BEST FOOT FORWARD
This account was written by Fergus' owner Kim Webb, in 2008
I knew Christmas 2006 would be emotionally difficult, it being the first one in 30 years, without Keith. I could, however, have done without this particular mental diversion.
It was well into December when I noticed that Fergus, who would be five in the following March, was starting to walk a little oddly. He was usually a very light footed dog but now he seemed to be flapping his feet to the floor as if he was flat footed. I made a note to try to cut his claws thinking that might be the cause.
Over the next few days he was starting to spend less time standing. When he walked he now lifted his back legs unnecessarily high as if he didn’t know where the ground was. When he changed settees in the evening he stumbled from one to the other as if his legs had ‘gone to sleep’. He looked rather embarrassed when he couldn’t get on the settee in one go.
On Saturday 16th December I went on a rare evening out, just for a few hours, with friends for a meal at a local pub. When I got back at around 11pm, the three dogs were all on their feet to greet me. In the melee Fergus lost his footing and fell down. He couldn’t get up and I was unable to get him up on my own. I made him as comfortable as I could with duvets and settled him for the night.
First thing Sunday morning I rang the vet and Caroline Sheppard, his breeder. Caroline would come over straight away and bring a specially made leather harness to help get Fergus to his feet. When the vet arrived he looked at the prone dog and diagnosed hip dysplasia! Caroline duly arrived and with strategically positioned non-slip matting and the harness we hauled the poor dog to his feet. He was happy to totter about the yard with support and our undivided attention.
The vet confirmed his diagnosis, and yes, the high hind leg action was a classic symptom of hip dysplasia. I should bring him to the surgery Monday morning for an x-ray. I looked at Caroline, we were both thinking ‘this dog is nearly five years old. He’s been shown and placed at Crufts three times. Surely if he had something as potentially debilitating as hip dysplasia someone would have noticed by now?!’ We both humoured the vet. I had no intention of subjecting my dog, whom I now suspected of having a spinal problem, to being spread-eagled under an x-ray machine! The vet gave Fergus a painkilling injection and left. The following day, with Caroline’s help, Fergus was taken to a vet in Swaffham who now specialised in homeopathy and chiropractic. His opinion was that Fergus had a slipped disc. He advised me these things take time to heal and to be patient.
Living on your own with an adult male wolfhound who is gradually losing his mobility is, to put it mildly, difficult.
My nearest doggy neighbour (1.5 miles up the road) would stop in the morning on his way to work to help me get Fergus up and outside to relieve himself. This was repeated on his way home from work. One of my work colleagues from 10 miles away came over at around 8pm each evening to help in case Fergus hadn’t disposed of everything in his earlier outing.
Three days later Fergus was still no better so he returned to Swaffham for another treatment. Another wolfie friend, eager to help, was collected on this trip with a view to staying over with me.
Fergus deteriorated that evening. He was now starting to knuckle over on his hind feet. A phone call to the Swaffham vet yielded that this was now beyond his scope.
My friend made several phone calls that evening (I’d lost the plot by now) and arranged a course of action for the following day. Caroline came over first thing (her van had a wider door and lower step than mine), my neighbour stopped on his way to work and between the four of us and a blanket we carried/dragged Fergus into the van. He didn’t appear to be in pain – just somewhat bemused and once settled seemed quite comfortable.
On arrival at my vet in March, Cambridgeshire, a different vet assessed Fergus in the van and, as previously arranged, referred him to the bone/spinal specialists in Fakenham, Norfolk.
It was now Friday 22nd December – everywhere was shutting down in preparation for the Christmas festivities.
The specialist in Fakenham assessed Fergus, who by now had proprioception deficits in all four legs, and came up with a short list of possibilities. Firstly, he would need to do a myelogram, as the usual vet hospital table top scanners were simply not big enough.
This procedure was risky. Due to Fergus’ suspected spinal complaint, putting any more pressure in his spinal cavity would probably be fatal.
His measured opinion was that we should end it now……… After all, it was Christmas and he didn’t have the staff available to nurse a dog of this stature.
