Marionettes and Milk Bones

By Kris Ferrazza | May 08, 2014

Angus is recovering from what is called “the nastiest injury in sports.”

Our happy, shaggy collie dog was diagnosed with an ACL tear a few months ago. The star athlete is in good company, for sure, having joined the ranks of those other handsome dogs, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. But unlike those NFL players, money doesn’t grow on trees at our house, and fixing a blown knee can cost as much as a used car.

It started a few years back when we were taking a family portrait. I insisted we bring the dog. After all, he’s a huge part of our family, and the photographer was happy to have him. (OK, what else could she say?)

We arrived at the studio and Angus walked in proudly, freshly groomed and tail waving like a flag. In an instant, he wiped out on the hardwood floor. He looked like Bambi trying to skate. When he jumped up, his hind leg was tucked under him, and he hopped on three legs.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” we joked, channeling Monty Python, and went on with our photo shoot.

When the proofs came back, we eliminated the ones of Angus. His normally bright eyes looked sad and his ears drooped. This was not a moment we wanted to remember.

A quick Internet search of his symptoms screamed “ACL tear,” so I scheduled a trip to the vet. After an exam, she said it should heal with rest and pain meds, and home we went. In time, it did seem to heal, but once or twice a year he would turn up lame, and it always was the same knee.

This winter there was no denying something was wrong with old Angus. Now more than 7 years old, we wondered if the bitter cold and age might be playing a role. But when he started to struggle to get up from his bed, I took to the Internet once again. This time I convinced myself it was a tumor or degenerative myelopathy (DM), which is incurable and affects the spine. We took him to the doc, and when he jumped out of my car, he started limping on his front leg too. Awesome. So, the visit went something like this:

Vet: “Oh my, you ARE lame.”

Me: “Actually, it’s the hind leg we’re worried about.”

Vet: “Oh, but he’s worse on the front.”

Me: “No, that’s nothing. That just happened in the parking lot. Really, it’s the hind.”

The vet looked at me like I was insane, drew blood to check for tick-borne illnesses, and examined him. She ultimately manipulated his front leg and shoulder until it made a loud pop, then sent us on our way. As usual, after a few days he stopped limping. And his lab results were negative. But a month later, the lameness was back with a vengeance on the hind leg.

Back we went. The vet manipulated his hind leg and grimaced.

“His ACL is ruptured,” she said.

Because of my Internet research, I knew what was involved — and the pricetag.

“I need to sit down for this,” I said, and slowly slid down the wall to the floor.

A week later Angus went to a surgeon in Portland and underwent surgery to repair the torn cruciate ligament. They cut the bone in his knee, reset it and screwed in back together with a metal plate. We brought him home a day later. We all looked dazed and confused. Angus wore a plastic cone and at least had the benefit of pain meds. I had five pages of instructions, three types of medications, and stern orders from the doc that he was not to MOVE except to go to the bathroom.

“It’s going to be like having a newborn for the first two weeks,” the surgeon said.

“Come on,” I thought to myself. “Clearly this lady has never had a baby.”

But apparently she had. I thought of her words that first night as I slept on the floor next to my dog, listening for any signs of distress, watching the clock to time his pain meds, and waiting to see if he needed to relieve himself. Yup, I was back on baby duty.

To complicate things, they gave us a sling to help him walk to the bathroom. This essentially turned my dog into a marionette puppet. I would hold the leash in my left hand to control the front of him, and the sling was like a sheepskin belt tucked under his belly, that I held by two nylon handles in my right hand. This controlled his hind end, so if his one good leg slipped, I could hold him up.

Watching me walk the dog was comedy and tragedy. He would stagger and stumble because he was drugged, and weave in front of me. Perhaps I wasn’t driving him properly or maybe he was attempting to herd me (it’s hard to tell with collies).

I would alternately encourage and curse him. It was snowy and cold and my mittened hands would inevitably drop one side of the sling on the ground accidentally. He’d instantly step through the looped handle with his one good leg and start to trip. When we finally reached our destination, I’d have to remove the sling in a hurry before he started to pee on it.

Good times.

After two weeks, the surgeon checked the incision and declared it 100 percent healed. The lampshade could be removed. Milk Bones all around! Even better, the knee already had 95 percent range of motion, which she said was excellent. Six more weeks of leash walking, only to the potty, and we might be home free.

We walked him to the bathroom and kept him quiet for another six weeks. Given what a rough winter it was (even without an invalid dog), it is a miracle our marriage, and our sanity, survived.

At times, the stress took a toll, as my sleep-deprived husband and I snapped at each other and argued about everything that pertained to Angus. But there were a few things that made us laugh. The dog’s entire hind leg was shaved, and looked like a chicken quarter. The only fur was a tuft down near his foot. With the rest of his body concealed in fur, he looked like Angelina Jolie with that one bare leg exposed.

I insisted on sleeping on the floor with him, and one night woke to hear a strange rumbling sound. Convinced he had the death rattle, I felt around in the dark, only to find the cat had joined our slumber party and was purring loudly between the two of us.

And finally, my daughter caught a stomach bug and passed it on to us the second day the dog was home. So I was keeping track of his three different pills, which had to be taken at 4, 8 and 12-hour intervals around the clock. Meanwhile, we were suffering with nausea and migraines. To top it off? It was Daylight Savings Time. You can’t make it up.

Now, a full eight weeks later, Angus just got a clean bill of health from the surgeon. X-rays reveal his leg has healed 100 percent and he can slowly resume a normal schedule. He seems happier than he’s been in years. We know we made the right decision in getting him the surgery. And the bill is nearly paid off, which is good too.

There’s only one catch: half of all canine ACL patients go on to blow out the other knee within the next two years.

And the beat goes on.

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