September 23, 2010
Epilepsy requires adjustments by man and dog alike.
The author and Tanner, ever thankful for their time together.
It was a sight'¦a haunting experience'¦and I'll never forget it.
After a long but good winter Saturday of working and guiding at the game farm, I was kicking back in my fireside recliner, comfortable and semi-conscious in that good-tired kind of way. Tanner, my then six-and-a-half-year-old Lab, my buddy and coworker, was stretched out on the floor at my feet. All was right with my world.
Noticing the yellow dog stir, I watched as he uncharacteristically struggled to his feet. It all happened as if in slow motion. First his hindquarters lost control and his butt thumped the hardwood. Then his neck stretched taught, his nose pointed at the ceiling, his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed onto his side, to begin thrashing wildly in what I recognized as--though I'd never witnessed one before--a full blown, mouth-frothing seizure.
With no clue as to what to do, I fell to his side and actually tried to hold him down, talking to him in a series of random mumblings, all in an effort to calm the guy. But he was literally hearing nothing of it. Mentally, he was outta there. Physically, his muscular body pounded the floor with a fury and strength unimaginable.
Then suddenly, after several agonizingly long minutes, that nasty, mysterious current coursing through the dog's body shut off as if a switch had been thrown. Tanner's eyes opened and after he caught his breath, he wobbled to his feet, gave me a "What hit me? What have I done wrong?"look, and began stumbling, as if in a drunken state, around the house.
It was enough to tear my heart out.
For the better part of an hour he resembled anything but himself. It was probably a good three hours before he was back to near normal, though still a bit limpy, no doubt muscle-sore from the exertion of the seizure.
I knew full well what had just happened. But I was near panic-struck, questioning "Why?"My first call was to my dog-training buddy Mike Lambrecht. He didn't have an answer. But being far more experienced than I, he at least presented some possibilities: low blood sugar, anemia, a bacterial infection, a brain tumor, or even worse (it sounded to me for some strange reason), epilepsy.
Then too, it could have been an injury. Tanner had taken a head-over-heels tumble onto a gravel road out of a pickup moving 30 mph, (due, I'll admit, to my carelessness), the past October.
Or, I wondered, was it a result of the inoculations he'd gotten only two days earlier, a potent cocktail that included a combo shot for distemper, Parainfluenza, heptospirosis, Adenovirus, and Parvo, along with a Lyme's shot? (I've been particularly suspicious of the shots since; when, one year later, my son took his Lab to the same vet clinic, they wouldn't administer the full batch of shots at once but spread them out over two visits. Even more curious, the vet stressed my son should be particularly attentive to any reactions, almost as if to say, "We've had problems with these inoculations in the past,"without coming right out and actually saying it.)
My second call was to my friend and Tanner's breeder, Jim Powers. Jim and his wife Judy are longtime field trialers and have experienced several lifetimes-worth of Labs. It's fair to say they've seen it all. "Sounds like you're going to need to get him on phenobarb [Phenobarbital],"Jim offered in a calm, matter-of-fact way that was at once strangely disappointing, yet reassuring. In retrospect I wish I'd heeded his advice, pursuing this long-established, long-standard course of action, more urgently.
Tanner, as a "seizure dog," with two blues at a time. How sweet is that?!
Come Monday, and with Tanner acting every bit his old self, we were off to the vet where blood tests were the first order of business. When they came back negative in a few days, my young vet told me the one thing I really didn't want to hear. "Though it's far more common in dogs three and a half years and younger, we have to assume Tanner's become a seizure dog."The words cut like a knife. That the young doc added, "The good news is we can treat canine epilepsy pretty effectively,"was, at the time, of little comfort.
I just wasn't ready to accept the diagnosis. I was in denial. "No way!"I thought, "Couldn't be. Not my big time, well-accomplished gun dog, a veteran of six seasons of traveling with me up and down the flyways. (From the rice fields of Louisiana to the prairies of Canada, with stops everywhere in between, he was my constant and loyal companion.) Not my every-winter-day, game farm guide dog. Not my train-all-off season, master and HRC hunt-testing, often sought out for his style and reputation, stud dog."
I'll admit there was a sense of stigma to it all. It shouldn't have been a factor. But I'd become (and remain) awful proud of Tanner. Labeling him a seizure dog was like letting the air out of my ego's balloon.
Still, I knew we had a problem. And it had to be dealt with. So I had little choice but to go along with the vet's suggestion that we put Tanner on a regimen of potassium bromide, the relatively newly-applied anti-convulsive I'm told today's vet schools are teaching to be the first option in dealing with canine epilepsy. But it didn't work. After five months Tanner was still having seizures--increasingly violent and lengthy ones at that--every 25 to 28 days.
I didn't like the road we were on, or where it was headed. After explaining my feelings to him, my vet agreed to add phenobarbital to Tanner's treatment. But the initial, obviously way-too-heavy dosage sent the dog into a dysfunctional never-never land.
The days were looking darker. With hunting season fast approaching I finally sought a second opinion. After weaning Tanner back off the phenobarb and getting him alert and operational once again, the new plan called for heavier dosages of potassium bromide. And that seemed to be working. But just before we were to head off to Alberta for the season's first waterfowl hunt, Tanner endured yet another, though somewhat milder, episode. It was the type, the vet told me, "You just might have to learn to live with."
