Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
REHAB AND THE COYOTE
In wildness is the preservation of the world. —HENRY DAVID THOREAU
MY FIANCÉ AND FUTURE HUSBAND, MATT, WAS THE CARETAKER of the Stillman Nature Center, where nature bloomed, chirped, splashed, and burrowed with wildlife. The eighty-acre estate in South Barrington, Illinois, owned by millionaire Alexander Stillman, was donated, and for educational purposes the grounds were allowed to go wild. Most of the nonnative plants withered. Matt worked hard cutting back buckthorn, which aggressively encroached on the developing indigenous foliage.
The center had become an oasis for animals pushed out by urbanization. The feathered and the furry, the hoppers and the trotters, the compact and the lanky, had all made their way to our little haven. In the late afternoon and evening, waterfowl held cocktail parties on the pond. Mergansers, teal, and my favored grebes chattered shrilly while we read or just sat on the deck.
When I woke in the mornings it was as if I were in a Disney film. Birds nested on every ledge, bees made honey, spiderwebs gleamed in the morning dew, and shiny turtles floated by on logs. Even Bambi could be found cavorting outside my window on the edge of the wood. And, joy! His mother was alive here in my own movie.
Nature worked her unerring magic day and night there. I fell asleep to the hooting of the great horned owl and the fine whine of bat radar zipping invisibly through the air, scooping up thousands of mosquitos (thank you, bats!) for their dinner.
Five weeks before he came to me, Taffy, a dachshund, had suddenly been unable to walk or even get up without crying. He would drag his rear feet and walk on his knuckles. According to the surgeon, the spinal procedure he had done on Taffy was routine. He should be walking by now. But he wasn’t. He didn’t even try.
Taffy was obese. He had started off overweight, and his parents, worried and feeling sorry for him, had been feeding him every time he lifted his brown eyes to look into theirs. He ate a high-carb diet and lots of it. I could see that his weight kept him from lifting himself off the ground. But why didn’t he even try? His back pain should have been improved.
My exam didn’t reveal any reason for his inability to walk. He had good reflexes, and could feel me pinch his foot. But he would not use any of the muscles in his rear legs. He looked paralyzed, but why? The owners were thinking about a cart for him, or even euthanasia.
I started with a diet change, blood-moving homeopathic supplements, herbal anti-inflammatories, and electro-acupuncture treatments. I received active responses from the needles, and he even lost a little weight. After a few treatments he still wasn’t walking. Puzzlingly, nothing. He didn’t even seem to want to try. I wondered if he would try to move if he were hungry and were forced to find food. I figured probably not until he had consumed all of his own “food” stored in his body fat. There was very little to motivate him.
At that time, my underwater treadmill was bare-bones and didn’t have bubbling jet-stream machinery. Yet I wanted to stimulate the skin and muscles on this fellow. The only place we had jets was in a four-foot-deep metal pool. I filled it and put him in it in a little orange life vest. His mom was holding his vest handle while he floated, his rear legs limp. As I reached for the on switch for the jet, she lost hold and he sank for a second. She screamed, he bobbed, and I reached to grab the vest, but not before I noticed his rear legs kicking furiously. His instinct to survive had overridden his worry about his weak legs. Without the heavy weight of his overweight body, it might have even felt good. At least it didn’t hurt, and he kept on kicking.
With that information, his owners, with renewed hope, helped him to lose weight on a great diet. We only had to “float” him a few times to spur his instincts before he started to half-float, half-walk on the water treadmill voluntarily. Within four weeks he was trimmed down, and started walking on land. After four months of therapy, he was fully active, running, and even healthier than his overweight self had been prior to the surgery.
Max is a Sealyham terrier who was brought to me because he couldn’t walk after his surgery for disc disease. Max was able to drag himself around with his front legs, barely using the rear ones. The underwater treadmill would be just what he needed, but he needed to focus for it to work. He was easily distracted and didn’t seem to even try to walk. Unless there was lettuce in the room. Then he was a laser. A ninja warrior. A champ. He would walk for miles in the treadmill, step lightly over Cavaletti hurdles, and weave like a dancer around any obstacle, all for a green leafy treat. Even though his parents had been told it was unlikely he would ever walk, Max relearned to walk for the love of the romaine.
So the lesson here is that every animal has its thing.
A young cat named Lance had fallen three stories and had a spinal contusion. There was no surgery that would help him walk again. His rear leg muscles were atrophying and he could only drag them around. Acupuncture with electrostimulation could reconnect the signals to the rear and clear away some inflammation. But how could I get a cat to exercise weakened muscles when he got around just fine with two legs?
Lance was put in the dry chamber (all nails trimmed) with a technician, without a life vest. Cats generally do not suffer clothing gladly. They can exhibit “bandage paralysis”—a condition where they just won’t move if anything is wrapped, Velcro’d, or taped to them.
As the water was filling the chamber, the tech held Lance. We saw Lance tensing. He was a lovely, gentle, and trusting cat, but he was starting to worry. As the water rose, he seemed to be thinking about escape. That’s when his sink-or-swim instincts kicked in and we turned on the treadmill below him. His front legs start moving, and miraculously his rears as well. They were uncoordinated, floppy, and irregular, but striding along. He was a genius at healing. Over time, he relearned, reconnected, regained strength, and could walk again. He was clumsy at first, but eventually he could jump and run.
