Idaho Adventures - Part II

I’m jolted awake by the sound of one of the dogs throwing up. 

My first thoughts are: glad we’re in the Idaho house where the floors are concrete and easy to clean; odd, I didn’t hear the usual lead-up associated with “normal” dog vomiting; and finally – I might as well get up and clean up the mess now. I look at my watch. It’s just before one a.m.

The house has an open floor plan. There’s sufficient ambient light from moon and stars through the uncovered windows to see without turning on a light. Heading toward the area between kitchen and entry, I see Meadow standing, head slightly lowered, in front of a small pool of yellow vomit. Her legs are splayed wide. “Oh Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick…” I murmur as I approach her. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor with a sickening thud.

“Meadow!” I cry out as I rush to her side. She starts trying to stand on her own and I gently place my hands on her back and side, just to let her know I’m there. She stumbles to one side and slams to the floor again as I watch horror-stricken and confused. What the hell’s going on?

As Meadow tries again to stand, I struggle to help her. She’s over 90 pounds, so I do my best by holding onto her collar and using my other hand to steady her body. She slams into my legs with all her weight as she falls once again to the hard concrete floor, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I quickly use my arms and body weight to prevent her from trying to stand up yet again. I work to keep her on the floor; she continues struggling to stand. She moves awkwardly, front legs stiff and wide, her head swaying, as she fights my downward pressure. “Sshhhh, Meadow; calm girl, calm. Stay down; down, Meadow. Stay down.” I keep repeating words to her, anything to stop her awful straining.

A minute or two later, she finally stops trying to stand, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are stiffly splayed in front of her, her chest barely on the floor, while one of her hind legs is pinned under her hips and the other one stiff and straight out to one side. Most of her weight rests on the one leg pinned underneath, and her elbows. She pants fast and heavy. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but she hasn’t let out any cries of pain. When I finally convince myself she’ll stay down and not try to stand again, I rush to turn on an overhead light. I return to her and in a crouch, keeping one hand with gentle pressure on her shoulders, I crab-walk around to face her.

Kneeling close in front of her big, fluffy head, I put my hands on her cheeks and lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting – fast – from side to side. Side to side, back and forth…. They won’t stop. It’s scary creepy to observe, as if every neuron in her brain is on fire, making her eyes dart and dance fast and furious, uncontrollably. “Oh Meadow, Meadow, Meadow,” I say. I keep repeating her name, almost crying now out of frustration. I’m completely stymied.

Stoke? I have no idea what’s happening, but I know it can’t be good. Suddenly I feel incredibly alone. I’m in a house where my cell phone doesn’t get reception. It’s just me and the three dogs. The nearest neighbor is beyond shouting range, and it’s now about 1:15 a.m. in the wee hours of June 1st, Tuesday morning. I can’t lift Meadow. Do I try to somehow get her into my car and drive…where? My former vet, when I lived here full time, is 45 minutes away and doesn’t have an ER clinic. The nearest ER vet is in Boise, a 2.5 hour drive away down twisting two lane highway. I don’t think I can get Meadow anywhere by myself, given how she keeps falling down. Nor do I want to leave her alone. I try to focus and think. I must keep my rising panic at bay.

“Meadow girl, look at me.” With stark fear I watch as her eyes continue twitching, doing their eerie dance. It doesn’t seem likely to stop. I sense she’s trying to focus on me, that she hears me, but she can’t make them stop. I can see she’s nearly as scared as I am. She continues to pant fast and hard. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here, not like this,” I tell her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. 

Looking around, I notice that my other two dogs have remained quiet, and calm, watching the scene unfold from a few feet away. I make a mental note: they don’t seem distressed, which strikes me as odd but somehow comforting, because surely if Meadow were dying, they’d be more upset. They don’t come over to check on Meadow. But they’re watching intently from their prone positions, both with chins on the floor between their front paws. 

As the minutes tick by, Meadow calms slightly. Her eyes keep darting, but she seems willing to stay where she is on the floor. I stay with her, stroking her thick, soft Malamute coat, her soft ears, hoping to calm both of us. But my mind races: what can I do? What’s happening to her? None of it makes sense. It’s now 1:15 am, at least fifteen minutes since I was first awakened. I have to do something. 

Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress, put on shoes, and get in my car. I drive a quarter mile to one of my closer neighbors who have dogs and llamas. It’s so, so dark. Our houses are in a rural mountain valley in central Idaho, each sitting on five to ten acres, where it’s safe and quiet and no one bothers with outdoor lights. No street lights illuminate the dirt road through our development. Driving up to their house, I leave my headlights on as I get out of my car so I can see my way. I approach their informal entry, a sliding glass door, marveling that I’d just been here two nights before, attending a wonderful dinner party of friends and neighbors. How different my mood was then! It seems like eons ago.
I see their two dogs standing on the inside of the slider. “Good,” I think, “they’ll bark and wake Chuck and Barbara up.” Kayla is a German Shepherd who usually barks when I approach. Not tonight! She and Lava, their Border collie, simply watch me approach with tails wagging. Even as I knock on the glass, no barking, just tail wagging! Damn. Feeling like a thief, I try the handle on the door, and…it opens! Violating every rule of etiquette I’ve observed my entire life, I step inside and call out, “Chuck? Barbara? It’s Rebecca. I need help.” Barbara responds immediately, and they both come downstairs.

I quickly explain what’s going on – that Meadow threw up, kept falling down, and her eyes were darting back and forth. Chuck immediately says, “Stroke?” and suggests aspirin. Barbara is dialing their vet, one of those country vets who has been around forever, whose clinic is 30 miles away in the next town. I’d never met him, but knew of him. Barbara leaves a quick message on his emergency line, none of us expecting that he’ll return the call. But as Chuck is getting ready to follow me back up to my house, the phone rings. Chuck speaks briefly, then puts me on the line. Quickly I give the vet the pertinent details: “She’s ten. She threw up, then fell down several times. Then I noticed her eyes were darting back and forth. They still were when I left her, fifteen minutes after it all started. She’s panting heavily, so her airway seems okay.” 

The vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure,” he says. “It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” This isn’t what I want to hear, although at least I feel that she won’t die tonight. “But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here,” I argue, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing. “Seizures can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.” I thanked him for calling back and helping me, a stranger, in the middle of the night. “Just call me tomorrow morning and let me know how she’s doing,” he says before we hang up.

Chuck gets in his car and follows me back to my house. By now it’s just after 1:30 am. When we enter the house, Meadow is where I left her, still panting heavily. I go to her face, and check her eyes; they’re still darting, although not quite as fast. “Chuck, look at her eyes,” I urge. “Jeez,” he says, “that’s really odd.” Somehow I know it’s important to get verification of this symptom.

“Do you want to move her to someplace more comfortable?” Chuck asks. I think about the options. “Let’s see if we can get her into my bedroom, onto the rug where she normally sleeps,” I reply. But as soon as we try to help Meadow up, she stiffens her front legs and fights us, falling against me, while her hind legs seem useless underneath her. I try placing a towel under her belly to help lift and steady her, but the distress on her face as we try to move her is too much for me. I ask Chuck to stop. We both feel helpless, and defeated. Chuck asks if there’s anything else he can do to help.

“How about you bring the futon from the spare bedroom out here into the hallway,” I say to Chuck, “so I can at least spend the night next to her out here.” Chuck agrees that’s a good idea and starts wrestling with the single-size futon. I know from experience it’s a bear to move. Chuck’s grunting and straining, half lifting, half dragging the thing down the hallway toward me and Meadow. I’m focused on Meadow. “Hey,” Chuck says without alarm, as if noting his shoe is untied, “I think Finn just bit me.” He keeps moving the futon. “Seriously? I can’t believe he’d do that,” I reply with shock. Just as I finish that statement and look behind Chuck struggling the last couple of feet with the futon, I see Finn, focused laser-like on Chuck’s ankles, ready to strike again! “Finn! Leave it!” I say, and Finn backs off. He’s never done anything like that to a human; dogs he’s playing with and chasing, yes, but… never a friend. Will the night’s surprises never end?

I guess we’re all a little stressed out at this point.

Chuck makes sure I’m okay and says to come get them again if I need anything else. I’m grateful for good neighbors. I listen to his car tires crunch on the gravel of my driveway as he drives away. I’m alone, again.

