It’s been just over a year since our mini Dachshund, Sherlock, underwent emergency back surgery with a good prognosis–only for the absolute worst case scenario to occur. I wanted to share his story for anyone that might be facing a similar circumstance or for the other dog owners to know what could happen as this condition affects one in four dachshunds! It’s a long tale, but I wanted to try to convey the true emotions within it.
I got a dachshund when I was 18 and she was my BABY. I had just moved to San Diego and didn’t have any friends, only family. My dog was my love. She passed several years later (she disappeared one day and was likely attacked by a coyote) and I vowed that I would get another dachshund once I was done with school and had the time to devote to it. I told my husband (then boyfriend) that I NEEDED a dachshund once I graduated college and I texted him pictures of cute dachshund puppies every day until he relented. A picture of Sherlock was the last picture that I texted him when my husband said “find out if he’s still available” and I was overjoyed. We picked up our first baby in January of 2015 and he was even part of our wedding. My husband fell head over heels in love with Sherlock, who was his first dog, and Sherlock became his dog.
Sherlock had just turned four years old the week before. when one Monday morning, my husband woke me up before he left for work. He asked me to keep an eye on Sherlock. He said that Sherlock was acting weird but he couldn’t tell what was wrong, he didn’t want to go outside to go to the bathroom and didn’t sleep well.
(See the end for a list of common symptoms to look out for. If we had known, we could have gotten him into surgery a full 12 hours earlier…)
I got up and went to check on Sherlock who was sleeping on the couch. He did seem a bit off, but it was subtle. I proceeded to start working, since I work from home, and kept an eye on him. He didn’t get up from the couch all morning, which is not unusual for our lazy boy. Most mornings he didn’t get out of bed until noon.
I had a meeting with my boss, so Aurora and I left to go to the office. Sherlock got up to bark at us as we left, also very normal. It was when we got home that I knew something was seriously wrong.
Normally, Sherlock would greet us at the door when we returned, with a shrill, excited bark. When we got back from my meeting however, he was nowhere to be found. I started calling for him and found some poop in the hallway (very uncharacteristic of him). I panicked inside. He started to whine and slowly drag himself out of the bathroom. He had been lying on the bathroom rug since that was the only place he could reach. His back was arched, his legs were dragging and he was stepping on the top of his feet in an uncoordinated way. I swooped him up and immediately called my husband in tears. I told him, in between intense sobs, that something was terribly wrong with Sherlock’s back.
My first thought, in all honesty, was to take Sherlock to a dog Chiropractor and I did call one to try and get him in. The soonest appointment they had available was for the following week, which was not going to cut it. I called our vet and after explaining his symptoms, they told me to bring him over immediately.
The First of Many Visits to the Vet
The tech met me at the car to help me get him and Aurora inside. The vet examined Sherlock and then called me back. He was very concerned and explained that Sherlock likely had a bulging disc. The disc was interfering with his proprioception (the brain’s awareness of where his hind limbs are), BUT he still felt pain in his hind legs. Which was his saving grace because once that feeling is gone, surgery needs to be performed immediately. The vet’s recommendation was to put Sherlock on strict bed rest (aka kennel confinement) for 6 weeks and basically let the disc mellow out. Our vet was very nervous and warned me several times that if Sherlock got worse at all, we needed to rush him to the Pet ER for surgery in order to save his ability to walk. He even gave me a referral slip with Sherlock’s diagnosis to streamline treatment if we did need to go to the Pet ER.
I took him home and put Aurora down for her nap. I sat on the couch (researching and praying) with Sherlock until my husband got home. When he got home around 3PM, we put Sherlock on the ground and let him try to walk. He couldn’t, it was like his back legs were glued to the ground. I called the vet again and back we went. The vet confirmed that Sherlock was worse. He left it in our hands by telling us there was a chance that with kennel confinement, he could still improve, or we could take him to the ER. We took him to the ER.
