Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dog on the Blog: Alfried Wins Big In the Distemper Lottery!

Alfried came to us from the Brazoria County Animal Shelter, about two years ago. He was just a little black dog -- the non-descript variety of which there are so many, and for whom it is tough finding homes.

Alfried was a sad little guy when he came to the farm. We knew nothing about his background, so we had no way to know why he seemed unhappy. He was sweet, but sad.

Not long after his arrival, he developed some yellowish gunk in his eyes, then his nose. He became lethargic. He lost his appetite and began losing weight. So we took him to the vet we were using at that time (This was before we started going to Dr. Stern.)

The vet was pretty sure that Alfried had distemper. We asked the doctor how that could be, because we always give vaccinations to our dogs when they arrive. But the doctor explained that Alfried had probably already contracted the disease while he was at the shelter, and our innoculation would not help him if the disease was already percolating inside him.

Getting a diasnosis of distemper in a dog is like getting a diagnosis of cancer in a person. It is devastating, because it is usually a death sentence. The vet recommended that we just "put him down", which is the polite euphemism for killing him.

Now neither Ricky nor I ever went to A&M and neither one of us has a degree in veterinary medicine. But it has never made sense to us that if a dog is sick, let's just go ahead and kill him. Like a preemptory strike.

We know that many in rescue disagree with us on this. But we believe that as long as a dog is still breathing, there is hope. If a dog is fighting to live, we believe it is our moral duty to support that fight with everything we have.

We understand that sometimes -- maybe even oftentimes -- dogs, like people, will lose their battle with a disease. But we always tell our vet to do everything possible, use every tool, take every proactive measure to save this dog. We tell the vet that we will find the money somehow to pay for the care.

We are not giving up, and we don't want our doctor to give up, either.

( I digress from my story long enough to say that this is one of our favorite pictures of Alfried! He is laying on his back in the bed, and he is "smiling" and you can see his pretty white teeth!)

We told the doc to do everything he could think of to save Alfried. The vet told us that only about 10% of dogs with distemper survive it. The doc didn't think those were very good odds. But we argued that Alfried could be in that 10% !!

So Alfried went into the doggie ICU at the vet's office. He had an IV through which he received drugs and antibiotics that were essentially supportive care. That vet had an exceptional vet tech named Sandy whom we knew would be watching over Alfried and coming in after hours to check up on him!

We checked in on Alfried daily to see how he was doing. About four days into it, I stopped by to visit Alfried and the doctor sort of shook his head, and said that Alfried had now begun having seizures. The doc said it with a finality which meant to him that it was all over, once the seizures began.

I asked the innocent -- but obvious, I thought -- question: "Well, if he is having seizures, have you given him phenobarbatol to control them?"

The vet gave me an exasperated look and replied, "No, we haven't", in a tone which suggested that only a certified moron would ask such a thing.

I was undeterred. It is my job to advocate for the dogs because they cannot speak for themselves. "Well, let's give him some," I said hopefully. "Well, I guess we can, " replied the vet clearly unconvinced that this was rational.

Alfried actually began convulsing as we entered the room where he was staying. I watched as the doc administered phenobarbatol to Alfried, and the seizure stopped.

It was at least another week before we got the call that Alfried could go home, that they had done everything they could to help him. I think the vet still thought we were crazy for spending so much money and effort on a dog whom he still believed was destined to die.

When we brought Alfried home, we noticed that he was not the same guy. The old Alfried was sad but gentle. The new Alfried was angry and aggressive. We had to move fast, sometimes, to keep from being bit.

The vet smugly told us that was to be expected. That even if Alfried lives for a while longer, he has no doubt suffered irreversable brain damage from the disease. He will never be himself again.

But we persevered. We separated Alfried from the other dogs -- partly because we did not want to risk him spreading the disease, even though distemper is harder to spread than, say, parvo. But partly we separated him because he was such a grump that we did not want any fights with other dogs.

Every day, Ricky and I would visit with Alfried, and touch him, and speak gently to him. It seemed to me that Alfried was like a human patient who comes out of a coma. He had to relearn a lot of things, including trusting the humans around him.

Slowly, as the days turned to weeks and then the weeks turned to months, Alfired began to change and improve. It was gradual -- so gradual that it was easy to miss milestones, until one day it sort of stared us in the face: Alfried was "better"!

We moved him in with his group -- he is with Opal, Mary Lou, Beatrice and Missy (see blog July 1 and July 7) and he is the most popular dog in the pack!

He is now his normal, sweet self. He gives kisses and is animated and excited when it is his turn to sleep in the bed! There are no residual deficits in his motor skills or his personality. If you met Alfried today, you would have no clue that he had battled distemper -- and won!

We are glad that we believed Alfried could be in that 10% that beats distemper. In some ways, it was like betting on the lottery -- the odds were against him, but there was that chance that he could be among the small percentage of winners.

What we gave Alfried -- by treating him instead of "putting him down" -- was the opportunity to cash in his winning ticket in the great Distemper Lottery. May every dog have that chance.

Jay Hellerich, executive director
smiling dog farms
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wharton, texas

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