Born to Run
Dogs with physical challenges learn to thrive.
By Olivia LaBarre
It’s a story that has become all too familiar: After being afflicted by disease or injury, the beloved family dog can no longer do everything it used to do, including even walking down the street or from room to room. Medicine doesn’t seem to be working anymore, and the vet agrees that the dog’s quality of life has diminished significantly. The family then makes the difficult and heartbreaking decision to put the dog down.
What many pet owners—and some vets—don’t realize is that many of these stories can have much happier endings. Because of advances in pet therapy services and adaptive equipment, many dogs who are negatively affected by injury, deformity, disease or surgery no longer have to face death. Here, people share how they’ve helped their dogs lead happy, comfortable lives despite difficult circumstances.
When Maria Mariani dropped off her two dogs and her roommate’s dog at a boarding facility, she thought the pets would spend the night together in a warm room with a blanket. But as Mariani drove to a concert a few hours away from her home in Chicago, the boarding staff brought Nicolette, Mariani’s 7-year-old, mixed-breed dog, to the front of the facility, where she wasn’t being watched carefully. Separated from her friends in a strange environment, Nicolette wandered out of the facility when the door was left open. The facility’s owners chased Nicolette for two miles before they lost her in a park in a seedy part of Chicago.
When Mariani returned, she began an extensive effort to find Nicolette, which included searching the park, posting hundreds of fliers, mailing notices to every veterinarian in the phone book and contacting local animal welfare organizations. “I worried about her being picked up as a bait dog for dogfighting or who knows what,” says Mariani.
On the 18th day of searching for Nicolette, Mariani received a call from an off-duty cop working security at the local convention center: He had found her dog. “My first words to him were, ‘Is she alive?’” recalls Mariani. The officer told her that the dog was alive, but looked like she couldn’t move her back legs.
Mariani rushed to the convention center to find Nicolette in horrible shape “We moved her in a moving blanket, and I knew her spine was broken because she didn’t even cry,” she remembers. “I noticed her spine was in the shape of a ‘V’ at the bottom of the rib cage. I was just mortified.”
They rushed to the vet, who determined Nicolette still retained some body function and reflexes, but she was down from 30 to 20 pounds. They fed her, gave her medication, and drew blood for tests. “The vet said, ‘We’ll let her heal up,’” says Mariani. “I thought, ‘She’s not going to go through life with that pointy spine.’” So Mariani found a surgeon in Illinois who put in a patch and two screws to repair Nicolette’s spine.
Nicolette handled the surgery well, but although she got through one major challenge, she would still need to regain her stamina and muscle strength, and learn to get around again. Mariani looked into canine rehabilitation services, and after six weeks, Nicolette started underwater treadmill therapy at TheraPETS Wellness Center, a program of the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, IL. “The therapist worked really hard with Nic,” says Mariani. “Eventually, she could move all four legs on the treadmill so well that the therapist could just stand up and watch her.”
Although she was able to walk well in the water, Nicolette still had a hard time getting around on land. Mariani looked into wheelchair options to further increase Nicolette’s mobility. After a trial with a set of wheels that weren’t quite right, Mariani turned to HandicappedPets.com, a website that provides products, services and support for elderly, injured and handicapped pets. Through the website, Mariani learned about all the types of adaptive equipment available, and the differences between the devices. She discovered that a Montana-based company called Doggon’ Wheels could provide the type of custom wheelchair that Nicolette needed to support her back end. “We love our wheelchair,” says Mariani. “She uses it whenever she goes outside.”
With the help of therapy exercises and her wheelchair, Nicolette made quick progress and is able to lead a happy life once again. These days, the ladies enjoy strolls on the boardwalk near their home in Santa Monica, CA. Nicolette shows off a “BRN2RUN” sign on her wheelchair—a phrase that she has proven to be true. “She’s at about 98% as far as I’m concerned,” says Mariani. “She’s 12, but she has the attitude and the stamina of a five-year-old. She chases her tennis ball and she goes in the water.”
Mariani makes sure Nicolette gets the exercise to keep up her strength and takes extra care to make sure the dog’s condition doesn’t worsen. But, says Mariani, “It has been a very workable lifestyle. Nic and I are a package deal.” Even as Mariani prepares to start medical residency training, she plans to include Nicolette when possible. “I’d like to get her involved with the patients—especially on the spinal cord units—to show them you can do what you put your mind to,” she says. “There’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Although he was 12½ years old and deaf, Leslie Buttigieg of Calabasas, CA, couldn’t resist adopting a Bichon Frise named Sammi. But about a year after he joined her, Sammi began to have trouble walking. “When we would go out walking he would fall a lot,” recalls Buttigieg. “He couldn’t always lift his legs and was having a lot of difficulties.”
