Spinal Injury in Dogs




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Klaus' Tale - the story of the little Beagle who wouldn't give up

Our beagle Klaus suffered from a ruptured disc between the second and third lumbar vetebrae in July of 2003, which cased him to completely lose the use of his back legs. He had to have spinal surgery to remove the blood clots and damaged disc material. His post-operative recovery consisted of about two weeks of constant care and another four weeks of therapy. I've preserved this information on Klaus's surgery and recovery, because I want it to be a source of information and hope for anyone who has a beloved pet going through the same ordeal.

We don't know how Klaus injured his back. Our veterinarian told us that it could have been anything. It could have been an acute injury, or a chronic condition that had been getting slowly worse. We don't remember seeing any symptoms, any indication of what was to come on Friday, July 25th, 2003. What we do know is that it is not very common for a dog who is only 2 years old to have a herniated disc. Genetically though, it is more  common in breeds like Beagles, Basset Hounds and Dachshunds - dogs with long torsos. The following is a day-by-day description of Klaus's injury, surgery, hospital stay, home recovery and physical therapy. It is my hope that others can use this information as a resource if their furry family member ever goes through the same ordeal. I want others to know that there is hope for a full or nearly full recovery. That even when surgery might not a financial option, there are other forms of treatment. And finally that, ruling out all other treatment options, a young dog can still live out a full happy life even without the use of his back legs.

Update: August 27, 2009 - Now you can also read about Klaus's ordeal with going blind in 2007, as I have added that to the bottom of this page.

Friday, July 25th

We took Klaus outside that evening to go potty before bed. He had a normal bowel movement. When he come back inside the house he began to exhibit very abnormal behavior. In retrospect I think it may have been the BM that exacerbated his condition. Klaus began jumping up in the air trying to bite at his back end. Then he began to pant and drool heavily. I thought he might be having a seizure, so we waited to see if it would pass. After about a half hour he still didn't seem to be his normal self. He was walking with an unsteady gait and seemed to be in pain. We were very  worried, so we took him to the Fox Valley Animal Referral Center in Appleton. His condition might have been diagnosed that night, except for the fact that Klaus had just gone to the vet that morning for two vaccine boosters: Da2PP (Distemper-Adenovirus-Parainfluenza-Parvovirus) and Bordatella (Kennel Cough). So, it was assumed that he was having an allergic reaction to one or both of the vaccines. They told us to give Klaus over-the-counter Benedryl and plenty of water and rest. We moved his kennel into our bedroom that night. I don't think he slept much. I know I didn't. He didn't want to lay down. I think it might have been painful for him, so he just sat up in his kennel panting all night.

