We were always curious just what mix of breeds went into Nala (and were often asked). If she were still around I would have totally forked over the $65 needed to buy the Canine Heritage Test. This test kit from Maryland-based biotech firm MetaMorphix includes a cheek swab for your dog which you mail back to them to find out what really went into building your special friend.
So put on a pair of sunglasses and do your best David Caruso imitation… cheek swabs are cool.
After gracing us with her presence for the past seven years our three-legged princess is gone.
We adopted Nala from the San Jose Humane Society shortly after buying our house in 1998. After a few visits and not finding the right dog to take home we were walking along the row of dog runs and saw a super-cute black lab-type dog standing up, front paws on the gate, wagging her tail at us. Cute face, happy, anxious to meet us and… what the? She’s only standing on one leg!
We were immediately taken with her personality, affection and heart. She wouldn’t play fetch for more than a couple tosses, she wouldn’t go out in the rain and if it got cold, she just wanted to be inside. She was definitely a princess… but a princess with a huge spirit. Initially we marveled at her ability to get around on just three legs, but the novelty soon wore off and we stopped noticing that she only had three legs. It never bothered her, after all… she had one more leg than we did.
Nala’s lack of a leg did eventually slow her down in 2004 when she developed Idiopathic Peripheral Vestibular Disease, commonly called old dog vestibulitis. The affliction, not uncommon in older dogs, is essentially loosing the function of your inner ear. Without the body’s built-in gyroscope to help balance, the world starts spinning and it takes a while to adjust. After a few weeks Nala learned to rely on her sight, muscles and other inner ear for balance. Nala was at 100% in about a month. Almost a year to the day later, she lost the use of her other inner ear and had a much more difficult recovery. True to form, she fought through again the second time (though she never was quite as stable as before).
As we prepared for our move to Ireland we included the necessary steps which would allow us to bring Nala with us. The regulations of importation of dogs into Ireland now allow you to prep your pet ahead of time to avoid the six-month quarantine. By getting a rabies test performed by the correct organization six months before importation your pet can enter the country without having to be put in a kennel for six months. Nala would have been able to join us in Ireland on August 7th, but it wasn’t meant to be.
We were moving to Ireland before Nala would be able to enter the country and thankfully we have some great friends who also love dogs, our good friends Leslie and Jason. We were initially a little concerned that things would be rough on Leslie and Jason because we weren’t quite sure how Nala would get along with their newly adopted dog, Kaos. Nala, who has always been a little aggressive towards other dogs, wasn’t too bad of a house guest (other than an early issue with relieving herself inside). Nala joined their pack quickly, immediately latching onto Kaos. Nala apparently spent most of her time following her new pal around.
Leslie, having just lost her dog Micah in February, had the unenviable task of contacting us on Monday to let us know Nala wasn’t doing well. This past weekend Nala stopped eating and the vet said it was likely kidney failure or lung cancer (or perhaps both for all we knew). In her later years Nala had a history of urinary tract infections and was on a special diet which was easier on her kidneys, so we knew there was an issue there. Combined with her kidney issues the vet was having trouble hearing a heart beat on one side of her chest which could indicate a rapidly growing tumor in her lung. My first desire was to throw as much money at it as was needed, I didn’t want to lose Nala, but I knew that was really just a selfish reaction. It was time.
Nala passed away last night at around 6:30 PM pacific time.
This picture was taken by Paula in March of 2002 when Leslie adopted Micha. At around ten years old, with a heart murmur, a little blind and a lot deaf, Micha was not the prime candidate for adoption but Leslie took her in and gave her a great home.
On the way back in from taking the dog out I was bending over Nala trying to get her to sit and Paula looked up at our dove family and found them looking back at us. The trio was looking down at the dog and me trying hard to figure what the heck was going on.
It’s been about a month since Nala’s second episode of vestibulitis and she is as happy as ever. She isn’t, honestly, back to 100% though… she’s not even back to 100% of where she was before the second attack (which wasn’t 100% of where she was before the first attack). Her balance is fine as long as she keeps her head up and is looking around. She’s unable, for example, to look over her shoulder at us when walking so she has to turn around to see if we’re there (which usually results in us either gracefully tripping over her or hopping around her like epileptic pigmy dancers).