I could hear Fergus whining from the other room. My brain was in meltdown. My husband had been dead less than six months and I was now faced with the prospect of losing number one dog.
“Newmarket has a large MRI scanner”, I heard Caroline say. (thank heaven somebody was thinking straight). Mr Brown was sceptical that they would be able to take Fergus. The Animal Health Trust often has a waiting list and only limited space available for giant breeds. With some persuasion from Caroline, he agreed to make a phone call and try to ‘pull a few strings’.
It was good news. The Animal Health Trust at Newmarket, Suffolk, although now closed for Christmas, had a neurologist who would hang on for us - we just had to bang on the door.
A thick fog had now descended both literally and metaphorically. I don’t think a journey from Fakenham to Newmarket has ever taken so long.
The mood at the AHT was more upbeat. They had equipment and staff (even though it was Christmas). The only suggestion that he might die was that if his nervous system shut down to such a degree that he couldn’t breathe for himself.
Fergus was taken off for his MRI scan, they would have the results in a few hours.
Caroline and I set off for the bright lights of Newmarket to try and occupy ourselves. I felt somehow reassured he was with the AHT. I’d had experience of them before. My first wolfhound, Zen, (the one before Fergus) had become paralysed at six months. This happened over a few days and he was at the AHT for five weeks. Zen’s diagnosis was Distal Denervating Disease. Was this the same for Fergus? What am I doing to my dogs? Are the other two destined for the same fate? Would anybody ever sell me another puppy?
I’d seen how low Zen had got. He’d always retained the ability to swallow. Bowel and bladder function were unimpaired but he couldn’t move or bark. It’s very heart wrenching visiting your puppy and him not being able to wag his tail or give any symbol of recognition. Zen made a good recovery – only to die 18 months later of lymphosarcoma.
The sojourn to Newmarket wasn’t having the desired effect. We returned to the AHT and stared at the magazines in the waiting room.
The MRI scan showed nothing untoward that could give rise to Fergus’ condition. There were no abnormalities, no sign of injury, no lesions, no blood clots. We left him in the care of the AHT and over the next few days he had blood tests, a cerebro-spinal fluid test and x-rays of his legs all of which showed there was apparently nothing wrong with him.
Fergus is a very sensitive loving dog (though the sign over his bed saying ‘Fergus Webb – can be grumpy’ may have contradicted this statement!) and did not take well to hospitalisation. He is quite a worrier and doesn’t like any alteration in his routine. To begin with he wouldn’t eat or drink for the nursing staff.
His diagnosis was polyneuroradiculopathy. This is more a description of the collection of symptoms, rather than a disease in itself. The cause is unknown. It is similar to a human condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The suggested course of treatment was palliative care, antibiotics in case he had some form of infection and physiotherapy of his limbs.
The staff were only too pleased for me to visit him every day. On my first visit I managed to syringe about half a pint of my home produced goat’s milk into him. The next day he was welcoming the syringe. By the third day he was lapping up a pint. I reasoned that so long as I could get a pint of goat’s milk into him every day that should serve a lot of his nutritional and liquid needs.
Fergus was given fluids intravenously to ensure he had sufficient and was catheterised. Although a posse of nurses could get him upright, he couldn’t move his legs. Given his estimated weight of some 12 stone, a catheter saved him and the nurses the unnecessary stress of attempting to take him outside to relieve himself.
I spent the most part of Christmas day sharing my turkey sandwiches with Fergus. Not the Christmas I had originally planned. On Boxing Day a friend Jill, who has one of Fergus’ sisters, made the trip over from Stafford to visit with me. Fergus looked forward to visitors. (or maybe it was the goat’s milk, Schmackos and tripe!). On some occasions Caroline visited with me and we would speak to the neurologists and try and understand why this was happening.
Gradually Fergus seemed to be getting some feeling back in his legs. He was starting to drag himself out of his ‘kennel’. Well, there was no point in them shutting the door. As the days went on, he could turn over by himself and co-operated fully with his physiotherapy sessions, now that he understood what they were doing.