Saturday, July 26th

In the morning Klaus refused to go down the stairs. I carried him down and took him out to go potty. Klaus yelped in pain as he had a BM. It was a long agonizing scream  that broke our hearts. He took a few wobbly steps and sat down. He didn't want to walk. He yelped when we tried to pick him up. We quickly moved him onto a piece of plywood, loaded him in the car, and drove him to his regular vet's office. Of course once we were at the vet's, Klaus began to act more normal. He walked around and barked at all the other dogs as usual. Dr. Heindel checked Klaus over. We showed him the ER notes from the night before, and told him what medication we had given Klaus. Dr. Heindel said he suspected a slipped spinal disc, rather than an allergic reaction. He showed us how Klaus's back paw didn't spring forward when you pushed it down. He said this was usually an indication of a spinal injury. A disk between the vertebrae had probably slipped and was putting pressure on the spinal cord. Sometimes you can treat the condition with an anti-inflammatory, and when the swelling goes down the disc will slip back into place. So, he gave us a prescription of Prednisone. He said we should give Klaus 20 mg twice a day, and he thought he would be showing improvement after 24 hours. He said to keep Klaus as quiet as possible, give him plenty of water, because the Prednisone would make him very thirsty, and just let him rest. He said that surgery was sometimes done in very severe cases, but that was only if a dog was completely lame, and dragging his back legs. So, we took Klaus back home again. My husband Johnny's band had to play two shows that day, and he wouldn't be home until about 3:00 am, so I stayed at home to watch Klaus. He drank so much water that he had to go outside about every two hours. Looking back, I wish I hadn't made him walk outside so much. Maybe I should have carried him, or let him go on some newspapers in the kitchen. It's so tempting to blame yourself in these situations. At about 4:00 that afternoon Dr. Heindel called to ask how Klaus was doing. Klaus was sleeping in his kennel at the time. I told him that he seemed to be getting a little weaker in his hind legs, but it was hard to say because he'd been sleeping for awhile. Dr. Heindel said I should give him his next dose of Prednisone in a couple hours and he'd call back the next morning to ask about him. At 6:00 pm I gave Klaus another pill. He was now getting too clumsy to climb into his kennel, and he needed help getting down the one step out the door to go outside. He stumbled often when he walked and he crossed one back leg in front of the other. By 8:00 pm he could barely stand up and he was starting to lose bladder control. He was laying on the kitchen linoleum next to me, with his head in my lap. My friend Shelley came over for about a half hour to keep me company. Klaus barked when she came to the door and tried to run to her to greet her, dragging his back legs behind him. I told Shelley what the vet said and how I felt so helpless just waiting. Shelley pointed out that dogs can seem really sick, but heal very quickly. She thought I should wait and see how Klaus was doing in the morning, like the vet said. I thought that sounded like a good plan. I couldn't decide anything for myself. I was a wreck. I was sick to my stomach. I hadn't slept at all the night before, or eaten a thing all day. At about 9:00 pm my friend Lisa came over to see how things were going. By this time Klaus was completely unable to stand up. He had no bladder control. I had changed the towel underneath him several times. Lisa took one look at him and said "I don't know very much about dogs, but if I were you, I would take him to the emergency room right now". I thought that sounded like a better plan. What would it hurt to take him in? At least it would give me peace of mind to know I was doing something. I am so glad I decided to take him in then. Lisa helped me get Klaus into the car and followed me in her car all the way to the Fox Valley Animal Referral Center. After he was examined I was told that his best option was emergency surgery. Klaus still had deep tissue sensation in both back paws, which gave him a very good prognosis for recovery. They said the surgeon could be there within an hour. I had no idea how much a surgery like that would cost. I figured it might be as much at $10,000, but it turns out that it was really more like $3,500, including the hospital stay and follow up exams. We were able to get Care Credit, which gave us 3 months to pay off the balance without interest. It was a big decision to make without my husband, but I knew he would agree with my decision to go through with it. I spent a few minutes alone with Klaus and tried to let him know that I was going to have to leave him with strangers for while, but it was for the best, and if anything happened and he didn't make it through then mommy and daddy would see him later on the other side. It was an extremely emotional moment for me. Then Klaus was taken off to be prepped for surgery. He would have a myelogram (xray with fluorescent dye injected) first to determine where and if there was damaged disk material. I went home to wait for news and for Johnny to get home. My friend Lisa went to where the band was playing to tell Johnny that Klaus was having surgery.

Sunday, July 27th

Klaus had surgery in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Bruce VanEnkevort, DVM was his surgeon. He is reputed to be one of the best in his field in the state. According to the surgical report Klaus had a left sided hemilaminectomy performed from L1-3. A small amount of disc material and blood clots were removed from the spinal canal. The cord had significant bruising. A fat graft was placed over the laminectomy site. The incision was closed with skin staples. After Klaus came out of anesthesia, Dr. VanEnkevort called me to tell me that the surgery went well. This was at about 2:00 am. Johnny came home soon after and I gave him the good news. We were both exhausted. I finally slept well that morning, knowing that our baby was in good hands. That evening we called to find out how his recovery was going. He was bright and comfortable. The neurologic exam revealed intact sensation in both pelvic limbs, but no motor function. He was not able to urinate on his own and was on IV fluids, because he showed no interest in food (which is not like him at all).

