How Copper Became a Hot Rodder
In fall of 2003, I had noticed 12 year
old Copper losing muscle in his back and rear legs. He was also not walking
as well. With momentum, he could (and still can) trot and even run, but
casual walking was getting very difficult for him. We had lost use of any
off leash areas a few months prior, and I had assumed it was just lack
of exercise and old dog arthritis. My vet did a simple test of setting
Copper's foot on it's top. Copper left it there. Apparently it's almost
a reflex for the dog to right his foot onto the foot pad, but Copper didn't
do this. This led my vet to believe it was a neurological problem, not
an orthopedic problem. So, off to a neurologist specialist we went. You
can find your nearest board certified neuro vets at:
After examining Copper and looking at x-rays, the neuro vet diagnosed discospondylitis. It is an unspecific infection in the spine causing paresis. Paresis is "slight or incomplete paralysis". He can still walk, just not real well. He didn't think it was age related. It wasn't in a place where a spinal tap would help diagnose anything and it couldn't be cultured without major surgery that I won't put him through. Pretty much all we could do was throw antibiotics at it. It can be caused by brucellosis, a canine venereal disease, so he asked lots of questions about Copper's sex life. Copper was a show prospect as a pup, but he was neutered before 1 year old. For all I know he had been bred as a very young adolescent, so VD wasn't a total impossibility. But the brucellosis test came back negative. Copper was put on Ceflexin.
Copper was in no pain, just he was losing coordination of his back end. He was crossing his legs and falling because of it, as well as walking on the tops of his feet. Because of this, I stopped taking him for walks soon after this first visit. Neuro vet said he was to take it very easy since his spine was fragile from the infection. No stairs if possible, no jumping around. No playing with Leilah either, that was a tough one. Another possibility was Degenerative Myelopathy underlying what the vet was seeing on the x-rays, or even a tumor. DM is usually not visible on x-rays, but Copper did have some of the symptoms.
I got Copper his first pair of booties around the end of 2003. But I learned real quick that too much traction was NOT a good idea for this lunkhead. He discovered that with his new traction he could try to fly out the dog door and leap the porch like he used to (2 steps). First time he tried it, he landed right on his head. No harm, no foul, he got right up to go bark at his original target (passersby). Did he learn a lesson? Noooo, not an hour later, he did it again. He's hardheaded in more ways than one, and so I confiscated the booties, not to be used in the house anymore.. But they are very handy for going to the vet's or my sister's, where there is a lot of tile and no dog door.
After a few months on Ceflexin, there was no improvement. Neuro vet did an MRI and didn't find any serious problems with the discs that would be causing this. He didn't want to do a myelogram because if there was Degenerative Myelopathy happening too, a myelogram could aggravate it. So, continuing on with the original diagnosis, Copper was put on Baytril.
The Baytril didn't agree with him very well. He wasn't as lively as usual and was off his food a bit until I added Pepcid AC. After a month or so on Baytril he was actually a bit worse, so we put him on Clavamox. The neuro vet discussed giving him Deramaxx (an NSAID). Not for pain, since Copper didn't seem to have any pain, but for it's anti-inflammatory properties. Since that can be hard on the liver, I wanted a full blood panel done first. All was well. Including the white cell count, which should be elevated if there was an infection. At this point my regular vet started to suspect a tumor or even a systemic cancer. Comparing x-rays over time, there didn't seem to be any evidence of that, but x-rays can be fooled by tumors.
I see Copper every day, and hadn't realized how much he'd declined. He was still getting around the house okay. But when I brought him in for the blood work, I thought my regular vet was gonna cry looking at him. That drove it home that he wasn't getting any better. I decided I had quit waiting for a cure and to get more pro-active. To start some kind of physical therapy with him. After all, even if the infection was cured the next day, he'd lost so much condition it was gonna be a long recovery.
