Moozie (AKA “Asher”) was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with a debilitating neurological condition; he wasn't expected to survive much more than a year. Now, nearly 6 years later, Moozie shows no signs of stopping (the video at the end of this article proves his determination). Moozie is nearly blind, needs tons of help to walk, can't feed himself or drink on his own. But here he is chewing on a big yellow ball, and he's the king of the world in his own mind... and in my heart.
February, 2013 - Moozie, the 2-year old pitbull, was unfazed when he arrived from Georgia to his forever home in New Jersey. He was already a celebrity of sorts when his story made Animal Aid’s Facebook headlines. He was found the previous December roaming Georgia’s back country, starving and with his neck torn open (photo too graphic to post in color).
Afraid and in pain, he evaded capture and was finally darted, tranquilized, and caught. Once in helpful hands, the awesome Animal Aid staff went to work trying to deal with the multitude of issues that often plague abandoned pets, including heartworm and malnutrition. But it was infection from his neck wound that nearly killed him. The finely-seasoned crew had worked with nearly-impossible cases before, and Moozie recovered well enough to be transported to New Jersey and rehomed. Rightly so, the Animal Aid staff decided to christen him "Christmas Miracle".
Arriving in New Jersey, Moozie pranced off the Animal Aid bus where a large crowd had gathered to see what their prayers and his rescuers had manifested. If Moozie had fear, anger, depression, or anxiety, it was clear that he'd left it all behind. He tugged at his leash inspecting each car as he walked by as if to say "Is this my ride?". I opened the car door and he popped in the back like he'd done it a thousand times. Driving home I thought that life would be smooth sailing for him from now on...It was anything but smooth. Photo below is of Moozie's first day in his new home.
We started Moozie on a course of physical therapy (including stretching and laser treatment) to improve mobility in his neck, which had been compromised from all the scarring. We bulked him up to a solid 50 lbs. That first year, we also noticed him limping on his hind leg, and a visit to the orthopedist confirmed patellar luxation...in both knees. Ugh! OK, we can handle this.
Surgery #2 (his neck being #1) was to fix his left knee (the worst one). Rehabilitation included icing and laser therapy as well as a structured exercise program to strengthen his leg and core. We bought a ramp for the car so that he didn’t have to jump up or down anymore. We added yoga mats to the house and rubber booties to his feet so that he didn't slip as he healed. Here's a video link of how I applied these booties.
We bought a walking harness to help take some pressure off his knees. Once his left knee healed, it was time for Surgery #3 for the right knee. That should have been enough for any dog to deal with and enough for us as well. But it was just the beginning.
When he was 4 years old, I grew concerned; Moozie became increasingly clumsy. Pitbulls are notoriously harsh on their bodies and don't have a good sense of self-preservation. But it was more than that; Moozie was like a pit“bull” in a china shop, crashing into things and falling over, even when sitting. There was definitely something wrong.
After countless and varied diagnoses, a veterinary neurologist finally confirmed that Moozie had cerebellar abiotrophy (CA). What was that??? The condition was so rare that Moozie's blood had to be sent to a laboratory in France for confirmation. The neurologist explained what to expect but I didn't hear a word beyond “he won’t survive more than a 12-18 months”. That was June 10, 2016.
A few days later, it finally sunk in and I started my research. I found out that CA was a genetic disorder; dogs looked similar to those diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM) and other muscle-wasting conditions. There is no cure - only management. Symptoms include:
Muscle loss-atrophy / weakness / stiffness when walking / ataxia / dragging feet
Incoordination / loss of balance / falling
Head shaking / body tremors / generalized anxiety
Loss of vision
When news like this hits people, reaction times and responses vary but at first, I think everyone feels completely overwhelmed. What do I do? Where do I begin? Can I even do this? Yet, life goes on and we accept and adapt to the situation, and the sooner we do, the sooner we can help our pets adapt as well.
I admit that I'm incredibly lucky because I happen to be in the "adaptive equipment" business for pets so I know a lot of ways to help Moozie be as active and happy as possible. Also, I'm fortunate (blessed, really) to know some of the best veterinary rehabilitation professionals in the world. Even so, not too many vets or therapists knew much about CA, and there was a lot of trial and error and banging on many doors to find people who could provide recommendations. The information came in dribs and drabs and had to be assembled in some coherent manner so that we could develop a plan.
It's been nearly 6 years since Moozie's diagnosis; way beyond the 12-18 months of life expectancy he was given. And as I write this, I look down at my feet and see this sweet Moozie-face curled up in his bed and I quietly thank everyone who helped make this possible.
Below is a brief account of what we've done to help Moozie continue to live his best life. As time goes by, he struggles more and we adapt to meet the challenges. Though we know that time with him is limited, there is a small comfort in knowing that we're doing the best that we possibly can for this brave pup, and that our efforts are paying off.
HOW WE STARTED
Diet - Raw food, protein-rich food for muscle retention, mostly lean meats and veggies.