Monday, July 28th

On Monday Klaus had some motor function return to his right hind limb. He was supposed to be released from the hospital on this day, but the surgeon felt it was best to keep him one more night for observation. Klaus was eating and drinking on his own now, so IV fluids were discontinued. Johnny and I went to visit him after I got done with work. Johnny is a substitute teacher in addition to playing in the band, so he had his days free since it was summer break. Klaus was very happy to see us. We have a friend, Becca who works at Fox Valley Animal Referral Center (FVARC). She had been taking special care of Klaus since his surgery, for which we were very thankful. Becca walked Klaus out with his hind end supported by a sling. Klaus was dribbling little pee trails because the sling put pressure on his bladder. We took Klaus outside and sat with him in the grass. He seemed to be pretty dazed from the pain medication, but happy to be outside and with us. We were told that we could come back the next morning to take Klaus home.

Tuesday, July 29th

We went early Tuesday morning to pick up Klaus. They explained all of his care to us, and demonstrated how we would have to press on the sides of his bladder to help him urinate, which is called expressing the bladder. This was really tough to do, because you have to press fairly hard, and you don't want to hurt the dog. Klaus seemed so fragile, we were afraid to touch him wrong. He had a 10 inch gash down his shaved back with 30 staples. He had lost five pounds. Very nervously we took him home, hoping we would know what to do. Here are some pictures of Klaus when we first brought him home. We set him up with his kennel and a Neat Sheet in the living room, so he could be near the family. He was very happy to eat out of his own bowl and sleep in his own bed again. We put a padded dog mat in his kennel so he didn't develop bed sores. As you can see, he felt fine enough to eat his favorite treat; a greenie. 

He still wasn't able to use his back legs at all. He dragged them uselessly behind him when he tried to move around on his own. I had to go to work, so Johnny was left alone to care for Klaus. Poor Kristie had to be confined during most of Klaus's recovery the first few weeks. She didn't understand that she couldn't play with her little brother like before. Klaus barked and snapped at her when she tried to go near him, so Kristie had to spend a lot of time in the basement or the back yard. She was such a good, patient girl. She didn't seem jealous at all that Klaus was getting so much attention. We took very detailed notes of Klaus's care and progress during the following week. 

On his first day home he still needed bladder expression. He was getting 7 1/2 mg of Prednisone once per day, and he still had a Fentanyl patch on his back for pain control. His anal region was very red and swollen, which caused him pain when he had a BM. His regular vet told us to treat this with Hydrocortisone cream. We used a beach towel as a sling to walk him outside. He would walk using only his front feet. Part of Klaus's recovery included physical therapy sessions 2 - 3 times per day. All of the joints in his back legs needed to be put through a range of motion to keep the ligaments flexible. We found this was much easier to do with two people, so one could stand and support the dog, while the other manipulated the joints of each leg. We were told that we could also add swim therapy after his staples were removed. Johnny had a night class, so I took over Klaus's care when I got home from work. Almost 3 full days after the surgery, Klaus was able to stand with just a small amount of support under his abdomen. He urinated on his own when I took him outside and placed him in a standing position. It was more difficult for him to defecate because he was not able to assume his usual squatting position. Still, he managed. The Hydrocortisone cream seemed to be helping to reduce the redness and swelling in his anal region. Although Klaus was sometimes able to urinate without bladder expression, he still required manual expression at times, and was having frequent accidents inside. A few items that are really helpful to have around for postoperative care are: 1) A large tarp for feeding, physical therapy and such. A Neat Sheet works well, because it is soft like a blanket, but still waterproof in case of accidents, of which there may be many. 2) Baby wipes. These are great for cleaning the anal region, because your dog won't be able to reach and clean all the areas he used to, and for general cleaning of your dog. 3) Lots of old bath towels or old cut-up blankets. You will be washing bedding often, because it's important to keep the living area clean and dry. 4) Vaseline or Hydrocortisone cream. I guess maybe the Prednisone made Klaus kind of constipated, which made his anal region sore. Make sure you give your dog a lot of water while he is on anti-inflammatory drugs. The drawback will be that he needs to urinate a lot more frequently, and will have a lot more accidents. That night he slept well, but his breathing was very shallow and rapid. We took him out about every three hours to urinate.

