Splints give ill dog a leg up on normal life
With just 24 hours remaining until his appointment with death, an Old English sheepdog received an unexpected reprieve. Wesley, born with congenital defects in both back legs, could no longer walk, run, or stand. But an innovative use of splints commonly used in the treatment of canine leg fractures saved Wesley’s life.
“It was during the Thanksgiving holidays that his legs completely broke down,” explains Trudy, Wesley's owner and an assistant veterinarian in Steve Rapp’s office. “He couldn’t get up. We tried everything, including large doses of prednisone. I knew he couldn’t go on in this condition.”
As Christmas approached, Trudy couldn’t bring herself to unpack her holiday decorations. Emotionally, she could not deal with not hanging up Wesley’s Christmas stocking.
“We had put Wesley on glucosamine, chondroitins and steroids,” says Rapp. “He showed some improvement, but as time progressed Wesley became more and more out of his comfort zone. He began to get severe muscle atrophy. We were interpreting this as pain. Now we think that he probably didn’t hurt, he just didn’t have the strength to get up. His quality of life was very quickly deteriorating.”
According to Trudy, Wesley was also depressed. Always a happy dog with a sunny disposition, Wesley was now miserable.
With no hope on the horizon, Trudy and Rapp set the date for putting Wesley down. “I went into Dr. Rapp’s office on Monday morning, the day before Wesley was scheduled to die,” she explains. “I told Dr. Rapp that I couldn’t do this to Wesley. Other than not being able to use his back legs, there was nothing wrong with him. He was basically a healthy dog. So I asked Dr. Rapp to please figure out a way to save him.”
Rapp, who has a background in animal orthopedics, decided to construct braces for Wesley’s hind legs. Odds were against success with such devices, but it was worth a try. The vet devised a list of materials and supplies that he would need to craft the braces and Sundin called one of their sales representatives to place the order. To Trudy’s amazement, the sales rep told her about some flexible splints that had just come on the market. The splints had been introduced for treating canine leg injuries, but Rapp believed they might work for Wesley’s condition.
The splints, modeled after human counterparts, are constructed of polypropylene and are designed to fit the contours of the animal’s legs. They are first heated in water, and then molded around the limbs. After cooling, they become rigid and retain a correct fit. Velcro straps hold them in place, eliminating the need for bandaging. On the bottom of each splint is a non-slip traction grip. Since Wesley would be required to wear them during all of his waking hours, Rapp cushioned the inner surfaces of the splints with casting material.
“The first concern I had,” admits Rapp, “was that he might try to chew them off. But Wesley, being Wesley, seemed to realize immediately that the splints were for him and that they would help him. From the very start, they gave him the support that he needed.”
Dr. Bonnie Beaver, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says she’s not surprised by Rapp’s ingenuity. “As veterinarians, we are expected to deliver the highest quality care to our clients. Oftentimes this involves not just knowledge of diseases and treatments but quite a bit of innovation and creativity. It is so gratifying when a companion’s quality of life is restored and the human-animal bond can be maintained.”
Although it took awhile for Wesley to get the hang of his new “legs,” on December 23, he stood up by himself and walked over to .
“As soon as he realized that he was no longer limited,” says Trudy, “he became a new dog. His depression lifted and now he runs and plays like a puppy. He even chases the cat.”
Wesley has shown steady improvement with his new links to life. He just celebrated his sixth birthday and has gone on his first camping trip since receiving his splints.
“I’ve been in orthopedics for years and I’ve never seen anything do what these splints have done for Wesley,” says Rapp. Still, he cautions that not every animal will respond so well to such treatment.
“Just because they have worked so well for Wesley doesn’t mean that they will work in every situation. But they were worth a try and Wesley was very accepting of the help.”
And that’s a shaggy dog story with a happy ending.
Note: This story was first published in the San Antonio Express News on April 5, 2005. It is reprinted on nowpublic.com as a tribute to Wesley. I “interviewed” Wesley and his Mom, Trudy, at length for the article. An Old English sheepdog owner myself, I was completely taken with Wesley. I have never have observed a canine companion so full of joy and with such a zest for life. Wesley clomped around in his braces with a doggy grin that lit up the room. And when least expected, he took off like a rocket and chased the cat, never letting his leg braces get in the way.
Wesley, after over two years in splints, was recently diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a progressive, fatal neural disease common in German Shepherds, Old English sheepdogs and Labrador retrievers. Wesley and his owners were on a camping trip in Colorado—camping was his favorite pastime – when he became totally paralyzed. He will be missed by his family and a multitude of friends. I am lucky to have met Wesley. He was all that a dog can be. My original story ended with “And that’s a shaggy dog story with a happy ending.” I stand by my original words. Wesley made a lot of people happy.
For more information on canine degenerative myelopathy, check out the following link. Keep in mind that this disease affects not only German Shepherds but other breeds, as well.