A concerned Buttigieg took Sammi to a back specialist, who said the dog probably had a herniated disc. He suggested that the dog stay in a crate or a small, gated area to prevent his back from getting any worse and to avoid surgery. According to Buttigieg, that solution made Sammi anxious and didn’t seem to work. “They didn’t want me to walk him at all, and he was getting worse. People were telling me, ‘Oh just let him be, he’s an older dog,’” she says. “But I’d rather have him be as strong as he can be. I believe that makes him happier and healthier.”
So on a recommendation from the rescue where she found Sammi, Buttigieg called Two Hands Four Paws, a pet rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. Sammi started once-a-week therapy at the center, which included swimming and various land exercises. On top of that therapy, Buttigieg made sure that Sammi was getting exercise at home by following a plan from the dog’s therapist. They still follow the plan, which changes with Sammi’s needs. “He has a yoga ball and some little stairs, and about three or four different exercises he does at home. We have to do our homework,” she says. After just a couple of months, Sammi became much stronger and was able to walk with ease.
The following October, Sammi’s strength was put to the test. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor and went through 4½ weeks of daily radiation. “It was touch-and-go for a little while toward the end,” says Buttigieg, who made sure that Sammi kept up his strength. “He wasn’t able to swim because he was going through radiation, but he was still going for regular massages and exercises, and doing exercises at home,” she says. “All of that kept him strong even when he wasn’t feeling well.”
Just when Buttigieg thought Sammi was in the clear, he had to go through surgery to remove bladder stones last May. “We were worried about him,” recalls Buttigieg, “But once he was able to start rehab again, he started getting stronger and stronger. I honestly believe he wouldn’t have made it had he not been doing this therapy this whole time—he wouldn’t have been strong enough. The exercise was enough to pull him through.”
Now, at age 14½, Sammi goes to Two Hands Four Paws every other week and keeps up the exercises at home. “He’s doing great,” says Buttigieg. “He runs up and down the stairs and goes for at least two twenty-minute walks every day in addition to his therapy exercises.”
Despite all that she has been through in her short time with Sammi, Buttigieg is happy with the choices she made, and encourages others to look into similar options. “It’s really amazing, what’s out there. If there’s a chance for your dog to get better then you have to do it for him,” she says. “More people need to know that just because your dog has an ailment it doesn’t have to mean a death sentence. We thought that Sammi’s back was irreversibly damaged, but it wasn’t. He was still able to bounce back. He was even able to bounce back from cancer.”
About 1½ years ago, Redlands, CA resident Laura Vogt noticed that her Great Dane, Harle, had started to drag her back legs a bit when she walked. Vogt and her husband kept an eye on the dog’s condition, all the while fearing that she may have to go through surgery if it became worse. “We didn’t want her to go through that kind of stress,” explains Laura, “especially since she was getting to be an older Great Dane.”
For a little while, Harle seemed to be doing fine, and was able to take her daily walks with the protection of boots that kept her toenails from scraping against the ground. After about four months, though, the dog’s condition worsened dramatically. “It was to the point where we couldn’t really walk her anymore,” recalls Laura. Medicine that their vet had prescribed only provided minimal relief to Harle. “Her whole hind end was becoming paralyzed. We weren’t sure exactly what was going on and why it was happening.”
Harle’s vet recommended that the Vogts seek further help at Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego. At the hospital, the veterinary surgeon decided to do a full MRI on Harle to find out what was going on with her back. After the MRI, the surgeon “came out with a big smile on his face,” according to Laura. “She had a very bad herniated disc that was actually pushing her spinal cord to the side—which was causing the paralysis. He said that he could fix it easily, that it would not be a problem. We were just elated.”
A few days later, Harle had back surgery and got through it without any complications. While she was recovering in the hospital, however, she came down with pneumonia and had to spend two weeks in ICU. During all of that, Harle had to go in for a second surgery because the wound from her initial surgery had opened up. “There were a couple of days when we thought we were going to lose her. We weren’t really sure,” admits Vogt. “But she made it through.”
When the Vogts were finally able to bring Harle home she was so weak she could barely stand; her muscles had atrophied while she was down with pneumonia. “We sat at home wondering what on earth we were going to do,” says Vogt. “We had this 150-pound dog that we didn’t want to be just lying around. We had to get her moving again somehow.”
