Pets play a very special role in our lives, unlike that of any humans. If you’ve had the opportunity to bring a pet into your family, to experience unconditional love, you’ll know that this is truly a gift. Age creeps up on them very quickly, and our lives together are so short. But there are ways, whereby providing special comfort and care, you may be able to extend your pet’s life, sometimes by years! Let me share with you Tika’s two-part story and how we were blessed with an additional two years together.
[UPDATE: On the morning of May 28, 2021, my Tika crossed the Rainbow Bridge; it was time to share her with the Angels. We had such beautiful days and memories leading up to Tika’s departure. We have a very strong love and bond that can never be broken. My Angel will always be in the hearts of her Mommy and Daddy, guiding the way, until we meet again. You can find Tika’s Part Two story here.].
On January 3, 2021, Tika, my German Shepherd dog, celebrated her 14th birthday! I never thought she would still be with us today. Tika has had Degenerative Myelopathy for the past 2.5 years. Degenerative Myelopathy is a debilitating, progressive, non-painful and incurable disease of the spinal cord which leads to gradual paralysis in some older dogs; it is the Lou Gehrig’s (ALS) disease of dogs. Tika is fully paralyzed in her hind legs.
As a single woman with no human children, Tika is my everything; she is the centre of my life. I have a closer relationship and bond with her than any human being; and I imagine this will remain true for the rest of my life.
Caring for a paralyzed dog is challenging, but that’s what life is. We chose to take on the challenge. We committed ourselves to doing everything we could to provide Tika with all the comfort and care in the world for her remaining days, however many those may be. This determination has extended her life and our time together by two precious years.
Be sure to watch Tika’s 14th birthday video below! You’ll see that despite her old age and disability, she has still been able to enjoy a life full of love, attention, inclusion and interaction.
Now our days together are numbered and the end is near, very near. Soon we will be making the most heart wrenching decision of our lives. We will have to bring our most beloved friend in the entire world to the Rainbow Bridge, where we will have to surrender her.
Life with Degenerative Myelopathy
Tika has had Degenerative Myelopathy for the past 2.5 years. The disease progressed to the paralysis of Tika’s hind legs and resulting incontinence. This means she cannot walk, sit, or even adjust her own body to move from one side to the other. The incontinence means there is constant monitoring and cleaning; what used to be considered “accidents” are now considered the norm. Tika is completely dependent upon us.
While you may think this sounds miserable and depressing, you have to see Tika and witness her continued zest for life, her perseverance and desire to be included in everything. She is as attentive as ever and constantly on guard. Tika’s sight and hearing are still going strong. She enjoys playing with her ball, carrying her stick, eating mouthfuls of snow, going for car rides. She likes to tell stories, sing songs and bark at the birds and squirrels. She still has that special sparkle in her eyes.
With the exception of mobility and continence, Tika is still ALL THERE! This is what makes Degenerative Myelopathy (or “DM”) such a heart-wrenching disease. In the end, you are faced with having to make the ultimate decision for your pet, and it’s a real fine line when it comes down to determining the “when.” (See Part 2 for more on this).
As long as Tika is not in any pain and is still able to enjoy life, we committed ourselves to doing all that we could to make Tika’s remaining time with us as comfortable and happy as possible. This has not been easy and requires significant dedication and compassion.
Fortunately, for the past year, Tika’s human Dad and I have been able to give her nearly 24/7 care, always at her side. This was made possible due to a combination of factors, including COVID, work schedule, my year off from work and two very devoted parents. Remove any one of these factors, and Tika wouldn’t have been with us this long.
It all began in December 2018 when we noticed Tika’s left hind paw “knuckling” (toes folding under) and dragging as she walked. She also began to stumble due to the loss of balance. Tika was losing feeling in her leg. Little raw sores formed on her hind paw as a result of rubbing against the ground; we went through countless types of boots to find the right kind that would work for her.
Knuckling causes the nails to wear down to the quick, which can be very painful for the pet. To prevent this from happening, we used silicone nail caps to protect the hind paw nails. You can get these at pet stores or order online. Add a bit of the adhesive glue to the inside of the cap, wiggle it onto the nail, hold in place for a minute, and then clip the end of the nail cap off so that it’s just a stub protecting the nail.
Mobility Aids for Degenerative Myelopathy
There are various mobility aids to assist your pet (and you!) at each stage of Degenerative Myelopathy, from early knuckling to full-blown loss of front and hind leg mobility. Visit here for more information.
