Despite their handicap, these dogs with disabilities are living their lives to the fullest, writes Michele Tydd.
When you think dog and disability, it’s easy to jump to an image of a Labrador guiding his vision-impaired owner along a busy street.
But the number of dogs with their own disabilities who are now living fulfilling lives is increasing, as medical technology improves and euthanasia becomes a last resort.
Many disabilities from cancer to diabetes can now be cured or managed with surgery, medication, and even alternative treatments such as homeopathic remedies.
But to complete the picture, there is normally a special kind of owner who stands by their animal in sickness and in health.
We spoke to three caring owners who are prepared to go that extra mile for their pets.
Heather and Banjo
Heather Kennedy, an administrative officer, owns Labradoodle, Banjo, six, who has lost his sight to Progressive Retinal Atrophy.
PRA is a group of genetic diseases seen in certain breeds of dogs. It is characterised by the bilateral degeneration of the retina, causing eventual blindness. The condition in nearly all breeds is inherited as an autosomal recessive trait.
“Banjo started showing signs of sight loss at four. He often growled at dark spaces and had difficulty with normally easy tasks like getting into the car. A year later when the diagnosis came, I was told there was nothing they could do for him.
“It was crushing to see him have to drop out of obedience trials at our club (Illawarra Dog Training Club), which he loved,” says Kennedy.
“My second dog, Flynn, three, an easy-going Golden Retriever, has become Banjo’s unofficial guide dog. Banjo brushes up against Flynn to give himself a better sense of direction when out walking.
“Of all things, his milky eyes sadden me most because they remind me of loss – mine and his – because the eyes can be a connection in communication.
“But Banjo continues to amaze me in so many ways… just recently our club allowed him to take part in a mock obedience trial and he blitzed it with almost perfect scores. We were both over the moon.”
What the expert says:
Dr Mark Billson from the Small Animal Specialist Hospital in Sydney says, “While no treatment exists for PRA yet, there has been some evidence that oral-oxidants and lutein may be beneficial.
“Early diagnosis, before too much vision loss has occurred, is important to gain benefit from antioxidants. There is now a DNA test for many breeds which can help with early diagnosis.
“Quite a lot of work has been done in gene therapy. This entails giving individuals the gene which is not working, although the mutation in each breed will usually require a different gene.
“There have been remarkable success stories where animals are now seeing after receiving the gene, but the work is still in its experimental stage.
“Several websites exist with helpful suggestions to care for blind dogs. There are also several devices that people have used to help their dogs adapt. Some people use their voice or ‘clickers’ to help develop ways to avoid obstacles, and a harness is often better to help guide a dog rather than always pulling on a collar.
“Halo devices with rings attached to the collar can help warn a dog of impending obstacles.”
Sarah and Bonnie
Sarah Goldsmid, specialist vet, adopted dachshund, Bonnie, 13, when her elderly owners were unable to manage her disability.
“Bonnie arrived at the Animal Referral Hospital at Homebush nine years ago with hind leg paralysis due to a ruptured intervertebral disc,” says Sarah.
“She had lost all spinal function for several days before she came to us. The time delay meant she had a low chance of regaining spinal cord function.
“Use of her hind legs did not return and she was fitted with a rear-leg wheelchair.
“Bonnie, despite her disability, has an amazing spirit and has learned to skilfully manoeuvre the cart – she can even climb up on her cushion to rest.
“Exercise is no problem – she runs up and down Balmoral walk-way several times a week where she thrives on attention. She has worn out three wheelchairs so far.
“Bonnie’s condition has left her incontinent, so she has her bladder expressed three times a day and wears nappies to stay clean.”
What the expert says:
Dr David Simpson, specialist small animal surgeon at the Animal Referral Hospital says, “One of most common causes of paralysis among canine patients is loss of spinal cord function due to a burst intervertebral disc.
“Signs can include pain, wobbly gait, weakness, paralysis and incontinence of bowel and bladder. Most dogs will recover the lost function if an accurate diagnosis is made with spinal imaging followed by decompressive surgery.
“In the area of diagnostics, the use of advanced imaging with computed tomography (CT scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) would arguably be the most significant development in specialist veterinary practice in the past decade.
“With better understanding of a problem we can offer better solutions. Over 95 per cent of dogs with an extruded intervertebral disc that can’t walk but can still feel their hind limb toes will recover with decompressive surgery.
“Owners of dogs who don’t recover fully are often left with the difficult decision between euthanasia or managing a dog as a paraplegic.
“Mobility carts are normally used to allow dogs that have normal fore limb function to exercise without traumatising or dragging their hindquarters.
“Dogs have to be lifted into the cart and supervision is necessary to ensure they don’t roll the cart or get it stuck.
“The more difficult aspect of looking after permanent paraplegic dogs is managing the urinary and faecal incontinence which requires a highly committed and diligent owner.
“It can be a rewarding exercise for the owners and the dogs can enjoy a good quality of life, but it is certainly not for every owner or every dog.
“It is always a better option to try and recover spinal cord function where possible.”
Tabitha and Sampson
Tabitha Galivn, 24, received St Bernard, Sampson, for her 18th birthday. He began showing signs of osteoarthritis as a pup.
It is the most common form of arthritis which causes the material (cartilage) that cushions the joints to breaks down. This causes the bones to rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of joint movement. The cause is not fully understood.
“I’ve grown up with St Bernards and love the breed. Sampson was a hit in our household from the moment he arrived, but at 18 months I knew something wasn’t quite right,” says Galivn.
“His front paws started turning out like in a ballet dance… by the age of three he was diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
“My vet (Aine Seavers) has been terrific in helping to control Sampson’s pain with a management program of injections for joint lubrication, dietary supplements for bone density and a brace for his front legs to give him added support.
“Sampson is 76 kilos which is pretty big, and that means he takes three times the medication of your average dog.
“It’s been costly – about $150 a month – but Aine always tries to work out ways we can do things more economically.
“Sampson, despite his condition, is a happy-go-lucky dog who is so loveable yet protective even when he forgets how big he is and tries to sit on my lap.
“We’ve had dogs with arthritic pain and you can see it in their eyes, but I think the fact we got Sampson’s management plan in place early has been a big help.”
What the expert says:
While there is no cure for arthritis, there are several schools of thought on how to deal with it including alternative treatments such as aromatherapy and homeopathy.
Dr Manuela Trueby from Balmain Village Veterinary Clinic is the only qualified veterinary homeopath in Sydney. She is a member of the International Veterinary Homeopathy Association.
Homeopaths consider the totality of the patient’s symptoms, personal traits, and physical history to select treatment.
“For osteoarthritis, I initially work out the constitutional remedy by considering other health issues associated with, say, the kidneys, liver and skin, as well as any gastrointestinal problems.
“Stress can trigger inflammation and arthritis so I also take into account previous trauma, toxin exposure and emotional state.
“Then I consider modalities like worse or better after rest, exercise, type of pain and where it is located before deciding on remedy choice.
“Dietary supplements such as glucosamine, fish oil, turmeric and rosehip powder can be helpful. Vitamin injections and laser acupuncture can also be powerful tools.”Love dogs? Why not visit our DOGSLife Directory