Life after spinal injury

By C.G. Worrell   |   Photography by Kelvin Andow

Nobody loved the dog park more than Todd Peterson. Frisky and fearless, this 11-pound, black Chiweenie ran circles around the lurpy Labs and Great Danes.

But all that changed last October.

The ticking clock

On a Friday evening Todd grew lethargic; by Saturday his rear end swayed. His owners, Nikki and Adam Peterson, rushed him to the emergency clinic.

“Everything happened so fast,” says Nikki. “Within 12 hours Todd was slithering around on his front legs with no sensation at all in the hind limbs.”

Suspecting a herniated disc, the on-call vet referred him to University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital where specialists ran a contrast CT scan and located a significant spinal cord compression between the last two thoracic vertebrae. Neurologists predicted less than a 5 percent chance of full recovery. Nikki and Adam faced an agonizing choice: authorize surgery or euthanize?

Tricky discs

Todd had suffered an acute episode of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD).

Between each bony segment of the spine is a shock-absorbing disc of cartilage with a jelly-like center. If a disc degenerates, or gets squeezed too hard, it can bulge or ooze into the spinal canal, resulting in swelling and spinal cord compression. The presentation can vary from mild to severe back pain to complete paralysis of the lower limbs.

While this condition affects many dog breeds, 25 percent of Dachshunds suffer from IVDD (and Todd was half Dachshund). Their disc cartilage ages faster than other breeds. Mild cases can be treated with prolonged cage rest, anti-inflammatory agents and muscle relaxants, but severe cases like Todd’s require surgery to relieve the compression.

“We wanted Todd to have a chance,” says Adam. “We’d do no less for him because he’s a dog.”

Neurosurgeons removed a small portion of backbone (hemilaminectomy) and successfully extracted the offending disc material. Only time would tell how much residual damage had been done to the cord.

Initial road to recovery

Todd’s family vet, Dr. Karen Lee of Quarry Hill Park Animal Hospital, has seen plenty of IVDD surgical patients over the years. “In my experience, progress is extremely variable, so I go in thinking they all have a shot at recovery, but first they have to heal.”

She remembers seeing Todd three days after surgery. “He was as happy-go-lucky as ever, even though he had no deep pain sensation in one leg, and only a mild response in the other. What concerned me more, however, was his enormous bladder.”

Urine retention is common after spinal cord injuries and rapidly leads to infection and renal failure if not addressed. Dr. Lee taught the Petersons how to express the bladder manually—a tricky maneuver even for skilled hands.

“The first month was tough,” admits Nikki. “Todd was used to climbing stairs and sleeping with his brother Charlie. Now he was confined to one level of the house and getting his bladder expressed several times per day. Adam slept with him at night, and while we worked during the day, our extended family kept him company. We all slowly adapted to the new norm.”

Off to rehab

Seven weeks post-surgery, Todd began working with Katie Nosbisch, a certified canine rehab practitioner at Meadow View Veterinary Clinic in Byron.

“Todd could only stand 20 seconds before falling,” recalls Nosbisch. “I started a regimen of cold laser treatments over the injured spine to stimulate healing and nerve function. I also trained Nikki and Adam in the art of massage, passive range-of-motion and balance exercises. Todd responded positively. Within 10 days we added the underwater treadmill.”

The buoyancy of the water allowed Todd to simulate walking. He liked these sessions so much that even when they pulled him from the treadmill, his little legs kept stepping. Within two weeks, he walked with a sling; at eight weeks he could climb a short step; by week 12 he could walk unassisted on three legs. And his bladder control returned!

“Todd loved being mobile again,” says Nosbisch. “He walked so fast on his front legs, it was hard for his wobbly hind end to keep up, but he gained strength over time.”

Eyes to the future

After months of physical rehabilitation, Todd has muscular arms and walks fairly well on three limbs; the right rear leg remains weak. He’s made great strides since October, but the pace of recovery has slowed.

“This has been a long journey,” says Nikki, “but we have no regrets. People who meet Todd often remark, ‘What a huge sacrifice you guys have made,’ but we don’t see it that way. Todd is capable and never lost his sweet personality. We’re thankful to have him. He’s not a burden; he’s a family member.”

C.G. Worrell is a freelance writer and part-time vet at Heritage Pet Hospital.