Dog's Best Friend

The dog-wolf next door

Toodling the Edge of Oblivion

A Jack Rusell terrier stares into the abyss and retreats.

 

I joked when I prepared to leave home to go to Baltimore to have Deep Brain Stimulation performed at The Johns Hopkins Hospital that I wanted to write a book called "Toodling the Edge of Oblivion: How an Intrepid Jack Russell Terrier Kept Her Human Companion from Toppling into the Abyss."  Little did I know at the time how quickly and ferociously such a joke could turn cruelly ironic.

 Toodles had made the journey from Maryland, where she was bred, just 18 months earlier and though she was suspected of having a portosystemic liver shunt, an exhaustive search by someone trained in the use of Doppler ultrasound—the first line of detection for shunts although not always foolproof—had failed to show the astray vein.  Portosystemic shunts occur when the foetus’s circulatory system does not fully assume its responsibilities for purifying the soon-to-be-newborn’s blood. 

 As a result, once an affected dog is born, toxins—primarily ammonia—build up and affect its brain, causing it to pace and suffer from loss of muscle control (ataxia).

But all along, Toodles’ symptoms did not match those of a dog with a shunt except for some occasional ataxia and test results at the vet that showed high bile acid levels.  As we got ready to leave for the long stay in Baltimore environs, she had been symptom free for many months, and so we figured it was better to take than to leave her.   At 12 pounds she fit in a Sherpa bag under the airline seat in front of us, and so the three of us, Toodles, Gina, and I, sallied forth northward for the operation we hoped would renew my life by rolling back the symptoms  of Parkinson’s disease.

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 The trip began to turn badly for Toodles almost as soon as we left Miami Beach. Unspayed, due to her possible condition—general anesthesia seemed risky—she went into heat no sooner had we arrived in Baltimore.  With that, out went our plan to have her stay with her breeder while I was in the hospital. 

 Most dogs I’ve had have been travelers.  They would rather go than stay, no matter where you are going.  We had assumed the same would be true for Toodles.  But clearly the stress of travel, of going into heat, of the emotional turmoil surrounding my operation, and of a slight shift in diet necessitated when the airline failed to send our luggage with us on a direct flight from Miami—all were too much for her.

She was clearly distressed in our first weeks in Maryland, but that seemed understandable, because for several days, as I underwent tests and then the first surgery, she was largely on her own at my brother’s house.  But when we headed off to Charlottesville, Virginia two days before Christmas, Toodles became unhinged on the car ride down.  Once we arrived at my mother-in-law’s house, Toodles began pacing, tracing the same pattern over and over again—a classic sign of the misery of a liver shunt.  She bit through a half dozen electric cords.  She tried to eat metal—doorstops, buckles on pocket books and suitcases, chair legs—as she teetered on the abyss.  We luckily found a vet in nearby Crozet who was open until 2 o’clock on Christmas Eve.  His remedies worked for a day, but by the day after Christmas, she was breaking through all medication and we rushed her to an emergency vet near the Charlottesville airport. 

No one was certain she would make it through the next few hours, much less the next day.  That first night the prognosis stood at 50/50, and I sent a mournful email to friends who had been following our adventure.

My cry reached Boulder, Colorado, where resides Marc Bekoff, friend to all beasts great and small (who also writes for Psychology Today [http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions)and therein lies the tale of Toodles’s rescue.  Marc  rallied the dogs who live near his mountain home—Zoe, Murphy, Daisy, Luna, and Shiloh—to send positive messages to Toodles.  Who knows, maybe she knew that dogs all over were sending her good wishes for a speedy recovery—because she rallied overnight.

 Later that evening we brought her home and within a few days she was back to full Toodle.  Absent a major shunt, she may have many microshunts that cannot be treated surgically.  For now we are glad Toodles made the flight back to the tropics without event and is back in Miami Beach with us while we plot our next moves following the great success of my surgery and Toodles’s canine-assisted recovery.  She is, as one of the emergency vet techs said, “A head scratcher, for sure.”

Mark Derr is the author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

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