The Vogts didn’t have the strength or the expertise to get such a big, incapacitated dog moving again on their own, and were unable to find any help for Harle in their area. They started doing some more research and came across Two Hands Four Paws on HandicappedPets.com. Even though the facility was located in Los Angeles, a two-hour drive from her home, Laura decided to check it out—and was elated to find a viable treatment option for her dog. Since driving from Redlands to Los Angeles every day would be hard on both the Vogts and Harle, Leslie McMahon, the center’s founder, welcomed Harle into her home—located on the same property as the facility—while she received intensive treatment.
“She stayed there for two weeks and got a full hour of therapy twice a day—swim therapy and other types of exercises,” says Laura, who visited Harle a couple of times of week during her rehabilitation. “Because she’s so big, they had to call in more staff than usual, but they got Harle back on her feet and back moving again. They built up her cardiovascular system and built up her strength.”
Two Hands Four Paws sent the Vogts back with some “homework”—care instructions and home exercises essential to Harle’s continued improvement. “Except for the swim therapy, we were able to continue therapy at home,” says Laura. “We started to do two walks a day plus the exercises Leslie wrote out for us.”
Now 9 years old, Harle has gained all of her weight back and is able to walk again on her own. Laura credits the dog’s recovery to the rehabilitation services she received. “It is what saved us,” she says. “You think there’s nothing more that you can do for your dog, but there are professionals in the rehabilitation field that see things like that every single day and are trained to help. It’s amazing what you learn, and how much they can recover.”
In October 2005, a volunteer from Evergreen Animal Protective League (EAPL), an animal rescue and advocacy group, went to a shelter in Lamar, CO and met a tiny, energetic Jack Russell Terrier who was born without his front legs. The dog’s original owner believed that his condition was hopeless, and had originally planned for him to be euthanized. On his own, though, the dog showed that he was not going to give up as easy as his owner had. He figured out how to scoot around by pushing with his back legs, his little chest rubbing across the cement floor.
Although he was making miraculous progress on own, the EAPL knew the dog—they appropriately named him Kandu—needed a family and some equipment to help him get around more comfortably. The EAPL started searching for a home for Kandu and enlisted the help of Martin Kaufmann, owner and founder of OrthoPets, a Denver-based company that makes custom orthotic and prosthetic devices for pets, to start creating a custom set of wheels for him. Kaufmann created a mold of Kandu’s body and started to work on a wheeled device that would fit underneath the dog’s chest and enable him to run around.
Meanwhile, just outside the little town of Oak Creek in the mountains of Colorado, Ken and Melissa Rogers were looking for another dog to join their family. They already had a black Lab, Bob, who provided pet therapy to people as part of the Heeling Friends program. When Ken saw a news story featuring Kandu on Denver station CBS 4, he recognized how much the dog had to offer. “I thought that Kandu would be a really cool therapy dog,” recalls Ken. “So we went online and filled out the form, then went to see Kandu for a meet and greet, and it all worked out really well. The more we had him, the more we realized just how much of a joy he is.”
At home with the Rogers, Kandu now whizzes around outside using his wheels and a “monoski” created by OrthoPets. Ken requested the special ski so that Kandu would still be able to get around easily outside during the long snowy seasons at his new home in the mountains. “It’s a device that’s one piece of plastic and it fits underneath him like his wheels do,” explains Ken. “We’ll wax it up and let him go in the snow. He loves it because it weighs less than 2 pounds.”
Since Kandu weighs only 10.5 pounds, his adaptive equipment has to be lightweight in order for it to truly help him get around. “It’s nice when I’m able to shave a few ounces off of it,” says Ken, who makes incremental tweaks to Kandu’s equipment. “I’m always on the web looking for stuff like in-line skate wheels that are 10 grams or lighter in weight.”
When Kandu isn’t playing at home he keeps busy out in the community. “We go out and about with him,” says Ken. “He was part of the last 4th of July parade in Steamboat, CO, and he has also participated in the local Winter Carnival Parade.” Kandu also visits local hospitals two or three times a month with his canine brother Bob, providing therapy and inspiration to people who are sick. On top of all of that, he recently won Best Kisser, Best Physically Challenged and Best in Show at the 7th annual Nuts for Mutts mixed-breed dog show and pet fair in Woodland Hills, CA. “Kandu isn’t overly impressive with the stuff he does,” admits Ken. “For Best in Show he just showed his personality—it seemed so easy for him to be himself.”