Meadow continues to pant; her front paws are wet with drool. I get a towel, mop up the floor, then lay it over her feet. I recline on the futon, close to her, and stroke her fur, talking to her. She’s slowly getting better, looking less distressed. Her eyes have finally stopped their darting, although they seem hugely dilated. I turn off the lights and we settle into the calming darkness. I think how thirsty Meadow must be after all the panting, and get a small bowl of water. Offering it to her, placing it just under her mouth, she refuses to move her head. Dipping my fingers in the water, I offer them for her to lick. She does. Repeatedly. A good sign, I think. I decide to put her harness on, just in case I do need to help her get up or walk. She lets me gently loop it over her front legs and snap the clasp on her shoulders, but I can tell she doesn’t enjoy the jostling.

As I stretch on the futon, keeping one hand on Meadow’s shoulder, Finn comes over to join me. He seems incredibly happy about this; I haven’t invited him onto my bed since I first adopted him nearly three years ago. Then, he’d try to prevent the girls from jumping on the bed with us. Too territorial of me, so no more Finn on the bed. But now, the bed is on the floor, I’m on the bed-on-the-floor…he decides the usual rules don’t apply. Needing whatever comfort I can get, I don’t argue the point with him. He snuggles against my legs.

Meadow’s breathing returns closer to normal. I encourage her to rest her head on the floor. She resists. I wait. I take a photo of Finn on the futon. I return to Meadow. She tries to move into a more comfortable position for her hind legs, but as soon as she does, she stiffens and struggles and looks distressed again. I help her by pulling the hind leg that’s trapped under her hips out from underneath them, yet even though her hind legs are now more comfortable, she insists on staying on her elbows, head up, panting. It’s closing in on 4:00 a.m., and we’re all tired. I try nudging Meadow’s shoulders over so she’ll rest on her side, maybe even sleep, but she fights me. “Okay, sweetie; you do what you want,” I whisper. Several minutes later, Meadow starts tying to stand. I jump up and grab hold of her harness, figuring she knows best what she wants and needs, but she loses her balance before getting very far. I ease her back down. Unfortunately, she now has her back against a corner where two walls meet, which can’t be comfortable. I push her a couple inches away from the wall.

Observing Meadow’s odd movements and her distress whenever I encourage her to put her head down and lay on her side – and searching my brain for what could possibly be going on – it suddenly occurs to me that maybe she’s experiencing vertigo. Four years earlier, I had a sudden onset of vertigo while visiting a friend in Boise. When I tried to get out of bed one morning, I fell like a sack of potatoes to the floor as the world spun around me. I crawled back into bed and held myself as still as possible until the spinning stopped. When I rolled over, the spinning started again. Eventually, ever so slowly, I tried to get to the bathroom; I slammed into a dresser, the wall, and finally crawled on the floor to the toilet to pee. I was nauseous, I couldn’t focus my eyes, my ears rang and the world bucked like a rodeo bronco; it was terrifying. I wondered if I was having a stroke, if I was going to die. My friend had already left for work. Any movement felt horrible, but I managed to reach the phone and call him. The ER doctor diagnosed vertigo. A dose of Dramamine II, and within 20 minutes I was normal, although I had to continue taking the drug for nearly a week. 

“Can dogs get vertigo?” I wonder. Connecting Meadow’s darting eyes and loss of balance with my own experience, I think vertigo is a better explanation than the vet’s diagnosis of seizure.

With little else to do as I monitor Meadow, I decide to send an email to the friend who had planned to spend time with me in Idaho, but had cancelled because of illness. Several times through this ordeal I’ve thought how much I wished he were here, to help. He’s a writer, currently researching and writing a book about dog health. I write the email, describing Meadow’s symptoms and ask that question: Can dogs get vertigo? It’s nearly dawn. I hit “send” knowing that I won’t receive an answer for hours, at best.
I return to the futon, to petting Meadow. Eventually she relaxes and rolls completely onto her side, carefully resting her head on the floor. We all fall asleep just before 5:00 a.m, as the dawn starts to lighten the sky.

