Cora’s Vestibular Disease, Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Last Sunday (August 16), we got home from a day away to find Cora not quite herself—she didn’t seem certain that it was us coming in the door, and she was a little unsteady on her feet. I also noticed her head tilt was worse than usual. Because of our experience with her vestibular disease in January, I knew what to look for, so I got her in good light and, sure enough, saw the nystagmus (rapid eye movement), which was diagonal again. It was then that I realized her head tilt was to the left, not to the right as usual.

She really wanted to join us on the walk but wasn't able to walk much, so she rode.

She really wanted to join us on the walk but wasn’t able to walk much, so she rode.

She saw the vet the next day, and vestibular disease was confirmed. However, this time, there was no sign of an ear infection, which was more worrisome to the vet. It was suggested we see how her symptoms changed over the next few days. The following day, as last time, she was moving in circles in the backyard. Over the next several days, new symptoms that were different from before appeared gradually—confusion about how to get out of the house; Parkinson’s-like movements when eating, drinking, or sniffing the ground; and circling that she seemed unable to stop.

By Friday, the vet recommended a consultation with a neurologist and possibly an MRI.

We got in to see Dr. Campbell at Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital on Monday. Cora was doing so much better by then, and I honestly expected him to send us home with no further investigation. But he found that she was painful in her neck. With only slight pressure, her neck spasmed. His concern was a tumour on her brain stem because neck pain is common with that. The MRI was booked for the next day. When he learned that our vet had removed a pellet from her cheek a couple years ago, he said he’d do X-rays first to be certain there wasn’t any other metal in her head.

Cora's head had to be shaved for the spinal tap. It looks as though she had three needles there.

Cora’s head had to be shaved for the spinal tap. It looks as though she had three needles there.

Sure enough, she has another pellet embedded deep in the tissue of her neck (no wonder she is so wary of people!); however, the vet felt it was deep enough to make the MRI safe to do. Cora’s neurologist was in emergency surgery during her MRI, so the radiologist on staff looked at her results, and I got a call at 3:05 p.m. telling me that her brain and ears were normal, so they were also going to MRI her neck and do a spinal tap. I was thrilled to get the news that nothing showed up in her brain (well, except a brain).

However, then when I met with the neurologist at 5:30 p.m., he started by telling me they’d found something small at the base of her brain stem, the site he’d expected to find something, based on the vestibular symptoms. I was confused and told him about the call I’d received. It turns out that the nodule or whatever it is is SO small that the radiologist didn’t see it until the neurologist pointed it out. They can’t be sure of what it is or whether it’s cancerous, though, so we don’t actually know much more than we did. He said we’ll have to judge the prognosis simply by Cora’s clinical symptoms over time.

So it wasn’t exactly the news we were hoping for, but it’s also not nearly as bad as we feared. There isn’t a definitive sign of brain cancer (woohoo!). The spinal tap results we’ve received thus far have been “normal,” but we’re waiting on the pathologist to look at the cells in her spinal fluid to be certain.

The head tilt to the left is just as cute as her head tilt to the right was. :)

The head tilt to the left is just as cute as her head tilt to the right was. :)

The best part of the call from the neurologist yesterday was his pronouncement of the diagnosis “geriatric idiopathic vestibular disease.” Idiopathic means “unknown cause,” so he’s not relating it to the tumour. (The second best part of the call is his assurance that our insurance company will cover the cost, which was substantial, and if it doesn’t, he’ll follow up with whoever he needs to talk to to get coverage!) Cora received amazing care at TVEH, with both her neurologist and vet tech recognizing just how sweet a dog she is. Both were saddened by the pellet in her neck, and as I left there Wednesday, the vet tech pet Cora’s bald head and said to me, “This girl really melts my heart.” Really, how could she not?

If we’re to judge by Cora’s clinical appearance, I’d say she’s healthy. Since Friday, she’s continually improved, walking straighter, not shaking as much when her head is down, and seeming much less confused. Whereas I thought maybe her head would at last be straight, which it hasn’t been since her first vestibular episode, it seems the left-leaning tilt may remain, and that’s okay. After all, it’s just as cute as her right tilt was.

Cora’s Vestibular Disease, Part 1

I haven’t had much time to post here in the past year, but last week I got a terrible reminder of one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place—to have a record of issues we go through with the dogs.