Time to Go to the ER
When we got to the pet ER (around 4PM), they took Sherlock back immediately and we waited to be seen by a vet. We waited for over THREE HOURS in that waiting room with a one year old. They saw three other families before us, whose dogs were all walking. I was livid but they had our baby so I played nice.
When we finally saw a vet (around 7:30PM). She told us that considering how fast Sherlock declined, she recommended surgery with a good prognosis (over 90% recovery rate). He still felt pain even though he was currently paralyzed. They just needed to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord from the bulging disc. It was a GRIP of money. My husband and I were dumbfound at the cost. We asked about financing and they literally told us that they did not offer it. So we either needed to pay for the surgery in full or Sherlock would be paralyzed forever. Thankfully, my husband had the money: it was our bathroom renovation money. We decided that our first baby was more important than a bathroom, so he paid for the surgery in full. They paged the on-call surgeon and started their tests, including an MRI to determine which disc(s) were causing the issue.
We went home and waited for a call from the surgeon. He called around 9PM and said that he expected the best outcome for Sherlock. My husband waited up for the post-surgery call, which was around midnight. He woke me to relay that the surgeon was very happy with the surgery, but that there was minor bruising on the cord. He still expected the best, but just as a disclaimer: in less than 10% of cases, the bruising causes the spinal cord to die and then he would remain paralyzed. We were relieved that we got him there in time.
We went to see Sherlock as soon as we could. We would call first to notify them that we wanted to come by and would arrive only for them to say they were too busy, so we should come back later. Come to find out, the front desk was not communicating with the surgery team to give them the head’s up. Then on the second day, they stopped calling to give us updates on Sherlock. I called frequently to try to get ahold of SOMEONE to let me know how he was doing and kept being told that so and so would call at X time. Then no one would call. On the third day, after being told again that someone would call me back, my husband got in the phone and demanded to speak to the surgeon. The surgeon, who was about to go into surgery, said that Sherlock had not improved thus far and he refused to eat. My husband asked if we could bring Sherlock home at the VERY least and the surgeon complied.
Bringing Him Home
We picked Sherlock up and he had nearly 30 staples along his back from the surgery. It was horrific. The tech “taught” us how to express Sherlock’s bladder, though he had had a catheter so there wasn’t any urine to express. She also went through the list of medications that he needed. There were SIX, some once a day, some twice, some liquid, some pills. It was overwhelming. We had to keep him kenneled and in a cone to make sure he wouldn’t get to the wound. My husband slept on the couch with Sherlock in his kennel, the kennel facing him every night to keep Sherlock company. We got better at expressing Sherlock’s bladder, but it required both of us since Sherlock couldn’t stand very well. My husband came home for lunch every day to help with it. Sherlock was very agitated for the first two days because he had never been kenneled like this. He ate when we first brought him home but then he stopped eating and drinking.
The Medication Shuffle
Because Sherlock wouldn’t eat or drink anything, we force fed him baby formula. We didn’t know how else to get calories in him. We worked with our family vet pretty closely throughout this time. I spoke with the vet and techs at least once per day. A major side effect of Sherlock’s anti-inflammatory medicine was a lack of appetite. We decided to switch his anti-inflammatory medicine in order to get him to eat. Because they were different types of anti-inflammatory medicines, we had to wait three full days after stopping the first to let it clear from his system so as to not damage his liver.
Those three days were absolutely terrifying. Sherlock shook every minute and worsened in every way. He did eat a bit the first day of stopping the medicine, which was relieving, but then he stopped eating again and his front legs stopped working. He couldn’t even lift his head anymore. We continued to force feed him but it was difficult to even get 50 cc’s of formula down his throat. We took the cone and the top of the kennel off so that he wouldn’t feel caged. It wasn’t like he could get to the incision at this point. We just wanted to make him comfortable.
