By Dr. Becker
For this real story of one of my patients, a gorgeous German Shepherd girl named Ava, I took a slightly different approach. I videotaped Ava and her mom Sonia during a visit to Natural Pet, during one of Ava's swim therapy sessions at Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness, and during an appointment with animal chiropractor Dr. Sig Hansen.
How Ava Came to Live in Mom Sonia's Home and Heart
Sonia first gives us us a little history on how Ava came into her life.
Sonia and Ava have been together since 2007. As Sonia explains, she had just lost her first dog, and friends who ran a German Shepherd Dog (GSD) rescue in Wisconsin were worried about her. She still had her male GSD, Shadow, but her friends thought she needed another dog to take care of.
The same friends happened to spot Ava at a Peoria, Illinois animal shelter, and being compassionate people, when they saw that Ava had only three legs, they immediately signed up to foster her.
Sonia and Shadow traveled to her friends' place to meet Ava. Then Sonia brought Ava back to her house for a little visit, and she and Shadow got along right off the bat. Since Ava did not get along with the dogs of the friend who planned to foster her, on that cold night in November 2007, Sonia agreed to foster Ava.
Ava had kennel cough and was very weak, so Sonia took her that very first night to an emergency animal hospital. Ava got over the kennel cough, and luckily, Sonia also knew some holistic vets in her area, including me. We met when Sonia's first dog was diagnosed with cancer.
We starting working with Ava right away to strengthen her body through swimming, chiropractic adjustments, and various supplement protocols. These days we work to help Ava maintain her muscle mass through swimming and other exercises. And she's doing quite well. She's a little over 7 years old and she has some challenges, but she's a very happy girl.
Sonia Felt Protective of Ava Right from the Start
I asked Sonia if she had any reservations initially about adopting a three-legged dog. She replied that she felt very protective of Ava right from the beginning. She doesn't recall that she had any reservations, but she was afraid other potential adoptive families might, which was one of the reasons she decided to adopt her.
Sonia says Ava was a bit of a bossy thing when she first arrived. She didn't think Shadow should be in the same room with her. Sonia wasn't sure she even liked Ava at first, because she was a lot bossier than her first female dog. But Sonia felt tremendous compassion for Ava because of her fear of her environment and her need to get stronger physically. She was worried no one else would take care of her. She said she was almost haughty about it, thinking, "Well, who else is going to make the investment of time, energy, and money that it's going to take to keep her or make her healthy?"
And believe me, Sonia has invested lots of time, energy and money in Ava. First of all, she's a big breed. And German Shepherds are predisposed to musculoskeletal issues and degeneration due to their significant joint angulation. Needless to say, a three-legged GSD has even more challenges. I asked Sonia if through her work with Ava she has learned how to manage a dog with special musculoskeletal needs. Would she do it again?
Sonia answered that she probably would do it again. She feels she was a little naïve about what Ava's life would be like as she got older. She didn't realize that the normal challenges of aging are naturally harder on a three-legged dog. And Ava was so vivacious as a younger dog, that it took Sonia a bit by surprise when she realized her girl was destined to experience physical degeneration just like all aging animals.
But with all that said, Sonia still believes she would do it again. She says Ava has an absolutely wonderful attitude. Everybody who meets her thinks so. And when someone meets her and feels sad that Ava has only three legs, Sonia tells them not to feel sorry for her because she's a very happy dog.
Sonia's Dedication to Ava Is Inspirational
And she really is a wildly happy girl and doing exceptionally well. Sonia has Ava involved in strengthening programs. She's doing things to manage Ava's pain and inflammation. She's doing things to slow down the degenerative process, and she's doing things to keep Ava's quality of life excellent, which is the name of the game.
I think it's wonderful that Sonia took a special-needs girl out of a rescue situation knowing she would be higher maintenance than other dogs. Ava's quality of life is exceptional because of Sonia's hard work, and it's inspirational. It helps inspire others to accept the challenge of adopting a special needs pet. It's also an exceptional learning experience. Everyone who has cared for a special-needs dog ends up being a better dog owner.
Sonia added that while she did feel badly for Ava, she tried very hard not to treat her any differently. She tried to be sensitive, but not to feel sorry for her, because she sensed Ava didn't want anyone feeling sorry for her.
Well, Ava has turned her back to the camera as if to say, "I'm all done with this." So this is a good place to end part one of our video.
Next Stop: Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness. Everybody in the Pool!
This next portion of today's video starts off with Ava enjoying a swim therapy session while her mom Sonia and I look on. As you can see, Ava is very comfortable in the water and moves around with great confidence! Once she comes out of the pool, off comes her swim harness and it's time for a blow dry, followed by a cookie (Ava's favorite part of swim sessions!) before she heads home with Sonia.
Next, we meet Lee Deaton, owner of Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness, which is where Ava had her swim session. Lee explains that she opened her doors 13 years ago after an experience with her first pet, which is how she and I met. She remembers I said that if I could swim dogs all day long, I would, and that was her inspiration for opening a pool for dogs.
Lee's pool is beautiful and state-of-the-art. She explains that she wanted a pool that would be chemical-free and entirely safe. She installed a handicap lift station to lower dogs into and out of the pool. There's also a built-in bench in the pool that runs the width that dogs can feel safe walking and standing on. The water is kept at 90°F during the summer months, and 92°F during the winter.
Virtually Every Dog Can Learn to Swim for Therapy
I asked Lee to explain to dog owners whose pets don't swim how she, like most well seasoned folks who do animal rehabilitation, has been able to teach virtually every dog she's met how to move in the water. Lee replied that anxious pet guardians have no need to worry. She fully trains all her staff members, and there isn't a dog they can't teach to swim.
