Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 1

I will never forget the morning of December 16. My husband woke up around 5:00am and discovered that Dahlia had vomited. No big deal, probably something she ate. He ran down to get some stuff to clean it up and I went to check on Dahlia.

And that was when I discovered her condition.

She couldn’t stand. She tried to, but her back legs wouldn’t get underneath her and she kept falling over.

Her head was moving strangely, like she was following something darting around the room.

I remember calling to my husband, shouting that there was something seriously wrong with Dahlia. I kept trying to get her up and she finally just lay there, head bopping around in the half light of our bedroom, not moving while I panicked.

It was a stroke. I was absolutely sure of it. My husband carried her downstairs. She was dead weight in his arms. He doesn’t even remember the trip downstairs or out to the car. He barely remembers the drive to the emergency vet.

But I do. I remember feeling both panicked and numb at the same time (how is such a thing even possible?). I remember being sure that we were losing our best girl, that the end of the road had come far too early (at only about 9 1/2) and far too quickly (she had been running around the yard playing hard with Ben just the night before). When we pulled up to the vet, I was sure we were about to get terrible news. They whisked her away from us to check her out before we had much of a chance to even think and we were taken to one of the rooms to wait for her return and the vet with her.

I don’t know how long we waited. It wasn’t very long, that much I do remember. The techs brought Dahlia in to us and laid her on a blanket. We both sat on the ground with her. I wanted to cry.

The vet came in shortly thereafter.

And she was smiling. I remember thinking Why are you smiling? We’re losing our best girl…

But we weren’t. And that was what the vet was there to tell us. As it turned out, Dahlia had something called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease (or IVD for short). Sometimes called “Old Dog” vestibular disease, IVD is an inflammation of the nerve going between the inner ear and the brain and is something that tends to strike older dogs (and cats). In most cases, there is no known cause (hence “idiopathic”), though it can sometimes be caused by an inner ear infection.

The symptoms are pretty clear-cut in most cases and come on rapidly:

  • Rapid, uncontrollable eye movement (called “nystagmus”)
  • Dizziness and loss of balance
  • Staggering (some liken this to a “drunken sailor” walk)
  • Circling in one direction when attempting to walk
  • Rolling
  • Head tilt
  • Nausea/vomiting

It was that first one I hadn’t noticed, likely because it was dark in the room, but it explains the strange head movements I saw. Her eyes were trying to orient her body to a room that was spinning rapidly around her.

My dog had vertigo. I’ve suffered from vertigo on occasion due to my hearing issues, but only for short periods. It’s intense. And it’s scary. But I know what’s going on when it happens. Dahlia didn’t. Her world had been turned upside down and ours with it.

But the good news is that while these episodes come on quickly, they also resolve…well…fairly quickly. Generally, the nystagmus should disappear within 3-4 days and at that point, you should see marked (though not complete) improvement.

I am, of course, the type of person who immediately went on the internet and looked up more information on the disease and tried to find progress reports for people’s dogs who had gone through this same thing. One thing I found was that a lot of people had had this happen to their dogs. One thing I didn’t find were very many progress reports. I felt a little bit like I was in the dark staggering about with my dog and hoping I was doing the right thing by her.

So I thought I would document Dahlia’s progress here on Team Unruly. I will admit up front that it is a month out from her original diagnosis and she is much improved, so never fear there! My girl has a strong will!

I won’t lie. The first week that Dahlia struggled through this disease was one of the hardest weeks of my life. We brought Dahlia home rather than leaving her at the vet’s for supportive care (which was an option and never feel bad if you take them up on it). They gave her some sub-q fluids, a shot of Cirenia (for nausea), and recommended 25mg of Meclizine (an over the counter medicine used for motion sickness) a day for the first few days. The hope was that she would feel a little less nauseous and therefore eat something while all of this was going on.

That first morning when she came home she didn’t seem too bad. I remember being relieved that she wasn’t “as bad” as everyone else’s dogs I’d seen videos of. She walked into the backyard. She was wobbly, but she could walk. She even managed to find a place to do her business. And when we went inside, she ate some hamburger. I remember being so happy that this was such a mild case and expected her to be back to her old self in a short bit. But that’s not how the disease goes. And in Dahlia’s case, it worsened over the course of that first day.

