Judy Christy understands how gruesome orthopedic surgery can be. The medical device saleswoman has been in operating rooms as doctors performed total knee replacements on humans and says the procedure is horrific to watch.
So when Tyson, her then-7-year-old pitbull mix, tore his CCL last summer while playing with another dog in her back yard. Judy was adamant about not subjecting him to the invasive surgery and the long, painful recovery.
“I’d rather have my leg cut off with no anesthesia than to have my dog in pain,” Judy says.
And Tyson had already suffered enough for one lifetime. Judy adopted the brindle-colored pup when he was just a year old. At the time, there was a woman in her neighborhood who ran a dog rescue. She saw Judy out with her two greyhounds and asked if she’d ever considered fostering. Then she told Judy about a dog they’d found in Georgia- he’d shattered his hip after being thrown out the back of a pickup truck.
When Judy went to pick Tyson up, he was 45 scrawny pounds. His fur was coarse and dull. He had cuts all over his face. She wondered if someone had tried to use him for fighting.
She took Tyson home, gave him quality food and all the love in the world- eventually deciding to adopt him. He flourished under her care- his coat became shiny and silky, and he gained more than 50 pounds. Judy says despite all he’s been through he’s the most loving dog she’s met.
“Someone had tossed him out like a candy wrapper,” she says. “He’s the happiest dog. He doesn’t hold anything against people. Best dog I’ve ever had in my life.”
When Tyson got injured, Judy wanted to show him compassion. His tear was bad though. When she took him to the vet he was only using three legs to walk. Without doing an X-ray or an MRI the vet knew he’d torn his CCL- and that the damage was significant. He recommended surgery, but Judy resisted. Tyson was older and overweight- clocking in at 93 pounds. She thought surgery would be too much for him. They agreed to try medication first to see if that might help him out.
Judy had done some online research on orthotic braces for dogs. She asked her vet if they could try a Custom Dog Knee Brace along with the pain medication.
He told her that braces don’t work.
The medication was ineffective. After a couple months, Tyson was still struggling. It would take him an hour to walk past two houses down the street.
Judy brought Tyson back to the vet for a follow-up visit during which she talked to a second vet. She asked about using a brace for her dog. He repeated what her first vet told her. Braces don’t work. Tyson needed surgery.
Still, Judy resisted. The vet recommended she get a third opinion from an orthopedic surgeon at another practice.
That vet echoed the other two: Braces don’t work. Tyson needed surgery. But he added one more thing. After surgery, Tyson would need a brace for post-op recovery. He said he worked with a company that made braces for dogs. A business called Animal Ortho Care.
Then he asked when she want to schedule Tyson’s surgery.
Judy again refused to let Tyson be operated on. She left the office in tears, but decided to call Animal Ortho Care, hoping they might be able to save her dog from going under the knife.
When she brought Tyson to the Animal Ortho Care office later that week, operations manager Jenn Reitz and certified technician Angela Boncz reassured her.
“We’ve seen dogs in this position before doing three-legged walk,” they told her. “They end up doing well with the brace.”
They took a cast of Tyson’s leg and five days later Judy picked up her dog’s custom brace.
While fitting the brace on Tyson for the first time, Angela gave Judy a run-down of what she could probably expect to see, as her dog got accustomed to the brace.
Initially, when he wore the brace, Angela told Judy that Tyson would probably swing his leg out to the side. Sure enough, Tyson swung his leg to the side for the first 24 hours, before he got used to the device.
After that, he was completely accepting of it.
Angela recommended Tyson wear the brace for short periods of time to start out with so that he could get used to it and not develop sores. So Judy followed her advice, gradually increasing his wear time over a period of days and weeks. When she saw the brace was making the area around his groin a little raw, Judy brought the brace back to Animal Ortho Care. The brace was shaved down a bit so it was less intrusive, and Tyson was able to wear it comfortably.
Angela told Judy that it would probably take Tyson five to seven months to heal completely; that he’d get better bit by bit. After five months, Judy saw Tyson was stronger. She started weaning him off the brace, only having him wear it for long walks to protect the newly healed scar tissue.
Judy was impressed by how "on the money" Angela was about how Tyson would handle the brace.
“There’s nothing I didn’t know, that I didn’t understand, that I wished I’d known more or learned better,” she says.
It’s been a year since Tyson was first injured and he hasn’t used the brace in a while. Judy walks him for a couple of hours each morning and takes him on shorter walks throughout the day. He hasn’t been on pain medication for months. He’s maintained a healthy appetite. As far as Judy’s concerned, he’s perfect, and she’s thrilled she didn’t have to put him through the pain and suffering involved with surgery. Though money wasn’t a factor in her decision, she notes the brace was a fraction of the cost of the $4,000 surgery.
As far as she’s concerned, the brace has been a miracle for her dog, and she’s been singing Animal Ortho Care’s praises to anyone who will listen– she even posted a sign at a local pet store about trying a brace before pursuing surgery for CCL tears like Tyson’s.
“I just want everyone to know about this option,” she says.
She wishes that all veterinarians were mandated to review all possible treatment options for an injured or sick pet with an owner, just as doctors do with human patients as part of a practice known as shared decision-making. Educating pet owners should be a priority for vets, she believes.
“It’s the humane thing to do,” she adds.