Every time she stumbles, slips or falls we feel terrible for her. “Poor thing, she just doesn’t understand what’s happening.” We feel bad… but when I think about it rationally, I honestly think Nala couldn’t be happier. Her only complaint at this time appears to be that we’re feeding her dog food (the nerve we have to feed her anything but steak!). Sometimes it helps me to put it all in context: she has survived being taken away from her parents without visitation rights, she had one of her legs chopped off, she was given to the humane society by her owners of eight years, she had Idiopathic Peripheral Vestibular Disease not once… but twice and yet still has managed to make it to 14 years of age. I don’t think I could manage to be as happy and pleasant as she is if all that stuff happened to me.
Yep… of all the role models out there I just hope I can live up to the example set by my dog.
What follows can be considered reference material. If you’re looking for information on old dog vestibulitis, read on.
Here is some more information pulled off the i-dog.com forum. This post by one of the forum’s contributing vets in 2000 gives an excellent description of the disease and diagnosis:
In reference to Cindy Ascher’s friend’s Labrador: What you have described does not sound like a seizure at all, but a sudden onset of a vestibular (balance) problem, which is very common in old dogs. The classic symptoms are that side-to-side eye movement that you described (called Nystagmus) and a head tilt or tendency to walk or fall to one side. In the absence of any signs of an external ear infection which could have caused an infection in the inner ear also (this would cause similar signs), the usual diagnosis is “Old Dog Vestibulitis” of unknown cause. Occasionally a brain tumor can do this, but is much less likely. Part of the problem in communicating about and in diagnosing seizures is that what one owner has called a “seizure” may not be what the examining vet thinks of as a seizure. To us vets, a “seizure” is a convulsion, like epilepsy, where the dog is on its side, its neck and head arched backward, and virtually all the muscles spasming uncontrollably, particularly the mouth and the legs; A dog that simply can’t coordinate his legs to stand up and panics because he can’t, is not actually having a seizure. With vestibular signs, the dog thinks that “down” is in another direction than what gravity should be telling him. He is basically very dizzy and confused. The good news is that most cases of Old Dog Vestibulitis or Vestibular Syndrome get better very quickly with no treatment at all. The most important element is good nursing care, because they may not be able to get up to eliminate, and may not be able to get their mouth oriented properly to drink or eat, so they need assistance. I am curious to know if this is what the vet was diagnosing in Cindy’s friend’s dog.
Just about a year after her first attack of vestibulitis Nala has had another attack. Paula was at home this time when it happened and it was nowhere near as bad as the first attack. This time she didn’t have the obvious eye twitching (horizontal nystagmus) and didn’t get sick. I took her out first thing in the morning yesterday before going to work and she showed no signs of any distress. A few hours later, however, I received a call from Paula letting me know Nala had another episode.
Paula took Nala to the vet as a precaution and all the blood tests came back negative (as expected) but we wanted to be sure. One test the vet performed on Nala was to roll her onto her back and check her eyes. As soon as Nala was inverted the horizontal nystagmus presented immediately (a sign that this episode was indeed a recurrence of the “old dog vestibulitis”, also called “old dog vertigo”, “Idiopathic Peripheral Vestibular Disease” or simply “vestibular disease”). The vet said it’s extremely rare for a dog to have multiple attacks, so I suppose we can be proud our dog is so “special”. 🙂
Nala’s first attack was 5/30/2004. I’d say it took Nala a week before she was walking on her own last time, but she fell down often. After a couple weeks she seemed pretty steady but it was a few months before she could shake her head without falling down. Her second attack happened yesterday, 6/7/2005.
Some tips: Get a comfortable harness for your dog that wraps around your dogs chest Having something that can help you to lift and support your dog “luggage-style” gives the animal the ability to move around. Physical therapy is great for dogs as well as humans. The more the dog is able to get the sensation of walking upright the more it will be able to learn where its body should be.
To help your dog eat straddle them with your thighs holding their mid-section in place. Nala is able to stand on her own but has trouble eating because anytime she puts her head down she looses her balance. By standing over her I can prevent her from swaying side-to-side, allowing her to eat comfortably. Some dogs may be defensive about their food, so be aware that being close to your pet may make them uncomfortable, you may be able to help them relax by facing the opposite direction, supporting them but have your back to their head.
The slick floors that are funny when your normal dog is chasing you are an absolute ice rink for a dog with vestibulitis. Your dog can slip an go down very hard because they don’t know which way to twist. It’s important you help the dog balance, especially in the first few days of re-learning to walk. Putting down old towels or blankets can help your dog to keep its footing.
With the loss of the inner ear for balance your pet will be relying on muscle memory and eyesight for balance. This means when it’s dark your dog will be more off balance. Leaving a night light on will help to stave off confusion and be sure the area you take your dog out to go to the bathroom is also well lit. Your pet has gone from using muscles, eyesight and inner ear for balance down to just muscles and eyesight.