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Day 4

By that evening, she was at her lowest point. She could barely walk and when she did, she only walked in circles. She developed a dramatic head tilt (in fact, the whole front of her body looked tilted oddly). She couldn’t get down the stairs, so we had to carry her down to go outside. This was an absolute nightmare for Dahlia. And it is for many dogs with IVD. When the world is spinning, they orient themselves by having their feet firmly on the ground. Removing that ground made her panic. But she wouldn’t walk with a towel underneath her belly. And she was terrified to go down the stairs (and we were terrified she’d hurt herself if we let her try). So we had to carry her. She rolled in our arms. We came close to dropping her a few times as she panicked. But we got her outside each time and she was, thankfully, able to find a place to pee on her own.

Two days later, her eyes had slowed down, though there was still some movement, and that seemed to steady her a bit. She still couldn’t take the stairs to the outside and it was still an ordeal to get her out, but she wanted to go further once outside. Instead of just finding a spot to pee out front, she would get about two houses down and around the corner before laying down in exhaustion. Then we’d walk her back and carry her back inside.

Because our house is two stories and our bedroom is upstairs, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room with her on the floor near me. I didn’t sleep well those first nights. I was constantly on alert, woke up at every little movement. Dahlia, thankfully slept through the night. Or at least, she did for the first two nights.

At this point, she ended up with diarrhea, likely from all the stress (maybe from the medication), which just added to the difficulty. This was really the lowest point for us. I was exhausted and stressed out, afraid to sleep for fear she’d have another accident or try to get out or that she was overly stressed. It almost seems like a blur a few weeks out from it, like it happened in another lifetime.

Day 4 was when we finally turned a corner. Her eyes stopped moving and while they still seemed a little glassy and she was definitely not “herself,” she was fighting to get back to normal. She pulled her “stubborn Dahlia” trick of standing there and refusing to move unless I went the way she wanted to go. We walked around the whole block. And that afternoon she insisted on going down the steps to the outside on her own. I held onto her collar and stayed with her in case she slipped. And she did stumble a little, but she made it down the steps without having to be carried down and when we returned, she made it back up the steps with only my hand on her collar. Which was simply massive progress at this point. It meant that there was less stress on her and one person could get her out.

We also put down rugs all over the house because she wanted to move around more, wanted to visit us in the dining room or beg for scraps in the kitchen. We found all our old rugs and covered our hardwood floors with them.

It seems like such a small thing, really. Getting down the stairs on her own. Walking around the house. Things she’s done every day of her life. But this was what we were down to: celebrating those little tiny moments.

Day 6

Day 6

We had more to celebrate in the coming days. On the fifth day, her eyes lost the glassy look. She was more alert and with that came better balance. She walked further, she was interested in meeting other dogs and people, she squatted and peed with one leg in the air (see: the tiny moments!). She was able to control her speed better. The first few days of this consisted of walks where she would lurch forward, lose her balance, stagger, stop, and then lurch forward again. Day 5 showed a dog who could control her walking speed again. It meant the walks were slow, but she was able to stay walking at a steady pace.

On the sixth day, she went for a mile-long walk. We’ve always allowed her to make choices for walks and that was her choice that morning. I was at work all day and when I arrived home, Dahlia was at the door to greet me. She had not had the energy or interest in getting up to go to the door since the whole thing began so having her there meant so much.

The seventh day began with a vet trip to take care of the diarrhea issue as it wasn’t clearing up on its own, despite trying a bland diet. She wasn’t able to get into the car, so we had to walk her to the car and lift her in, which continued to be very difficult for her. She panicked and rolled and it took a few times to get her in and out. But the vet visit itself was good. They pronounced her in excellent health. She’d lost weight (thanks Ben!) and the vet said except for the head tilte and her being a little wobbly, there was nothing wrong with her. We got antibiotics and were on our way.

We noticed some more small changes around the house that day. She was willing to walk into the kitchen, which is a tile floor. She contemplated going down the steps into David’s study but for some reason they made her nervous, so she stood at the top and watched from there instead. And she was less hesitant getting around the house. Her head tilt was still rather pronounced, but we noticed that while it was quite dramatic inside still, outside her head tilt was getting better. This is something many have noticed in the community that I belong to for dogs with this particular disease. Some will struggle more inside, some more outside, but it’s not unusual to find that your dog seems much better in one place, but still struggles in a different place.

So at the end of that first week, things were better, but certainly nowhere near normal. I was still sleeping downstairs, still on the couch because she didn’t feel comfortable in the more enclosed guest room, and she still had a long way to go. But Dahlia has a strong will and she was working her way back to normal.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming up soon!