A harness is definitely one of the first products you’ll want to purchase and there are all kinds out there! For awhile we used the Help’Em Up Hind Harness to get Tika from the house to the car, or to go for short walks. But after some months, we began using a ripped length of a bed sheet as a belly sling (for very short distances), as the hind harness got in the way when Tika had to pee. There are better slings out there (and more comfortable), but the bed sheet has been working fine.
Tika can only use her front legs while we lift up and support her hind legs (like a wheel barrow) as she walks. This is very tricky. Now in her final stretch, Tika is losing stability in her front legs causing her to stumble; I now use a Rogz Utility Explore Harness combined with the belly sling to provide the needed support and stability when moving about. I should have been using this much earlier, as it provides Tika with much more support and gives me the confidence that I’ll be able to lift her if she has a little tumble.
In April 2019, I learned about the Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair from a friend here in Yellowknife who had two dogs with wheelchairs – I never knew about this invention before! I was so fortunate to be able to bring Tika over and test out the wheelchair. It was such a heart warmer and immediate tearjerker to see my girl take to it immediately… she walked with ease, and smiled proudly as she said “look Mom! I can move around on my own!” I was immediately sold! We ordered the wheelchair right away (May 2019)! Don’t miss the video below to see Tika’s first steps and the good use she got out of her all-season ATV Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair! She’s such a trooper!
Walkin’ Wheels Wheelchair – A New Lease on Life
The Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair was a game changer. Tika’s spirit improved immediately once she was able to get out and about again! Instead of just short walks down the sidewalk with the hind harness, the wheelchair was like an all-terrain vehicle! It enabled Tika to traverse over trails, rocks and the sandpits, in the water, snow and on the ice! She was “able” to go almost anywhere (outdoors).
When your pet loses mobility of its hind legs, the wheelchair has stir-ups to hold up the legs. However, it is best to hold off from using the stirrups while your pet still has some ability to use their leg muscles. Tika didn’t use the stirrups until ten months in with the chair (March 2020); she started off with her left hind leg (most affected) in the stirrup, and then two months later, both legs were raised up.
The wheelchair gave Tika a new lease on life and gave us two additional years together, full of wonderful memories! If your pet is experiencing mobility challenges (or if you anticipate them), I absolutely recommend purchasing a wheelchair! You can find more information about the wheelchair here.
Preparation of House and Vehicle
- Depending upon the size of your pet and the type of home you live in, you may need to install ramps along your steps.
- If you have slippery floors, carpets/rugs will be necessary. We placed a bunch of mismatched rugs and carpets throughout the house, wherever Tika would need to walk (with her front legs).
- Place various comfortable dog beds (not too soft) in key locations throughout the home where they can see you and near a window whenever possible. They can watch the birds, squirrels, people and dogs pass by and still feel like they are on guard.
- Use a waterproof material underneath your pet’s blankets (we used picnic tablecloths).
- Have a regular supply of disposable mats on hand at all times, to place underneath the pet’s hind wherever you lay them down. We go through several daily.
- When Degenerative Myelopathy is advanced and the pet can’t move itself, prop up firm pillows against your pet’s back to provide some support.
- Use backseat protector/sling in vehicle not only to protect the vehicle but also to protect the pet from falling off the seat. During the more advanced stages of Degenerative Myelopathy, I put all of the back seats down and covered them all with a tarp and several blankets, creating a big bed for Tika!
- Purchase a small pet carpet cleaner. You’ll make good use of it!
- Regularly move your pet (day and night), for stretch and bathroom breaks, a change of scenery or to prevent pressure sores from developing.
Caring for a pet with Degenerative Myelopathy is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never gone through anything in life that required so much devotion and commitment, putting my needs and interests aside for another’s. I will be very honest; this experience has been emotionally and physically draining, and Tika deserves all the care and attention in the world. Each and every day I’m reminded of what is happening and the decision we’ll soon have to face.
The emotional toll is indescribable. Now and then, it creeps up on you and the tears just come streaming down; your heart aches with rawness and you feel helpless. It is heart-wrenching to see your fur baby unable to freely move around as they did when they were younger and able-bodied. I can’t imagine what it will feel like when “that time” has come.
It is important that you take care of your mental well-being during this very emotional time; be present and mindful of your feelings. Give yourself quiet time to unwind, contemplate and decompress. Slow things down and enjoy the present moment with your pet.
While each person will have their own experience, I can’t say enough about the importance of having compassionate friends and support available. In addition to a couple of nearby friends who regularly check in with me, I found such supportive connections through speciality facebook groups and instagram pages. This is where I’ve met a handful of new friends, whom I’ve never verbally spoken with, and they make up the bulk of my support system!
