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The Saga of Bolt: Recovery from Canine Distemper in Indonesia
by Martin Schell

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Around the time he became six months old, our Siberian Husky/German Shepherd mix Bolt ran off in panic at the sound of New Year’s fireworks. We recovered him a few days later after someone in a nearby residential area saw our flyer. During the interim, he was exposed to distemper.

Breeders and pet dealers both try to minimize overhead expenses because they don’t know how long it will be before a dog in their inventory is purchased. It is common for a breeder and/or dealer to bluff about a dog’s medical record. Their vague communication is sometimes exposed when they name only one or two diseases as having been vaccinated against, even though most vets now give a single injection that covers four or five at once.

We didn’t recognize the disease in Bolt until he fell down with a brief fit late in January 2013 and we took him to the vet. The vet pointed out pustules on his belly and explained that the runny nose and eyes were also indications of distemper, as were jaw movements known as “chewing gum fits”. His diagnosis was that Bolt had entered the third and deepest phase of the disease, which was affecting his nervous system.

The vet explained that the disease could not be treated directly, but could be fought off by the dog’s immune system and eventually held in a kind of “balance”: if the dog was otherwise healthy, the distemper would be kept at bay; if the dog got sick, the virus would flare up again.

We tried a megadose of vitamin A injected in each foreleg, but it seemed to have no effect. In fact, shortly afterward, in February, the dog’s condition worsened from staggering to being unable to stand and walk. However, his appetite remained good, which the vet said was a sign of strong will to live.

We contacted a younger vet who was just establishing her practice in our town. Dr. Arysthia said she had some success using megadoses of vitamin B to treat a dog’s stroke. This re-categorization of Bolt’s triage gave us hope. On February 28, she began injecting Neurobion at a dosage of 5,000 mcg of B12 (plus 100 mg each B1 and B6), divided between the two hind legs.

Dr. Arysthia injected Bolt 4 days in a row, waited a week, and then followed up with 3 injections spaced at 48-hour intervals. We then waited two weeks before a final (8th) injection on April 2. During this time, we also consulted Dr. Brouillette, a California vet who is the niece of an old friend.

Aside from hybrid vigor and a good appetite favoring Bolt’s recovery, Dr. Brouillette noted that the low statistics on distemper survival were probably skewed because most people euthanize rather than providing intensive care and/or listening to their dog howl in pain. Actual stats relevant to those who attempt to nurse the dog to recovery are not available, she said.

In addition to the injections, we had to worm him once and treat a respiratory infection. I also massaged his limbs a few minutes every day.

We provided an old rubber camping mat and Bolt diligently maintained his toilet training by relieving himself on it. By mid March, he was able to sit and also was regularly crawling out of the garage (where he slept and ate) to the driveway to defecate, sometimes urinating there as well. Our hearts were clearly moved to see his dedication to minimizing the mess.

He often cried at night, which we assumed was due to pain. However, Dr. Arysthia suggested that it might be from loneliness. When my wife had reached her limit of losing sleep, I decided to lie down next to Bolt in the garage one night, and sure enough he stopped crying.

By late March, he could spread his back toes and lick them clean. He also wagged his tail when I came home from a business trip. By the time he got his final injection at the beginning of April, he was able to stand briefly and walk a few steps, lurching his way to the yard in order to defecate.

A week later (April 8), Bolt was able to walk about 20 feet, though still unsteady. We recognized that he had now recovered roughly to the point he was at 2 months earlier (beginning of February).

His front legs were noticeably weaker than his hind legs and showed more tremor (myoclonus). However, by April 20, he was stable enough on 4 legs to urinate. Two days later, he crossed our entire yard from back to front and defecated in the vacant lot on the opposite side of our dead-end street.

On May 19, I took him for a long walk (about a mile) and saw him lift his leg to urinate for the first time since his illness began. I then went to visit the US for a couple weeks. When I returned in June, Bolt was able to run, jump, and play. By the end of that month, he could run faster than I can.

As he approached his first birthday (July 2), he began to grow noticeably, including a kind of “mane” on his neck and a thickening of his tail (as well as fluffier fur there). His height and weight increased rapidly at that time.

In the ensuing 9 months, he has continued to progress in minor ways, regaining abilities that most dog owners take for granted. For example, although he could run by the end of June, he would not cross the foot-wide gap of a drainage ditch. He soon regained that ability, but additional weeks elapsed before he would climb onto a bed.

By December, he could climb the 21 steps to our second floor. He could also leap down from a 2-foot-high table, but he would not walk down even a single flight of 6 steps. Now he can scramble down one flight of steps.

It also took some months for him to regain the habit of keeping front paws straight (instead of wrists flexed) while lying prone. Gradually, his front legs became coordinated enough to hold down a rawhide bone (or real bone).

By early November, he would adopt the famous dog posture of bending the front of his body low to initiate play. In addition, he showed intelligence in combining behaviors, such as carrying my daughter’s shoes from the rack when she was ready to go to school or bringing his leash to ask for a walk.

It was mid December when I first noticed that he would scratch his ears while sitting — before that point, he would only scratch in a lying posture.

He continues to have myoclonus tremors in his front legs and neck when standing still, but they disappear when he walks or runs. I still massage him a few times a week and also provoke his stretching reflex by gently pulling his front paws straight after he wakes from a nap.

We are grateful that Bolt recovered enough in 3 months (March, April, May) to once again be a healthy and playful dog. However, we realize that his coordination is still less than 100% and he may have myclonus for the rest of his life.

© Copyright 2014 Martin Schell

Posted April 10, 2014

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