The Emotional Impact of the Second Dog

It wasn’t long after we got Dahlia that I started contemplating a second dog, knowing that the idea was far off in the future, a sort of pipe dream. We lived in an apartment, the lower floor of a duplex in the city. We had no yard to speak of and more importantly, we had a landlord who agreed to one dog and one dog only. It didn’t stop me from looking and look I did. Almost constantly. I kept bookmarks of dogs I really liked on Petfinder and rejoiced when they were adopted. I perused rescue sites and decided where I wanted to get a dog from long before I even thought we’d be able to do it.

I always said…when we get a house. If we get a house. And then in the summer of 2014, my husband’s parents surprised us. They wanted us to get a house. And they were going to give us some of our inheritance early to help with the down payment. Why wait until we die? We want you to be comfortable now. We want to know you’re in your own place now.

So we bought a house. And moved in April 2015. So we had the house. We had the yard, fenced in even. We had the rescue we wanted to get a dog from.

And I realized, as time went by, that I wasn’t sure I was ready for such a thing. I looked at Dahlia and wondered if it was fair to her. She’s 9. She’s been an only dog for 7 years. She liked other dogs, but how would she be with one actually living with her?

So on the outside I said “Once we get settled we’ll get a dog” while coming up with every single reason why we shouldn’t get one. We just moved in. The house wasn’t set up. The yard needed to be fixed. We still needed to unpack things. Dahlia was still stressed out from moving. What about money?

I knew that if we didn’t adopt a dog this year, it probably would be unfair to Dahlia. At 10, she may be less interested in play and therefore less likely to happily allow another dog into her domain. But still I waited, ready to say “We can’t do this to our girl” and pretend like this was the saddest thing ever when inside I was secretly happy that we wouldn’t be able to make it work.

And then one day I came across this picture.

Ben1And my heart just leapt. I had had the application for the rescue filled out for ages and then suddenly there he was. The dog I wanted. The dog I had been waiting for. I sent off the application.

And then I sat down on the floor with my perfect amazing dog and held her as I cried. What have I done? Have I ruined your life? You’ve been the light of our life and now you’re going to be one of two?

I wanted to take it back. I wanted to go to my e-mail and hit “unsend” (I was just a wee bit late for that though). I wanted to call the rescue and say “Nevermind I am not ready please give it back I was only kidding.” I couldn’t do this to Dahlia. I was an absolute wreck after I submitted the application (it probably did not help that the very day I sent in the application, my father-in-law passed away after a long decline).

From there, everything happened so fast. The rescue called me to talk about my application, the owner of the rescue called me to talk about specific dogs, and we were at the rescue four days later to meet dogs. We went home with Ben, the dog I knew was supposed to be ours.

And suddenly there was this other dog in our house. And I absolutely had no idea what to do with him. He was stressed out that first day. He found all our toys. He ran around squeaking them all evening. For hours. He got into things. We had to rescue books and a box that had been delivered that day. He stole the butter right off the counter (he wouldn’t be our dog if he didn’t steal butter!) and we had to keep him away from counters and table (Oh God did he countersurf!). He wanted to explore everything and preferably through his mouth. He drank and drank and drank, He would not stop moving. It was about 10:00pm that night when he finally dropped into an exhausted heap.

Finally asleep!

Finally asleep!

He was up the next morning at 5:00am to start it all over again.

I remember thinking that morning What have I done?

I won’t lie. Those first couple months were really stressful. Ben did not know how to settle down. And as he got more and more tired, he got more and more frantic and got into more and more things. He chewed up any books that he could find, grabbed anything that might be a toy. We were used to having a dog who never chewed on anything and so found ourselves having to be a lot more careful with our things than usual, especially as what Ben loved to chew on were paper products and my husband owns a thousand books (at least). We were up at 5:00am with Ben and collapsed in bed far too late at night. We were exhausted and sometimes unsure of ourselves. I worried that we couldn’t meet his needs, that he was too much dog for our household.

I will admit that there were times I was relieved I went to work to escape. There were times I was relieved to go spend the day with my Mom to escape from it all. His stress affected me. Very badly. The What have I done feelings did not stop that first morning. They continued for a good month or so. I was absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed and often feared we’d made a huge mistake.

In other words, I was where a lot of people are when they say “No this isn’t working, the dog needs to go back.”

There was nothing bad about Ben. Nothing at all. He was a smart, active little guy, but he had been kicked around a lot in a short period of time (two shelters, two foster homes, and one failed adoption before he came to us – we were the 8th place he had landed since in about 3-4 months). And he was stressed out. Really stressed out.