I awake to a rustle. Opening my eyes, I see Meadow in a sitting position right in front of me. “Meadow! Good girl! How are you?” I ask excitedly. My watch reads 7:00 a.m. I’ve never been so happy to witness something so simple: Meadow sitting! She takes a moment to get her bearings. I jump off the futon and grab hold of her harness. I wait for her to decide when she’s ready, then as she starts shifting her weight forward over her front legs, I gently pull up on her harness until her hind legs are solid underneath her hips. She stands! She succeeds! “Yea, Meadow!” I say, like a crazy woman. But this is so exciting! She’s clearly not back to normal, but this is significant progress from just hours before. “Meadow, do you want to go outside?” I ask her, and she immediately swivels toward the door leading to the yard. Walking like a drunk, with me providing as much assistance as I can, she makes good time to the door and out into the yard. She drags me to the nearest spot of grass, then unsteadily squats and pees for several seconds. Finished, she stands straight again, walks another couple of steps – me still beside her, hand on the harness; I’m not letting go for the world because I still fear she’ll topple over like she did so many times last night – and poops. “Good poop, Meadow!” To hell with sounding like an idiot, my Meadow is back! She’s back.

Meadow steers me back toward the house. Once inside, she takes a long drink from the water bowl. I encourage her to go to the rug in my bedroom, her usual sleeping spot. She doesn’t argue, in fact is seems that’s what she had in mind all along. She quickly, if unsteadily, moves to lie down, puts her head between her paws, and closes her eyes, letting out a big sigh.

I follow her lead, and crawl into my own bed. We all steal another two hours of much-needed sleep.

I get up around 9:00 a.m. and we all eat breakfast. Meadow eagerly scarfs down her food. Yes! I fire up my laptop, sneaking onto a neighbor’s unsecured wireless internet (the phone company failed to connect mine, so I’d been pirating various neighbors’ access during my visit), and see a reply from my writer friend. “Yes, dogs can get vertigo. Google ‘vestibular disease in dogs’ and see if that’s what you’re seeing,” he writes. I do just that, and indeed, Meadow’s symptoms fit perfectly with what I read on various veterinarian web sites. In fact, the one symptom that distinguishes vestibular disease, or vertigo, from seizures is the rapid eye movement, called nystagmus. It can be side-to-side, as I’d observed in Meadow, or up and down. In any event, it’s not seen in seizures. Nor do seizures last for hours, as that kind but ultimately misinformed country vet I spoke to insisted. I spent several hours over the course of the night imagining a future filled with worry about the next seizure Meadow might have, or how brain damage might manifest itself; now I realize such fears were unnecessary.

I send another email to my friend, thanking him for his input, and bringing him up to date on Meadow’s recovery.

Later that morning, I drive down to Chuck and Barbara’s to give them an update. They’re happy to hear Meadow is so much better. I explain what I’ve researched and learned about vestibular disease. Chuck insists we call the vet and give him the good news. Once on the phone, I thank the vet again for his kindness in returning the middle-of-the-night call. I tell him that Meadow is doing fine now. Playing dumb, I ask again if the rapid eye movements I observed meant something other than seizure, thinking maybe he didn’t really hear me describe that symptom last night. “No, that can happen with seizures,” the vet insists, digging his professional heels in deeper. I mention how, years ago, I had vertigo, and the symptoms I observed in Meadow were incredibly similar. “Well,” he says, “dogs sometimes get vestibular disease, but it’s really just another form of seizure.” Giving up, and – as Dr Phil would say – not having a dog is this particular diagnostic fight, I let the issue drop, thanking him once again for his time. 

As the day progresses, Meadow’s improvement continues. She remains unsteady on her feet, but enjoys being out in the yard with me, Maia, and Finn, soaking up the sunshine while keeping an eye on the neighborhood goings-on. She likes having a wall to her back, so I suspect she's still a bit dizzy. She prefers staying relatively still. Her appetite is normal. We’re out of the woods.

The next day I take all three dogs for a walk in the woods. Meadow’s gait is still a bit like a drunk’s, occasionally tripping or stumbling, but mostly she’s okay. I keep her on leash, afraid she’ll try to chase something and hurt herself. Indeed, as we climb up a short hill to one of my favorite spots – an open hillside I named Sound of Music Hill for its wildflowers and ability to make me think of the opening scene of that movie – Finn startles an elk and gives chase. Meadow becomes alert and keenly interested, but doesn’t strain against the leash. Maia, my wise girl, has no interest at age 12 in pretending she’s still a young dog; let Finn do that silly stuff, she seems to say with her body language. I wonder if Meadow would try to give chase had the leash not been on.

[You'll note that I continue to have the girls wear their "Do Not Hunt Me" vests whenever we go into the forest, even when it's not hunting season. Too many Idahoans continue to fear and loathe wolves, killing them surreptitiously, although now - sadly - it's legal to hunt wolves in Idaho. I'm unwilling to take any chances.]