Frustration and Heartbreak on the Road to Saving Sick Puppies


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

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

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

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.


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