Cute Animals

My Latest Foster Dog Is Something of a Mystery

There’s an old Chinese parable that goes something like this:

A farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “Oh, so sorry for the bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”

The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, perhaps.

The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg. Ack! Bad news! “Well,” says the farmer. “Who can say?”

A few days later, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared. So, good news!

The message of the story: “Good news, bad news, who can say?” We can never know ahead of time how things that may appear to be good or bad will turn out.

I’m thinking about this at the moment, because I am fostering a puppy with a “Good news, bad news, who can say?” sort of back story.

(Yes, I said I am going to stop fostering, for my old dog Otto’s sake. Soon. And I mean it. But not yet.)

How I came across my latest foster pup

As I’ve written about before, I’ve been volunteering at the emergency shelter being provided to evacuees of the North Complex Fire, one of many that erupted in California following a dry lightning storm on August 17. My local animal rescue group, the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, opened the shelter on September 8, when a windstorm pushed the North Complex fire 30 miles overnight and right into our backyard (10 miles from my literal backyard). And an army of volunteers have been caring for hundreds of dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, donkeys, chickens, ducks, you name it ever since.

I was evacuated for a few days, myself. When my husband and I (and our dogs, of course) were allowed to go home, the first thing I did was report for duty at the shelter to walk and feed dogs.

The emergency shelter is a temporary facility; dogs are kept in crates, so they HAVE to be walked multiple times a day. Not an easy task, when they are in close quarters, the air is full of smoke, there are dozens of strangers walking among them, their crates are packed close together next to those of other stressed dogs … It’s a very tough situation.

On my first day of volunteering, I was assigned to work in two rooms at the shelter – which is located in a series of rooms in the bowels of a former county hospital. (One of the rooms used to be the county morgue! The building stopped being a hospital sometime in the early 1970s.) One of the rooms I was overseeing was the “isolation” room, where puppies who were likely to be as-yet unvaccinated were being kept. Among them were three pups who appeared to be siblings, about 5 months old. (Hey! Good news! Their owner evacuated the fire zone and brought them to an appropriate place for care!)

All three of these puppies were terrified of people and of being held in the crates. One, who appeared to be the runt of the litter, would shyly wag his tail at people, but the other two didn’t want to make eye contact and avoided touch. And one, the only female, appeared to have something very wrong with her back end; she was limping or crippled or something. (Yikes, bad news, right?) Hard to tell in the crate. They were going to be especially challenging to care for.

A day later, I learned that the female pup had been placed under a 10-day quarantine. She had bitten one of the volunteers who was trying to get her out of her crate for a walk. Terrible news, right?

A mystery condition: what’s wrong with her back legs?

The county animal control officer overseeing the shelter contacted her owner, informing him of both the bite and quarantine, and also informing him that the pup needed to be transported to a veterinarian for medical care; what was going on with her rear legs? Citing the difficulties of his situation (I believe his home was burned in the fire), the owner relinquished her to the county. (Bad news? No, actually, good news! The county can pay for her to be seen by a veterinarian!)

“Coco,” as she is now known to be named, was transported to a local veterinarian. She was so incredibly scared, the examination was rather perfunctory. A soft-tissue injury was suspected, pain meds were prescribed to see if they help, and she was sent to the local permanent shelter to serve out the rest of her quarantine. Hard time! Bad news?

Well, no: Upon intake to the permanent shelter, she was vaccinated, like all “stray” dogs and dogs who are relinquished to the city or county by their owners. A week later, at the emergency shelter, it was reported that seven owned dogs who were being cared for at the emergency shelter had developed parvovirus. Oh my gosh, this is terrible news for those dogs – and I didn’t yet know whether it was Coco’s brothers who were infected, or some other dogs, because I hadn’t been to the shelter in the past week (busy getting the November issue of WDJ to the printer) – but being sent to the permanent shelter was great news for Coco, who got to miss being exposed to parvo, and who received the benefit of what may have even been her first vaccination.

