I must warn you — some of the photos that I’m sharing of Xander are kind of gross … you probably shouldn’t read the post if you don’t have a strong stomach.
When we moved to New York from Colorado in 2009, one of the pet health issues that we learned about was the increased risk of flea and tick infestation on the east coast. Like the responsible pet owners that we try to be, we tried to prevent and treat as appropriately. In 2009 we tried Frontline. Both Xander and Stuart (one of Xander’s people) felt a little weird for a few days. We tried it once more three months later and for the three days afterwards both of them felt much worse. The girls (Dani and I) were unaffected.
Clearly, Frontline wasn’t going to work for us. So, we bought flea/ tick collars for the dogs and kept them on them for the next 2 and a half years. Over the next couple of years, Xander began to slow down, but was still a happy trouble-making beast. So, we attributed his slow down to being an elder statesman.
This is Xander in October of 2011 — he was a little portly at 19-20 pounds, has some cataract like things going on in his eyes, but was generally a happy-go-skippy old guy.
In late November/ early December we noticed Xander started to seem depressed and moody — something that wasn’t really him. It was time for the dogs’ annual check up and inoculation appointment anyhow, so we scheduled an appointment with our new vet (we had just moved). Just a day or so before our appointment, Xander was sitting on my lap (as normal) and I noticed that he had a sore underneath his flea/tick collar. We had put new flea/tick collars on the week before, so immediately removed it.
At our vet appointment, the vet noticed Xander had a heart murmur. This was news to us — Xander had been to the vet at least once a year for his entire life and no one had ever heard a murmur before. Xander was seen by a ‘specialist’ and at that point, the best course of treatment was to leave things alone because it was just a murmur and he had no complications with it. The vet also gave us a round of antibiotics and spray treatment for the skin leasion and we went on our way.
Over the Christmas holiday, Xander’s mood didn’t improve. In fact, his appetite went away, he only wanted to sleep, and he developed new skin lesions on his back and hip. Shortly after the first of the year, we went back to the vet and he was stumped. Though the lesions had nasty (and nasty smelling puss) around them, he told us to leave the lesions alone as they would likely protect the wounds and continue on the antibiotics and we scheduled an appointment for two weeks later. We asked if he was on the right antibiotics — asked if we should test the infection and were told yes and probably not respectively.
At this point, I was cooking special meals of ground beef gravy for Xander, just trying to get him to eat, but he kept losing weight, kept feeling worse and worse, and it was just heartbreaking to see the robust little criminal becoming a sad little man.
By mid-January when we went back to the vet yet again as he had lesions all over his back, his face, even the sheath of his penis (serious ouch there). Nothing seemed to be doing the trick. It seemed like Xander was literally rotting away in front of our eyes and we had no idea what do to for the little guy … apparently our vet didn’t either. The vet had us washing Xander once a week with antibacterial shampoo. Thrilling — adding insult to injury for the little guy — but we were willing to do anything… including getting down and dirty with his infected skin lesions.
In early February I went back to the vet — our 20 pound robust dog was down to about 14 pounds and we felt like he was on death’s door. In fact, that day, when I took him to the vet, I expected to be told that there was nothing that could be done and that the most humane thing to do would be to prepare to put him to sleep.
It was then the vet decided this was probably a good time to change antibiotics, test the infection, and consult a specialist — really? Now he says this. The specialist (about an hour and a half away) could fit us in that afternoon if I put Xander back in the car and hustled.
We did exactly that. The specialist walked into the examination room, took a very quick look at Xander and identified the problem as vasculitis — a blood disease where the body literally attacks itself. It’s not terribly common, but is also not curable. Both animals and people can get vasculitis. Vasculitis basically makes the blood attack organs — the skin most commonly, but also internal organs. The vet said that it commonly attacks the kidneys. Xander’s kidney functions, however, were alright. However, there’s that heart murmur that he never had. She ran a battery of tests, confirmed the diagnosis, then consulted with our regular vet. In some ways, Xander was lucky — a lot of times, vasculitis seems to attack the skin on dogs’ feet to the point that they can’t walk and have to be euthanized.
That night, as I left I decided to stop for a quick bite at McDonald’s and ordered a couple of extra hamburgers in hopes that Xander would eat them. Yeah… he did. So, the heart patient with vasculitis lived mostly on McDonald’s, Sonic, and then White Castle (because they’re frozen and it didn’t mean a 30 mile roundtrip to the nearest fast food) for the next couple of months so that we could hopefully put some weight back on him and so that he had enough calories to help his skin heal.
In early March of 2012 — three months after we sought treatment for the first skin lesion — the tests on the infection in Xander’s skin lesions showed they were a variety of staph infection. Fortunately, a treatable variety AND the little guy was finally on the right medication. However, all of that crusted nastiness had to come off Xander and he needed to be shaved because the hair was just causing problems (something we had asked about in January).
Here we had been dealing with crusting nasty lesions on Xander and when I picked the little guy up from the vet, the vet was worried that I’d be shocked at what he looked like with all of the lesion scabs removed and shaved. Seriously? Alarmingly, this was an improvement to both the smell and aesthetics of the last month. I know it looks ghoulish, but this was an improvement. The vet tech who actually spent 90 minutes working the scabs off in a bath of warm water said that he never said a word, never hassled her — she’d never seen a dog take what would’ve been incredibly painful so well. That’s my tough little guy!