Supplements - Omega 3s and antioxidants. Coenzyme Q-10 for cell energy and protection. L-carnitine for heart and muscle support. Taurine for heart, brain, and eye health.
Therapy - The physical therapist came once a week or so to monitor his progress and modify his exercises. Exercises focused on improving strength, balance, and visual coordination (included walking up/down steps, hills, circles, tug-of-war games, "dancing" on hind legs, moving a treat around and having him follow it with his eyes...).
Adaptive Equipment - Added ramps and used different methods to give him traction inside the house. Long-leash walking with a harness that was modified to help him be more aware of his hind legs and be more balanced (reduce dragging, knuckling of hind paws - see video link).
In October 2016, we started him on an experimental treatment (Regenavate) provided by ReGena-Vet Laboratories. It was a protein-rich, growth factor mixture that we administered under Moozie's skin (sub-Q) once a week. His physical therapist came weekly to assess and monitor his condition.
AS TIME WENT ON
As time went on, Moozie did lose some of his abilities. His eyesight started to fail and he became dizzy, uncoordinated, and nauseous as the disease started to impact his vestibular system. He had mini seizures and became more anxious/nervous. But for the first 3 or so years, his strength remained and his muscle mass actually improved.
As time went on, we changed a few things:
Diet - We started cooking his meat so that it was more gentle on his system.
Supplements - We added muscle formula for dogs and CBD oil to help with seizures and anxiety. We gave him Pepcid daily to help reduce GI upset and vomiting.
Therapies - Continued exercises as tolerated 4-6 days per week. We incorporated more tugging and nose work games (since his eyesight was failing, his nose took over). We brought him to the physical therapist every other week for shockwave treatment for his hips and knees and for myofascial and mobilization work on his spine.
Adaptive Equipment - We outfitted the car with bolsters so that he could be positioned to look out the window without falling over.
After nearly 3 years on Regenavate, we elected to stop the treatment. Though Moozie maintained his strength and muscle, his eyesight, balance, and coordination were so poor that he had trouble walking. He needed to be hand-fed because the head and neck tremors made it impossible for him to eat or drink on his own anymore. We really hesitated to stop this treatment but Moozie didn't like being stuck with a needle every week and it came down to quality of life. Looking back, I think this treatment helped more than we could have hoped for or imagined and in ways that we never expected.
NOW-NEARLY 6 YEARS AFTER DIAGNOSIS
Moozie is 11 years old. This morning, I took him for a 20-minute walk in the park, we played a game of fetch with his favorite yellow softball, and we drove around the countryside for half an hour, really slow and with the windows down so he could sniff. He is outfitted with a modified harness; one that helps me support him as we walk or when he "runs" (hops and sometimes flops) after the ball. The harness is super-soft, lined with sheepskin, and ultra-comfy so that I can leave it on him all day. It has a handle so that we can move him short distances and help him posture when he potties. Below are photos of Moozie with some of the harnesses we tried and modified.
Moozie has started to have a few accidents in the house, so we take him out to potty more frequently. He's having more bouts of dizziness and vomiting and we give him Cerenia as needed. Luckily, he's had very few seizures, and we credit the CBD oil for keeping them at bay.
Now, nearly 6 years after diagnosis, this is what I've learned:
Let your dog be your guide. Use what motivates him (e.g., toy, food, car ride) and work with that to achieve your exercise goals.
Adaptive equipment like ramps, harnesses, and traction aids allows dogs to be more mobile. The easier you make their lives, the easier it will be on you (e.g., with a ramp there's no need to pick them up to put them in the car).
Exercise "smarter", not "longer". When it comes to exercise, longer is not necessarily better. Incorporate therapeutic activities into everyday fun, feeding time, and playtime. Even giving your dog a snack can be turned into a therapeutic exercise. This way, you incorporate exercise into your normal, daily routine and don't have to make more time for it later.
Mental stimulation is physically exhausting. Dogs with mobility issues still need to get their energy out. Since they can't do as much physically, mental exercises are even more important and can be equally tiring. Nose work and enrichment toys really help. Remember how tired you were after taking an exam in school? Same thing holds true for dogs. Car rides are also mentally stimulating and a good way to engage a pup with mobility issues.
Remember water and scratches. Most of us are good at feeding our dogs but some dogs with mobility issues can't do everyday things, like walk to the water bowl when they're thirsty. Remember to offer them water several times a day. And remember to scratch their ears and body because their back feet can't do it... and because they love it!
You're not alone. Ask for help. There are so many amazing people out there who are more than happy to lend their experience and expertise.
Here's a video of Moozie in the snow last year. He needed to go potty but wanted to play tug-of-war instead. Stubborn, funny dog!
As with any healthcare concern related to your pet, please consult with your veterinary professional so that you can work together to come up with the best options for your pup.
Author: Ilaria Borghese and Moozie
Moozie taken March 6, 2022 in the park - we made it across the bridge!
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This article first appeared in Vital Vet