We started the new anti-inflammatory and there seemed to be a huge change in Sherlock. He started eating and stopped shaking. One day, I caught Aurora taking dog food from Roxy’s bowl to feed Sherlock, one kibble at a time. This was monumental! Sherlock hadn’t eaten plain ‘ole dog food since before the incident! It made me cry seeing him lying on his side, taking that food from her as she happily walked back and forth to get more.
I continued to speak with the family vet daily and he was still very concerned that Sherlock had not improved yet. We took Sherlock in to see him. Our vet feared the worst but kept his cool. He said it was possible that the spinal cord was swollen and that as the swelling goes down, things could get back to normal. We thought he was being conservative, because he generally is, and still expected the best. Just give it time. We has no idea that dogs start walking again immediately after this kind of surgery, we assumed that it took time. Therefore, we were ignorantly hopeful.
I did spend a lot of time reading journal articles about IVDD and recovery rates. I stumbled across myleomalacia and realized that Sherlock had a few symptoms. I would cry for hours at night, in fear that Sherlock was dying. Then I would put the thought away and tell myself that I was just over-worrying.
The Worst News Ever
On a Friday, two weeks after the surgery, we took Sherlock back to the awful ER to get the staples removed. We thought that things were looking up and were even joking around in the waiting room. When we saw the surgeon, his face was sad. He said that he thought that Sherlock had the worst case scenario. There was no denying that Sherlock had declined. He couldn’t lift his head, let alone move his front legs. The surgeon unofficially diagnosed Sherlock with progressive myleomalacia. The only was to truly diagnose it is with a CT scan. It is a 100% fatal disease where the spinal cord dies and continues to die off and move up the spinal column until it reaches the brain. However, the dog will die from asphyxiation long before then, as the nerves controlling the lungs stop working and he suffocates. He spoke with us at length about humane, in-home euthanasia.
We went home and sobbed. They say to keep it together in front of the ill so as not to depress them but I couldn’t keep it together for the life of me. I cried every minute, thinking about it. I couldn’t bear the idea of Sherlock being here one moment and then to just stop existing. My eyes were so swollen I could barely open them. We discussed cremation or burial and decided that Monday was our day.
My husband called our close friend and neighbor, who runs a rescue, to ask for in-home euthanasia recommendations. She flat out told us NO. She asked, “is he eating and drinking?” My husband said, “Yes?,” to which she replied “then he doesn’t want to die. Don’t give up on him.” So my husband and I agreed that euthanasia was off the table. We were going to keep trying. She recommended physical therapy and became Sherlock’s number one advocate, she helped us immensely in his care. She brought over Vitamin B to start for nerve growth, some calorie-dense supplements that we had no idea existed, and helped us tremendously when Sherlock got a bed sore that took almost 10 months to heal.
Not Giving Up
We scheduled physical therapy for Sherlock with the BEST in San Diego. Sherlock still couldn’t even lift his head, but he could now move his forelimbs, albeit it barely. The physical therapist told me that she would give it a try, but if he didn’t improve she wasn’t going to waste our time. I packed Sherlock and Aurora up, three days a week, to drive 40-minutes–one way–to see the physical therapist. She did some different therapies on him and also gave us some exercises to do with him. We started doing EMS therapy, three times a day, and nerve-stimulating supplements, twice a day.
Sherlock was SO weak. He could barely hold his head up for more than 10 seconds, but we kept at it. He did get stronger, even though it was very slowly. So slow, that we weren’t sure if he was improving. Sherlock’s front legs did improve, but the back was still lifeless. After two weeks, the physical therapist recommended discontinuing treatment. She also encouraged me to pursue a second opinion on the myleomalacia because he definitely was not dying. So I started looking into neurologists. We were hopeful that the myleomalacia was a misdiagnosis and maybe–just maybe–Sherlock had another bulging disc that could be removed and everything would get better.