Many dogs will walk out into water, but only as far as they can comfortably remain standing. The lift station in Lee's pool solves that problem. As soon as a dog is lowered to the point where he's floating, he'll begin to swim instinctively. Dog owners are positioned at the other end of the pool for two reasons: to separate the nervous energy both dog and owner are feeling, and to give the dog something to look at – his owner. Dogs will swim straight to their owners. They are greeted at the other end of the pool by their owner, and are able to stand up on the built-in bench we talked about earlier.
There is also a second pool that is smaller and designed for older dogs and small breeds. The large pool where Ava swam would be an overwhelming body of water for, say, a Chihuahua or a Lhasa Apso. The smaller pool is about half the size of the big one, and the same therapy techniques are used in both pools.
Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness also has a wonderful boutique where you can find healthy treats, dog beds, raw food, great chew toys, and other goodies. And this concludes the second segment of our video.
Now It's Time to Get the Kinks Out: Ava's Chiropractic Session
The final part of today's video features our beautiful girl Ava, and her mom Sonia, visiting Dr. Sig Hansen, an animal chiropractor.
As Dr. Sig explains, Ava's three-legged body makes compensations in order for her to move around, that over the long term will start to affect not only how her joints function, but also the functioning of her central nervous system and brain.
The brain is a sensory-driven organ – it can only respond if there is sensory input coming in. If the sensory input pattern is skewed or chaotic, the brain's response becomes chaotic as well. One of the primary systems for stimulating the brain is what we call proprioception, or body awareness. All the joints of the body have nerve endings that fire during movement. Hundreds of joints and hundreds of thousands of nerve endings are firing every time you move, and your brain interprets the pattern of sensory input in order to know where your body is in three-dimensional space. You can close your eyes, and still know where the tip of your finger is, and you can touch your nose with it if everything is working right.
Body awareness sensory input is so important to brain function that it affects everything else your brain does. It affects your ability to do simple math, it affects short-term memory, creative thinking skills, internal organ regulation – everything.
As Dr. Hansen explains, chiropractic is simply a process that helps to restore or normalize the sensory patterns coming into the brain, so the brain's response is normal, and we get better regulation of the body.
Ava's Missing Leg Presents a Number of Physical Challenges
Because Ava has only three legs, she's missing some joints and nerves. Because she's missing a hind leg, she doesn't load one side of her pelvis, and so that side of her pelvis tends to get stiff. If the sacroiliac joint in her pelvis locks up, she loses the sensory input from that joint. And that not only affects her body awareness, but her balance and coordination will be affected as well, which can start a cascade. Chiropractic care for Ava is about trying to help her brain and body function to the best of their ability in spite of a missing limb.
Dr. Hansen explains that he sees Ava periodically in order to loosen things up for her. You can see that he's working on some stiffness in her upper neck on the left side, just behind her skull. He releases the joint to get it moving again, so as she walks out the door, the sensory patterns coming from those joints will be more symmetrical, and her brain can function a little more appropriately.
Next, Dr. Sig notices Ava has a creaky hip. It's a dry socket, and as he points out, that's her good (and only) hind leg. So it's clear her right hip is showing compensatory wear and tear. Dr. Hansen mentions that Ava's pelvis is feeling better than the last time she visited. It's not torqueing nearly as badly as it was – it's a little stiff on the left side, but nothing like last time. He notes that if swimming was aggravating her hindquarters before (they aren't sure it was, but it might have been), she has now built enough muscle mass to relieve some of the pressure on her pelvis. Dr. Sig observes that Ava's pelvis is pulled back and there's less "crunching," but he does feel her right hip is worse than it was at her last visit.
Working as a Team, Sonia, Sig and I Agree on a Course of Action for Ava
I asked Dr. Hansen how much of the right hip problem could be due to compensation vs. poor conformation. He answered that her right rear leg is, of course, her load-bearing leg. He suspects Ava started out life with bad hips and at this point anything that can be done nutritionally to help that hip out may buy her some time. Sig believes that because Ava is still active, she's probably overusing her front end, which means she could wear it out as well before she gets really old. So anything we can do to relieve problems in her hindquarters will buy her a better quality of life as she gets older.
I asked Dr. Sig if he feels Ava's lower lumbar and SI crepitus (the crackling or popping in her sacroiliac joint) have improved. I asked if he feels there's potential to increase synovial fluid production in her hip joint. He replied that the potential is definitely there, and it's worth doing whatever we can.
Ava received Adequan injections for many months to help lubricate her joints, but was still showing symptoms of joint fluid deficiency. I switched to Acetyl-D glucosamine injections recently and this is probably the reason Dr. Hansen is seeing some improvement, a reduction in the amount of crepitus on palpation. We agreed that we need more time for the Acetyl-D injections to work, since she's only had three injections so far.
Sonia mentioned that Ava may need chiropractic care more frequently. Dr. Sig explained that his goal is to see each of his patients as often as needed to keep them moving as comfortably as possible. He believes Ava's pelvis is doing pretty well at the moment. The more the injectable glucosamine improves the cartilage in the joints, the longer she can go between adjustments.
We agreed we should continue to help Ava rebuild muscle mass with swim therapy, and make changes to her supplement protocol as appropriate.
I'd like to thank Sonia, Lee and Dr. Hansen for giving my readers a glimpse into their roles and responsibilities as a part of Ava's health and wellness team. Our collective effort is helping to keep her quality of life the best that it can be.