Last summer, Shelby fell ill rather quickly. Although I made several trips with her to the vet, I had no idea what was really wrong with her and that petrified me.
Many of my loyal readers may recall that my last Cocker Spaniel, Frenchy, died suddenly in 2012 of an immune-mediated illness. In a matter of 6 short days, Frenchy went from panting a lot to leaving us forever so, to say that I was worried about Shelby is a massive understatement.
The first thing I noticed was that Shelby vomited and had trouble walking. In fact, she fell a few times which was very odd. I immediately suspected hip dysplasia because Frenchy also had this problem for years and I knew short-legged dogs (especially overweight ones) are prone to this. Frenchy never had surgery for hip dysplasia but she had flare ups from time to time and was treated with steroids. I figured this was Shelby’s issue but a day later, she began walking a bit cockeyed, seemed slightly disoriented, and her head was tilted. This didn’t seem like hip dysplasia anymore and I worried it was her spine.
I thought of some of the senior Cocker Spaniels that I’ve seen under Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue‘s care – many of whom have vestibular disease (their heads are tilted), but I was pretty sure Shelby was too young for something like that since she’s only 4 years old.
Vet Visit #1
My vet did a thorough examination and didn’t think anything was wrong with Shelby’s hip or spine. I was actually relieved to hear this information. But she did pick up on something I had not: Half of Shelby’s face was paralyzed. One of her eyes would not close and her mouth drooped on that same side. She had been drooling all over her neck and ear but I didn’t actually notice the drooping until the vet pointed it out to me.
Two weeks prior to all of this, I treated Shelby for an ear infection. Unlike most other Cocker Spaniels (including Frenchy), Shelby rarely has an ear infection so it was a bit unusual. Because of my history with Frenchy’s ears, I’m very comfortable cleaning and treating infected ears so I put some ointment that I had on hand in Shelby’s ears without spending money on a vet visit. Turns out, the vet believed Shelby’s partial facial paralysis was likely a result of that recent ear infection. Her ears were still fairly red and inflamed but because the vet couldn’t see anything terribly bad, she suspected it was a nasty inner ear infection. Apparently, many dogs actually experience partial facial paralysis from such things. The paralysis is typically only temporary but on rare occasions, it is permanent. I went home with antibiotics, steroids, Dramamine, and eye drops (to keep that paralyzed eye moist), and I prayed the paralysis would magically disappear.
From Bad To Better… To Worse
Shelby finished all of her medicine. The paralysis didn’t go away and I was feeding her dry food out of the palm of my hand to make sure she could eat with the drooping. She was still drooling quite a bit so I changed the water in her water bowl often. Her spirits seemed lifted and I thought we were on the road to a full recovery until…
I realized that her right eye was infected. I took her back to the vet as soon as possible. My vet performed various tests on both of Shelby’s eyes, waving her hand extra close to Shelby’s face to see if her eyes blinked but Shelby didn’t flinch. Bad news: The other side of Shelby’s face was now paralyzed also. Her eyes were not closing except for her third eyelid which helped her blink. I was in shock to say the least. At this point, my vet believed the cause might be idiopathic and she recommended I see a neurologist for X-rays and an MRI to rule out a brain tumor.
I brought Shelby to The Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, a 24-hour animal hospital that Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue often brings dogs for treatment. By this time, Shelby was occasionally bumping into walls in our apartment and objects outside during our daily walks. She was in good spirits so I figured this was all due to more disorientation caused by the fact that her eyes couldn’t close.
A team of neurologists examined Shelby in a back room (this is normal procedure at the AMC). When our main neurologist returned, he told me that they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary with her behavior except for a slight head tilt. I argued that she was bumping into objects but he said she seemed fine in the back room and explained that one of the reasons they remove a dog from its owner is to observe their behavior in a new environment with new people. He said under normal circumstances, they would try antibiotics for an inner ear infection but because I had already tried this route, he wasn’t confident that would solve the problem.
At this point, I had a vivid flashback to my first year of graduate school when I visited my university’s infirmary for a terrible sore throat. They wouldn’t let me see a doctor and the nurse who examined me refused to give me antibiotics because she thought I just had a virus. I was in so much throat pain that I begged and pleaded, and even drew tears for a strep test. She left the room to consult with the doctor and when she returned, she not only granted me that strep test but she wanted to test me for mononucleosis. (Good hunch and good thing I didn’t take “no” for an answer; I tested positive for mono).
I SWORE to the neurologist that Shelby was bumping into things and I needed answers. He left the room to consult with the rest of the team and while he was gone, Shelby hit her head rather hard on the metal garbage pail that was hanging from the examination table in the room. I knew something was wrong. After I relayed this information to the doctor, he agreed they should proceed with an MRI and a spinal tap.
Testing for Answers
I dropped Shelby off a few days later for her MRI and spinal tap and headed to work. The neurologist called me in the afternoon to tell me that Shelby’s ears were clear. In fact, he said, they were quite surprised by how clear they actually were considering her breed. He also said there was no presence of a tumor but that they weren’t able to get enough spinal fluid to test. She was waking up from the anesthesia and I could pick her up in a few hours.
Of course, I was relieved to hear she didn’t have a brain tumor but I was secretly hoping they would find an inner ear infection because at least that would explain her symptoms. Now I was left with nothing! No explanation!
When I picked Shelby up at the AMC, the neurologist told me that they wanted to test her blood for infectious diseases. I asked if Lyme Disease was one of them but he told me that Lyme doesn’t have neurological symptoms in dogs the way it does in humans. They would be testing for several different diseases. It was a long shot and expensive but they hoped it would reveal something. Low and behold…
Shelby had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The doctors were just as surprised as I was because apparently, they had only seen 5 recent cases of it. It was a low positive which meant they weren’t sure how long ago Shelby contracted the diseases but it was high enough that the team of neuros thought it could have caused symptoms and that she should be treated for it. They weren’t 100% positive that her paralysis would go away completely and warned me that it could be permanent.
Shelby was treated with 30 days of a strong antibiotic. Her personality eventually went back to normal. The paralysis in her face has all but gone away. She still has some drooping on the right side of her mouth but it doesn’t seem to affect her drinking or eating habits. I continued to treat her eyes with gel drops to keep them moist. It took about 4 months before they were eventually able to close.
What I Learned
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a tick-borne disease. From what I’ve read, the symptoms vary but often affect the eyes and a loss of coordination. I should have demanded blood tests up front, though my vet likely would not have tested for such a rare disease so I’m not sure if initial blood work would have solved things.
- Just because I live in New York City, does not mean that my dog is immune to illnesses caused by ticks or mosquitoes. I should know all about this because I wrote a 2 part blog post series last May about the dangers of insect bites after I interviewed certified dog consultant and behaviorist Steve Dale. Note to self: Do NOT skip flea and tick preventative treatment… ever.
- I was right to push for answers. I know my dog better than any vet and I knew something was wrong. I continued to ask questions until the mystery was solved and most importantly, I never gave up hope.
Disclaimer: This post is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not meant to substitute for any medical advice provided by your veterinarian. You should not use information contained in this post to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or prescribe any medication. If you suspect that your pet has a medical problem, contact your veterinarian.
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