"To hunt him or not?"was the question. One look in Tanner's ever-hopefu
l eyes and the answer was obvious. Still scared as hell about where we were going with our problem, each hunt, every "just-one-more"adventure, would surely be that much more special. So we set out on a pretty ambitious schedule, though admittedly with a cloud of caution hanging over our heads. It was caution we'd throw to the wind as the situation demanded.
He was one of two Labs sharing the duty on the season's first outing and he worked fine. I had no feel for the impact exertion would have on the seizures. But when the other dog came up lame before the afternoon duck shoot, the workload fell squarely on Tanner's amply strong shoulders.
We were hunting a stock pond, a half-acre willow-fringed dugout nestled between a block of spruce-studded bush and a sprawling pea field in the pothole-free Peace Country. The gunning proved a last light affair as mallards swarmed over our setup, looking for a drink before feasting on the waste peas. Three of us shot for barely 30 minutes to fill our respective eight-bird bags.
We had dead ducks on the water, birds crashing into the thickly-brushed bush edge, and woundies sailing a hundred yards or more out into the field. Tanner operated on cruise control, showing the experience of his years, often retrieving two marked birds at a time. He only checked in when I needed to give him a line on a blind. It was a ton of work, but he was more than up to it. And that was a beautiful thing.
It wasn't until several days after we'd returned home, after the mood, excitement, and the adrenaline of the hunt had worn off, that he seized again. And that would remain the pattern throughout the season. He'd be fine on each and every three- to five-day hunt. But afterwards, after coming down from the high, and maybe a week or two later, there'd be a seizure, one he'd just as likely have had, had he not hunted at all. All the potassium bromide in the world wasn't working.
Still not satisfied with the epileptic diagnosis, come December I finally decided to take Tanner in for an MRI and a spinal tap at the Animal Emergency Center in Milwaukee. These pricey diagnostics ruled out all physiological explanations for the seizures once and for all, leaving epilepsy the only logical explanation. But we couldn't just go on dealing with the potentially damaging, ever-more-ravaging episodes. So with the help of the good doctor Lichtenberger at the Center we souped up the dosage of potassium bromide and added phenobarbital once again.
The combination effectively eliminated the seizures. That was good. But I was left with a bumbling, stumbling, drooly, droopy-eyed dog that was pretty well stoned. Tanner wasn't even a shadow of his former self. And that was bad, real bad.
I tolerated the situation for three months, agonizing over Tanner's future, or even if there was to be one. He couldn't go on like he was. In my mind, he wouldn't want to. So, trying to be his advocate, I began to cut back on the meds. My plan was to get him to a level where he was functional once again. If the seizures returned and his quality of life didn't, I'd put him down.
By April he was the better part of his old self and still seizure free. He wasn't as razor sharp as he'd once been, to be sure, a function no doubt of the medicines and the trauma of the seizures. But he appeared ready to go to work, to hunt.
So we hit the road for a rendezvous with my good Manitoban friend, Randy Lewis, and if we were lucky, some late spring snow geese. For four days we struck white gold. Randy, a couple of his buddies and I saved the tundra to the tune of several hundred snows and blues, a good half of which Tanner happily retrieved, often two at a time. (Thanks to his "big giant head"as my wife Mary calls it, and his naturally competitive, even greedy nature, he's learned to body-hold and carry two snows at a time.) Long marks, his forte, were no problem. And neither were the blinds on which he handled just fine. He was back, at least far enough to make us both happy.
This past fall, Tanner and I were on the hunt for the better part of four months steady. We put over 6000 miles on the pickup, chasing throughout prairie Canada and the Dakotas, gunning and retrieving birds with good friends, old and new. While we made some good memories, it's scary to think how close we came to not doing so.
Everything went so well last fall that I got a little cocky. Still selfishly holding out hope that epilepsy wasn't the answer, that somehow, mysteriously, the seizure problem had passed, I began to cut back on his meds (specifically the potassium bromide, being convinced that it was the phenobarb, if anything, that was working) even further. Bad idea. After being seizure-free for 13 months, he had one. So we're back at those minimum med levels (a combination of phenobarb and potassium bromide) with which he regained function last spring.
Through the trauma of it all, Tanner is a changed dog. He's not the arguably abnormal, all-absorbed working dog he once was. Today Tanner's the happy-just-to-be-a-dog dog he never was. And that, after all, is a good thing.
Oh, he still loves to hunt, and he does it with his own signature flair. But where living to hunt was once his whole life; he now seems to love life as a whole, a lot more.
Could it be there's a lesson in that for all of us?
All I know for sure is it's one I'm proud to have learned from my "seizure dog."
Pushing nine years as I write this, Tanner is beginning to show his natural age. The aging process is no doubt being expedited by the seizures, which (crossing my fingers) remain under control. For the most part he's still the same joy to be with and to hunt with that he's always been. And for that, we're oh so thankful!
Throughout the ordeal we've learned that in a dog's life, just as ours, there are bumps in the road. We don't know when we'll encounter them, or why. But if we're to carry on, they have to be negotiated.
It's still with nagging trepidation that we face each day. But we take those days, Tanner and I, and make the most of them.