Friday, April 29, 2011

Starr, 1999-2011

Camille Tinling wrote this bio of her corgi Starr.

Starr was my first dog. I had walked dogs for neighbors growing up, and I'd cared for my husband's dogs when we married. But I had never had a dog of my own until I adopted Starr. She came to live with us on Jan. 1st, 2000 when she was just over a year old. Her birthday was October 9, 1999.

My plan was to get her involved in hospice work with me. I had been volunteering for hospice for six years and was tired of making friends only to have them die. Since our hospice had a dog-to-patient program, I thought having the spotlight on the dog rather than on me would enable me to continue to work with patients without getting burned out. I took Starr to obedience training and she learned the commands before I learned how to give them. The only command she had problems with was "heel". She was pretty sure that her proper place was out in front :-)

Starr passed the initial testing for the hospice program with flying colors. She knew all her commands and would let anyone touch her feet, her mouth, and her belly. Then came the in-facility test during which she and I were to go to a facility and meet with patients to see how she dealt with elevators, crutches, wheelchairs, and the like. Starr was charming the pants off everyone until a little boy came to visit one of the patients and began to jump up and down in excitement over something. Starr began to bark and spin, and there was no getting her attention back. The patient we had been visiting looked properly horrified, and that was the end of Starr's hospice career. Lest you think I gave up too easily, I later learned that Starr was offended by anyone with any sort of disability. She barked at people with casts, crutches, wheelchairs, and she barked at all kids, short people, and at other dogs. She did have her own opinions.

We did everything together. I was self-employed as a hairdresser so I had the freedom to walk her five times a day when she was young. She also came to work with me on weekends (I had a private studio). She loved going to the salon. All I had to do was ask her if she wanted to go to work and she would grab her leash, wagging her butt vigorously. She accompanied me on all the errands around town, too. I only frequented businesses that welcomed dogs so Starr had many friends in the community.

In the Spring of 2008, my husband and I and our two dogs and three cats took off in our RV to travel the United States and Canada. Starr was a bit anxious about the rig when we were moving, but she loved going visiting as soon as we got set up. She went up through Canada, traveled the Alaskan Highway, and then crossed the U.S. to spend the Fall in Maine. It was when we were hiking in Acadia that I first realized that the weakness I thought I had seen in Starr's rear left leg was not my imagination. She, of boundless energy and determination, was slipping on the rocks. I was afraid. I had known a Corgi with DM in our neighborhood in Sacramento. This looked very similar.

I didn't want to take her to a vet I knew nothing about, so I contacted our nephew in Connecticut (where we were heading soon) to get the name of his vet. We saw her at the end of October when Starr was just nine years old. She examined her carefully and said she felt fairly sure that the problem was neurological. She then suggested another veterinary clinic in town that had equipment to do x-rays and MRIs if need be. We went to that clinic that next day. It was big, very impersonal, and after an expensive "consultation" I was told they would have to do an MRI to know what was going on. I was annoyed that they'd charged me to tell me the same thing that the referring veterinarian had told me. Plus, by this time I had been in contact with my veterinarian back in Sacramento who had suggested a teaching hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.

When I contacted them, I was told that they could not see Starr until the end of November. As we were traveling in an RV, we could not linger in cold, potentially snowy areas that late in the season. RV parks close at the end of October (for the most part) where it snows. Thus, on the phone with this nice woman who was trying to help, I began to cry. Maybe it is fortunate that I am such a wimp because she immediately suggested a graduate of their school who had a clinic in Fairfax, Virginia, close to where we were at that time. We called and were able to get an appointment that week. In the meantime, I had been very busy researching DM and had begun following Dr. Clemmons protocols.

The vet in Virginia did a very thorough neurologic exam and thyroid test. She suggested that I might try Starr on a course of prednisone which, if it helped, would suggest that the problem was inflammation rather than DM. The prednisone didn't help, we were waiting for the results of the thyroid test and waiting for OFA (whom I had found on-line) to send us the materials for the cheek swab, and the weather was getting colder. We decided to have the MRI, despite the high cost. That test ruled out every other potential problem. Starr was diagnosed with DM at the end of October, 2008, at the age of nine years. Her lab results from OFA confirmed that she was Homozygous A/A.

That same vet referred us to a physical therapist who gave me a sheaf of exercises for Starr and suggested water therapy whenever and wherever I could get it. She also gave me the names of a few companies who make canine mobility carts. In retrospect, thanks to the internet and some kind, knowledgeable people, the road to diagnosis was pretty straightforward. At the time, because I was frantic for my girl and under tremendous time pressure, it seemed very difficult to get information. I contacted Eddie's Wheels for a cart, and through their site found Carol of Tammy and Teddy's who made many pair of wonderful booties for Starr. In our travels south, we clung to the coast as Starr seemed to be able to run on the wet sand better than on other surfaces.

The cart arrived when we were in Florida for the Winter. Starr was still doing very well as long as she could get enough speed going. She was continuing to chase her brother, Emmett, though she was having less success at keeping up with him. Since I had measured her for the cart myself, I worried that I had done so poorly when Starr refused to use the cart. I took many pictures and videos which I sent to Eddie's Wheels to see if there was something wrong with the fit of the cart. Finally I was told that the cart fit well but that I shouldn't expect too much as Corgis are known for being impossibly stubborn. That infuriated me, but I figured maybe Starr would use the cart when she needed it more. At this point, she was still dragging only on the left and kept trying to lift one leg out of the saddle. I continued to try her in the cart for the next year and a half or so, by which time she was ready for both stirrups. She moved in the cart as long as I offered incentives, but as soon as the goodies ran out she would assume the dromedary pose and fix me with a baleful stare. At one point I left her in the cart in the back yard and walked to another section of the yard to do something else. I thought perhaps if I weren't paying such close attention, she might do better. My girl then chewed through the strap across her chest!

