By Abigail Messina, DVM: Veterinarian at Vet At Your Door, P.C.
As we rode the ferry over to Peak’s Island, we were thankful for the morning fog, as it gave us a temporary reprieve from the hot August sun. We wondered what waited for us at the other end of the ride, and were packed and prepared for anything. We had received the call yesterday, from an owner who was desperate for us to help her beloved old Dachshund named Bailey. He had become suddenly paralyzed a few weeks prior without explanation - no trauma, no injury, just woke up one morning paralyzed and exquisitely painful. He had received veterinary care prior to our visit, but the pain meds didn’t seem to be cutting it, and he continued to be uncomfortable and frustrated by his inability to walk. Unfortunately, this is all too commonly seen - especially in Dachshunds and other breeds that are longer than they are tall. They are predisposed to Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD), a condition where the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine bulge or burst (herniate) into the spinal cord space. The herniated disc material puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves causing pain, nerve damage, and paralysis.
As we walk up the steps into the house, we see an adorable, little old Dachshund snuggled into a pile of blankets. His eyes were clouded with age, his velvety brown fur speckled with gray, and his short little legs were folded up beneath him. His mom had called us out to help relieve his pain - with medications if possible, but if we thought his comfort was unattainable, she was prepared to have us euthanize him, so that he could pass with dignity and be at peace. As I began to evaluate Bailey, I found him to be significantly painful over his neck and lower back, he couldn’t move his neck side to side without it hurting, and 3 out of 4 legs were unable to support him, making it impossible for him to stand or walk on his own. The disc herniation had affected the nerves for his front legs, his back legs, his bladder, and his rectum; however, he was able to feel all his feet when I pinched them, he was able to weakly wag his tail, and he was able to pull his feet away when I tickled his toes - all great signs! The fact that he could perform those small tasks showed me that his spinal cord damage was not severe, and the possibility existed for him to recover.
Having been a veterinary acupuncturist for about 5 years now, I have seen it do amazing things. The goal of acupuncture is to promote the body to heal itself by correcting energy imbalances in the body. It enhances blood circulation, stimulates the nervous system, relaxes muscles, releases endorphins, and relieves pain by stimulating anti-inflammatory hormones. The most impressive responses to acupuncture are those patients I’ve seen exactly like Bailey (or even much worse off!); and I have lost track of how many have been able to walk, run, and regain a completely normal life thanks to this ancient art. The typical medical response to a pet with a herniated disc is to rush them for an MRI followed by spinal surgery; and while this is 100% a medically appropriate treatment, it is not financially feasible for many owners, with the average cost being $8,000 - $10,000. And even with surgery, recovery is not guaranteed, and your pet may come out of the operation fully functional or still paralyzed.
Bailey’s mom and I had a long discussion about his condition, our short term goal: get his pain under control and make him comfortable, our long term goal: get him walking again. I was confident we could attain both of those by adding in some other medications and acupuncture. We immediately added in a medication called Gabapentin and increased the dose of his anti-inflammatory medication to help with the pain and muscle spasms he was having. Because they live on Peak’s Island, we had to be strategic in our acupuncture schedule, and decided to meet in the ferry terminal in Portland for his treatments. Ideally a dog in Bailey’s condition would get acupuncture on a daily basis for the first week or so, however this was not feasible from a financial or scheduling standpoint, so we agreed to meet once a week. Every week Bailey comes over on the ferry in his cozy travel bag and gets fed an entire bag of treats while he gets his acupuncture. He always snarls a bit at first, but then accepts the needles and sinks into it, sleeping for the majority of the 20 minute treatment. Week by week as we watch the green leaves turn to the colored array of fall, we watch Bailey get stronger and stronger, with small victories at first - a stronger tail wag, a kick of the foot, a full neck movement to reach his favorite treats. I teach mom some physical therapy, massage, and water therapy she can do at home to help strengthen his muscles and keep him limber. Over time, we were able to back off on his medications as his pain disappeared, and bit by bit we increased the time between acupuncture treatments (once a week, to every other week, to every 3 weeks, etc).
Then, the day we have been waiting for comes. We walk into the terminal as we have for months now, and see Bailey’s mom smiling with anticipation. We haven’t even put our bags down before she says “You HAVE to see this!”, she opens the door to the travel bag, and out runs Bailey!! He takes off across the floor (albeit still a little wobbly) of the terminal and back again, standing up on his back legs to solicit pats and treats. Here is part of the video!
I almost cried! This fragile but feisty little dog who was once paralyzed is now not only pain free, but running again; thanks to acupuncture and his mom, who never gave up hope.