If you’re ever walking around Silver Spring and you hear an overeager Rottweiler named Elvira barking at you, don’t be alarmed, says owner Karen Eason.
While she has a guard dog’s instinct and can be a bit of a pill sometimes, she’s a big goofball and a total sweetheart.
Elvira can’t help that she gets “talkative” when she sees people – especially when those people are walking a potential new four-legged friend.
“A lot of her barking at other dogs is because she wants to be able to go up to whatever dog she wants whenever she wants,” Karen says. “People don’t always appreciate having a 70-pound Rottweiler walking up to them.”
These days, Karen is recruiting friends that Elvira can run to on a whim, hoping it might help her chatterbox get used to her new foot – a rocker-bottom prosthetic designed by CO Derrick Campana of Animal Orthocare.
It’s been slow going, but if there’s one thing Elvira has proven in the past couple years, she can handle a little adversity.
Karen, a program analyst for the National Fishery Service, adopted Elvira a few years ago after losing her beloved 16-year-old lab mix, Marty.
After Marty, Karen figured she’d take a break from dogs for a while to travel and have some more freedom. But she was scanning dog adoption sites before too long.
Elvira was about 2 when her previous owner decided she needed to find a new home for her.
“When I got her she had a little bit of a funny limp. One side of her chest looked skinnier than the other,” Karen said.
She took the dog to Veterinary Orthopedic Sports Medicine Group in Annapolis Junction where she was diagnosed with elbow dysplasia. She’s been treated with acupuncture and Karen tries to ensure that Elvira’s elbow joints aren’t overstressed.
The dog seemed to be faring well until a year and a half ago. Karen said she seemed under the weather and achy. A test for Lyme’s came back negative, but doctors put her on antibiotics as a preventative. She got better.
Or so they thought.
About a month later she began stopping on her walks. But it was winter and Elvira’s a tenderfoot, so Karen just figured she was just uncomfortable because of the cold.
Then she started limping a little. They thought the dysplasia – maybe some arthritis – was acting up because of the cold. They began taking her to acupuncture more often. After a few visits, Karen observed that her limp was on her left side, the supposedly “good” leg, not the one affected by the dysplasia.
Karen took her to the vet, where the doctor observed swelling on the wrist of Elvira’s left leg. They did an X-ray. It came back probable for osteosarcoma – bone cancer. She got a consult with VOS to get a second opinion; the bone biopsy came back inconclusive. They had to assume it was bone cancer, but it still felt like there was a question mark.
The primary first treatment for bone cancer is amputation to slow down the progression of the disease and reduce the pain. But with the dysplasia in her other leg, she wasn’t a good candidate for amputation.
So, they put it off. Instead, they used acupuncture, Chinese herbs and Tramadol to help manage pain.
Time went on and it seemed to be fairly slow growing but after a period of months she was obviously uncomfortable.
“When it became apparent that she was in a lot of pain on that leg I had a heart to heart with orthopedist, everything I read most dogs are relieved when the leg is gone,” Karen said. “She said a prosthetic is a very real option now.”
Karen had been researching options, consulting with her vet and the orthopedist, and talking to another family whose dog had received a prosthetic from Animal Orthocare for a similar issue.
The decision to amputate a portion of Elvira’s left leg was difficult.
“The only context you have is what it would be like for you if you lost a limb – how would I get a round and do what I used to do,” Karen said. But she realized that Elvira was in so much pain, she wasn’t doing the things she enjoyed doing anyway. And all that emotional baggage and self-conscious that comes with being a human with a missing limb, doesn’t translate in the canine world.
“They’re not looking around and wondering what other people think of me for having three legs,” Karen says.
So she decided to go for it. Elvira had a partial amputation – just above the wrist of her left leg – last October.
The suture site on Elvira’s amputated foot took a month longer than the two to three weeks the vets predicted. Karen said the process was stressful, but that Elvira amazed everyone.
“What I generally tell people is there should be a picture of Elvira next to the word resilient in the dictionary.”
Karen realized that her dog had already been practicing being a three-legged dog because of the pain she was experiencing in her left leg. She’d use it because it was there, but she’d already learned how to do fairly well without it.
When the amputation site finally healed and they got a green light from the vet, Karen took Elvira to Animal Orthocare to get her leg cast. Her vet at VOC had already called Derrick to give him a heads up that he might be expecting a new patient.
“They’ve been really great,” Karen said about working with Animal Orthocare. She says Derrick and the team have been incredibly accommodating and responsive, scheduling has been easy, and she’s in and out of the office quickly. Plus, she loves visiting the office mascot.
“Henry is awesome.”
Karen wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she launched into this process. And there’s been a lot of trial and error.
Because of challenges with fitting her, Elvira is now on version 3.0 of her prosthetic. Karen attributes this partially to the muscle mass she lost when she was recovering from her surgery. Derrick’s been responsive to each roadblock they’ve encountered. Quickly working to adjust the prosthetic and redesign it as needed. Each version has been an improvement.
The challenge for Karen now is finding enough time to work with Elvira to strengthen and rehab her leg. The latest prosthetic fits the best of any of them; she stood better on it and it was better aligned, but she doesn’t have enough strength to swing it forward.
But she’s standing normally on it, which Karen is happy with.
“That is a huge landmark for us. She might not be walking on it, but she’s standing.”
She also backs up in the prosthetic and uses it to balance and pivot on.
Karen has her scheduled for rehabilitation that includes using an underwater treadmill, she’ll begin doing exercises with her at home to strengthen her core and she still receives acupuncture.
Karen’s hoping Elvira will get to a point that she’ll forget she’s wearing the prosthetic – even if it’s when she’s misbehaving by sprinting toward a canine pal she wants to play with.
As for the cancer, they’re just taking it day by day. Right now, Elvira seems to be doing really well. Karen’s determined not to spend too much time looking for it, though she’s conscious of the fact that it could turn up next week.
“It’s the best reminder ever that every day is great,” Karen says. “She doesn’t know better. She doesn’t know she’s sick.”
Even if Elvira never takes to fully using the prosthetic, Karen says she’d go through the process all over again because she’d know that they’d contributed to learning and improving the process.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to take a three-legged dog again,” she says.
She’d encourage any of her friends not to be phased by the prospect of adopting a pet with a mobility problem. You might need to take precautions and be prepared – they can zig when they should zag and the impact can be more serious than for a four-legged dog.
“I would love to see people be willing to open their hearts and homes to that,” Karen says. “It’s not as big a deal as you think it’s going to be.”