In August, 2018, Shea suffered a spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from the ribs down. At just 6 years old, we knew she had a lot of life in her and wanted a non-surgical strategy to help her live her best life moving forward.
A little history – my husband Dan adopted Shea when she was about 2 from a Philadelphia shelter where she was less than 48 hours away from being put to sleep since they were at capacity. I was in college and he had never owned a dog before, so I was texting him all the things he needed to pick up for her. She had obviously been abused before and was cautious around most men, anyone in a hat, and any large instruments like umbrellas and baseball bats. Thankfully, she immediately knew Dan was there to help her, and she and I connected immediately as well.
She’s always had high energy and has had many excitements in her life. Aside from her first few years and her stint at the shelter, she has jumped out of a moving car, drank too much ocean water, torn her ACL trying to jump over the fence in our backyard, and broken her leg by running into a moving car. Her vet has called her “headstrong” and that is the perfect way to describe her.
Days 1 & 2
On Monday, August 13, I came home from work and noticed she looked tired and uncomfortable. Dan had been home with her all day and said she was a bit sluggish and was slow when climbing up our basement steps that afternoon. Otherwise, she was moving alright.
Tuesday morning she was having a hard time moving, and by the middle of the day on Tuesday she couldn’t move her back legs at all and had become paralyzed from the ribs down. I met Dan at our standard vet, who looked at Shea for 4 minutes and said we needed to get an MRI right away (upwards of $3,000) to see if she needs surgery (at least $10,000). We got into the car to head to the emergency vet, and we just knew it wasn’t the right decision. The cost, the vet’s lack of attention to Shea’s specific situation, and our knowledge that Shea’s personality would not mix with an intensive surgery.
Dan had heard of PetPT from a coworker, and after a few calls explaining our situation, they were able to get us an appointment for the next evening. Our anxiety and sadness going into this appointment were extreme. We had no idea what to expect and were blown away. The vet, Dr. Howe-Smith, sat on the floor with Shea and examined her for over a half hour. He determined there were two possible situations, either she had a herniated disc or, more likely, a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) and he had a non-invasive plan specific for Shea’s situation.
She was put on Gabapentin to relieve nerve pain, carprofen for general pain relief, and an antibiotic because she also had a UTI (poor girl).
Aside from rest and medication, we are to move her legs like walking to keep the joints loose and rub her legs to help with blood flow and to build the nerve feeling. He also recommended we purchase her a cart from WalkinWheels to help her have independence and laser therapy to alleviate pain and help stimulate the nerves.
The biggest hurdle of the first week was figuring out how to get her to go to the bathroom. She could not control anything below her ribs, so we figured out how to express her bladder by strategically pushing on it. We also invested in a ton of doggy-diapers for everything else. We strategically removed the hard plastic bottom from her crate and used it as a changing table both to help corral the mess and to teach her that it’s an appropriate place to “go.”
We would set up her dog bed topped with puppy pads and two towels, with an extra towel on the floor and a gate around her to prevent her trying to scoot around on the floor.
She had her first laser appointment and she loved it. We were shocked! We thought she would be scared of the machine and the wand touching her, but she laid on the floor and relaxed.
Her wheelchair also arrived and she immediately loved it. She had the independence to move around outside and explore the house. She was running around in the backyard in the first few days. There’s a learning curve for us to get her correctly in the cart, but she was patient and so happy to get to have some freedom.
She started biting her toenails, which was likely a sign of nerve reactions in her feet (good sign), but the vet knew that since she has no feeling in her feet she might continue to bite into her toes too. He put her on Amitriptyline for anxiety (which we need to pick up from RiteAid and sign as her parent or guardian) to help her relax and stop biting those nails.
In her cart, Shea sprinted into PetPT this week, excited to be back for more laser therapy! She happily rolled herself into the laser office and seemed so much more comfortable after the treatment.
By the end of the week, we started to see the slightest movements at the tip of her tail, which doesn’t sound like much but it was incredibly inspiring.
Weeks 3 and 4
We left for our trip to France, leaving Shea with Dan’s incredible parents who were willing to take care of her while we were away. It was no cake walk, and part of Shea’s most challenging time. We’ll always be grateful for this time away when we were able to relax from the stress from the last few weeks and reconnect.
While we were away, Shea became even more fixated on her back toenails and bit them all off. She was put on trazadone, a sedative, which was a game changer. She now sleeps throughout the day most days, as long as her environment is calm, and is more likely to sleep through the night.
Coming back home was an adjustment, we missed her so much, but figuring out the routine was tough. Dan went back to work after being off for the summer and the start of the school year means lots of additional evening responsibilities, too. When I went back to work, I filled my executive director in on the situation and she immediately offered for me to start working from home. Within 3 days I had a full office set up in our living room, and I’m able to give her the constant monitoring she needs. I now go into the office once per week, when we’re able to get dog care from family. If I wasn’t able to make the change to working from home, I truly don’t know how we’d be able to do this with me commuting over an hour to work each day.
We committed to teaching her that the tray from her crate is like a litterbox, and she’s gotten more control of her bathroom needs. She scoots herself onto the tray when she needs to go #2 and holds her pee (usually) until Dan picks her up and carries her outside. No more diapers and only a few accidents in the house!
