In my role with SPCA International, I have had the rewarding job of helping many animals with special needs. I never imagined that my own rescue dog, Lilah would end up diagnosed with a degenerative disease and using a cart to help her get around.
Lilah came into my life on February 13th, 2009. It was a Friday, and I had the day off from work. I decided to visit a local animal shelter and fell for Lilah. I can’t count how many times I have told the story of how my first glimpse of her was sticking her snaggle tooth through the opening in her enclosure looking for treats. She was barely a year old and had just weaned her first litter of puppies. There was a lot of interest in Lilah’s puppies, but most people looked right past her. The shelter told me she wasn’t available for adoption because she hadn’t been cleared medically from giving birth and nursing.
The next day was February 14th, Valentine’s Day. I told my boyfriend (now husband!) that all I wanted for Valentine’s Day was for him to come see this dog with me. I convinced him by reminding him that she wasn’t even up for adoption yet.
We went to the shelter, and low and behold, Lilah had been made available for adoption. Needless to say, she came home with us that day. Over the last decade she has brought immeasurable joy into our lives with her silly personality. She’s inspired so many friends and family to adopt animals of their own, it’s like she’s her own one-dog rescue mission.
Last September, we noticed that she was dragging her right hind foot, with the top of her nails scraping. Now we know this is called “knuckling over” and it’s one of the first indicators of Degenerative Myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spinal cord. DM is an inherited neurologic disorder with symptoms similar to that of ALS in humans.
We thought her hips were getting bad, or she was starting to suffer from arthritis. We started extensive testing of her joints, and started treatment for arthritis but her condition did not improve. Degenerative Myelopathy is a diagnosis of elimination, meaning you look for the most common contributors to the symptoms first. Finally, we did a blood test for the genetic mutation in the SOD1 gene known to cause this disease. A positive result for the mutation does not always mean your dog will be symptomatic. Unfortunately for Lilah, she is in the 25% of pups that inherit the disease from their parents.
I am lucky to have access to so much information by way of my profession, but I had a lot to learn about this disease. It was devastating to learn that Lilah’s mobility would continue to get worse, and there was no way to stop this freight train barreling at us. So, I decided to focus on the things we could do to improve her quality of life and help her live her last years in comfort.
We learned that it was important for us to keep Lilah active while not over straining her muscles, so for the fist few months after her diagnosis, we kept doing what we always did. We would take Lilah to Central Park with her red Kong ball where she would play with herself by placing the ball at the top of a hill and letting it roll down.
We also began working with a veterinarian who specializes in acupuncture, Dr. Jeff Levy. After each appointment Lilah had a noticeable pep in her step, and the treatments helped alleviate some of the anxiety she was feeling. By the end of each appointment she can be found snoring happily, dreaming of the days she was chasing squirrels in her prime.
We started working with Canine Rehab of New York to do underwater rehab, stretching, and massage. The vet also recommended giving Lilah CBD oil from ElleVet to help with the physical symptoms and anxiety of having decreased mobility.
Today, Lilah uses a pink cart from Walkin’ Wheels that supports her back legs. They provide new and refurbished carts for all sizes of dogs and we are so grateful that Lilah’s cart has improved her quality of life.
Thanks to the cart, Lilah still happily goes on walks. As time goes by, it’s almost as if she’s forgotten that she’s in a cart, and she continues to do the things she did before with the same joy for life she has always had. She’s learned to run, turn on a dime and reverse with the skill of a stunt driver. We have also noticed that Lilah likes to have a little more space from strangers these days, so it’s good to remember to ask owners if their pets like to be touched.
So many people have shared that they know another dog that uses a cart and it is amazing how many people just want to talk with us about Lilah.
I’m sharing this personal story with you in case you notice symptoms like Lilah’s in your own dog. When the disease is caught early, more can be done to relieve symptoms and slow the progression. Remember, your animal can’t advocate for themselves so they are counting on you to do it for them. The average lifespan for a dog with DM is 6 months to 3 years, and there’s nothing I can do to quiet the clock ticking in my head. For now, we are enjoying every day with Lilah and she’s enjoying her life to the fullest. I won’t let thoughts of our inevitable good-bye cloud what time we have left. Someone once told me animals embrace life without self-pity, and that has never been clearer to me than through this experience.