Posted Date: May 20, 2013
An Australian Cattle Dog that suffered from encephalitis beat the odds to conquer the disease... and agility! Story and photos by Michael Douglas.
Three and one half years ago, a co-worker that lived in a different state gave us a puppy. We were told that he had an Australian Shepherd litter and we were excited. When Libby (formally "Liberty Belle") was delivered to us, we were quite confused and the vet confirmed that Libby was not an Aussie but instead a very active and cute Australian Cattle Dog. Honestly, it really did not matter to us for we already made the commitment to take care her and the bonding had already started. By four months, we knew we had a high energy dog on our hands and this is when we found Club Doggie in Queen Creek, Arizona. Libby started with herding but we quickly migrated to agility and it was just what Libby needed to put her energy into. The owners of Club Doggie, Jubie and Kama Rueschenberg, taught me so much about how to be the proper owner to a Cattle Dog and what that entails.
When Libby went into heat for the first time, we were convinced by a veterinarian that it was OK to have Libby spayed during her heat cycle. We learned quickly that this is not a safe procedure to do. Unfortunately, the vet could not stop the bleeding and Libby lost nearly half her blood supply. She had to be operated on two separate times to stop the bleeding. Libby had three blood transfusions and was a very sick puppy for a few weeks. I mention this only because this should be the most trauma a little pup should ever have to go through. Little did we know that a few months later she would be in a fight for her life yet again.
Libby became extremely ill at age one-and-a-half years old. She presented with a variety of symptoms. She could not stand for more than a few seconds before losing her balance and falling. She could not walk a straight line on- or off-leash. She had tremendous head tremors that would result in her entire body shaking uncontrollably.
We were referred to a neurologist where blood work, an MRI, and a spinal tap were completed. Inflammation of the cerebellum (encephalitis) was the diagnosis and a three-month regimen of steroids was the treatment plan. The steroids messed up her stomach so much that she was on a white-rice-and-boiled-chicken diet for most of her treatment time.
The neurologist told us that he had no idea why the encephalitis occurred. There are many theories, from reaction to the puppy shots to genetics. The neurologist made sure that we understood that there was a 1/3 chance Libby would not live more than a few weeks or months despite the best medical attention we gave her. We also understood that, if she survived, she may not regain all her mental or physical attributes (if any at all) and that she would be susceptible to another attack in the future. Still, she was my pup no matter what!
We carried Libby up and down the stairs every day for weeks. We would sit with her between our legs, helping her to re-learn to walk short distances. We worked with her day and night, helping her to re-learn her balance and how to walk and then run again. We did not think our furniture or walls would survive from Libby running into them constantly. She had to relearn everything, even house training. Libby loves to swim, so we spent a long time teaching her to swim again. Water can be very disorienting to a confused brain. Our prayers were answered when she did get better and better.
In a few months, Libby was walking and running well enough that I started working a lot of foundation/flat work with her. Six months after Libby became ill, the neurologist cleared her and we started working agility at Club Doggie again. We both were rusty at first but in no time we were running as a team.
At age three-and-a-half, Libby has some residual physical affects and mannerisms from her illness and always will. When she gets excited or after she runs, you can see slight tremors in her jaw area. We have gone through our share of Libby being scared of many things at agility trials such as the tent, the ring, the judge, the measuring stick, etcetera. I have spent this season taking her to many, many trials, hanging out and getting her over her new fears.
Oddly, while Libby's illness left her with all kinds of worries, she has no fears for her physical well being. I have to watch what I have her do because of her lack of physical fear. She could seriously injure herself due to this lack of self preservation.
I have learned that Libby's brain can only process a certain amount of information at once and at trials, there is a lot of information to handle that a normal canine brain processes without issue. For Libby, this is a huge hurdle, but with the help of many folks, I have desensitized her enough (and I've used a bunch of training tools and tricks I have learned) to get her over her fears and not to overload her brain with information.
I swear Libby has become faster now, but she also jumps like a flying squirrel. Many folks get a kick out of watching her run and jump. Somehow, after her illness, she found a love for agility that she did not have before. I do not have to wind her up ever to practice; her enthusiasm for the game is truly fun to witness and handle. All of this is still a work in progress, but recently, we qualified along with coming in first place with a very fast time at a USDAA match in a Gamblers run. We have now also earned several qualifying scores at USDAA trials. What success! I am so very proud of my best little buddy!
I don't know how long Libby will be in this world. She could have another attack of encephalitis at any time. But Libby is one of those once in a life time pups. She has more life in her than most humans! Honestly, I am just so lucky to have her. We both enjoy doing agility together (mostly practicing). We are best friends!
Michael Douglas (who is not an actor) has been married for 22 years to the love of his life. They have two children, two dogs (besides Libby, they have a 15-month-old Australian Shepherd named Romeo), two cats (Sebastian and Oreo) and a five-year-old, 40 pound tortoise named Leroy. The family lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. Michael works as a market production expert with a major insurance company in Tempe, Arizona. When not at work, he's training his dogs at Club Doggie or practicing on his own property, where he has a riding arena full of agility equipment. Michael can be reached at email@example.com.