Most people know that one of my best friends since the summer of 2005 is my black lab & greyhound cross, Zeus. I adopted him shortly after I graduated from university and moved to Kapuskasing, ON for my first job. I took him to the vet right away to make sure everything was ok with him and she assessed him to be around 1.5 years old and as healthy as can be. Since then he’s become an avid traveler taking flights from ON to BC, drives to and from Saskatoon, basically following us around the country as we moved for my job.
So picture this.. we’re living in Toronto in September 2011. It’s a beautiful evening in late summer and I take Zeus out with his Chuckit and a tennis ball to the field close to our apartment building that we would typically go to. I throw the ball a few times and Zeus sprints to get the ball, bringing it back to me. Then on one throw he was sprinting to get the ball and as he dropped his head to grab the ball, his rear right leg slipped outward on a leaf. He gave a yelp and dropped onto his bum but tried to get up and couldn’t. By this time I dropped the Chuckit and ran to him. I helped him stand up but his rear right leg could not hold his weight and he kept falling over. He didn’t appear to be in any pain but for all intensive purposes, the rear right leg seemed to me to be paralyzed.
I tried to keep a cool head and grabbed my phone to call the vet. It was past his office hours but I knew that he would have a phone number for a 24-hour clinic in his office voicemail message and so I called them and told them to expect me. Since Zeus couldn’t walk without falling over, I lifted his 70 lb (32 kg) body up in my arms like a deer and carried him for half a block to our apartment building, got him loaded into the car, and drove downtown to the 24-hour clinic.
After a brief wait, the vet took him to the back for around 20 minutes and then came out to tell me his initial assessment was that the injury could either be a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) or a slipped disk. He said he was leaning more towards the FCE because there wasn’t any pain and an FCE causes neurological damage. However, since he was just the on-call vet, he said the neurologist would inspect Zeus the next day and make his recommendation… so yes, my dog had a neurologist! The neurologist gave a very similar assessment and since we didn’t want to pay $2,000 for a special type of X-ray to be sure, he said we could take him home but for 3 weeks he could only go outside to do his business and then back inside. We went to see him after the 3 weeks and Zeus had shown significant progress by then so the neurologist was almost certain it was an FCE but asked us to wait another 2 weeks before letting him play again.
What is FCE Anyway?
To understand FCE, you have to understand some anatomy of the vertebral column. The vertebral column consists of numerous small bones called vertebrae that are linked together by joints called intervertebral disks. The disks are similar to the joints that connect arm or leg bones together in many ways. They allow flexibility between vertebrae so that you can arch or twist your back voluntarily just as you can flex and extend a knee or elbow.
The disks are unique as well. A joint of the appendicular skeleton, say a knee or elbow, has a capsule which secretes a lubricating fluid. The bones are capped with smooth cartilage to facilitate frictionless gliding as the surfaces move during flexion and extension. The disk is nothing like this. It is more like a cushion between the end plates of the vertebrae. It is round (hence the name disk) and fibrous on the outside with a soft gelatinous inside to absorb the forces to which the bones are exposed. This jelly-like inside material inside is called the nucleus pulposus and it is this material that makes up the fibrocartilaginous embolus.
The vertebral column provides a bony protective case around the vulnerable spinal cord. The spinal cord is the cable of nerve connections that transmits messages to and from the brain and controls the reflexes of the body. The spinal cord is fed by a network of spinal arteries. In FCE, somehow the material from the nucleus pulposus enters the arterial system and is carried to the spinal cord where it causes a blood vessel obstruction: an embolism. This area of the spinal cord actually dies. The process is not painful but complete recovery is not likely. Whatever neurologic loss has occurred within the first 24 hours is likely to be permanent, though at least the condition does not get progressively worse.
So, after 5 weeks of almost no activity, he was ready to go to the park. We passed some squirrels along the way and Zeus insisted on showing them he was doing well by chasing them up their trees. We proceeded to the dog park and he spent a good long while running around and chasing some doggy friends. I still had the 70-200mm lens that I had rented for the Toronto Zombie Walk from my previous post so I got some great photos of Zeus at play.
Although he gave us quite a scare when it happened, it’s been over 3 years since his FCE happened and he’s doing very well. Next month he will turn 10 years old and even though his body is getting old and giving signs of slowing down, he still has the mentality of a 1 year old puppy and is always ready to play. He’s still one of my best friends and looking into his brown eyes each morning inspires me to get out of bed and get started with my day!