An Update on Foster Puppy Coco

An Update on Foster Puppy Coco

If only it was summer. I have been so eager for the end of the hot, dry weather that characterizes every summer in my area – but now that I’m fostering a dog who would really benefit from swimming, I’m reneging on all my wishes for rain and lower temperatures. 

Coco is the little dog I first wrote about here. She’s an estimated six months old (this has been revised upward, given better exams of her teeth, which we can now examine at will). She can’t walk or trot like a normal dog, due to an as-yet undiagnosed problem with her hind legs, which only move together like a bunny or a kangaroo. (Speaking of kangaroos, a friend who is a regular volunteer at a zoo tells me that kangaroos can’t use their hind legs individually, either; they, too, apparently can *only * hop. Huh!)

For the past two weeks, I’ve been waiting for an appointment with a veterinarian who could actually see Coco move, to get a better idea of what’s going on with her. In the meantime, I’ve been working with Coco daily, doing some physical therapy exercises I found online for dogs who are recovering from injuries or surgery (this site has great descriptions and videos; here’s another video that shows a hind leg range-of-motion exercise I’ve been doing with her).

Based on my understanding of physical therapy, I’ve been speculating that whatever the cause of Coco’s condition may be, her brain is unaccustomed to exercising the nerves that trigger a normal movement pattern, so any exercise that send signals to the brain regarding new, better (more normal) movement options would be beneficial. To that end, swimming is often considered as one of the best therapies for issues like Coco’s. It’s non-weight-bearing and completely novel, which may be enough to help initiate the brain’s signals to kick her legs in the normal way for a swimming dog.

There is a river and several large lake-like reservoirs locally where I can take Coco and my other dogs to swim – but the water is FREEZING cold. I know that seems weird, given the hot weather. But the river and the reservoirs where I can take the dogs are downstream from the Oroville Dam – the tallest earthen dam in North America. This means that the water that comes out of the bottom of that dam is coming from a very deep, cold place. The water is super cold, which is a delight in super hot weather – but not great when the ambient temperatures drop, and not great for physical therapy-type swimming (which is typically conducted in warm pools, which keep the muscles loose and relaxed).

The lake behind the dam is warmer, at least at the kind of shallow depths that dogs swim in. But it’s been accessible only for the past week or so; miles and miles of its shoreline and tens of thousands of acres around it were burning until very recently. But finally, the other day, the planets lined up and I had a day off when it was hot and I got to take the dogs swimming.

Woody came along to the vet with us; his friendly, steady bulk makes Coco feel more confident in every new situation. When we first entered the vet’s exam room, Woody went right for one of the client chairs – and Coco jumped right up to sit with him. (Yes, the hospital has several “clinic cats”.)

Alas, we swam enough that I could see that Coco quickly started swimming in the same way that she runs: “dog paddling” with both front legs normally, and stroking both hind legs at the same time – essentially bunny-hopping in the water, too. It wasn’t a wasted trip by any means, though; Coco had fun in the water and running (hopping) along the shore with Woody, and the extra swimming time (and a life jacket) made her that much more comfortable in the water than she had been the first time I took her swimming. At the very least, I’m hoping that when I am able to find a pool or underwater treadmill for more therapy, she’ll be more comfortable and happy in the water. If this warm weather persists, we’ll go back to the lake for more non-weight-bearing exercise. It absolutely can’t hurt. 

Until today (as I write this) Coco hadn’t been seen by a veterinarian who had seen her move; she was still frozen with fear of people and the novel situations she had been thrust into when the North Complex Fire prompted area-wide evacuations. Today was a breakthrough for several reasons: A veterinarian finally saw her move! The clinic I took her to, in order to see this specific veterinarian, is back to allowing clients to come inside the clinic again – so I was able to go inside and discuss Coco’s history with the veterinarian, in person! We waited for our appointment outside, we wore masks, we paid for the visit and scheduled another while in the exam room, among other COVID-era accommodations – but at least I could go inside with Coco! And the vet was able to touch Coco without any party experiencing any fear – Coco is now experienced enough with humans that she allowed the vet to pet and massage her body and flex her joints, and the vet was without fear that Coco might bite her in fear! I could have cried!

After the vet examined Coco, the little dog felt comfortable enough to sit in her own chair in the exam room.

I was, at a minimum, hoping for a referral to a veterinary neurologist at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) at the University of California – Davis. But the vet who examined Coco thinks that her issues are not necessarily the result of some exotic neurological condition; she thinks that it’s likely that Coco was injured as a very tiny puppy, possibly even as she was born, and that the neurological “wiring” for a normal gait might still be sparked into action through physical therapy and exercises targeted to build her hind-limb muscles. In addition to practicing conventional veterinary medicine, this veterinarian also uses complementary therapies including acupuncture and chiropractic, and she suggested that Coco could really benefit from both continued physical therapy exercises and some acupuncture and laser therapy treatments. Excellent! We made another appointment for next week.

My most dog-crazy friend, Leonora, lives about a mile away from me. She is the owner of Samson, Woody’s tiny little buddy since they were puppies. Like me, Leonora fosters for our local shelter, and she was fostering a litter of six tiny puppies who were the exact same age as the litter of nine big puppies I was fostering five years ago. We both, without consulting the other, ended up keeping a puppy from our respective foster litters. She kept the tiniest pup, Samson; I kept the largest pup, Woody. We (all four of us) attended the same “puppy kindergarten” classes (Puppy 1 and 2) and Samson and Woody often play and hang out with each other, best of buddies in spite of their 65-pound size difference.

Despite the 65-pound difference in size, these two have been best friends forever.

Anyway, Leonora recently had to say goodbye to her senior dog, and no doubt because her house seems empty with just one tiny dog in it, she volunteered to have Coco stay at her house when I’ve had to pull a volunteer shift or even just go to town for errands. Having Coco spend time (and some nights) at Leonora’s house has given Coco experience with more humans and dogs, Samson someone to play with, and Woody gets a break from the constant attention he gets from Coco otherwise. (She’s sort of smitten with him, and who could blame her!) Leonora also helps with Coco’s PT exercises and she’s falling for the goofy little dog, I can tell.

That said, we’re not talking about permanent placement anywhere yet. We won’t be looking for a permanent home for Coco until we know that we’ve done everything we can to get her to move more comfortably and confidently through the world, so those wonky back legs have the best chance of remaining problem-free and arthritis-free as long as possible.

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