We got her a new, orthopedic bed since she’s spending 90% of her time in it as well as a raised stand for her food and water, so it’s the perfect height for her to roll up to in her wheelchair. She loves to be in her wheelchair, where she can roam around the house and sniff all the things that have moved since she last explored. She runs around outside and plays with sticks and balls, and we can take her on walks. She gets tired after being in the cart for more than a half hour, but it’s so important she’s able to move around and feel like a dog a few times a day.
In the early evening and first thing in the morning, she gets rammy for a few hours. We figured out that she needs some “quiet time” while the sedatives get to work. We make sure that we can be still and quiet in the living room with her, with the lights low, calm music on, and sometimes even a lavender candle to seal the deal.
Most importantly, this week we started seeing lots of twitches and a little bit of movement in her toes and legs!
We focused this week on getting our routine down. A typical weekday morning looks like this:
5 am: Wake up, Dan showers and gets ready for work and I watch Shea as she begins to wake up.
6 am: I get dressed and we get Shea onto her tray for any bathroom needs and ready to go outside. Dan picks her up to get her into the cart, then she rolls herself outside. Dan picks her up to get her to pee and we get her back into the cart.
6:15 am: Shea rolls back inside and eats breakfast while Dan finishes getting ready. I make her bed behind my desk and prep anything I need to before Dan leaves.
6:30 am: We get Shea into her bed and Dan leaves for work. I lay on the floor with Shea until she gets sleepy and calm.
7 am: Give her her medicines. The sedatives take about an hour to kick in, so I keep her calm and relaxed until she falls asleep, around 8 am when I’m logging on to my work computer.
She picks her head up a few times a day, and I listen to make sure she doesn’t start licking her toes, but typically she sleeps throughout my workday (except for lunch when she smells my food).
Her laser therapy this week also included a re-evaluation by Dr. Howe-Smith, who was impressed with the movement in her hips and the healing in her toes. It’s time for her to start water therapy! We made our first appointment for just two days later and it was crazy. We knew Shea loved the water but this took it to a whole new level. She continuously splashed and played instead of walking on the treadmill. She splashed water all over the floor, the ceiling, and us.
We also bought her little booties that protect her toes for when she’s dragging herself around the house and keep them from falling out of the stirrups when she’s in her cart. Now she’s sprinting around without worrying about her toes.
This week is all about keeping things going. More water therapy. More time outside. More settling into our new routine.
Oh, and lots more splashing.
We are seeing lots more movement in her tail, legs, and toes. A full swinging tail is common when she’s in her wheelchair, and ler legs twitch when we touch her feet or brush her back.
We had a followup appointment with Dr. Howe-Smith who is happy with her progress. She has a much stronger reaction than the last time he saw her, and her hind legs have grown 4cm of muscle mass in 3 weeks from her treadmill therapy.
Next, we continue on the underwater treadmill and give acupuncture a try!
Some more movement in her legs and feet, plus a happy wagging tail when she’s in her wheelchair. Today she ran into PetPT so fast neither of us could keep up, and she was her classic crazy self for the entire therapy session
This week, we had to leave Shea alone for a few stretches, up to 5 hours. A few months ago, we could leave her alone at home with full access to the house for 8 hours and she would be fine. Since her paralysis, we haven’t been able to leave her alone at all because she starts to bite off her toenails and leaves a mess, even when caged into a small area of the house. We noticed that she doesn’t try to lick or bite her toes when she has on her Walkin’ Wheels booties, so we left her home with the booties on and caged into a small area. She was on her bed next to a window so she could look out, and it went great! Due to work commitments, she was along for about 3 hours Friday night, 5 hours Saturday during the day and 3 more hours Saturday night (Dan and I both had 12 hour work days), and there was only one accident in the house and no issues with her toes!
Now we’re hopeful there could be a date night in our future that is somewhere other than the vet!
Acupuncture was a success! I was shocked that she was able to relax and stay calm, but the PetPT staff knows just what to do to keep a dog distracted. She sat on the floor licking frozen baby food (sweet potato and turkey) out of one of her favorite friends hands the entire session. The vet placed the needles down her spine and legs and used electrical stimulation to target specific nerves.
She was so relaxed afterward that she fell asleep in my lap during the 20-minute drive home, fell straight to sleep when we got home, and seemed to be more comfortable and calm for 3 days after!
Since the appointment last Friday, she has gotten more control of her need to go #2 and we’ve seen much, much more movement in her legs and tail. We’ll start having acupuncture weekly along with the underwater treadmill.
This week we had lots of fun family events. My parents and sisters were in town and we celebrated my grandparents 60th wedding anniversary. This meant lots of time out of the house and Shea did great. When we have to leave, we put her in her Walkin’ Wheels booties (for her wheelchair), give her anxiety meds, put her in her bed by the window so she can look out, and we put up a fence so she can’t scoot around the house. A few of the times she took one bootie off, but she didn’t bite her toenails and there was only one accident in the 4 days that we had to leave her alone for a few hours. A major success!