You need to be able to manage and handle the weight of your pet. In my adult life, I was never really into exercise and physical activity. But at the onset of DM, Tika was 85lbs and I knew I had to get stronger in order to help keep Tika alive (to assist with her mobility). Over the past 2+ years, I’ve become a regular at the gym (5-6 times/week) and working with a personal trainer for 16 months (weight lifting!). I am in the best physical shape of my life and this is all thanks to my girl. Tika has been the primary motivation behind my physical fitness transformation and I know she will continue to be my driving force even after she crosses the Rainbow Bridge. This will be part of her legacy – keeping her Mommy healthy and strong!
Like any disease, Degenerative Myelopathy comes with its financial costs. Tika’s wheelchair and extra attachments (skis and upgraded tires) cost approximately $850. Her basic monthly expenses (medications and food) are a minimum of $400.
On top of the regular monthly expenses, be prepared for other health issues that arise, which most often require vet visits and additional medications. Tika had some very expensive and long-recovery surgeries prior to the disease. She has been through a lot. We didn’t know about pet insurance when we got Tika, but if we could turn back time, we would have absolutely purchased it!
In addition to the tips mentioned above, there are plenty of things you can do with and for your senior or paralyzed pet to keep them comfortable and happy. Be sure to watch the heart warming video below! It gives meaning to the phrase “It’s a Dog’s Life“!
- WALKS AND CAR RIDES. Take your pet out on daily walks and/or drives. They need to move and get outdoors, even if it’s just to get some fresh air and a different view. Since Tika’s walks have lessened significantly, we take her for drives all the time! She can no longer sit up, so we fill the back seat with blankets, towels and cushions to create a comfortable raised bed that enables Tika to see out the windows. We like to think that driving by certain locations, such as her boyfriend Hogan’s house, or the sled dog kennels, this will give Tika something new and exciting to dream about!
- INTERACTION with people and animals. It is important that you get your pet out to see other people and animals, regardless of how difficult it may be. If your friends don’t like being around anymore, find new friends! Your pet wants and needs this interaction and engagement. It gives them a sense of newness and excitement (and it’s good for you too!).
- ENGAGED AND INVOLVED. Talk to your pet, look right into their eyes and ask them questions. They like to be engaged and paid attention to. Play games with them. Find toys (that won’t roll away) that you can hide treats in. Wrap up presents for them to unwrap. Make crafts together. Include your pet as much as you can; don’t leave them in a room by themselves.
- KEEP PET COOL AND HYDRATED. We make use of fans day and night, year-round (indoors and out!) and sometimes lay cool damp towels over Tika’s body. We give her water frequently, throughout the day and night. This all helps reduce Tika’s panting (and if your pet sleeps on your bed, these tips will help you get some sleep, as your bed won’t be shaking all the time!)
- MASSAGE. Massage your pet’s legs, shoulders, back. As the paralysis progresses, there is a loss of muscle in the legs and a build up of tension in the muscles that are doing all of the heavy lifting and work.
- MEDICATIONS AND FOOD: twice daily prescriptions: Deramaxx (anti-inflammatory), Gabapetin (pain relief), and Proin (urinary incontinence); and daily Glucosamine Chondrotin (for joints) – best to begin giving this to your adult dog before it becomes arthritic. For food, we fed Tika Orijen (Adult and then Senior) during her adult life, and now mix in Hill’s Prescription Diet K/D Kidney care. This is what worked for Tika; each dog and veterinarian is different. *Please seek professional advice for your own situation.*
Bathroom Breaks for A Paralyzed Pet
With Degenerative Myelopathy, the one task that probably takes the most effort and care is the bathroom break. Remember there are no more “accidents.” You cannot get mad at the pet; incontinence is (often) part of the disease. They can’t help it; but we humans can! (Note: our experience with the medication “Proin” greatly assisted with (female) urinary incontinence).
Unfortunately there isn’t a medication to help control fecal incontinence, so you must always be on the lookout and keep a disposable mat under the hind. Keep your pet on a consistent and healthy diet; introducing new foods may lead to an upset stomach and a very big mess. Tika had fecal incontinence for two years and we managed just fine. This is NOT a reason to put your pet down!
*To see how to get your pet into and out of the wheelchair and how to express the bladder, watch the video below.
With a paralyzed pet, gone are the days when all you have to do is open up the door and have your pet run outside to do their business. Throughout the day, we take Tika outside every couple of hours for a stretch and a bathroom break. Throughout the night, the alarm goes off every three hours. We get out of bed, turn on all the lights, dress ourselves warmly in boots and coat (winter!) and put Tika’s boots on. Then we carefully support her hind legs (held up in the air) as she walks with her front legs down the ramps outside. Since she can no longer stand or squat, we hold her in position and help express her bladder.
