan or MRI would be needed to diagnose and possibly treat (with surgery). Beginning price tag, $4,000.

And in the meantime, she’s sinking.

The vets’ recommendation: Euthanasia. And yet, that tail-wagging. She is still listening and paying attention to me. I just don’t understand why things have to be this hard.

I consulted with the RVT from my shelter, and she said she had been discussing the pup with one of the vets who does the spay/neuter surgery at our shelter; she practices both Western and Eastern veterinary medicine and uses acupuncture in her practice. The RVT mentioned that the vet would be interested in looking at our girl and trying some acupuncture if we thought it might help. Well, I thought, that beats me losing all my marbles here at the VMTH. So I drove us all home again.

The vet and RVT and even the shelter director came in and we all petted and discussed the very limp puppy. The tail-wagging just broke all of our hearts, and her weak attempts to eat made us agree to try some acupuncture and bone broth and more warmth and love and give her one more night. But, my friends, in the morning she was worse yet. She didn’t seem like she was in pain, but she was definitely checking out more and more. The wags were weaker, and she couldn’t lap at the broth I syringed into her mouth. I took her back to the shelter and we gave her what little we had left to offer: a painless end in the arms of someone who truly loved her.

Five happy, healing puppies left to love and raise.

Thank you to those of you who have made donations to my local shelter, the Northwest SPCA, to help pay for the medical care for these little guys. It has helped SO MUCH and I am so grateful to all of you.

Comments (24)

My heart goes out to you for your loss. I love dogs, I adopted 4 rescues as puppies. Your dog family and your family are fantastic!

Posted by: Starchild | December 19, 2018 11:15 AM    Report this comment

So sorry to hear of the lost puppy. I recently adopted an old boy Chow from a kill shelter in GA. After beginning his pretreatment for heartworm, he developed a pneumothorax from an undiagnosed lung cancer. I thought I'd never stop crying and he was only with me for 3 weeks. Your pup had love in her last days; think of this during the sad times.‚̧

Posted by: chowgirl | December 16, 2018 4:15 PM    Report this comment

Nancy, you and Otto and Woody have been a part of my life for several years, since just before you got Woody.. I almost feel like your family is a part of mine. I'm happy to hear about Otto doing so well. I am very sorry for the loss of your foster puppy. I volunteer at our local municipal shelter and my daughter fosters dogs from the shelter for rescues. She had a foster recently who was supposed to get transported up north with his housemate who she also fostered; but it was found that poor Emmitt had end stage kidney disease. His buddy Dusty traveled north to his new life while my daughter and her family provided hospice care for sweet Emmitt for the last bit of his life. It is hard to lose a dog, even a foster dog. Bless you for all you do.

Posted by: stephcarb | December 16, 2018 2:09 PM    Report this comment

I just lost it over the sweet little puppy. I'm glad the others are doing well. She's out of pain now.
I donated to the rescue group helping the animals stranded by the fire. Thanks for all you do!

Posted by: Jeanmarie | December 15, 2018 10:55 AM    Report this comment

Nancy- God will bless you for the kindness you give to His creatures. I donít know how you do all that you do physically- it would be the end of me. I know the devastation of having to put down a precious animal- many times- and how much it takes out of you. But the rest of the pups are a living testament to you and your great dedication. God bless you Nancy.

Posted by: lynnlie | December 15, 2018 10:25 AM    Report this comment

Thank you, Nancy and friends, for caring for these pups. I have five dogs, or I would gladly take one.

Posted by: Kitsumama | December 15, 2018 10:21 AM    Report this comment

And the tears are flowing here in the Pacific Northwest. You kept trying, didn't give up, it just doesn't seem fair, does it? You know she loved you for the short time she was with you, and felt the love you had for her. I know it all sounds good, but it still hurts. I'm so sorry.

Posted by: mutterma77 | December 15, 2018 7:17 AM    Report this comment

the unknown is always the worst.... I'm so sorry the diagnostics were not an option ... and I understand that .... but from a clinical standpoint, I'm one who WANTS TO KNOW ... not that it would change the outcome, nor ease my (your) pain.... but at some level, maybe that knowledge could be used to prevent a similar outcome in another animal ....

Posted by: KatzDawgs | December 15, 2018 5:44 AM    Report this comment

So sorry to hear about that spirited little girl that gave her all. It breaks my heart to read about such a life that had to leave so soon. You did all you could and thank to Otto and Woody for teaching them about life. I have two Coco and Bella whom are very spoil ladies. Coco sleeps with my grand son 15 and Bella never lets me to far out of her site, they are both rescues. One dropped on our pastors door step at 3 was the other was going to be tossed away because she was not a full breed. Now they are in a loving home with us would not give them up for anything.