Trapper, a Labrador with severe hip dysplasia, had significant behavior problems, so his owners didn’t want to consider acu-puncture. However, physical rehabilitation in the underwater treadmill made sense to them to treat the muscle atrophy and weakness in his rear legs. It would help with his weight and improve his joint function. I also added a subcutaneous injection of Adequan, the joint supplement, to improve the quality of joint fluid, which helps with pain and motion.
Trapper’s behavior problems were different from the ones I see in most dogs. He was terrified by anything and always walked around the periphery of the room. He didn’t like to be petted by anyone except his owners. He avoided lying down in the center of a room and tried to snuggle up tightly against the walls.
Once he had done just four treadmill sessions, this terrified behavior completely stopped. He had conquered the underwater treadmill, and perhaps regular rooms weren’t a challenge anymore. He also improved in strength and comfort in his hips. He even let me do acupuncture for his hips. We had no idea this would happen. Naturally, the owners were as happy about this beneficial side effect as the improved walking!
Topdog was an older Rottweiler who had undergone neck surgery for ruptured discs. He was stubborn and overweight and he didn’t want to get up at all. Again, my exam said he should be able to walk, but his mind said no. His owners were worried. After a few weeks of carrying this big dog around and trying to entice him to walk, their backs were suffering. They were exhausted and had lost hope. If they couldn’t get him to walk, Topdog would have to be put down. We started acupuncture treatments with electrostimulation. His pain and neck guarding disappeared, but he didn’t walk.
I could see him reposition his legs when he was lying down, so I knew he could move them. He was understandably afraid of the pain, and he didn’t want to move. And he didn’t have to because dinner came on a tray. Recovery and rehab was too hard and it was not something he wanted to do. He wasn’t a big eater, so he couldn’t even be motivated by yummy food. But survival is a potent, age-old motivator, and his survival instinct literally kicked in.
First we tried my trick of “pretend dunking,” but he was too smart for me. He pointedly looked at his dad and let himself be dunked, floating like a jellyfish. No motion. He never even looked at me. His gaze was directed at his parents. He knew they would save him.
“He can’t do it!” his mom said, her eyes filled with tears. I felt for her. “Let’s really give this a try. He’s expecting you to be good cop to my bad. I’ve still got some tricks in my bag.” I asked them to go to lunch and come back later. They looked at him, at me, and then they left.
His countenance changed completely when they had left the building. He was at the mercy of the doctor. Back in the treadmill, the poor guy searched for a savior. I had him lying in the bottom of the tank as I filled it with water. He started to float and the water rose to his neck. His head swiveled all around, his eyes got wide, and I could see him shift into a wild thing. He had to get out. He had to find his parents. He stood up on his own. There wasn’t a dry eye in my clinic, and I think I actually whooped. We started the treadmill. He walked like a drunken sailor, but he walked. He had to.
I had videotaped the event of Topdog using his legs because I knew his parents would want to see it. Little did I know that they had pulled up in front of my picture window and watched the whole drama. By the time he was strutting like a waterlogged peacock, his owners were back inside hugging and jumping. Topdog was so busy concentrating on walking that he barely looked at them. He was finding his courage, and his legs.
One late spring evening I saw a coyote drinking on the edge of the pond. Although alert as he walked in shallow water, he was visibly lame on his left rear leg. When he came out of the water, I saw him hobble back into the woods.
I saw him regularly for the next few weeks. Clearly unable to rest the limb, he would be out at twilight, hunting and scavenging for food. The pond was a great source of edibles as he walked in the shallows, weaving through the water weeds. All the exercise kept him thin, but not overly thin, and the leg seemed to be improving quickly. I would see him lifting the leg over roots and maneuvering through the shifting mud at the water’s edge. He needed the fourth leg for balance and used it increasingly. He had to keep going. The leg soon looked stronger. It seemed as if he had done his own rehab regimen, water therapy, resistance, and balance work.
A few weeks later in early winter, with a light snow covering the frozen pond, I saw him again. Just after dawn, I looked out our kitchen window and there he was, still showing signs of a slight limp, but getting along well. He was moving along the edge of the pond, as usual. As his paws slid onto the frozen white surface, I realized he was a she. The coyote mother was bringing her pups to play on the pond. Three coyote youngsters cautiously stepped onto the ice, grabbing at each other and roughhousing in circles around their mom. The pups’ survival depended on her ability to navigate in her world. She stood watchful, on all four legs.
I believe her recovery would have been slowed if she been brought her food and walked on smooth paths. I suspect there is something in the struggle that also heals us. Most likely after her injury, she had rested. But to survive in the wild, she had to get moving again.
I tailor a milder version of this “struggle to survive” idea in rehab with my patients. I use instinctual reactions as an impetus to make them want to use their limbs again. It can be as simple as sink or swim. At least that’s what they think.
Your pet may not live on the edge of the wilderness; he may only need to get from the couch to the dinner bowl. But there is an inner wild furry child that can be tapped into for healing. Healing can be aided by rest and recuperation, but it can also require action. And sometimes, just as in nature, that action can appear ruthless.