So I took a deep breath. And I talked to people about Ben. I asked what to do, how to help him, how to help us.

When he couldn’t settle down, I put him on leash and kept him at my side. I took away all his options for play (no running around, no toys, no other dog to play with) and within about two minutes, his mind would finally stop and he would just drop and fall asleep. He was like the toddler who is out at a restaurant way too late, exhausted, and so spends the whole evening screaming. That toddler doesn’t need more entertainment. That toddler needs to sleep. And that was 100% Ben’s issue. He simply didn’t know how to settle on his own. The leash did that and once he was asleep, I could take the leash off and he’d stay there, sound asleep at my side.

We spent a lot of time petting him, softly, slowly, talking to him in a soothing voice. We took him for long walks. We threw a lot of balls. We did a lot of fun impulse control training with him. And then later in the evening, it was time to settle and the leash came out.

A month to the day after we got him, Ben got up on the couch for the first time, rested his head on the armrest and soon was sleeping soundly.

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Ben’s new favorite place

I still remember it so clearly. It was like he breathed a sigh of relief, like “I am home now.” It was the first time he voluntarily relaxed since coming to our house. And it marked the end of my having to use a leash to settle him down. He started to get up on the couch and settle on his own. Now, that’s not to say he was a couch potato! In order for him to settle, I’d have to send the dogs in the backyard and let Dahlia bark at him until he got running in huge circles faster and faster and faster until he finally just grabbed a toy and laid down. He needed that last push to get out all that energy. Then he could come in and relax.

But he relaxed. And it didn’t matter that I had to get him to run like crazy. He could relax.

You cannot imagine how relieved I was. This dog, so stressed out and so crazy when we brought him home, was starting to learn to live with us, was starting to figure things out.

That’s not to say it was perfect. Not by any means. After a couple months, we started to trust him out of his crate during the day. We used my husband’s study as a place to put him and keep him separate from Dahlia (and the rest of the house). If we weren’t careful and left something out (like a book!), he would chew it. But not every time. Sometimes he was amazing in the study. He ate his bully stick, he ate his frozen kong, and he didn’t get into anything. But there were those rare occasions, maybe once every couple weeks, where he got into something. We debated continuing to crate him. We thought about baby gating him into the kitchen while we were out. But we kept up with the routine of putting him into the study when we were out.

And one day, some 4-5 months after Ben came to live with us, we realized he had been fine in the study for a long time. The morning we had to rush Dahlia to the e-vet (that’s a tale for another post!), we had to put him in the study without double-checking to make sure the books were put away and without taking Ben for a long walk first. We came back almost 2 hours later and found he hadn’t done anything wrong. And there had been books that had fallen on the floor the day before and had not been picked up. They were untouched too. He was perfect.

Now, 6 months later, Ben can relax without that gigantic push of energy that he needed. Around 6:30-7pm every night, he gets up on the couch or his favorite chair and falls asleep. He no longer sleeps in a crate and instead curls up on the bed with us. He is no longer crated during the day and instead gets to relax in my husband’s study with a Kong and some squeaky toys (though he does think the draft stoppers are great big toys and drags them out into the middle of the room, completely negating their purpose). He has a lot of fun in the yard, is fantastic on walks, and settles wonderfully. He has learned to beg and share our handouts with Dahlia.

As for Dahlia? What does she think of this interloper? Well…pictures ought to tell you the complete story.

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I’d say that Dahlia adapted rather well.

So if you’re in this situation. If you’re staring at your new dog and wondering What have I done? Remember, that often it does get better. Your dog will learn that they are home, that they are safe, and as they learn that, the stress will disappear and you’ll have the dog you always wanted. I no longer look at Ben and wonder What have I done? I look at Ben and think I am so thankful that he has come into our lives. He is part of our family and I cannot imagine our lives without him now.

Choosing a Second (or Third! or… More!) Dog

Making the decision to expand into a multi-dog household is no small step. In today’s post, we’ll talk about a few factors that might be helpful to consider in choosing a second dog for your home, particularly if you’ve never lived with multiple dogs before. (Those of you who are old pros at integrating multiple dogs into your home, this one ain’t for you. We’re talking to the first-timers here.)

1. Consider Your Dog

The first thing to consider is how your dog normally behaves around other dogs. Does she go out of her mind with giddy excitement and want to playplayplaaaayy until the other dog’s climbing the walls to escape? Does she get snarly about other dogs showing an interest in favorite toys or chew bones? Does she even have any experience with other dogs showing up inside her home?