So, on his hearty-healthy diet of fast food hamburgers Xander began his road to recovery. One of the essential parts to the recovery was prednisone -a cortio steroid. Here’s the problem — steroids are hard on the heart … think of all of the NFL players and pro-wrestlers who drop relatively young (i.e., in their 50’s) of heart attacks. And here’s Xander, who likely because of the vasculitis developed a heart murmur. In the short term, it was a no-brainer — put him on the steroids.
But after the healing process was well underway, the vet wanted to take him off of the steroids.
Now, I had read probably more about vasculitis at this point (if you know me, you know that I get kind of serious about research) than the regular vet and we weren’t pleased with the recommendation because one of the realities of vasculitis is that it is not curable and the specialist had said that he would likely need to be treated for the rest of his life. Within a couple of weeks, Xander started to get moody and depressed again.
When we went back for the check up, my statement to the vet was … well… direct. I told him basically, ‘Xander is not doing well off the prednisone, we’ve discussed it and we’d rather have a happy and relatively healthy dog and risk a heart attack than put him through anything close to what he’s gone through in the last few months — he’s going back on the prednisone.’ And so he did. That was also the last time that we saw that vet — we hadn’t been happy with him, but didn’t want to change mid-course. We decided it was better to drive all the way to our old vet to get better care.
The healing process went well — Xander had to give up his diet of fast food and is back on regular dog food (tragic, we know). Within the first six weeks of being both on the correct antibiotic and being ‘roid boy the lesions had basically healed, there were no more new ones. Xander gained a couple of pounds back and seems to be maintaining around 16 lbs. He has gained his energy back… and is even back to being an obnoxious little criminal (his most favorite thing in the world is stealing a small tidbit of people food if you leave it unattended — we now do this once-in-a-while just because he enjoys it).
Even though hair has come back in some places in the areas with the worst scarring — across his face, the center of his back, and by his butt — he’s never going to regrow hair. And because steroids can cause baldness, it’s not like the hair that’s come back is particularly thick like it used to be. That means, the dog who used to HATE getting dressed up now has a wardrobe and wears clothes most days. In the summer, it keeps him from getting sunburned. As the weather gets cold — well… he’s snuggly warm. We think he even likes his clothes (weird little animal).
This is Xander — 11 months after we noticed the first lesion. Barely 8 months after I thought we were going to have to put him to sleep. And yes, this is his favorite way to lay on the floor with his little legs pushed out behind him and wearing his favorite shirt — it says “Security” because he’s our tough guy!
In reflecting on how all of this emerged, reading as many journal articles (both veterinary and human), looking at as many pictures, and reading as many websites about vasculitis as I could… this is what I think happened…. Clearly, Xander had a reaction to the Frontline … but it probably wasn’t just the Frontline, but the active ingredient that repels fleas and ticks. So, instead of ‘poisoning’ him quickly with that we ended up unwittingly poisoning him slowly with the flea and tick collars. In the two plus years we were in New York before his first lesion, Xander very gradually began to slow down as his body was fighting the oncoming disease. Then in December/ January, his system could no long take it.
Based on our experience and the reading that I’ve done — I do have some recommendations for pet owners:
- Try to avoid chemical pest repellents as much as possible. They are poison (to the pests) that we’re applying to our pets. Use oral flea prevention and if you live in an area with lots of ticks, make sure you immunize against Lime disease then be rigorous about checking your pet for ticks.
- If you feel like you must use Frontline or flea/tick collars, watch your pet’s behavior very carefully. If it changes at all, take the collar off or don’t treat them again. Typical signs of extreme allergic reactions include ‘slowing’ down, moodiness, and loss of appetite (i.e., what we would call depression in humans).
- If you notice a lesion — and this is very important — insist that your vet test the infection immediately. It will probably cost you about $60, but Xander lost 3 months of treatment because the vet didn’t test and we didn’t know to insist until later. Also, have the test done for vasculitis.
- Insist that your vet shave the affected area and remove any scabbing. Combining topical and oral antibiotics is likely going to be necessary.
- Know that if it is vasculitis, it’s not curable — you’re going to have to treat the dog for the rest of its life. Be prepared to weigh the consequences. Prednisone is incredibly inexpensive (about $5/ month) and it does carry side effects, but continuing lesions is inhumane. Apparently, it can go into remission though, so once the initial outbreak is managed, reducing the amount of Prednisone or trying to go without it is an option; however, if you do — be rigorous and insistent if doggie depression starts to reoccur because skin lesions aren’t going to be very far behind.
The bottom line is to inform yourself — be proactive. Unlike people, they can’t exactly tell us what’s up. They try to with their behavior… but sometimes it’s just hard to recognize it.
For us, we have a happy ending to our story — not even a year later and Xander’s a happy boy… demanding his dinner, stealing what he can, playing with Dani, and generally causing as much doggie havoc as he can. But, now because he has a heart condition, we have to be careful that he doesn’t exert too much, get too worked up, and he is our ‘roid boy. He may have a year, he may have 5 years left. But as long as he’s happy then we don’t care.