One morning at the end of January this year, Cora scared the bejeezus out of us by being, well, spaghetti-like. She was unable to stand, and whenever she tried, she just fell down, limp as could be. She had the will to walk and do everything her brothers were doing, and she still wagged her tail, but she seemingly had no control over her body. We thought she was having a stroke. It was terribly frightening!

Fortunately, the symptoms began the day that one of our vets was to come to our house to give Dusty acupuncture for a cruciate ligament tear we were treating through conservative management (another blog post I should’ve written). The vet examined Cora off the record, suggesting we get her to the clinic for a full “official” exam, and pointed out her nystagmus—the darting of her eyes. He felt fairly certain Cora had geriatric vestibular disease. The word disease in the name knifed fear into my heart—would she live out her days unable to control her body? He then told me that when his dog had it, it lasted about two weeks and resolved itself. Phew!

Vestibular disease, I learned through many Facebook friends whose dogs had gone through it, is not all that uncommon in senior dogs, and, more important, it’s not a death knell. Essentially, it’s an episode of vertigo. Cora was dizzy, as evidenced by her eye movements (nystagmus), which in her case started out as diagonal, not back and forth or up and down, and through her poor sense of balance. Most often, vestibular disease is considered idiopathic, meaning that there’s no known cause—it’s just age related.

However, because Cora has had ear infections on and off since we adopted her, the vet assumed an ear infection could be causing her symptoms, and sure enough, examination showed inflammation (despite regular ear cleanings!), so she prescribed two weeks’ worth of antibiotics.

Cora’s condition worsened a bit on the second or third day, when she started circling in the backyard. Our vet was a little worried by this because vestibular symptoms should only start improving after the first day. The circling happened on and off for a couple more days. But we waited it out because other things were normalizing—her nystagmus wasn’t noticeable to the naked eye, she was able to walk around the block, and she wasn’t vomiting or avoiding food (quite the opposite, as usual).

Cora rocking the head tilt.

Cora rocking the head tilt.

By the time she finished the antibiotics, Cora seemed mostly back to normal. She was safely jumping onto and off of furniture, going on our long walks and keeping up, and being as energetic and kooky as usual. Two main symptoms remained: her head tilt, which the vet had warned might never go away, and a bit of a lazy eye—both on the right side.

Then a day or two after she finished the antibiotics, Cora’s symptoms worsened again. I don’t remember exactly what was going on, but the vet decided to put her on antibiotics for another four or six weeks.

Once that course of antibiotics was done, Cora was back to normal (yay!), except for the head tilt and the lazy eye, both very cute qualities, we think. :)

And then in August …

A Barking Solution

Those who’ve been to our house know that we have a bit of an issue with barking dogs who just won’t stop. Two summers ago, we hired a wonderful positive-reinforcement trainer to help with the issue with Dusty, and we made some progress, but having two dogs who feed off one another’s barking and being able to work with only one of them at a time undid all the progress we made.

Dusty in citronella collar

Dusty in his citronella collar. When he barks, it lets out a little lemon-scented spray.

We tried citronella collars first. We were concerned mostly with Dusty’s barking because his was completely out of control. Back then, Hogan would usually stop with a diversion or a firm “no.” But Hogan eventually started trying to out-bark Dusty, so we had to buy him a citronella collar, too. The collar worked for a time with Dusty—he would bark once or twice, the collar would spray, and he’d stop. But he eventually learned the spray didn’t hurt him, and if he kept barking, the collar would stop spraying, so he’d just bark it empty. The citronella collar still works for Hogan, but we don’t like leaving it on him because he makes cute grumbly noises when he sleeps, and those grumbles set it off. More often than not, therefore, he doesn’t have it on when his imagination tells him there’s a dog walking by the house, so all hell will break loose.

We’ve also tried giving the boys time-outs (less than a minute in the bathroom), which usually works but isn’t doable in all situations.

In recent weeks, we had become so frustrated by the needless barking at any imagined change in the environment (they even start barking out of excitement when I stand up!) that my husband wanted to buy a shock collar for Dusty, which I was opposed to but did agree to investigate. After much discussion with a sales associate at PetSmart who swears by the shock collar for her beagles, I left the store with nothing because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it to Dusty, even though the sales associate said she never has to put it on her dogs anymore. I went back the next day, though, after some online investigation, and bought a vibrating collar. It worked for a few days until Dusty got used to it. I returned it. (PetSmart has a great returns policy!)