I arranged for swimming therapy and acupuncture. I joined the Able Dogs list. I did my research and ordered a doggie wheelchair for him. The neuro vet wanted to put off giving him the Deramaxx until we'd tried these therapies for a bit. The swimming and acupuncture weren't cheap, especially the swimming, but I had just gotten a large tax refund. I could do those at least until that refund ran out.
So I thought. One Sunday in late April, I came back from an obedience trial with Leilah and my mother told me Copper was sick. He'd been lurching around the yard and vomiting a lot of foamy bile. Not unheard of, my dogs throw up once in a while, but this was a lot. His temp and color was ok, he was taking goodies and barking at passersby once in a while, so I decided against running him to emergency. The next day he seemed a bit better, but still not good, so I ran him into the vet. Xray showed no blockage, and we wouldn't get blood work back until the next day. Tuesday the vet calls up, Copper's liver levels are skyrocketing, he needs an ultrasound ASAP. Copper was feeling good enough to try to do his silly spins going out the gate. I got him into a big local hospital, turns out his gall bladder was about to rupture, peritonitis had already started. Yikes!!! They did emergency surgery that night to remove the gall bladder, and he spent a couple days there getting spoiled rotten by the techs. He healed quite well. His liver values were back to normal in about two weeks. And, during the surgery, there was no sign anywhere of cancer or tumors, which was quite a relief for my regular vet and me. Unfortunately, they were not able to culture the infection they think caused the gallbladder problem. If they had, it may have been a clue to what's going on in his back.
There went that tax refund money, so for now no swimming therapist or acupuncture, though I hope to start back with the acupuncture soon. I had already ordered the cart for him before he got sick, it came the day he was released from the hospital. It was going to be a few weeks until he healed well enough to use it, that gall bladder surgery incision was pretty big. The cart manufacturers were very understanding and delayed our trial period accordingly.
One thing we found, when my regular vet x-rayed him for a blockage, was the the vertebrae were "bridging". This is discospondylosis, the spine was fusing to protect itself. My vet had told me that this happens in many older dogs anyway, and often doesn't cause them much problem. Just I have to realize that Copper's flexibility, even if he's completely cured, will be compromised. I haven't checked it out online too much yet, I hope to get to it eventually.
My mother built a ramp for him about this time, so he could get from my back door into the yard better. My porch is only two small steps but they were getting harder for him. The ramp is covered with a large old mat and it does it's job well. My other dog, Leilah, at first decided that it was for HER and must be some new agility related toy. She spent the first couple days racing up and down it for fun.
Finally came the day when we could try the cart. Copper had been put in one for a few minutes at the therapist's. It wasn't the right size for him, but with his fear baggage, I needed to know if he'd panic badly before I invested in one. In the few minutes he was in that one, he did really well. So I wasn't too worried about him accepting the one I bought for him. It took maybe a minute and a half of holding out a treat in front of him (on leash) and he was on his way! I strongly suggest introducing a dog to a cart on leash, and with very high octane goodies to distract him and get him moving.
Adjusting the cart was another matter. The manufacturers have been incredible helping me with this, but it's not easy. As of now (6/21/04), we've worked up to a couple hours in it (with a rest break) and have a great time. See the Hot Wheels page for more info on the cart.
Booties are still a problem for us. He drags his feet, and I have to keep them protected, especially in the cart. Baby seems to need new shoes constantly! But with the discovery of duct tape booties, at least we've got some alternatives even if they don't last long. See the Booties page for more on booties.
A generous friend is letting us swim in her pool periodically, the neuro vet says this is the best exercise he could possibly have. I bought the same type life jacket the therapist had used (Ruffwear). Just with all Copper's hair, it was gonna be tough on my friend's pool filters and pump. So the next time we went, I put a doggie T-shirt on him under the life jacket and that helped some. I'm on the trail of a more encompassing outfit that may help even more, we'll see. Copper's not overjoyed to go swimming, but he tolerates it very well. He's so relaxed afterwards, it's like he's been in a spa.