Meeting the Neurologist
After meeting with the neurologist, she woke us up to the reality of Sherlock’s situation. She agreed with the myleomalacia diagnosis (though still technically unofficial because it would require a CT scan) and determined that it stopped progressing just behind his shoulder blades. There are no reflexes, sensation of feeling or pain beyond there. He is alive because breathing is controlled just a little higher up in the spinal column. Once the spinal cord death stopped, the swelling must have went down, which let the nerve impulses through to his front legs. This is why his front legs started working again. She also said that there is no documentation (that she knows of) in which myleomalacia stops moving up the spinal cord. It is 100% fatal.
It’s a miracle that Sherlock is even alive.
I cried. I had been holding onto so much hope for this to be temporary that her words finally pulled the rug out from under me. It was definitely needed, so I wouldn’t keep reaching for something that was not possible, but it was hard to hear.
She proceeded to tell us that OUR quality of life is also important. If we felt the need to euthanize Sherlock, we should not feel guilty about it. That made me cry even more. I hadn’t thought of it that way and in a small way, I did feel trapped to carry on and adapt to this new lifestyle without a choice. She had given us an out and I was thankful for that. Tending to him was time consuming. I didn’t know how we would do it with a toddler and wanting more children in our future. But, after thinking on it for awhile: how could I take the breath out of this baby of ours, who had all of his personality and attitude? Who is just dealing with the cards he was dealt just as much as we are. How could we, the people who were responsible for keeping him alive–his parents–how could we be the ones to choose to kill him? I couldn’t live with that. After everything that he had been through, everything that he survived, we couldn’t be the ones to give up on him. So we made our choice and didn’t feel trapped.
That was January 2019 and since then, there have still been ups and downs in his progress. We got him a wheelchair that he hated. It was near impossible to get him to use it so we gave up for awhile. Then our rescue friend got him a rear leg harness and we started taking him for walks. He gradually got stronger and was able to walk for longer distances. We tried the wheelchair (or cart, as we call it) every so often as a reintroduction and he still hated it. We even bought him front wheels for his wheelchair in the hopes of making it easier for him. Though his body build made the front wheels impossible due to how the harness for them was designed. We resigned to accept that he would probably never use the wheelchair and would forever have to be walked in his harness.
We gave up on the wheelchair for several months but kept up with the daily walks in the harness. On a whim, my husband put him in the wheelchair and he actually seemed excited to have some independence and ability to move on his own! It sparked that hope again.
We gradually increased the duration of his cart time and tried to make sure that he got some time in it each day. He did well in his wheelchair on some days and other days he refused to move.
Inspiration and a Turning Point
I saw a dachshund in a wheelchair on Instagram one day, who was walking in the sand (difficult terrain) and showed my husband. We asked the owners what type of wheelchair their dog had because she seemed SO much more agile. After going back and forth about it for a couple of months, we decided to splurge on a custom cart and it has been a game changer for Sherlock!
Before, he had to exert a lot of energy to move even the smallest distance. He bunny hopped most of the time because the cart was too heavy for him still. With his new wheelchair, he actually walks with a gait and is able to walk those short distances easily. He is improving daily in his agility, strength, and endurance. We are so happy that he is able to move independently and continues to slowly improve in his ability. As long as he keeps showing desire, we will support our little guy.
Signs to look for in IVDD
- Arched/hunched back
- Doesn’t want to jump up/down stairs
- Dragging the back legs
- Holding his head up high like he’s looking at the sky
- Yelping when you touch his back
If you notice any of these signs, please take your dog to the vet for examination. According to our vet, once paralysis presents itself you have 24-48 hours to get your dog into surgery in order to save his/her ability to work. We got Sherlock into surgery within 6 hours and there was no recovery, so obviously every situation is unique and Sherlock is within the very rare percentage (like 3%). PLEASE make sure that your dachshunds use a ramp or are not allowed on the furniture. Sherlock is particularly long for dachshunds so that was his unfortunate predisposition that primed him for this incident.