This is one of the barking situations we don’t mind as much—at least there’s a reason for it!

Then, this past weekend, my husband bought the Sunbeam Ultrasonic Egg. It works! And it’s been four days, and it still works. And I don’t think it’ll stop working. The first night, we left the egg on overnight, and for the first time in a long time, Dusty and Hogan didn’t bark the whole way down the stairs in the morning—and they haven’t any morning since then, even though the egg has been off. They really do seem to have learned, so I think in no time at all, we may be able to pack the egg away. Just a moment ago, a car honked outside, the dogs ran from their sleeping spots to the front door all ready to bark…and they didn’t make a peep. In fact, there hasn’t been a single bark since the dogs said “Hello” and “If this fence wasn’t here, you’d feel my wrath” to the Doberman next door at 7:15 this morning. We just brought the egg outside and turned it on, and all the fence barking stopped! Exciting, indeed!

Ultrasonic Egg

The Sunbeam Ultrasonic Egg retails for $49 in Canada—not a bad price for peace and quiet.

This is a solution we wouldn’t have resorted to if Cora, our scaredy-dog, hadn’t lost her hearing because it would seriously freak her out and set back so much of the progress we’ve made with her. But Dusty and Hogan both are barkers, and they’re the only two affected by the egg.

There is a downside of the egg, however: if either of us is speaking loudly enough to be heard in a different room or if we are doing anything in the kitchen, the egg activates, instantly putting Dusty’s and Hogan’s tails between their legs. So we just leave it off unless we know a potential barking situation is looming (e.g., someone is expected at the door or we’re about to let the dogs out in the backyard, which always makes the boys noisy).

This may well be the solution we’ve been searching nearly four years to find. I thought it was one worth sharing with others!

The Switch to Raw

In April of this year, we finally made the switch to a raw diet. I’d been reading both anecdotal and scientific articles about it (some for, some against) and waffling for more than two years. What gave me the kick in the ass I needed was the premature reappearance of Dusty’s environmental allergies. He’d been on customized allergy shots since January 2013, but when the growth of new grass in the spring had him scratching so much he kept me up at night, I gave up on the allergy shots (which we’d had to adjust numerous times because of the serum overstimulating his system) and switched all three dogs to raw.

Two or three months before, I had visited Heronview Raw and Natural in Whitby and had gotten a lot of information that gave me hope that a raw diet would improve Dusty’s allergies. I also spoke to two different people whose dogs had terrible environmental allergies (one dog had spent summers in a cone for years) that were “cured” on raw diets. What did I have to lose?

The Switch

Mixing the tripe and offal in with the raw turkey--the dogs were very interested in what we were doing!

Mixing the tripe and offal in with the raw turkey–the dogs were very interested in what we were doing!

Heronview explained to me that raw has a much faster rate of digestion than kibble does, so the two couldn’t be given together, in part because of the risk for bloat, so the change had to be made instantly–not gradually as we’d been taught to do when switching a dog from one kibble to another. I worried, of course, that this switch would cause gastrointestinal issues for my dogs, particularly Dusty, who has a very sensitive stomach and had had four visits in three years to the emergency clinic because of gastro issues severe enough to dehydrate him.

Our vet contradicted what Heronview said, saying that we should make a very gradual change over two weeks because of Dusty’s sensitive stomach. Although the vets at our vet clinic aren’t exactly pro-raw, they have been very supportive of my decision since nothing else we had tried for Dusty’s allergies had helped. One of our vets is not a fan of commercial food and feeds his dogs cooked meat and veggies, which I used to do. He told me as long as we weren’t going to a highly processed food, he’d support any decision we made, but he didn’t think our dogs should chew raw bones. Cora and Hogan don’t have the best teeth, and Dusty has a weak stomach. So we decided to buy only the ground meat with ground bone. We took his advice on that, but we took Heronview’s advice on not switching gradually.

I made sure we switched midweek, when I wouldn’t have to pay the extra-high examination fee of the emergency vet just in case.

Gastrointestinal Issues

All three dogs devoured that first meal, and I’m happy to report Dusty hasn’t had ANY gastro issues since we made the switch. Better yet, he doesn’t even pass gas anymore. Oh, could that dog empty a room before!