As of now, he's still on Clavamox. We're still slowly fussing with improving the adjustments on the cart. We are pretty darn close though, and he's up to almost 2 hours in it (with a break out of the cart at the one hour point). We go out at least 20-30 mins every day, and longer on weekends.. We've had a few instances of fecal incontinence now. Most of that happened when I had to change shift for a while, and it's stopped now that I'm back to my normal shift. Schedule is so important for these dogs who may not have full control. It's also happened once when I've heaved him into the car, I guess I put pressure in the wrong spot. There's no room to use the cart in the house, so he's learning new ways of maneuvering. While it may look horrible to me, he doesn't seem to mind too much to drag himself occasionally. He's learned that if he drags his hind end while turning THIS way vs that way (one side is weaker), he can get up easier, etc. He's also learned dragging himself across my back door threshold gives him a boost to get up and go bark at someone. Putting down long carpet runners from Home Depot has helped his mobility around the house a lot.
He's making oh-so-slight improvements too, I don't know if it's the meds or the exercise or even my imagination. Out of the cart it seems he's now walking more on his pads when he's fresh, though there's no improvement in the crossing legs problem. It's hard for him to get up. Until this started, his bed was located in a narrow aisle between my bed and my desk. He was no longer agile enough to get in there anymore, and I'd given him another bed at the end of my bed. Not a great location, it's in the way, but very easy access for him, and he uses it. But recently, he's now making his way in and out of that narrow spot where his old bed still is. Something's changed for him to be able to do that, he couldn't get in there for 6 months. He can still get in and out of the dog door, though he does it less often than he used to before this all started.
His attitude has been wonderful throughout. In fact, as a silver lining, his fear problems have actually improved quite a bit. Seems his criteria of what he needs to worry about has changed along with his ability to get up and leave. He accepts this just as he's always accepted that he can't jump over my 6' fence. When he falls, he often decides that "this" spot is a good place to watch the world for a while or take a nap. He just IS. I could take a lesson....
Copper's condition has worsened in the past few months. He's just about completely off his hind legs now, mostly dragging his hind end around the house. He almost never gets his paws under him properly anymore at all. He doesn't seem to mind it as much as us humans do though.
I finally took him off all the antibiotic meds, they didn't seem to be making a dent in the problems. The neuro vet wanted to do exploratory surgery, but I'm not gonna put Copper through that, the risks are just too high for a dog his age. So, now all he gets is an Ascriptin and zantac (or Pepcid or tagamet - I will be switching back and forth at my regular vet's suggestion) for arthritis once a day, that has a noticeable effect. While he seems in no pain without the Ascriptin, he is more active and generally happier with it.
Of course this has all led to more changes. His fecal incontinence is almost a daily thing, and so he's been banned from all rooms in the house except my bedroom. I've laid down cheap plastic runners to help with clean up, plus their slicker surface helps him drag across the room. Took Leilah a few days to remember the surface had changed when jumping off my bed, I was worried she'd hurt herself there for a bit. But she's adjusted now too. I had tried textured vinyl, but that abraded his hind paws. Because of the incontinence, I can no longer take him swimming in my friend's pool, though we've found other things to do for fun (see the ocean fun link at the top), nor can I take him indoors anywhere, such as shopping. I don't want to deal with diapers for him except for maybe special occasions. While his "sanitary cut" is now more severe, I still don't want to deal with cleaning him up after dragging in a diaper. It's MUCH easier to clean the floor than the dog.
His attitude is still quite good. But for a while there, seemed he had trouble finding his food bowl occasionally, plus lots of aimless whining. So, I've started treating him for cognitive disorder with anipryl, and that has helped a bit. Not an easy disorder to diagnose with a dog who's got so many other problems. Now he's back to cussing me out and welcoming me home more often (if he's not crashed out too hard).
All in all, for all his problems, he's
doing pretty well. He still gets real excited to go out for walks in the
cart and loves going out on the water on weekends, not to mention his old
hobby of barking at passersby. I hope to have him around a bit longer.