Once we’re back indoors, I lay Tika down on the floor (I’m often out of breath by this point) and give her a good cleaning with a soft warm towel (very important to keep the pet clean). Then she is lifted back up on the bed, and we’re usually good for another 3 hours or so until we’re at it all over again!
There are many things you can do to prepare for your pet’s departure; don’t wait until it’s too late. Think about how you would like to keep your beloved pet’s memory alive in your everyday life.
We made some crafts together, including a concrete garden mosaic, paw prints and imprints. I collected special stones from a trail we frequent and keep them in a big jar on my fireplace mantle. I’ve recorded sound clips of Tika’s her bark, snoring, and lapping water (which I may use for future ringtones!).
I collected some fur to be used in ornaments; I’ve created beautiful digital oil paintings of Tika that hang on my walls (*note: I also do commissioned work). And of course I’ve taken countless photos and videos of every possible thing that Tika does. (UPDATE: I also wear a special pendant every single day that contains a tiny amount of Tika’s ashes). These various mementoes will keep Tika’s spirit with me in my everyday life.
Making the decision to bring a pet into your family requires a huge commitment. You are committing to providing that animal with comfort, love and a good quality of life, for as long as it shall live; it is a long-term commitment. Of course there are extenuating life circumstances that may keep you from being able to care for your pet. Putting the pet down does not have to be the answer. Know that there are people out there who may have the ability and heart to care for your beloved pet as if it was their own.
Do you have the ability and commitment needed to tend to your pet’s needs, regardless of what happens? Is your house suitable for a disabled pet? Do you have the strength and ability to support your pet if/when they are unable to walk on their own? Are you prepared for your pet’s incontinence? Please think about all of these things carefully when considering bringing a a pet into your family. I could never imagine having to give up my girl to someone else because I wasn’t able to care for her. That would break my heart (and Tika’s).
Patience and Compassion
You CANNOT get mad at your pet for falling down, for being heavy to lift, for their incontinence or for your disrupted sleep. They are not happy with the situation either and they are very sensitive and receptive to your feelings. You must have patience and compassion and the ability to control your frustration. The disease is not their fault; it is what it is.
Disabilities do not to prevent your pet from having a good life, people do. Oftentimes when the going gets tough, it is the humans that give up and either surrender their faithful pet or put the pet down. I hope that Tika’s story shows you that when facing challenges, there are options that can improve and extend your pet’s life, sometimes for additional years.
The Time is Approaching
I know Tika has been holding out for us; 14.5 years is an incredible life for a German Shepherd! She gave us so much love and life together and we have been truly blessed. Tika is still all there (except for her mobility and continence). She watches our every move, talks to us when she wants attention. She is alert and alive in so many ways. But we see she is having a hard time and we don’t want her to go through pain.
Degenerative Myelopathy sucks. We know we have to let her go, we have to surrender. This is LOVE. I am so grateful for the extra two years we had together, and especially grateful for Tika’s Dad who put his own life on hold for Tika and stuck around for us.
We’ve made the heart breaking decision to set a date to bring our girl to the Rainbow Bridge. This is the first time I’m sharing this. The only positive thing about this is that we get a chance to plan out our final days together.
As I’m writing, Tika is looking at me and calling out to me with her elderly bark; tears are streaming down my face. (I paused the story and took her out for a cruise around town and a stop for ice cream! What a happy girl:). It’s time for me to complete this story and get it published so I can focus entirely on my girl. Time is more precious now than ever.
Please Help Spread Tika’s Story
This isn’t the typical story you’d find on my website but it is near and dear to my heart and I had to write it. This is part of Tika’s legacy! If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking the time to read and watch. If Tika’s story has touched you in any way, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
This was our experience with Degenerative Myelopathy, unique to Tika and our circumstances. There are plenty of resources and support groups out there with an abundance of useful information. I hope that Tika’s story reaches other pet parents who are experiencing similar challenges and ultimately helps improve and extend their beloved pet’s life.
***Please help spread this story to a wider audience, particularly to those with senior or disabled pets. You can share simply by pasting the link in a Facebook post or sending it out in an email.
Tika is the centre of my world, she is my everything. Having to say goodbye is going to be the most difficult time in my life. Please note that I will be taking the time and space I need to go through this very tender and emotional time. I will respond to comments and personal messages in due course.
**UPDATE: PART TWO of Tika’s Story can be found here.