Posted by: Jenn893 | December 15, 2018 5:18 AM    Report this comment

We lost our sweet guy and my best buddy last month and learned his stepbrother has heart failure and won't live more than 18 months. Both rescues and older, they are still too young for this and they're the sixth and seventh dogs in a row we've lost to tragedy or catastrophic illness in 15 years. Still, the loss of your puppy was heartbreaking. I am rooting and praying for the rest of the litter. They've already been through too much.

Posted by: dante_lanzetta@sbcglobal.net | December 15, 2018 12:21 AM    Report this comment

first thing came to my mind was wryneck and then severe acute polymyopathy, Praying for the little one

Posted by: cndaurora | December 14, 2018 10:20 PM    Report this comment

So sad; bless you for your kind and loving ministry. I had a good friend who had a Great Dane that contracted a very strange illness in a very similar way. It turned out to be Tetanus. The doctors had just as much difficulty trying to identify what the issue was. It is very rare for dogs to actually contract it, but it is possible. They are typically carriers only. Hopefully, you will never experience that again but if you do, consider the possibility that it is Tetanus.

Posted by: kimdilts | December 14, 2018 7:51 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for your gentle and loving kindness to the young pup...she knew what what love was....

Posted by: MightyMilo | December 14, 2018 6:56 PM    Report this comment

Thank you, Nancy, for going so far above and beyond to care for these puppies. It's so painful to think of the heartbreak you had to experience with the loss of this puppy, but you pushed through that and performed the ultimate act of kindness by helping her go in peace and without suffering. If only there were more people in this world like you. Thank you so much for your kindness to these puppies. You have given them a chance they never would have had.

Posted by: BJG | December 14, 2018 6:15 PM    Report this comment

I'm so sorry. The pain in your area seems relentless, I know you have a lot more pain because you made the decision to care and make a difference. Thank you for helping that poor little girl experience love.

Posted by: Alice R. | December 14, 2018 5:23 PM    Report this comment

Like so many others it breaks my heart that you lost baby girl! I don't know that I could handle the heartbreak that you endure helping out these helpless babies, you definitely have my respect, and I thank you for all that you do!! Thank you for sharing your good deeds with us as well, even though some bring tears to my eyes, others bring joy to my heart!

Posted by: Elizabethebr | December 14, 2018 5:16 PM    Report this comment

I am so sorry for all the heartache. These pups have had a rough start but you have saved them. Most will go on to get adopted and live out wonderful lives and the ones that were lost got a chance to be loved and cared for. Thank you for your wonderful work. And, thank you for sharing these unbelieveable stories. :-)

Posted by: kl50major@yahoo.com | December 14, 2018 3:35 PM    Report this comment

I'm so sorry that this little one died. But I'm glad she knew love and kindness for the last weeks of her life. Thank you for taking such wonderful care of her and the other pups.

Posted by: Fitzroy | December 14, 2018 3:27 PM    Report this comment

Like everyone else here, Nancy, I'm typing this through tears. I'm so sorry for the loss of your little girl, and with no diagnosis, I'm also fervently praying none of the other pups develop symptoms. They are absolutely precious, Otto and Woody are too handsome for words, and you're an angel. God bless you.

Posted by: JanC1955 | December 14, 2018 2:36 PM    Report this comment

Did the doctors check for tick diseases? My friend had a pup that essentially presented with same symptoms & that went down hill very quickly. Turns out the pup had Lyme & associated disease.

Posted by: foxfire | December 14, 2018 2:33 PM    Report this comment

Tears! Why is it that the joys of 5 healing puppies are outweighed by angel pups? So glad you gave her a chance, and a safe and living experience. Thank you!

Posted by: clplumer@gmail.com | December 14, 2018 2:20 PM    Report this comment

Nancy, I am crying. I am so sorry to read of your loss. So heartbreaking for you. I pray that the rest of the clan will continue to do well. And for you also.

Posted by: Donnajackson | December 14, 2018 2:13 PM    Report this comment

My heartfelt sympathies on the loss of the pup (I'm typing this through tears). I've been anxiously following their story.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | December 14, 2018 2:06 PM    Report this comment

IMso sorry about the loss of the puppy. It is so heart breaking to try everything, and still lose a pup. However, you did what uou could and loved her enough to let her Go. So hard. Good Job and much luck with the other pups.

Posted by: BostonTrainer | December 14, 2018 2:04 PM    Report this comment

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