Summer Plans Change Again (This Time It’s The Dog)
Pre-Post Note/ What a horrible week! Last Wednesday I was just getting ready to write about our arrival in Cape D and my new solo volunteer job when THIS happened. The subsequent stress rendered me incapable of writing anything for a week. Call it superstition or just the way I handle these things, but I didn’t feel I could blog about it until *some* of the worst had passed. We’re not out of the woods yet, but at least the first few steps are done. Everyone is back home now and WheelingIt Summer Plan D is now in motion. Here’s the story….
The Day Before
I was just starting to feel like things were falling into place. Paul had gotten home early from Miami (exceeding all expectations), the cat had just passed her 3-week post diagnosis blood tests with flying colors and (again, exceeding all expectations), and we had just rolled into our favorite WA state park, escaping an unexpected 100-degree heat wave that was engulfing Portland. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Our first evening back on the coast I took a leisurely sunset hike to the beach. Not a single soul was around, and I savored both the solitude and the cool ocean breeze. As the last colors faded from red to a misty purple I released a deep sigh. Yes, this was good. I was at peace and looking forward to spending the next 4 weeks just relaxing and re-grouping in this soul-soothing place.
That night I had my first solid deep sleep in weeks.
The Sad Morning
The following morning dawned beautifully. Doggie could smell the beach and wagged her tail excitedly when I got out the leash.
“Let’s go check it out, girl!”.
We hiked over to the ocean, doggie pulling eagerly the whole way, and when we arrived on the cool sand I let her off the leash to explore. As she trotted happily away to sniff some seaweed I walked further down the cove to check out the lighthouse. A moment later it happened -> doggie let out a loud yelp and came running towards me on 3 legs, tail down and looking dejectedly sad. Her back left leg was raised and hung limp, and she was definitely hurting. “Make it better mom!”
My heart dropped. I knew enough doggie stuff to know what had happened. She’d just torn her ACL and not just partially, but likely the full way. This was bad, very bad.
Now you doggie folks out there who’ve had dogs tear their ACL’s know exactly how worrying and confusing all this can be. Dogs don’t really tear their ACLs from twisting movements or trauma like humans do. In the vast majority of cases it’s simply a genetic pre-disposition (a combo of tibial angle, joint development and other such things) multiplied by wear and tear over time. It’s one of the most common dog injuries and sometimes it happens without any warning whatsoever.
In Polly’s case we kind of knew this might happen one day. She’s a very active doggie and has been on/off limping for a while. Her last limp injury was many months ago and really wasn’t too bad. Even the vet we consulted with at the time (in New Mexico) thought it was minor, and couldn’t detect any kind of forward knee draw (= the classic test for torn ACLs).
So, we opted to treat her through Conservative Management which is basically a fancy term for forced rest and short walks, allowing the knee time to develop scar tissue and (hopefully) stabilize on it’s own. We strengthened the regime with supplements (specifically glucosamine and fish oil) and red light therapy (I bought a human-grade light therapy device, just for the dog!). There was no guarantee it would work, but there was a chance and that’s a risk we were willing to take.
Over the next few months she appeared to recover. Motion restored, no real limp and apart from occasional soreness she was doing well, really well. We honestly thought we’d completely kicked it.
Then this happened.
Some dogs do perfectly well long-term with Conservative Management. Some don’t. A lot depends on their activity level, state of the ligament and even the angle of their knee (dogs with larger tibial angles naturally put more stress on the ACL). Sometimes it’s just pure bad luck. We knew we *might* just be buying time with Polly, and we also knew that if the ACL ever totally ruptured, Conservative Management would be out and surgery would be our next best option. We hoped never to have to make that decision.
Sadly, we had now come to that point.
The Diagnosis & Options
The local vet in Long Beach, WA (Oceanside Animal Clinic) was wonderful. He saw Polly the same day, immediately diagnosed the ACL tear and talked through all the options.
As with anything health-related it’s never a clear-cut decision. There are several different types of knee surgery for dogs and very heated supporters of each type. Some types are considered better for smaller and less active dogs, some are better for larger, more active breeds, and then there is full gamut of opinions in-between.
Online research is helpful, to a point, but after a while you can enter analysis paralysis. EVERY surgery has risks (and associated horror stories) and the possibility that it might not turn out the way you expect, so if you research too much you can sometimes get so anxious that it becomes impossible to decide. Plus the recovery for ANY knee surgery is long and arduous. You’re looking at anywhere from 2 to 6 months, no matter what you do.
