Sunday, July 5, 2009

My best friend

It seems that Chale is destined to spend a lot of time at the vet. When I first adopted him in 2001 we went all of two months before our first emergency trip to the vet. He had scratched himself raw and caused a skin infection. Chale was picked up as a stray when he was about 9 months old. Who knows how often he was able to eat, what he ate or if he had to fight for his food when he was living on the streets. I hope he wasn't living that way for very long and try not to think of what cruelty he might have been exposed to at the hands of humans and other animals. The vet said that it is common for dogs that have had a poor diet as puppies to develop food sensitivities once they are on a regular diet.

I have tried several different diets on Chale over the years to try and determine his food allergies. I even made his food for several months but didn't see enough of a difference to make the change for good. It was around this time that I discovered The Whole Dog Journal which has been a great resource for all things dog over the years. It is a great resource for natural and traditional pet health care along with tips on training, toys and other important dog issues.

When the food didn't prove to the be the cause of Chale's allergies, we went to see a canine allergist. As if the 90 minute drive each way wasn't stressful enough, having Chale's side shaved and comforting him while they tested several different common allergens with the standard pin prick test just sucked. Of course Chale was allergic to just about everything (including my cat Tiger). So they mixed up a serum for us and I started to give Chale shots twice a week. This actually worked. After about 6 months his skin allergies were in control and we were able to go through a year with only 1-2 bad hot spots. We still have occasional flare ups but nothing serious.

It was pretty clear when I first took Chale home that he had hip displaysia. This was confirmed by x-rays when he was 2 years old. In addition to the hip displaysia, Chale has a deformity in his front legs where he walks on his wrists instead of on the tips of his toes. This can be the result of being in a cage and standing in the same position for a long time, leading to the deterioration of those muscles, having those bones broken as a puppy and never allowing them to fully heal (unlikely for both legs to be like this unless he was thrown from a car or other situation where he would have broken both wrists at the same time) or it can just be a genetic defect.

Initially I thought that Chale couldn't jump into my truck or climb up the stairs because of how malnourished he had been (a 45 pound German Shepherd is a sad thing) but it was clear that wasn't the reason. I started him on glucosamine and other joint care supplements and saw a dramatic change almost immediately. It only took a month for his weight and strength to improve and for him to act like a normal goofy dog with a little hitch in his step.

In 2004 Chale started having seizures. We immediately started him on anti-seizure prescription medicines and tried several diet changes (including me making his food again). Once again, the changes in his diet didn't appear to have an effect on his medical issues. We did settle on a single protein, single carb diet and have stuck with that since it has improved his coat. I'm happy to say that after years of trying different prescription and natural drugs we finally managed to find the right balance and have been seizure free since March 2008.

We started acupuncture and chiropractic care at the end of 2004 to help with his seizures and orthopedic problems. We dropped the chiropractic after 6 months because Chale didn't like it but have continued the acupuncture every 2-6 weeks (depending on how he's feeling) since then. I don't know if acupuncture would work on all dogs but it gives Chale a burst of energy after every treatment and improves his lameness in his bad hip.

Our holistic vet added underwater treadmill therapy to their practice at the end of 2007 and we signed up for it immediately. For those that are not familiar, the underwater treadmill is a great rehab tool for dogs who have had surgery or who, like Chale, have orthopaedic problems. A lot of dog owners also use it to strengthen their dog athletes between agility and other joint intensive activities. By adjusting the depth of the water, the therapist can take weight off the dog and make it easier for him to walk or add resistance to build muscle. We have seen dogs with degenerative myelopathy and other permanent disabilities walk on the underwater treadmill after not being able to walk for years. It's a pretty cool thing. We get 200 inches of snow most winters in Syracuse so we aren't able to be as active as we'd like in the winter months. We do the underwater treadmill every couple weeks during the winter to keep his strength up. I love it when they measure Chale's hips and we see that he has gained or maintained his muscle mass as he has gotten older.

We went through Lyme disease last year (no symptoms just a detection and a month on antibiotics) and a urinary tract infection earlier this year (no symptoms after three days on medicine) but, despite his medical issues, Chale has led a relatively normal, full and happy life during the 7.5 years that he has been in my life. So we were shocked to find his platelet count extremely low at his vet visit a couple of weeks ago. We eliminated most diseases through testing and are left with the likelihood of Cancer or some other serious immune disease.

We immediately started Chale on steroids to stall the growth of any tumors that might be there and to build up his immune system and antibiotics to fight off any infection. The steroids make Chale extremely thirsty which leads to him having to go to bathroom much more frequently. Luckily I'm already an insomniac and can take him out at 3 in the morning after he's emptied his water bowl for the 4th time. We go in today for the third set of blood tests in less than two weeks to see if his platelet count is improving. Ideally, we will be able to start weening him off the steroids once his platelet count gets back to a healthier level. We will also start him on a couple of natural products that have proven to be successful in other immune compromised dogs.

Once I started doing research, I realized that about 50% of elderly dogs and cats will be diagnosed with Cancer. I would hope that such statistics would make this a national health priority, much like Cancer is in the human population, but I rarely hear anything about it. I have had a couple other friends who have lost their dogs to Cancer recently but I didn't realize it had become such an epidemic.

Realistically, Chale is 8.5 years old and we aren't going to put him through anything that will reduce the quality of his life like chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. The statistics give an average life expectancy of 19 days to a year with or without treatment. It makes me sad when I read the stories about dogs who have gone through aggressive treatments only to die immediately after. Chale has no symptoms at this point so his life hasn't changed except for the additional bathroom visits and the frequent blood tests which should level off soon. Most big dogs live to be 10-12 years old so I would consider my boy to have had a full life no matter how much time he has left.

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