Wednesday, July 30th 

Four days after the surgery Klaus is now standing for brief moments without support. We saw definite movement of his left leg and he lifted his tail a little bit today. We rejoiced over his tiny moments of progress. Let me tell you that there is something very pathetic about a beagle who can't wag his tail. We wondered how long it would be before he could do this again. We called the FVARC to ask about several concerns we had. One was that we were worried that he might be hurting his back legs by getting them twisted funny while he slept. They told us not to worry about that. They also said the rapid breathing wasn't a concern. He initiated urination on his own again today, but required manual expression to finish. He did not have a bowel movement all day, and we began to suspect he was constipated. That evening he finally had a bowel movement while he was lying in his kennel. He yelped and thrashed from the pain. Overnight he slept well and his breathing was more regular than the night before.

Thursday, July 31st

Although we took him out several times during the previous night, his towel was still wet in the morning. He didn't urinate much, even with manual bladder expression. He had another very painful bowel movement. We were worried, because we felt he wasn't making any progress with bladder and bowel control, so Johnny took Klaus back to the FVARC to be checked out. Klaus was examined thoroughly and tested for a urinary tract infection. No problems were detected. The Fentanyl pain patch was removed, in case it was preventing Klaus from being able to feel when his bladder was full. He was also prescribed two more drugs, Bethanechol and Phenoxybenzamine to help with urinary and fecal control. By late afternoon Klaus was starting to push himself to a standing position by leaning against the side on his kennel. He can also take several wobbly steps, with the right leg doing much of the work, because that is the stronger leg, according to the surgeon. That evening I took over Klaus's care. He is starting to resist manual bladder expression as his abdominal muscles strengthen. I had no luck getting him to urinate at supper time. He slept in his kennel until about 8:00 pm, and wet his bedding again. I took him outside and tried again to express his bladder. He resisted. I stood him up and let him take some wobbly steps on his own. He managed a semi-crouch and had a BM. I went to support him and he yelped when I touched him. This may be psychological, because he hasn't shown any other signs of pain since the Fentanyl patch was removed. He spent a little more time in the back yard just sitting and sniffing. Then, as I turned away to get his towel sling to walk him inside, he took a couple wobbly steps, crouched and urinated a good long stream until he finally sat down from exhaustion. He gave me a look that seemed to say "See, I can do it, but I want to do it on my own". He's so stubborn.

Swim Therapy

Doing swim therapy with him on our own was a real learning experience. He never liked swimming much before the accident. The first time we put him in the water he clenched up his back legs and refused to move them. He found he could swim just fine using his front legs and the flotation device. We knew he already had movement in his back legs, so he was clearly just being his usual stubborn self. I massaged his back legs, and manually moved them in a paddling motion for him as he swam, while my husband guided him in front. The second swim session started out like the first, but this time as I moved his legs, I could feel him start to move them on his own. In the third session he was moving them slightly by himself. By the sixth session he was kicking strongly with all legs and could swim all alone without the floatation device, chasing his toy floating fish around the pool. The progress was so exciting and encouraging. I'm sure our neighbors must have thought we were strange - standing in our pool yelling "Go Klausie, kick, kick! Get the fishy Klaus!