Make it a point to walk your dog over to the water. You may not notice your dog periodically wander over to take a drink during the day, they get thirsty and do want to get a drink. If they can’t walk over on their own, they’ll really be parched.
Finally: don’t panic. As doting “parents” Paula and I are both very protective of Nala and it pains us to see her out of sorts. Remember that your pet is uncomfortable, but probably not in tremendous distress (esp. if they are still eating and drinking). As our good friend Tom pointed out last night: “it looks like the tail’s not broken.” Nala responded with an enthusiastic tail thumping on her bed.
[My Wife’s] crt stopped working so I took a look around making sure everything was still plugged in, etc., Then I took a look on top where the cat likes to sit on the cooling vents to keep warm and found a pile of cat barf. After removing the monitor I found liquid had traveled from the top to the bottom, shorting out the crt.
I would have sent a picture of the problem but the dogs ate the barf.
I’m as big an animal lover as the next guy… but this is just… well… odd.
“Imagine: your dog, cat, or other pet in full military regalia. I make this fantasy a reality. Using the latest digital techniques, I combine a photo of your pet with the uniform and background of your choice.”
Fantasy? You mean like: “I love a man in uniform, now lick my boots Sgt. Spot!”? Ewww!!!
Nala is very thankful for all the well wishes (Nala can’t read so I simply give her a dog biscuit every time someone posts a get well wish, she seems thankful).
I took Nala to the Vet again Tuesday morning (our normal vet, not the emergency vet) and the doctor gave me a little more information.
Her condition isn’t uncommon, especially in older dogs. We should expect her to recover almost entirely. Nala has essentially lost the user of her inner ear for balance (temporarily or permanently wasn’t clear). Animals (dogs and humans alike) use multiple inputs to establish balance: inner ear, visual queues and muscle position. Take away one of the inputs and things will be wonky at first, but the animal will learn to cope.
It will be a few days before she’s able to get around well on her own (she’s already managing pretty well, but does tend to go bump in the night). The doctor said to expect her to be unsteady for a few weeks or longer… especially since Nala is shy one leg. Many dogs never get back to 100 percent and will have some minor symptoms. The most common vestigial symptoms being a tendency to fall down when shaking dry and perpetual head tilt (which is actually kind of cute).
For now we’re continuing to baby her, more for our own sake than hers.
We had a bit of a scary weekend. We went out for a hike on Sunday and came home to find our dog Nala hiding in a corner and a lot of vomit on the kitchen floor. She came slinking out of the corner when we came in.
Initially we interpreted her posture as shame for having gotten sick in the house (though she’s never been punished for doing so) but we quickly realized she was staying low to the ground because she was having a lot of difficulty standing. We watched her for a little bit, then, like any good, overprotective parent, we went straight to the emergency room. At this point we weren’t sure what had happened… how sick is she? Did she have a stroke? We were both terrified we’d have to put her down on the spot.
The doctor told us Nala most likely had “old dog vestibulitis”, not uncommon, but also not very well understood. There could be a number of different causes for Nala’s vertigo and some blood tests would hopefully rule out some of them. To be sure she was getting enough fluids and to allow her to be watched Nala spent the night in emergency veterinary clinic Sunday night.
Monday morning the doctor called us to let us know she could come home to recover. She’s still not able to walk on her own and has difficulty standing to eat. The doctor said she could be better in a few days, but it could be longer. I’m not sure how much variation there is, but Nala’s symptoms are a rapid, side-to-side twitching of the eyes (horizontal nystagmus), a pronounced head tilt (perhaps trying to compensate for the spinning room) and a pronounced lack of coordination. There are no warning signs and, from what I understand, there is nothing that can be done to prevent it (note: vestibulitis in general can be caused by ear infections as well, but for the “old dog” variety there doesn’t appear to be any cause).
My personal tip: get a dog harness, the kind that goes around the dog’s chest, and use that as a handle. Nala now has a lot of trouble walking (especially because she only has 3 legs) and being able to grab the harness allows me to keep her upright but still allow her to walk roughly where she wants to go. I’ve been using the harness to support her walking, eating and while she goes to the bathroom.
We’re off to our regular vet shortly… perhaps she’ll have more information for us.
Update: I found a note from the doctor with the technical diagnosis and am adding it so I don’t forget: Idiopathic Peripheral Vestibular Disease.