Weeks 11 -13
It’s no secret I fell behind on updating Shea’s story for a few weeks here (sorry!) but she is doing great! We see leg and foot movement daily while she is resting and when we touch her legs. Mostly twitching type movement, but sometimes we see her whole leg stretch out. She has much more awareness of her back limbs and is able to lift herself onto her knees while she scoots around the house. She’s so confident in her abilities that she tries to jump on and off the couch and moves so quickly that we can’t even catch her.
She now goes to hydrotherapy and acupuncture once a week, and still sprints into PetPT every time in her wheels. She also hyperventilates in the car on the way because she loves it so much. Because she’s so excited I have to sit in the middle seat in the front bench of Dan’s truck to keep her from climbing on his lap while he is driving. It’s very comfortable, thanks for asking.
With the nice fall weather, she has been enjoying lots of time outside and has been letting us know she wants to go outside when she has to use the bathroom, which is a huge step forward. The cold mornings and nights have been rough (mostly on Dan) and we know that will continue to be difficult, so we are hopeful for any progress she is able to make in the next few weeks before the coldness really sets in.
Another huge step is that we are now comfortable leaving her for about 6 hours max. That means we were able to go out on a date night, and are leaving for Thanksgiving festivities in a few hours. Happy Thanksgiving!
This week, Shea started ‘skiing,’ where she gets herself on to her knees and runs/drags herself around. She can move SO fast! It’s also great for her nerves to get the action of running and feel her legs dragging across the ground.
Shea wrapped up this week with a re-evaluation appointment by the vet and he was pleased with her progress. Her nerves are firing and her feeling is coming back, the main goal now is to keep improving her muscle tone and get her strength back. Since her last check-up, her thighs have grown another 4cm each!
I asked Dan for some feedback: “my back hurts.” He is still picking her up multiple times a day to help her go to the bathroom and to move her around the house. We are both able to hold up her back legs and wheelbarrow her around the house, but it’s exhausting for us and doesn’t help Shea get any of her ability back, so we try to let her drag herself or ‘ski’ as much as possible.
Today, December 5, she started moving her legs in her wheelchair! This afternoon once Dan and I were both home from work we put Shea in her cart and she was moving her legs like she was walking. Such a great step (no pun intended) for her being able to walk again. Our optimism is growing, and we’re really looking forward to get her into the treadmill later this week to see if the techs who sit in the tank with her can feel any new movement.
5 months – January
Shea had a great Christmas and got to see lots of family members. It’s difficult having other people in the house because her energy is very high. The excitement of having people over makes Shea have accidents more frequently, but it also tires her out.
For Christmas, we got Shea a few more of her favorite bones. These are the only toys we’ve gotten her that she doesn’t destroy. She pulls the squeaker out almost immediately, but the rest of the bone lasts her for months.
The holiday also meant that we had to leave her alone more frequently. When we leave her at home alone, we fence her into a small area by the window in our living room, so she can watch us leave and look out while we’re gone. We give her a sedative and anxiety meds and we put booties on her back feet to discourage her from biting her toes. She did great with only one instance of going back and biting her toes.
In rehab, the staff sees improvements in her each week. She’s had an issue in the treadmill recently where she gets too excited and drinks so much water that she looks like she needs to vomit. We take her immediately out of the water to keep her from puking in the treadmill which is a real mess for them to clean up.
At her re-evaluation this month, we decided to stop doing the treadmill for a month in hopes that we can get her enough exercise in her cart and by letting her zoom around outside. We’ll monitor her thigh measurements to see if her muscles continue to grow without the treadmill.
The biggest success of the month is that I am now able to take Shea out to pee. I grab her thighs like a wheelbarrow and can hold her waist with one arm and clamp down with the other. This means Dan isn’t as tied to her bathroom schedule, and I’m able to get her outside each day at lunchtime meaning accidents are much less likely in the afternoon.
6 months – February
Shea LOVES the snow. It helps her to move around the backyard easier and gives her some extra resistance to help pull herself up to a close to standing position. Our vet said he has a friend who rehabs dogs in Alaska who said snow is necessary for a full recovery.
Shea’s accidents have gotten much more manageable in the past weeks, now that I can take her outside. She feels when she needs to go to the bathroom and gets antsy, so we know to take her outside. Sometimes this notice is only ten seconds, but it’s still a good sign. She is also starting to fight us when going to the bathroom, she wants to do it all on her own, which causes quite a mess but we know it helps with her independence.
9 months – May
On the morning of May 23, while I was getting ready for work, Shea unexpectedly returned to her anxious habit of biting off her toenails. This hadn’t happened in months and we immediately knew this was bad news. Her progress had plateaued over the last three months, her anxiety had returned, and she didn’t seem like herself anymore. As much as we didn’t want to admit it, we knew it was time.
Shea had the best last day. She was surrounded by her favorite people, got to play with the hose, and run around in her wheelchair. She got to see her friends at PetPT while she laid on the same towel Dan brought her home in, licking frozen baby food while we told our favorite stories about her. The compassionate team at PetPT took incredible care of Shea until the very end.
We are better people for having Shea in our lives. She taught us so much over the past years and months, and we will always be grateful.