Exercise induced Paralysis in a young Labrador Retriever Dog
What you don't know can hurt your companion
(link to the beginning of Article)The history was that of temporary, complete paralysis of the rear legs occurring at some point during her vigorous nonstop running at the local beach. The owners related that when they would arrive at the beach, Crew would immediately begin galloping up and down the beach chasing away the sea birds assembled at the ocean's edge doing what sea birds do. The flock would stay one step ahead of her, taking flight at the last possible moment up the beach and down the beach almost as if to taunt her. They told me that about 45 minutes into this nonstop chase Crew's rear legs would suddenly stop working and she would attempt to continue on, using her front legs to pull herself along like a seal.
The first time this happened they were in stunned disbelief and rushed her to a local emergency Vet. However, by the time they got there Crew had regained her lost strength and appeared to be perfectly normal in all respects on examination. Understandably this was a "head scratcher" for the Vet who was at a loss to explain what had happened.
This pattern of transient total paralysis of the rear legs occurred every time they went to the beach and typically, control would resume following 15 minutes of owner-enforced rest. Not wanting to stop her fun outings to the beach they explored the malady further with additional consultations with specialists to try to figure it out. Unfortunately these visits provided no additional information inasmuch as the specialists were equally perplexed and the suggestion was made to just stop taking her to the beach as a solution. Not satisfied with this solution and noticing that the episodes were coming on sooner and sooner, eventually someone suggested looking into an alternative form of therapy for answers and that is how I got the call for a consultation.
I met the Owners and Crew at one of the many Veterinary clinics I work with. I to could find nothing in her presentation that seemed amiss. She was as energetic and vibrant as any young Labrador I had seen, maybe more so. The history, with the exception of this weird neurologic phenomenon was unremarkable. She was a lean physical specimen. Thinking it was a weekend warrior syndrome, only exerting herself at the beach and couch potato'ing the rest of the week, I asked about other exercise. They told me that once a day Dad plays a long session of fetch after work to wear her out before dinner. A dead end there. However, on palpation it was clear that the Thoracolumbar junction (mid back) region of the spine was a "disaster area." This portion of the spine in dogs is always extremely flexible and is especially supple in young dogs. In Crew's case her spine was more like that of an older dog. I was surprised, since I couldn't recall ever feeling that significant a problem in a 1 year old dog's spine before. From previous encounters with smaller dogs with similar findings I asked if Crew spent time jumping on and off of a high bed or retaining wall. They explained to me that she did not.
Starting that visit I began the corrective process and sent them on their way after scheduling a follow-up. I admonished them to not go to the beach, at least initially during care. As I recall it took a number of visits, but eventually her spine began to function more like that of a one year old once again. I then scheduled them for a month follow-up. I told them to try going back to the beach and testing it out. I was fairly confident that the problem would not recur. A week later I was proven correct when they called and reported that Crew had run like a maniac for 45 minutes at the beach a day before and ended with zero trouble. They were ecstatic. I felt like, "Who's da Man!" However, that cocky feeling vanished 2 weeks later when they called and reported that the phenomenon had returned with a vengeance that day at the beach.
I told them to come to the Vet clinic immediately and I rearranged my schedule to accommodate them. When they arrived and I examined Crew I was shocked to find the spinal problem had also returned with a vengeance. I recall having difficulty wrapping my wits around this. Here was a young, supremely fit Labrador running around like millions of other dogs her age yet Crew somehow damages her spine and with vigorous activity becomes paralyzed. So at this point I began to ask lots of questions. Where and how does she sleep? Has she collided with anything since I last saw her ? Does she swim in the cold ocean water just before this paralysis comes on? I recall that you play fetch each night after work, how long do you play fetch each night? Has the problem ever occurred after playing fetch? Do you play fetch at a local school on grass or over the hard pavement like on the street? etc. Then he came out with, "oh we play fetch on the hill behind my house, but it's soft dirt." I then asked the owner to explain this activity further and tell me what exactly this hilltop ball playing entails. He went on to explain that when he arrives home from work, they hike to the top of the hill behind their house and once there he commences with repeatedly throwing the tennis ball as far as he can down the hill. Crew would then charge at full speed down the hill crashing through the weeds and brush energetically searching until she found it. She would then charge back to the top the hill for another round. In that "aha moment," I surmised that this had to be the source of ongoing micro-trauma to her spine. Running at full speed down hill must create the same pathomechanics (damage to joints because of excessive or abnormal biomechanical loading) for larger dogs, that jumping off of couches and beds repeatedly creates in small breeds. From this I determined that they would have to stop playing hill top fetch for this to finally resolve.
At this point I began correcting the spinal problem again for Crew. As I recall, I saw Crew a few more times and then scheduled a one month follow-up. I also recall that they subsequently missed this appointment. When I called them to find out what had happened, they told me that they had just "spaced" and forgot the appointment, but that crew had been to the beach weekly without incident and that they would call me if it ever happened again. I never heard from them subsequently.
This case was fairly early on in my career helping animals. I look back at this and so many other learning experiences like it, thankful for the opportunity to deal with these complex and perplexing cases. It is axiomatic that you will always learn more from the difficult cases than you ever will from the routine ones and if one is willing to take the time to ask as many questions as it takes to resolve the mystery in front of you, you just might solve the puzzle.