If the answer to that last question is “no,” it might be prudent to hold off on adopting a new dog until you can arrange a few visits from friendly dogs to see how your resident pet does with visitors on her home turf. It’s easiest to get started by bringing over dogs that she already knows and likes. Even if your dogs already know each other, it’s often a good idea to re-introduce them as if they were strangers, since the added factor of one dog being on her home turf can add a new level of stress. (TU’s “Let’s Be Friends!” has plenty of great tips on how to introduce dogs in the safest and least pressured way.)

On the other hand, if your dog does have a lot of experience playing canine social butterfly, then he probably has some definite preferences about dogs that he likes better than others, and how he interacts with different types of dogs. It’s useful to think about which of those combinations you’d actually want to live with: the nonstop high-energy playmate might be fun for an hour at the dog park, but do you really want that in your living room the other 23 hours a day?

2. Get Some Practice, and Be Prepared for Two Weeks of Chaos

Do you have any prior experience wrangling two dogs at once? If not, it might be a good idea to borrow a friend’s dog for a couple of days. Ask if you can dogsit (in my experience, friends and neighbors are often happy to have the offer — vacation boarding and dogsitters are expensive!). Or, if you really feel like doing a good deed, consider fostering for a rescue once or twice. You’ll get some experience running a multi-dog household and help out a needy pet at the same time, and since it’s a temporary commitment by design, there’s no need to worry about whether you’ve made a permanent commitment to something you can’t handle.

Many people, having never done it before, are surprised by how intensive the transitional period can be with a new dog. As a rescue volunteer, I’ve seen LOTS of second-dog adoptions fail within the first 48 hours because the new owners just aren’t prepared for how much supervision and management a newly introduced pet needs.

It’s intense, but it’s also temporary. Quite often I suspect that these homes would have been perfectly happy with a second dog if they’d been prepared for that initial bumpy ride and aware that things would likely settle down after a few weeks. But, since they don’t know that, they give up when the situation looks overwhelming. The new dog never really gets a chance to settle in, and the owners feel like failures, and it’s just not a great situation all around. A little practice, and a more realistic idea of what to expect (that bumpy transitional period does calm down!), would go a long way toward avoiding these outcomes. So, if you can, borrow a dog for a sleepover, or foster a homeless dog for a couple of weeks, before committing to adopting a second dog yourself. The experience will definitely come in handy.

3. The Default “Rules”

I’m putting this last because, in matchmaking as so much else, the specific always trumps the general. If you know that your own dog gets along best with bigger, older dogs of the same sex, then disregard the general rules of thumb posted below, because what works for your dog is always more important than what works for some nonexistent hypothetical dog. And if you know that you would lose your mind dealing with giant poofs of Sheltie hair making tumbleweeds across your floor, then it doesn’t matter if your dog likes long-haired fluffy dogs best. The first rule is that you have to make the choice you can live with.

But if you’re not sure what that is, or there’s a wide range of acceptable choices and you want to narrow them down, these are the default recommendations that work for most dogs in most situations with the greatest chance of success:

  • the new dog should be of the opposite gender (especially with female-female pairs in breeds known to be prone to same-sex aggression, and where one or both of the dogs is still a puppy, since dogs that get along when one of them is a baby will not always get along when they’re both grown, regardless of how they were raised);
  • the new dog should be somewhat smaller than the resident dog (25% or so is a good rule of thumb, although that may not be possible if we’re talking about Chihuahuas!);
  • the new dog should be somewhat younger than the resident dog;
  • the new dog should, ideally, have been fostered with dogs who are roughly similar to the resident dog in personality, size, and — if possible — age and gender;
  • the new dog should, if possible, have been evaluated for resource guarding against other dogs in a home environment.

None of those “rules” is set in stone, of course. All of them can and should be adapted to your individual situation. But those are the most common guidelines that are most broadly appropriate for most homes.

Okay! So that is an introductory primer on preparing for, and picking, a second dog. Now, how do you actually live with a multi-dog household? That’s a topic too big for a TU post (yes, even one of my multi-thousand-word monstrosities), but never fear, Patricia McConnell is here! Her booklet “Feeling Outnumbered?” is a wonderful resource on the subject, and like all of her booklets, is concisely written and reasonably priced. I strongly recommend that anyone considering a second dog get it and read it. It’s a tremendous help and well worth the time.