After about a week in hospital the staff felt Fergus needed more encouragement to try and walk. They thought he could do more than he would. As it was the New Year holiday, and quiet, they suggested I bring in a housemate for him to follow as he had shown an interest in another wolfhound who’d been in for treatment. I decided my, then 18 month old, Dempsey was the dog for the job. He would be much less confrontational than cousin Rafferty who had now found himself promoted to top dog.
Caroline, together with her husband Clive, arranged to meet me at the AHT. They would bring a couple of their bitches with them in case Dempsey wasn’t alluring enough. With some trepidation I followed Dempsey into the ward. Fergus and Dempsey greeted each other like the long lost friends they were. The nurses, armed with strops, positioned themselves two each side of Fergus and got him to his feet. I lead the way with Dempsey. Fergus was unsure. Then Caroline slipped a lead round Fergus’ neck and you could see him thinking “It’s OK, we’re going for a walk”. Tentatively, but still unsure of the ground, Fergus walked towards Dempsey and out through the door to the exercise area. The relief all round was immense. We knew the only way now was forward.
I took Dempsey for a further two more visits over the holiday. The four nurses were now struggling to stay co-ordinated and keep up as Fergus blundered forward. After a few more days he didn’t need his catheter or drip. He would ask to go out and over the next week progressed from a four nurse lift, to three and then two. Finally, 15 days after he was admitted, I got a triumphant call from a nurse saying she had got him up on her own. I went with Caroline the next day and brought him home.
F ergus, although unable to raise himself, still wanted to assert his authority in the pack. Rafferty, who had enjoyed two weeks of headship, didn’t see why he should give way to a disabled dog. On Caroline’s advice, baby gates were temporarily erected, but these were dispensed with after a few days. Once Fergus was able to get himself up and was steady on his feet, Rafferty accepted Fergus’ position and I could again safely leave all three boys together.
I think it was for at least another 10 days that I had to assist Fergus in getting to his feet. But as time went on he got stronger and was able more often to get himself up. His muscle wastage in that short time was extensive; particularly noticeable as he had been a well built dog. It was many months until he looked like he’d never been ill, and longer for all the hair to grow back properly over his various shaved patches. It is now January 2008 and today Fergus is fit and well - able to run, jump and play.
I often wonder how common these symptoms are. Are dogs euthanased too soon perhaps because of lack of knowledge, finance or facilities; thus vets are not able to study the illness for long enough? An older dog whose mobility is failing may well not be given a reprieve.
A few months after Fergus had started to become ill, I had a distraught phone call from Jill about Fergus’ sister. Wenna was at the vet and they thought she was presenting with the same symptoms as Fergus. I spoke with Jill’s vet and told him all I knew of the condition. He in turn liaised with the Animal Health Trust at Newmarket and came to the conclusion this was, indeed, the same condition.
Jill and her husband live in a more urban area with near doggy neighbours. They, under vet supervision, elected to nurse Wenna at home. Daily I spoke with Jill and daily Wenna’s condition mimicked that of Fergus. At least I could reassure her that as this appeared to be the same problem, it was a good thing because that meant Wenna would recover well.
Duly Wenna did recover and today (January 2008) she also is fit and well.
You can read Wenna's story by clicking HERE
This now raises more questions. Was there something inherent in both these dogs that just needed a ‘trigger’ to activate? Fergus’s can be explained away by the immense stress the household had suffered in the preceeding summer. But what about Wenna? Jill had visited me with all her dogs on the 5th November. Had Wenna caught something from my land or Fergus? Her vet thought it too long before her illness to be significant and in any case all the tests – even for viruses not normally encountered in this country – were negative. If there was a familial link (Fergus and Wenna were always considered to be the twins of the litter), how could it lie dormant for five years and then strike two dogs within a couple of months of each other?
Now I nervously scrutinise any stumbling dog dreading that history will again repeat itself.
Any thoughts, or theories as to possible causes of the aforementioned are welcomed.
You can read more about Fergus by clicking HERE