Measuring out one-ounce meatballs

Measuring out one-ounce meatballs

The only negative gastro effects we’ve seen were related to the fast digestion rate. Cora was so hungry by 3 or 4 a.m. that her stomach noises were waking us up. She was desperate to get outside to eat grass because she felt so sick with hunger. This issue had happened with her on kibble, too, but we had found the magic solution to get her through the night, so it had been a while. We had to start from scratch to find the right mix of feeding time, snacks, and food quantity so we all could sleep. (One interesting observation, though, is that when she was on kibble, Cora wouldn’t eat her breakfast once her stomach got that upset—we had to give her peanut butter to “prime” her tummy before she would eat; on raw, though, she gobbled down her breakfast even with that upset belly.)

Weight Loss and Gain

One of the reasons I wanted to switch all three dogs to raw, not just Dusty, is that I’d read that most dogs lose weight on raw, and Cora and Hogan were heavier than they should be. In the four and a half months they’ve been on raw, though, Cora has gained four pounds, Hogan has gained two and a half pounds, and Dusty, who was already skinny, has lost two pounds. It doesn’t sound like much, but on small to medium-sized dogs, the difference in all three is noticeable.

Reducing Cora’s and Hogan’s food has been difficult and very gradual since we have the fast digestion rate to contend with. We’re also feeding a fair amount of veggies (a puréed mix of kale, broccoli, pumpkin, green beans, spinach, and blueberries)  to fill them up some. We’ve introduced more game meats (bison, elk) in place of some fattier meats, but I’m not convinced that’s making a difference.

Skin, Teeth, and Breath

Dusty showing his pearly whites with  a little help

Dusty showing his pearly whites with a little help

One of the most amazing things to me is that none of our dogs smell bad anymore! I used to shower them every six weeks because by that point, they smelled like dogs and needed a bath. I don’t know that they’d ever need a shower again if I stuck to that criterion now. They really don’t stink—and that’s not just a mama’s love talkin’! And that awful doggy breath—especially old-doggy breath? The stink is gone there, too! What that suggests to me is that we’ve done a good thing by switching to raw. Their guts aren’t producing whatever it is that makes doggy breath and fur smell bad.


I had high hopes that we’d get through the summer without putting Dusty on steroids (Vanectyl-P), but no such luck. A couple of weeks ago, Benadryl stopped making even a dent in the scratching. I am hopeful that, since a raw diet is supposed to strengthen the immune system, Dusty’s liver won’t be affected too much by the steroids. I also have him on supplements to support his liver through steroid season.

All in all, although it’s a little gross dealing with raw meat, tripe, and offal (I shouldn’t downplay it—it’s plenty gross doing our own mixing of it all), and although Dusty still has to be on Vanectyl-P for a month or two, I think we’ve made the right decision for our dogs’ health.

Are any of you feeding raw or considering it? I’d love to hear about your experiences with it!

A Picnic in the Park

Hogan and Dusty enjoyed watching the seagulls and the squirrels. (They barked only at the squirrels.)

Hogan and Dusty enjoyed watching the seagulls and the squirrels. (They barked only at the squirrels.)

Yesterday we decided to do something different, so after work, we packed up the dogs, their food, some wieners, buns, and salad, and headed down to the Ajax waterfront. After a decent walk, we unloaded the car, set up a big pen for the dogs (and us), lay out a blanket, and played a game while waiting for the Hibachi to heat up. The dogs seemed a little confused at first, but Hogan quickly settled in, and the other two eventually followed suit. It was a nice break for us from the everyday, and I think the dogs agreed!

Hogan never takes long to get comfortable anywhere.

Hogan never takes long to get comfortable anywhere.

Cora didn't want to be far from the cooler!

Cora didn’t want to be far from the cooler!

Cora and Dusty supervised the cooking of the hot dogs.

Cora and Dusty supervised the cooking of the hot dogs.

Dusty spent a good part of the evening just looking handsome. It's his most important job in our house.

Dusty spent a good part of the evening just looking handsome. It’s his most important job in our house.

Hogan moved from the blanket to a spot under the chair for a while.

Hogan moved from the blanket to a spot under the chair for a while.

My pretty girl

My pretty girl

My boys

My boys

All packed up and ready to go...till next time!

All packed up and ready to go…till next time!