It's been too long since I updated this. Now I should do a final update.
Copper did very well for a long time since the last update. He continued to be the Aussie Manipulator; he ate well and felt well and had a good time. We ran into the more usual problems of aging dogs. He did need meds for hypothryoid.. He also started going deaf too, which increased his alert and attention barking to unbelievable duration, he'd go for hours if not stopped. That he had a touch of cognitive dysfunction didn't help, he'd often get "stuck" once he started alerting at passersby. Meds for didn't help. His voice had been ruined from an intubation problem from last year's gall bladder surgery, so his citronella collar no longer worked; it didn't pick up his voice anymore. I did have some limited success with a deaf dog's vibration collar on a remote control to get his attention and unstick him at least momentarily. Dealing with the barking was the most chronic and most difficult problem we ever had, bar none, and it had nothing to do with his disability,
I took him all sorts of places when I could. I took him to the Long Beach Haute Dog halloween parade, where he caused quite a stir, especially with an Argentinean TV reporter who interviewed us. People actually wondered if the cart was a costume! Sometimes doors opened for him that would have been closed to other dogs. We went with friends to the "Festival of the Humanities" ("disabled person day") at the Long Beach Aquarium and they didn't look twice at him. We went to Animal Planet's "Nuts for Mutts" event only a month ago. People continued to offer us "disabled dog" discounts sometimes too, such as at the local Doggy Dunk (self serve dog grooming) or the kayak rentals.. I took him kayaking whenever possible, but with record breaking rains during this past winter, it wasn't that often. Copper, Leilah and I would go to play at the dam when we could, until the geese migration caused my bird dogs to go a bit too crazy. Both ended up in the lake at one point or another while chasing birds. One of my favorite photos of Copper is when he flipped his cart into goose poop, he was SO happy about it! We went to the local park and I finally figured out how to get his cart through the hole in the fence into the canyon for short hikes. Both dogs loved that, though I had to be careful of any drop-offs or cliffs. I'd often attach the leash to back of the cart to keep him from pulling any dangerous stunts.
When people would occasionally look at him with pity, I'd have to tell them "don't feel sorry for THIS boy, he's living the high life!". But that was somewhat rare, it didn't take long for anyone to see he was having a good time and the reactions from people were overwhelmingly positive. Especially with kids. After once many years ago seeing a friend's 8 year old daughter decorate their rottweiler with fake pearl necklace, nail polish, and a plastic tiara, I realize how perception can be changed with a few accessories. No one was worried about THAT rottie when dressed up. So to lighten up the picture, Copper had flames, Rat Fink surfer/hot dog button, a license plate that said Wheelie Boy. A little handlebar tape spruced up his back bar padding (as well as gave people a better chance to see it before bumping into it!). He even had miniature cadillac fins on the top of the cart. One thing I never got a chance to add would have been subtle, which was a red line on the wheels like in the early hot wheels cars. It was fun to see if people got the jokes, I always gave them lots of points if they recognized Rat Fink. I also modified a cheap human hawaiian shirt so he could wear it over his harness.
I had turned him into my california hod rodder surf bum and kids especially really responded to that. That there's recently a lot of muscle car makeover shows didn't hurt, though that's not what inspired me. I've owned several vehicles from the 50s and 60s over the years, and many years ago I even once considered putting flames on an '83 datsun just for giggles. So I figure this latest trend is just catching up with me! Anyway, I never had ONE kid show pity, but they sure always had tons of questions. And since Copper had a huge soft spot for kids, he really loved their attention. And I'm sure hoping as they grow into adults with their own dogs, those kids will remember that carts exist, and carted dogs can do quite well.
