Spike on the mend

Thanks to all those who’ve had our dog Spike in their thoughts while she’s been unwell. Spike’s in a better place, I’m happy to report, because of a dogged veterinary team and the human pharmaceutical industry.

Spike wouldn’t get up one day late last year, not even for treats, unheard of when it comes to Spike. We went to see our vet Fraser who quickly concluded that Spike was in pain and it wasn’t tick paralysis or a stomach upset. Sometimes I think Fraser understands what animals would tell us if they could speak. We went home with anti-inflammatories, which helped, but when Spike finished them and the symptoms returned, with others more concerning, Fraser, who thought this might happen, referred us to a veterinary surgeon.

We were worried about seeing a surgeon— surgeons do surgery, after all—especially my son to whom Spike is probably most dear. Unlike all the other creatures at our house, Spike has no expectations, and she doesn’t yell. But the surgeon, Dr Wendy, is another vet who understands animals. She examined Spike and said she thought it might be spinal disc disease. To confirm, Spike had a CAT scan—this didn’t involve Spike scanning for cats, which she would have liked—under general anaesthetic—imagine telling a dog to stay perfectly still—which confirmed a small lesion at the tail end of Spike’s spine, possibly because of a weakness in her cavoodle breed, combined with jumping up, (never on the beds of course).

The lesion might affect Spike’s hind legs, tail and toileting, Dr Wendy said. Spike had pain, but it was the toileting that was the big problem. Spike was starting to lose the ability to know when she was doing a number 2. Surgery might be the best option, Dr Wendy said, to repair the lesion, because total incontinence, when it’s a neurological problem, doesn’t always improve, even after surgery. We might need to act quickly to halt the progression. But it’s tricky surgery in a little dog, and the prospect of causing Spike pain and a long, slow recovery made me blanch. Should we put her through this?

Because the lesion was small, Dr Wendy decided to try medication first, a human drug called gabapentin, developed to help reduce seizures in people with epilepsy. Gabapentin changes the way nerves send messages to the brain. In humans, it’s been used for other things, although US pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, which now owns gabapentin, has been in trouble for marketing it for conditions it wasn’t created for and regulators haven’t approved it for.

One of the conditions gabapentin wasn’t created for was our dog Spike’s toileting but frankly, I don’t care. Not only is Spike better on that score, she’s also stopped limping, and she’s started chasing tennis balls, and paintbrushes, and shiny rocks on the back deck. She’s back to her old cat-loving, possum-howling, treat-addicted self, and we are so happy. The downside is that she has to take three expensive tablets every day – no Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for pets – but these can be served in tiny balls of mince or chicken so they’re not too much of a burden from Spike’s point of view. Surgery may loom down the track, but for now she’s herself again.

I sometimes grumble about my chosen vocation. Most writers don’t make much money, and although the bestselling end of the profession is often what’s reported, the average writer’s income  is teeny. We do it for love, I say on good days. But veterinarians are the real deal. They have to ace high school, study for five years and then, if they specialise, work for another five years and do further study towards specialist examinations. They have a starting salary lower than a classroom teacher and a career average that’s nothing like their human medical colleagues. In my experience, they do long consultations and don’t charge what they should.

Most vets could probably have done anything career-wise and yet they picked caring for animals and the people who love them. Even if Spike can’t articulate it, we know how lucky we are that our vet Fraser and our vet surgeon Dr Wendy are in the world.