We weren’t looking forward to any of this, but having researched the options ahead of time (back when Polly had her first limp injury) we already knew we’d likely be going for something called a TPLO (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy). It’s quite a radical surgery where you essentially cut the bone, re-position the knee and screw everything together with a metal plate to heal. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart and requires skill to perform, but it’s considered the surgery which gives active dogs the best chance of full recovery. There are never any 100% guarantees of course, but it has a good track record.
“I can do slingshot surgery here, but it might not hold” the local vet told us honestly. “For Polly I’d actually recommend TPLO. I don’t do it myself, but I know the best surgeon in the country”
For a very bad situation, this was very good news. Half the battle with any surgery is finding “the guy/gal”, and with that I mean the surgeon who’s a leader in his/her field and who does this type of surgery all the time. Working with your hands is an finely-honed skill that requires constant use to maintain. I always knew that if I ever needed any kind of orthopedic surgery I would want to find a surgeon that specializes in just that. That’s what I wanted for Polly too!
What followed from here was a frenzy of research, indecision and (finally) action
The clinic (Sun Valley Animal Center) was in Sun Valley, Idaho, over 11 hours drive away. Not exactly close and hard for a dog who doesn’t like the car (not to mention the poor doggie parent who has to do the drive), but it was do-able. Since I was solo-volunteering, Paul could just take off whenever he wanted while I held down the fort here in WA. It would be 2-4 days of hell, and then it would be done.
We found out everything we could about the surgeon Dr.Randy Acker. We talked to him multiple times, checked reviews and basically just tried to get as comfortable as we could about both the procedure and the clinic.
Everything looked good. He learnt TPLO from the guy who invented it (Dr. Barclay Slocum in Eugene, OR, now passed away), teaches classes on the subject, engages in continued research on it and does this all the time. He’s personally done over 6,000 successful surgeries, uses specially-designed medical-grade plates, internal stitches (no doggie cone-of-shame needed!) and has a 95% success rate. We both felt he was “the guy”. Plus he could fit us in next week.
The only thing left was for us to make the final decision.
On Friday afternoon we took a long bike ride on the Discovery Trail into town. It was a beautiful day, the kind of fabulous, perfect Pacific Northwest summer day that makes you want to settle down and stay forever. We had a few beers overlooking the ocean, ate some tasty food and talked it through one last time. It’s always hard to make a decision for your pets, partially because they can’t speak for themselves and partially because the outcome is never 100% guaranteed. Is it better to do nothing and just live with a (most likely) permanently limpy, but otherwise perfectly healthy dog, or do you put her through a pretty serious surgery and give her a chance (albeit with some risk) to get back to her old self?
If you knew the final outcome ahead of time this would all be easy, right?
In the end, we decided on the latter. She’s a young, very fit, very active doggie and if we could give her the chance to chase squirrels again we wanted to do that. Plus no matter what we decided (even if we did nothing) we were looking at 2-6 months of recovery.
Paul left on Sunday morning and did the 11-hour drive in one day. Next morning doggie went in for diagnostics (bloodwork, X-Rays) and then surgery. By 1:30pm she was out of recovery, and Paul (the crazy fool that he is) did the 11-hour drive back that same day.
2 days, 22 hours of driving, $2600 of costs and it was done.
Paul and doggie had a horrible, long drive there and back, and I was a nervous, blubbering, pathetic wreck the entire time they were gone. But the experience was as good as it could be, given the circumstances. Dr. Acker was very personable & caring, the surgery itself went flawlessly, Polly came out of anesthesia rapidly, and everyone at the clinic was lovely. Still, I can’t deny I was relieved and thankful when they finally got back home safely. Phew!!!!
This latest twist has changed everything (once again) for our summer plans. For the moment Taggart (our kitty) is stable on her meds, so we’re focusing on doggie. Once Polly has gotten over the first few critical weeks of hard rest recovery, we want to put her into rehab therapy. We feel it’ll give her the best chance of regaining full function, and that’s well worth the effort and $$ for us.
So we’ll stay here while I finish my volunteer job and then for July/Aug we’re looking to find somewhere we can settle down and do that for her. Ideally we’d like a decent canine rehab place (offering hydrotherapy, light therapy etc.) somewhere that’s preferably not too hot (Coast? Mountains?), aaaand that’ll actually allow us to stay (in the very worst season for RV bookings, ugh!) for 2 months. Anyone got any good recommendations?
Long, long recovery ahead. We’ll keep you all posted and are crossing all fingers and paws that it goes well. Only time will tell….