The Rogers have to take Kandu to the vet for regular checkups to ensure he’s not developing back problems or other conditions as a result of his unique posture, but clearly, his condition hasn’t slowed him down a bit. “Just because a dog has a disability, it doesn’t mean he’s any less of a dog. Don’t be turned off by it,” stresses Ken. “They’ll do just fine if you just give them a chance.” And given the chance, Kandu has already accomplished more than many dogs who have all of their legs.
These stories prove that it’s possible for a dog who is physically challenged to lead a healthy, happy life. If a treatment or product exists for humans, then chances are it exists for animals—it just may a bit harder to find. All it takes is the ability to look beyond euthanization and the willingness to sacrifice some time, effort and money to help your pet.
“Simple ramps, rear-end harnesses or wheelchairs can make it possible for a dog to live a ‘normal’ life—just like people who might need a little extra help if they become disabled in some way,” says HandicappedPets.com’s Lisa Murray. “There’s a lot out there, from products to information to support; HandicappedPets.com is a good place to start to ‘talk’ to people on our message board,” she continues. “Many people are amazed to find out that it’s easier than they thought to care for a handicapped dog because there are more resources available than they had imagined.”
Two Hands Four Paws’ McMahon urges pet owners to look into alternative treatments early on instead of as a last resort. “A lot of times vets will send me their disaster cases because they’ve given up on them and say they can’t do anything more for them,” she says. “Had they sent me the dogs a year earlier, they would’ve been fine. Physical therapy is just so important: Getting those dogs moving, and getting them to do exercises, even if it’s just walking on the treadmill with assistance or moving around in the pool.”
Another proactive step you can take to help your dog is purchasing pet insurance. Many plans are available to help cover the cost of your dog’s medical expenses so that money won’t have to be an obstacle to providing him the care he needs. A great place to start looking into policies is www.petinsurancereview.com. As you would for your own health insurance, be sure to look into each policy’s coverage and exclusions.
Most importantly, remember that no matter how bad you think a dog’s condition may be, there is still hope for him to recover. “My biggest pet peeve is when vets tell people, ‘The dog is a lost cause. Just give it up,’ because you can do so much to help these dogs,” says McMahon. “Just know not to give up—even if they get to a stage when they’re not doing so well.”
Olivia LaBarre is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, CA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE PLACES MENTIONED IN THIS STORY:
• Doggon’ Wheels, www.doggon.com
• Veterinary Specialty Center, www.vetspecialty.com
• Two Hands Four Paws, www.twohandsfourpaws.com
• Evergreen Animal Protective League, www.eapl.com
• OrthoPets, www.orthopets.com
• Heeling Friends, www.heelingfriends.com
• Handicapped Pets, www.handicappedpets.com
Additional resources to help your injured, elderly, or handicapped dog:
PRODUCTS AND SUPPORT
• Able Pet has a comprehensive online catalog of rehabilitative and assistive products for pets with special needs, from treadmills to Thera-Paw protective boots; www.therapaw.net.
• Doggon’ Wheels offers custom wheelchairs, support slings and splints for dogs; www.doggon.com.
• Eddie’s Wheels makes a variety wheelchairs that bring mobility to handicapped pets; www.eddieswheels.com.
• OrthoVet specializes in the design, manufacture and marketing of splinting products that address the rehabilitation of the lower leg, ankle and foot injuries of companion animals; www.orthovet.com.
• HandicappedPets.net post a question, look for resources and find encouragement to help care for physically challenged pets among the forums.www.HandicappedPets.net
PHYSICAL THERAPY AND REHAB
Here are some top-notch canine therapy facilities located in and around southern California.
• Buddha Dog, located in Los Angeles, offers small animal therapy and wellness services, including stone massage and acupressure therapies; www.buddhadog.com.
• CARE (California Animal Rehab), located in Santa Monica, takes a holistic approach to animal rehabilitation, offering a range of therapeutic and veterinary services; www.calanimalrehab.com.
• Cutting Edge K9 Rehab, located in San Diego, specializes in water therapy for dogs and other canine wellness services; www.cuttingedgek9.com.
• Scott’s House, located in Menlo Park, is a full-service rehabilitation center for pet that offers a variety of therapy and boarding options; www.scoutshouse.com.
• Two Hands Four Paws, located in Los Angeles, offers a variety of services, including canine massage, rehabilitation and swim therapy; www.twohandsfourpaws.com.
Covering your dog’s medical expenses isn’t always easy, but pet medical insurance is available to help you cover the cost. Check out these websites to learn more about pet insurance:
• ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, www.aspcapetinsurance.com
• Embrace Pet Insurance, www.embracepetinsurance.com
• Pet First Healthcare, www.petfirsthealthcare.com
• VPI Pet Insurance, www.petinsurance.com