Aside from the Battle of the Cart, we lived well and often joyously with DM. Starr lived 2 1/2 years from diagnosis. During that time we did a lot of traveling, and Starr quickly figured out that for a dog who loved attention from people, having DM could be a boon! She'd always enjoyed visiting with people. In fact, she had favorite houses in the neighborhood, outside of which she would stop our walk and bark until someone came out with love and treats :-) Now she would stop in front of any likely looking stranger and look as fetching and as disabled as possible. I once had to watch a clearly homeless person share her skinny sandwich with Starr -- I didn't want to hurt the woman's feelings when she so clearly wanted to do something nice.

Starr continued to enjoy a romp on the beach, even when she was dragging both rear legs. We bought her a carriage/stroller when she refused the cart, so she still got to go for a "walk" at least once a day with her big brother, Emmett. As she always enjoyed chasing him, we made a game of chasing him in the carriage. When we came abreast of him, Star would reach out and nip him lightly. She liked to go fast in the carriage and would work her front legs as though she thought she was making it go. Though it probably goes without saying (she was a Corgi, after all), she continued to enjoy eating! I often gave her treats and or her meal in a Kong to keep her busy and moving.

We continued our walks and whatever games she could still play. However, about a year before she died (1 1/2 years after diagnosis), she let us know that she no longer felt comfortable traveling, even to the grocery store. I think with no control of her rear, she felt too vulnerable in the car. I had put an enclosed bed with a bolster pillow in the car so she wouldn't roll, but we do live on the coast where the roads are winding. This situation was very limiting to her and to me. I did not feel I could leave her for any length of time more than a few hours. Thus, when my father (who lives alone) had a stroke, I helped him via the telephone and the internet. Thank heaven for modern means of communication!

Starr began to experience urinary incontinence a little over a year after diagnosis. My vet advised against diapers, saying they hold bacteria in and fresh air out, no matter how often you change them. For a few months we tried her on what I called "pee-pee pills", actually PPA to help with urinary control. But then Starr began to get urinary tract infections. We stopped the pills, and my vet showed me how to express Starr. As with the cart, Starr would have none of it. When I tried to express her bladder, she scooted away and then seemed unable or unwilling to urinate for some time. Thus began what I think of as the beginning of the end. We could not seem to shake those UTIs. She would go on a course of antibiotics, be pronounced clear, then a week or two later, she would have another.

The infections started a little shy of two years after diagnosis. We put up a baby gate so Starr and Emmett had access only to half the house, which I papered with disposable underpads pinned to rubber backed throw rugs (so Starr would have traction on the tile and wood floors). The washing machine was running almost constantly as Starr was losing control over her feces as well. After a few months, the vet and I decided to risk just keeping Starr on the antibiotics, hoping she wouldn't develop a resistant strain of bacteria. Starr could not lift her hind quarters at all when she eliminated, so now she would do a wiggle dance to shake the feces off. Then my job was to run to pick it up so she wouldn't accidently sit back in it. We gave up on full baths because I was constantly wiping her undercarriage with unscented baby wipes, then washing her tu-tu with an antibacterial solution we got from the vet and finally applying a little Desitin so she wouldn't get a rash. I still lured her to scoot in the house, but I had to carry her when we went outside. I tried to take her out at least every couple of hours. Though it seemed better for her to pee inside on the sterile underpads, she still seemed happier going outside.

Finally, she seemed to be struggling more to move at all, and to breathe. I could no longer interest her in playing ball or even poking it with her nose to make it squeak (one of her favorite activities). Though she was on the antibiotics, it smelled like she had another infection, her abdomen was bloated, and her bright eyes had a dull look I had never seen. In her dreams, she no longer ran like the wind (previously, the otherwise atrophied legs would run - not twitch). I went to see our vet and asked her if there was anything more we could or should do for Starr. She said she knew of nothing. My husband and I talked it over and decided that her quality of life was no longer what it should be. We took her on extra walks in her carriage, which she still seemed to enjoy, though she no longer "helped" by running her front legs. I spent extra time brushing her and sitting with her in her favorite chair. But she showed no signs that we had made a wrong decision. She did still enjoy eating. When we took her to our vet to have her euthanized, I told the vet that for the first time she could give Starr all the treats she wanted. Starr kept eating those until her eyes were too heavy to hold open.

We have four other animals, but our house is empty. I feel as though I have lost one of my body parts. I am bereft. She was the best companion I have ever known. When she'd been with us a few months, I overheard my husband telling a friend of ours that he was sure that if the house caught fire, I would save Star and leave him behind. I admitted the truth of that, explaining that Starr was my charge, he was not.

DM is an heinous disease in that there is no pain, just gradual debilitation. Thus, it is much harder to decide when it is time to let go. I am so grateful that there is now testing for the disease. I am so amazed and impressed by those of you who have more than one DM dog in your household! And I am so grateful for the support and sharing of this group of generous people.

1 comment:

  1. More often than not when I read this blog I finish the post with tears in my eyes. I am repeatedly so impressed by the love and determination shown by handler and dog.

    DM is an heinous disease in that there is no pain, just gradual debilitation. Thus, it is much harder to decide when it is time to let go.

    I think this is part of what people don't understand. I am so grateful for all of you willing to share your stories on Merlin's Friends blog.