Around Christmas, he started having urinary incontinence. At first I panicked. But then I quickly realized the magic of modern industry could come to my rescue! I already had plastic mats down. I now stocked up on incontinence pads, puppy pads, more cleaning supplies for both him and the floor, etc. etc. I made belly bands by the bunch and learned how to express his bladder. It was not much fun but it was manageable. It didn't bother him too much. While he'd never had accidents in the house before this, and he naturally went outside, he'd never been formally housebroken to begin with. So he seemed to have none of the embarrassment that some incontinent dogs get at first.
He turned 14 in January and he kept on truckin'. We waited for spring and for the rains to let up so we could go kayaking more. But the rains kept coming and the runoff from the storm drains kept ruining the water quality. He did have one urinary tract infection, common enough in downed dogs but low quality ocean water was a possible culprit too. So I didn't want to take him to the water when bacterial counts were too high. We did get to go out a few times this year. Otherwise it was life as usual for him, barking at passersby, "drag racing" in and out and around the yard patrolling, laying in the yard or the house, going on walks and hikes in his cart, etc. His energy level was excellent, hisage wasn't evident in his activities. I was spending sometimes a couple hours every day maintaining him, but that was just fine with him. That smile of his made it worth it and I saw it a lot. He was having a pretty darn good time.
On April 6th, 2005, he drag raced out his dog door as usual to go bark at something. About an hour later, my mom called me out that Copper couldn't get back up his ramp. He didn't want to sit up. Now, he is very smart and manipulative, and I at first thought it was a new game, since he did seem otherwise fine. I helped him in and figured that once I'd left for work he'd give up the game and drag into my mom's bedroom as usual. But when I got home, he was where I'd left him. My mother had given him water, and he was eating fine, but he was quite wobbly sitting up. He never would eat laying down and needed assistance to eat and drink. My boy had really gone down in front.
The next day we started running every test we could think of that didn't require knocking him out. After seeing my regular vet, I ran him over to a neuro vet at a local ER. Blood work, urinalysis, EKG, blood pressure, physical exams, x-rays from stem to stern, ultrasound, etc. etc. etc. Everything was normal!! No stroke, no illness, no organ failure, no vestibular disease.... He was not at all right mentally either, he was just way too calm, happy, and relaxed for being in a vet's office, normally a very scary place for my chickendog. And he was starting to have trouble even laying up on his chest, he kept falling over. I left him with the neuro vet for tests and went to work. By lunchtime, I talked to her and apparently Copper had rallied, he was sternal (up on his chest) and eating and feeling pretty good. She felt that this recovery might continue without any more intervention, so I picked him up. He laid in a crate in my office and barked his fool head off, which for him was fairly normal behavior, and grinned whenever my boss or I stopped to talk to him. It was heartening.
The last of the test results came in over the next day or two, and all was normal, but he was getting worse again. He was in no pain at all, but constantly struggling very hard to stay upright. At his age, and in his condition, there was not anything more to do for him without very serious risks. Even an MRI would be extremely risky at this point and there wouldn't be much we could do with the information it might give us. I tried very hard to deny what was happening at first, that he'd get better, but after a few more days it was evident that he was getting worse. I almost went down myself with my back trying to help him. But even laying down he sometimes wasn't placing his front feet normally, he was folding his paws funny. Helping him with his lifejacket, which I now used to lift his front end, he knuckled over his front paws now too. It was definitely neurologic in originand not just weakness from something else. My hopes for a "passing bug" that he'd get over were shattered. They thought it was a probable brain tumor, since so much else was ruled out, and my vet thought it was very likely he was quickly headed for a neurologic crash, possibly within the next day or few.
Before that crash could happen, on April 11, 2005, my vet released Copper from his struggle. He went peacefully with his head in my hands.
Leilah and I scattered his ashes from the kayak last weekend, at a spot where he'll be able to keep a close eye on those pelicans he loved so much, and hopefully contribute his calcium eventually to new generations of pelican eggs. As we were paddling away, it seemed that the Aussie Manipulator sent the cormorants and egrets into the air just to tease Leilah one more time. I like to think him of grinning as she went bonkers over them.
I miss my boy, but now it's Nick's turn
to take care of him.