On April Fool’s Day 1996, my soon-to-be-husband took me to get a puppy. We already had one dog, Ladybird, but she was getting older and we felt a young friend would encourage her to be more playful. We also hoped Ladybird would pass on some of her fine qualities to the puppy.
We drove out of town to a place where people play paintball. There were more than a dozen young dogs running around, and the owner told us to take our pick. One young female seemed to want my attention more than any of the others, and I fell in love with her pretty face. We took her home and named her Cheyenne.
We knew very little about Cheyenne’s lineage, but she appeared to be part Lab, with a little hound and quite a but of “who knows” thrown in. She was sweet, afraid of anything new, and very anxious to please. I took her to the veterinarian’s office for a complete checkup the next day and started her on vaccinations, flea pills, and heartworm pills.
Cheyenne seemed happy and healthy. Having been little better than a stray she had fleas and worms, but both conditions were quickly taken care of. The vet guessed she was about three to four months old. She quickly settled into our home and became part of the family.
About three months after we adopted Cheyenne she had her first seizure. We had hardwood floors, and I heard her skittering across them. I went to see what she was up to and found her laying on the floor, absolutely rigid. Her toes were curled in, she was drooling uncontrollably, and only her eyes were moving.
Those eyes followed me as I approached and watched me in confusion and fear as I examined her and realized I couldn’t move any part of her. I immediately grasped what was happening, but was helpless to do anything except sit with her and stroke her head.
The incident lasted more than 15 minutes. Finally, she started to come out of it. Her tail started to wag, and she could move her head. It took a few more minutes for her to completely regain motor control over her legs, but once it was all over she seemed to be fine. She got up, drank some water, and went outside to play. It was as though nothing had happened.
I called the vet, of course. He advised me to keep an eye on her and see if it happened again before we took any corrective action.
Over the next year Cheyenne had a seizure every three to four months. She came to recognize the signs of an impending seizure and would do her best to get to a place she felt safe (either next to me or in her bed) while she could still move. Since I work at home, I was usually there and would sit with her, often putting her head in my lap, stroking her until it was over. That seemed to help her get through it with less fear, but each incident was terrifying to me.
The seizures continued to last 15 to 20 minutes, with total rigidity. Our vet examined her and we discussed possible causes and treatments. Labradors are often prone to seizures, and he suggested that we might put her on anti-seizure medication if they became more frequent. Their length concerned him, since most neurological reactions last just a few minutes, at most.
From Bad to Worse
In the early summer of 1998 Cheyenne had three seizure episodes just 10 days apart. She also started to convulse during the episodes, whereas before she had been completely rigid. My vet and I decided to do some very extensive and expensive blood work to try to diagnose her problem.
When the blood work results came back I was told she had a liver shunt. This meant that one of the veins that carry blood to her liver was “incomplete” or not properly connected. Depending on where the shunt was it might or might not be operable.
The next step would be to take her to Texas A&M where they have an excellent veterinary college and hospital. One of my friends was about to enter her second year of vet school there, and my husband and I decided to wait until the school year began so that Sue could keep an eye on Cheyenne during the week when we left her for testing. We also needed to save some money since the tests and surgery would cost a minimum of $1,500, if there were no complications. In the meantime, we watched Cheyenne carefully, hoping she’d hold her own until we could get her help.
Seizures + Hot Spots
As though the seizures weren’t bad enough, Cheyenne had also developed some bad “hot spots.” These were places she would lick continuously until they became red and raw. Ladybird was also licking herself, especially her paws, for hours at a time.
Our vet asked what we were feeding the dogs. I had started Cheyenne on Science Diet as a puppy, but Ladybird would eat all the puppy food while Cheyenne would eat the generic brand food my husband bought for Ladybird. By this time I had them both on Pedigree Lamb and Rice, which I thought was a good dry dog food.
The vet suggested we try giving them a Eukaneuba prescription formula for allergies. The food was expensive – $42 for a 35-pound bag – and they were going through two bags a month. It did help the “hot spots” clear up, however, and made their coats smoother and softer.
About a week after starting on the new food, Cheyenne had a seizure; happily, it seems to have been her last. Months went by, summer became fall, and still no seizure. We were definitely on to something with the food. I postponed the trip to A&M.
When I started them on the new food, I had also stopped giving the dogs commercial dog treats, like Milk Bones and Beggin’ Strips. After several months with no hot spots, the vet suggested I could reintroduce these treats, so I did.
Ladybird was thrilled to have her treats back. So was Cheyenne, but 24 hours after her first treats, she was licking brand-new “hot spots.” The treats went into the trash.
Following this last incident, I put all the pieces together; finally it was obvious to me that Cheyenne had a serious food allergy!
Toward the end of 1998, I subscribed to this publication. One of my first issues carried a review of better quality dry dog foods. One, California Natural, sounded like it was tailor made for my sensitive dog. With just four ingredients – all whole, real foods – it would be nutritious and digestible, with much less risk of setting off Cheyenne’s allergies.
I called the manufacturer and tracked down a distributor in my area. Now for the acid test – would my fussy dogs eat it?
They loved it. There was never a problem at meal time, yet I noticed that I filled their bowls less often (my dogs just eat when they’re hungry; if they’re not hungry they leave the food until they’re ready for it).
A 36-pound bag was about $35, slightly less expensive that the prescription food, but it lasted longer since my dogs ate less of it. Best of all, Cheyenne continued to be seizure-free, her coat had never felt better, and she had loads of energy.
Quality Food Benefits All Dogs
Meanwhile, Ladybird seems to be benefiting from the improved diet as well. She even slimmed down a bit, going from 81 pounds to 76 pounds, while showing more energy.
Ladybird is now 12 years old, and, prior to our food switch, was starting to have trouble getting up steps or even out of bed. She had been my husband’s dog for most of her life, during which time he gave her the most inexpensive dog foods because he thought all dog food was the same. I started giving her vitamin C, which definitely helped her feel better. With the introduction of the California Natural food, she is running and chasing rabbits with Cheyenne, and you’d never know that just two years ago she needed steroid shots to get around.
There is no doubt in my mind that changing Cheyenne’s diet put an end to her seizures and her hot spots. It save her from a surgery she didn’t need, and saved me a lot of angst and money.
California Natural also makes treats from the same ingredients as the dry food, and both my dogs love them. I still have to be very careful about giving Cheyenne anything else, however. Recently I started Ladybird on a supplement with glucosamine, yeast, biotin, bee pollen, and bovine cartilage to help her aging joints. I gave them to Cheyenne, too, and within a week she had “hot spots” again. It was probably the yeast that did it. So even “good” things may be bad for her. But now that I know how sensitive she is to what she eats, I can quickly alter her diet to keep her healthy.
Rona Distenfeld is a freelance writer from Florence, Texas.