Seven years later, Klaus is about 85% recovered. That is where he has been since about a year after the surgery. He has complete bowel and bladder control, although he can't seem to "hold it" as long as he used to. He can stand up on his hind legs, climb up on furniture, climb stairs. He can run, although he does a kind of bunny hop with his back legs when he runs very fast. He's the happiest little dog ever, and every day we are so happy we did everything we can for him to be able to walk again. 

Klaus the Blind Dog  

In 2007 at nearly six years old, poor little Klaus unexpectedly went blind. He must have about the worst luck when it comes to health. His condition was diagnosed as SARDs - Sudden Acute Retinal Degeneration Syndrome. I want to document our experience with having a dog go blind, and living with a blind dog, in case in might provide help or hope to anyone else going through the same experience with a pet.

It is really difficult to say when Klaus started going blind. I can tell you that we noticed it in January of 2007, but thinking back it may have been as early as Christmastime, because we were visiting my family, and Klaus kept getting in fights with my sister's dog over food. He is usually protective about food, but I think the fact that he felt disadvantaged at his failing sight, may have caused him to be even more aggressive about his food than usual. The first thing that we noticed was that Klaus was getting really clumsy, running into walls and furniture. I started worrying that his back might be acting up again, making him trip and stumble, so we began to watch him more carefully, looking for signs of another herniated disc. The next thing we noticed was that he couldn't catch his treats in the air with much accuracy. If they fell to the right side of his face, he caught them, but if they fell to his left side, he just let them fall, like he didn't even notice it. I said to Johnny, "You know what? I don't think he can see with his left eye". Johnny waved his hand on either side of Klaus's nose, and Klaus turned toward his hand each way. He tracked the motion with his eyes. His eyes appeared completely normal. I insisted that we take him in to get checked anyway. Dr. Heindel, his vet, dropped cotton balls next to Klaus's face to check for blindness. He said that a waving hand will usually cause a dog to turn, because he can smell it, or feel the breeze from it. He explained that sight is not a dog's primary sense, that they use smell and hearing so much, they can fool you into thinking that they can see, even when they can't. He guessed that Klaus had some sight left, but very little. He mentioned SARDs as a diagnosis, because the blindness seemed to have come on so quickly. He said that we could take him to a specialist if we wanted to, but that there probably wasn't much that could be done.

We took him to a specialist of course. I started researching SARDs right away, even before seeing the specialist. I wanted to be prepared to ask questions. I'd like to mention to anyone who might be reading this, that a LOT of the anecdotal information and a lot of the literature out there, talks about dogs with SARDs developing Cushings disease. It really scared me how bad the prognosis sounded for Klaus. I want to assure you that Klaus has been blind for over four years now, and has never developed Cushings. It is possible for a dog to have SARDS without Cushings.

At the specialists they conducted a test on Klaus's eyes which sounds kind of horrible, but he didn't seem to mind. First they numbed his eyes with drops. Then they put this little contact lense attached to electrodes on his eye, and sent a stimulus to his eye. A machine read the eye's response, which somehow told the doctor how the retina is responding. They also checked pupil response to light. The specialist had us put Klaus on a regimen of Prednisone. The logic was that if there was some kind of swelling causing pressure on the optical nerve, then reducing that swelling might reverse or stop the blindness. It seems that they use Prednisone to treat a lot of things in dogs. Klaus was on a lot Prednisone with his herniated disc. I noticed in my online research that one of the noted potential side effects of high dose Prednisone use in humans is vision problems. It got me to wondering if there might not be some kind of causal link between all the Prednisone that Klaus has taken, and his SARDs. Probably not, considering the length of time between the two events, but if you are reading this, and you have a dog who developed SARDs about 3 years following an extended regimen of Prednisone, please contact me, because I'd be interested in knowing if this is something that has happened to other pets.

