Eight weeks ago, our two year old Brittany, Zip, was hit by a truck in front of our house at 6 in the morning. Although it was too dark to see precisely what happened, my husband and I got to Zip within 10 seconds of impact. He could not bear any weight on his front leg and kept collapsing to the ground when he tried to walk. I assumed the leg was broken, and we rushed him to the Emergency Veterinary Hospital 35 minutes away. He was quiet on the car ride and did not appear to be in pain.
They took him in right away. A vet came and spoke with us shortly thereafter, saying she had done a quick exam, was going to take him for full x-rays, and that she suspected a brachial plexus avulsion, a term I had never heard.
How I react to a medical crisis is to gather as much information as possible. Sitting in the waiting room, I got on my phone and soon learned that both humans and animals have a brachial plexus. It is a bundle of nerves located in the armpit that control function to the arm or, in the case of a dog, the front leg. In dogs, the injury most commonly results from a motor vehicle accident in which the dog is thrown. When he lands, the leg is bent back at an odd angle and essentially wrenched; and the nerve bundle is stretched and in some cases torn.
Zip was extraordinarily lucky because he did not have any other injuries or broken bones. But he had no feeling at all in the leg and could not bear any weight. The vet kept him overnight for observation. A different vet examined him the next day and also believed he had an avulsion. He was kept an additional night so that he could be seen on Monday morning by the Hospital’s surgeon.
I did a Google search on the surgeon and read his extensive credentials. Dr. Benson is a board certified veterinary surgeon who is specially trained in orthopedic and soft-tissue surgery. He has been working as the emergency hospital’s surgeon for the past 15 years. It was very helpful to know his background, and I was happy to have such an experienced specialist for Zip.
After Zip was examined by Dr. Benson, he suggested exactly what I had learned in my research…..that we wait 4 weeks to see if Zip regained any use of the leg. Nerve regeneration is exceedingly slow. The possibility also existed that Zip’s nerves were severed and function would not return. Dr. Benson put his odds of recovering function at 30%. We scheduled a return visit in 4 weeks and went home with Zip.
We then consulted a skilled canine physical therapist who began cold laser therapy treatments throughout the next four weeks. In addition, we did range of motion exercises, massage, and hot and cold treatments on the leg and shoulder.
I continued doing online research on brachial plexus avulsions. Zip’s leg was completely flaccid, could not bear any weight, had no deep pain reflex, and he dragged his foot so that the top of the foot faced the ground and the pad was up. I learned that often this injury results in amputation.
I was shattered by the thought of him losing his front leg. One of my biggest joys in life comes from being active every day with our two Brittanys and watching them run and hunt. My husband and I are retired and spend a lot of time with our dogs. We do our own training. We belong to a bird dog club so we can train and hunt year round. The day Zip was injured was the final day of pheasant season in our State, and he and I had a wonderful season. He was the dog of my dreams, and I was looking forward to many more years of hunting with him. How could a three legged dog run or hunt?
Early on, I leaned on close friends for strength to get through this; they listened to all the thoughts swirling in my head and offered a shoulder to cry on. I also belong to several Facebook Groups for Brittany lovers. I post often, and Zip is well known in these virtual communities. At first I was hesitant to open up publicly because my husband and I were both dealing with guilt around the accident. None of us can keep our dogs safe 100% of the time, but we thought that we failed Zip by letting him out loose that morning; and we felt responsible for his injury. My fear was that I would be chastised by others. Despite my initial hesitation and after talking it over with my close friends, I did share Zip’s story on Facebook and received a flood of support. I was overwhelmed at the outpouring of encouragement and love that was offered and didn’t receive a single negative comment. To this day, the support I receive is unending and has helped me tremendously.
Zip’s odds of retaining the leg weren’t great, and I am a realist by nature. Because I didn’t personally know any three legged dogs, I searched for information online. First I found a website with a wealth of information for tripawds (the preferred term for three legged dogs), such as how to make the house easier for Zip to navigate by covering hardwood floors with anti-fatigue or yoga mats, elevating his food dishes, and purchasing a particular type of harness with a handle in case he needed assistance with stairs or getting in and out of the car. I put up a baby gates on the stairway to the second floor so he could not fall down the stairs.
Then I again turned to Facebook and joined two groups for tripawds. I put up my first post, introducing Zip and asking if anyone had gone through this injury. One of the first responses I received was from a woman who has a German Shorthair whose leg was removed 5 years earlier as a result of the same injury. She shared stories, videos and photos of her dog running and hunting. We messaged back and forth, and she helped begin my healing process by showing me what is possible for Zip.
I read posts written by others whose dogs had or were facing amputation. It was so helpful to read about others’ experiences. I saw many photos of incisions, which took my fear of the unknown away. I learned about pain management and the recovery process. I was in awe of all the videos showing three legged dogs running, playing, and doing exactly what four legged dogs do.
Four weeks went by, and we saw no improvement in Zip’s leg. We went to our appointment with Dr. Benson. He examined Zip carefully and spent a lot of time with us, answering all our questions. His recommendation was to remove the leg. He told us about several tripawds he knows that compete in hunt tests against four legged dogs and regularly come out on top. He assured us that Zip would have a quick recovery because he is a muscular athletic medium size dog at a good weight and already had adjusted to life on three legs.
Next I made an appointment with Zip’s regular vet, who I respect and trust. She carefully examined Zip and concurred with Dr. Benson’s assessment. She spent time reassuring us how well tripawds manage. Her recommendation was to keep doing what we do now with Zip…..exercise him every day year round and keep him in top condition and not let him get overweight. She believed that he would live a long healthy life and quickly be back in the field hunting. So both vets recommended amputation.
Back I went to the internet, doing another thorough search of the injury, making sure I didn’t miss anything. I read vet journals and sifted through the technical language. On Facebook Tripawd pages, I talked with others whose dogs had the same injury. Some had waited as long as four months for signs of nerve regeneration and tried different bracing and bandaging techniques to protect the leg which were ultimately unsuccessful and resulted in the skin breaking down and led to infection.
Zip continued to be his usual energetic self on three legs, playing with our other Brittany, racing around the yard, going on walks in the woods, and staying ever alert for the presence of squirrels in the yard. I was amazed at how well he did. However, I also watched Zip bang his leg off of every stair he went up or down. He banged it on the kitchen cabinets, on the doorframe as he went in and out. Sometimes he would step on the floppy leg with his back leg and trip. We received a foot of snow, and the leg further slowed him down since it dragged in the snow. Because his leg had no feeling, the risk of injury was high.
Finally I took my newfound knowledge, all that I learned from others, what I observed myself, and what I felt in my heart and scheduled Zip’s amputation surgery for seven weeks post-injury. I felt 100% confident that it was the right decision for Zip, and I was confident in Dr. Benson’s skill.
Surgery was last week; it went well, and he is recovering beautifully.
And now I have made it my mission to help other people who are newly facing the loss of their dog’s leg by sharing Zip’s story and showing others what is indeed possible. Dogs live in the present and only know ability, not disability.