I was keeping track of Coco’s incarceration, because I made it known that I would be happy to foster her when she was released from her quarantine; I knew she needed further medical care, to see what was going on with her back end, and was afraid she’d get lost in the shuffle. It just seemed to me that she had gotten a really poor hand of cards so far in life. Following her last day in quarantine, I started pushing the animal control officer in charge of her case for information about her vet care, and asked if I could foster her. Happily, the officer agreed that we couldn’t know for sure what was ailing the puppy unless she had x-rays taken, so he made an appointment to go back to the vet and I volunteered to transport her.

Coco on her way home from the shelter and the vet’s office.

After 10 days in a kennel at the shelter, she was both more habituated to loud, barky surroundings and seeing people. She still looked tense and scared, but the shelter vet tech was able to pick her up and carry her to my car without having to put a muzzle on her. At the vet’s office, of course, they did put a muzzle on her, so they could safely sedate her for x-rays.

The radiographs came back without offering a single clue as to the source of her problem: Spine fine, hips fine, pelvis fine, knees fine. Good news?

At this point, it must be said, nobody had been able to see Coco move about freely, to really study exactly what was wrong with her. As she moved around in a crate or kennel, always trying to avoid contact with humans, all you could tell was that she couldn’t really stand up or walk properly.

Woody to the rescue once again

So, I brought her home! In the car, I put a soft, padded harness on her – carefully, gently –and attached a long line to it. I own two fenced acres and two dogs who are experienced with foster puppies and strange dogs.

It took about an hour for my five-year-old “fun uncle” dog, Woody, to convince her that no one was going to try to murder her at our house. It took only another hour and many Stella and Chewy’s freeze dried chicken Meal Mixers (my dog training secret weapon) to convince her that I was safe, she didn’t want to go anywhere (I could take off the harness), and that Woody was her absolute crush. I mean, honestly. It’s a little embarrassing.

“I might survive if I can be near you, Woody!”

Over this past week, while I’ve been tied to my home office and computer, Coco has gone from terrified to terrific – at least as far as being comfortable with humans is concerned. (She likely was fine with her original human family, but the abrupt move under emergency conditions into a crate in a crowded facility just blew her little mind.)

And all this week, I’ve been taking pictures and video of Coco on the move. Good news, bad news, who knows? It’s a mystery.

She certainly can move; she can run and jump and go up and down stairs – but her rear end doesn’t move right – I mean, properly. She hops like a bunny behind; both hind legs move as one: hop, hop, hop. She does not – can not? – move her back legs independently of each other. If you hold a treat in front of her nose and try to get her to move forward just one leg at a time, she will step, step with her front feet, and streeeeettttchhh with her back feet, and then hop with both. If you hold one of those back legs (gently) to see if she will step with the other one, she just falls down.

I really, really wanted to see what Coco would do in water. Would the non-weight-bearing environment make her comfortable enough to move her legs in a normal movement pattern? Would her brain be “reset” by the need to swim into paddling her back legs independently? A friend and I took her to a local reservoir that has a shallow, soft bottom. I carried her out to a depth where her feet could just barely brush the ground, supporting her with one hand under her chest and feeling with the other hand under water to see what her hind legs would do.

They paddled independently.

This made me so happy. There is hope! She is happy, she is able, she is not in pain … She is not right, but there is hope for her.

They sleep like this daily.

I got an unofficial consult from a friend who is also a NVADG volunteer (except she’s a BEAST on the animal evacuation team, who goes into the fire zone rescuing animals) and an equine massage therapist when our county is not on fire. Tamara came to my house and met Coco, watching her hop and run and play with Woody. She also massaged and stretched the little dog, and she agrees: Coco’s condition is weird, but there’s hope. We both think Coco needs more swimming time, and time on an underwater treadmill. Acupuncture? Massage? Stretching? Physical therapy? We think she needs all of it.

So, sorry, Otto, we’ve got one more project puppy we need to help. Though, frankly, if I can find an underwater treadmill and a PT specialist to help me with Coco, I will sign up Otto for therapy, too! At 13 years old, he would benefit from this sort of care just as much as I think Coco will.

Wish us luck! And I’ll keep you posted.

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