Well, the course of Prednisone did nothing but give us false hope. He ended up completely blind. At first, Klaus seemed to navigate better in brightly lit areas. His pupils were always wide open, trying to let in as much light as possible. His black pupils completely swallowed up his brown irises, causing him to have a "pie-eyed" look all the time. He seemed a bit depressed for a few weeks, laying around, not doing much. He still ate his food happily, and responded to our pats and belly rubs. We decided to treat him as if nothing was wrong, except that we tried to teach him some words that would help on walks. "Step up" and "step down" are very useful for steps and curbs. He doesn't usually listen to us, because he likes to just barge on ahead, nose to the ground on our walks, but if he happens to be paying attention, a "step up" will keep him from scraping his nose on the curb. Once he got over the initial period of depression at going blind, he just seemed to decide to go on as if he wasn't blind. There are many times now that we are convinced that he doesn't believe he is actually blind. If he gets turned around though, he will bounce off the walls like a pinball machine, until he gets his bearings again. I can't count the number of times he has run smack into a wall with his head. He has fallen down the basement stairs three times now. I guess the third time was a charm, because he steers well clear of the basement steps now. I tried scenting the top step with peppermint oil, but that really didn't seem to help him, and possibly confused him. Eventually he just learned how to do everything that he used to do.

Klaus knows the house and yard very well, so he gets around, even up and down stairs with little effort. On walks he still insists on leading the way, so we just have to give a hard yank on the leash when he is about to run into something. I used to worry about his eyes getting scratched, but as long as we steer him clear of bushes, that doesn't happen. No one who meets him ever guesses that he is blind. In unfamiliar places he walks with his nose almost touching the ground, sweeping his snout side to side like you would a metal detector. He is so fearless that he would definitely walk off the side of a cliff, so you have to have him on leash around hazards. Lately he has taken to escaping from the back yard by squeezing himself under the gate. Then he starts exploring the neighborhood on his own. If he hears you calling his name, he will run as fast as he can the other way, with his tail wagging in excitement. This is the same "catch me" game that he used to play as a puppy, only now it's easier, because eventually he will run into the side of a house, or trip up on something, and then you can grab him. Of course, we don't want him running around the neighborhood, and especially into the street, so as much as his antics cause us to laugh, we had to put a stop to it. He has a favority toy which he absolutely loves to play with. It's a cat toy with a furry "weasel" and a bell on the end of a wire. He will chase that noise around, jumping in the air, trying to catch it, and he usually does. Then you have to pry it away from him, or he will chew it to bits. He also loves stuffed toys with squeakers, which last about 20 seconds, until he rips them to bits, prying out the squeaker. He has a whole toy box of balls, socks, and stuffed toys in various stages of dismemberment, which is on the bottom shelf of the baker's rack. He loves to go and root around in it, throwing toys left and right until he finds a particular one he wants to play with. He also has a blanket which he has had for years, which he drags around until he finds a good spot. then he will lay on it, and suck on one corner of it, like a baby. It is really funny the way he will sometimes sit "looking" out the window. Sometimes he is actually looking out the window of the back door, and other times he is just staring at a wall. He doesn't know the difference, but he enjoys it just the same. You know how cute it is when a dog cocks his ear to hear something better? Well, Klaus does that all the time. He "sees" with his ears and his nose. He still has "pie-eyes" with his huge pupils, yet he still tracks every sound that he hears with his eyes. He doesn't appear to be blind at all. When he isn't sleeping in one of his many favorite snoozing spots, he is usually glued to either my or Johnny's side, leaning against our leg, or sitting next to me on the sofa or on Johnny's lap in the chair. Every morning he gets up, does his ritual stretching and scratching, and wags his tail happily at the prospect of another day.

If only we could all take a lesson from Klaus - with all of the lemons in his life, he has definitely made lemonade. One unexpected benefit of Klaus going blind was how much more social and outgoing it has made him. He used to be really skittish around strangers - shying away when they reached down to pet him, sometimes even peeing if he was really afraid. Now whenever anyone comes to the house, he immediately goes up and sniffs them, wagging his tail. I guess he just isn't afraid of what he can't see.

Klaus as a puppy.




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