Different dogs

Sep 30 / Dr Teresa Tyler
I am currently enjoying the privilege of being a foster carer to Lenny. Lenny is a Seguigo Italiano who found himself in a local shelter. He has in his young life experienced physical trauma, his history is unclear; maybe a road traffic accident, maybe a fall from a vehicle, we don’t know. What we do know is that three of his legs suffered major injuries. Radiography and MRI studies show that his right foreleg has an old fracture which was repaired, his left foreleg has suffered a brachial plexus avulsion, which has resulted in minimal use or feeling in the leg, which he holds it up most of the time, the paw fixed in a contracted position. His left hind leg has an old fracture of the stifle, which has now fixed peculiarly and is arthritic as it was left to heal, but his right hind is all good. He walks with an obvious limp in front and a sort of twisted, bunny hop behind.  

On top of this orthopaedic nightmare, he has contracted Leishmania. Leishmania is a serious intracellular protozoan infection, common in many Mediterranean countries, spread by sandflies. Clinical signs of the visceral form include fever, anorexia (lack of appetite), weakness, decreased stamina, severe weight loss, diarrhoea, vomiting, increased drinking and urination, and bleeding from the nose. About one-third of dogs will develop swollen lymph nodes and an enlarged spleen and will progress to kidney failure. Muscle pain, joint inflammation, and swelling of the testicles may also be present. It can be managed with medication and many dogs can remain in remission for long periods, enjoying healthy, active lives.  

Lenny came to me because he was underweight and not eating. It was thought to be due to a behavioural cause, rather than a physical one. Once we had diagnosed and treated his medical issues, I could begin to help him with the psychological ones.  

Lenny was an anxious dog from the outset. He would startle easily at any noise or sudden movements. He would spend his time curled up on the sofa trying to avoid any kind of attention or interaction. When outside he would obsessively attempt, quite valiantly, to hump the other dogs in his three-legged style. Both behaviours being clear indicators of stress and anxiety, which was also apparent in his inability to relax around food and eat confidently. The anorexia was made worse by Leishmania and getting him to eat in those early days was a challenge.  

A month or so on, he has made slow and steady progress. His major treatment for Leishmania is complete, but he must have daily meds to keep it under control. He has started to eat, often needing encouragement, but making his own decisions like preferring to eat scattered food with the other dogs rather than eating from a bowl. He will turn his nose up at most meat, fish and dried foods, but cannot resist cheese. He prefers variety, both in terms of the types of food, flavours and textures but likes the routine of morning and evening meals, rather than free feeding. He also likes to browse and scavenge for fallen berries and nuts, which is strange to watch when he has just turned down chicken.  

He has started to play, both with the other dogs in fast games of chase, or ‘bitey face’ and alone with toys. He loves to dig holes and invites the other dogs to join him uncovering the scent of fresh earth and chewing plant roots. During the day, he will often choose to sleep in a den he has made under a tree, rather than snooze on the comfy sofa. Yet he likes the security of company at dusk and will join us all during the evening and overnight.

After a couple of weeks of him joining us, I started to walk him. Initially on a 2m leash, but quickly changed to a long line to afford him more freedom and agency. He LOVES walks. They are the thing he is most passionate about. He cries with excitement, waits patiently to have his harness placed on him before jumping into the back of the car. His determination and abilities despite his disabilities never ceases to amaze me. He can keep up with the other off lead dogs, he manages hilly, rough terrain, he flushes birds and thrives when out in the countryside.  

As in any dog’s journey through rehabilitation, there is much discussion between the rescue organisation, vets, physiotherapists and me about the best way forward for Lenny. Should his most damaged leg be amputated? Could he have a prosthetic? Can physiotherapy help? Should he have pan carpal arthrodesis to fix his paw back into the correct position? Will any intervention just create a ‘peg-leg’ that is still useless. What if the interventions fail? What if his Leishmania predisposes him to infections…and so on.

So many extraordinary people at the top of their professions, deciding what happens to Lenny. 

Making decisions that will have a massive impact on whether he gets rehomed easily, whether he will be in pain, whether he will lose a leg. So many ifs, buts and maybes.

The whole experience with Lenny has been desperately sad, yet joyful at the same time. To witness such a broken dog, start to become himself is truly remarkable and it got me thinking again about disabled animals and how we perceive them.
Humans are often taught that in the ‘animal kingdom’ only the fittest survive. That animals who experience disability will be subject to an early demise as ‘nature takes her course’. We view disabled animals as different, unnatural and unhealthy.

Lenny has an abnormal gait for sure, he is also still thin, so looks pretty unhealthy, but his limbs do not prevent him eating, sleeping, playing, having sex, running, jumping and pretty much all the things other dogs can do.
We hang on to human ableism when considering what’s best for Lenny. Our fear of disability and difference runs deep to the point where I have heard people say he may be better off on three legs, or even not here at all. I am reminded that disability is a human construct.
Does Lenny know he is disabled? Do the other dogs know? If so, they certainly don’t treat him any differently. Sunara Taylor asked the questions; ‘How do nonhuman animals relate to physical and cognitive difference themselves? How do human understandings of disability affect the ways we interpret what animals are experiencing?’ (Taylor, 2017. p25) Most importantly though she asks how does human understanding of disability affect the way we interpret what nonhuman animals are feeling?
Research shows many cases of disabled animals not just surviving but thriving. Primates, elephants, dogs, whales, and bird species have been seen to help their disabled counterparts. In 2011, the Metro reported the case of Baks, a blind dog who was guided by Buttons the goose. This raises questions about animal empathy, adaption, vulnerability, and experience.
I wonder how human knowledge of disability and empathy impact how we care for disabled animals. Perhaps we overcompensate, trying to do the things for them that we presume they cannot. As a behaviourist I see Lenny’s behaviour to be just as complex and nuanced as other dogs. He has given me insights into the importance of agency and choice and to challenge common narratives and misconceptions about his ‘lack’ of abilities.
He is very creative, using his damaged limb as a tool to dig, paw the other dogs, communicate, scratch his face and balance. He has started to bear a little weight and as he grows stronger his adaptability and intuitive use of his leg is incredible.
The ethical issues that cases like Lenny raise are numerous and complex. Everyone is trying to do what is best for Lenny, but Lenny just likes to be more dog.

In trying to help him, perhaps our speciesism gets in the way. Is he suffering? No, I don’t believe he is. He limps but so what? He makes me think about what is important in his life, rather what I think should be.
Thanks to Stray Haven Dog Shelter, Cyprus.
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