An MRI helps solve a dog’s medical mystery

Shortly after returning from a business trip in the fall of 2015, Lauren Grabelle found her dog, “Sugar,” dragging herself across the floor. Her hind limbs were lifeless. Lauren became alarmed.

A few months earlier, she had noticed Sugar, an athletic and high energy Weimaraner, had been acting strangely. She would dip her head in her food bowl, but then lift it back up to eat. Kibble dropped all over the floor. Sugar, who would normally have gobbled up any fallen food, wouldn’t lower her head to eat it.

“I decided to give her some chicken on a plate and put it on the floor,” says Lauren. “She didn’t eat it. But when I picked up the plate and held it to her mouth, she wolfed it down. That was the connection for me that she couldn’t bend over to get it.”

In August of that year, she had taken Sugar to a local veterinarian who took x-rays (radiographs), and diagnosed Sugar with bone spurs in her elbow and spondylosis, a degenerative condition often associated with age that causes bone spurs along the spinal column. For Lauren, the symptoms of stiffness and pain seemed to match the diagnosis. And because Sugar was 10 ½ years old, Lauren thought it might explain her behavior.

Sugar was put on medication, but according to Lauren, it didn’t seem to make much difference. “She couldn’t get up on my bed anymore,” she says. “And she would pace at night because she couldn’t get comfortable.”

But by early September, Sugar was even worse. She had climbed up on a chair in Lauren’s bedroom—one she knew she wasn’t allowed to be on. Normally, as soon as she would hear Lauren coming, Sugar would have jumped down. This time she just laid there and stared at Lauren. “She didn’t get down because she was in pain,” she says.

She decided to take Sugar to another veterinarian who also diagnosed her with arthritis after reviewing the same x-rays. Although the condition is degenerative, the veterinarian assured Lauren they would have many more active months together before the disease slowed her down. Two days later Sugar’s back limbs were paralyzed. To Lauren, nothing seemed to make sense. Sugar was getting worse, not better. “She was dragging herself around,” she says. “I worried that she was suffering.”

Lauren called a mobile veterinarian, expecting she would have to put Sugar down. “Thank goodness no one called me back,” she says.

Lauren spent the weekend after her business trip crying and trying to decide what to do. She carried Sugar outside to go to the bathroom, and she bought diapers for when she couldn’t get Sugar outside. “Having a 50-pound dog that can’t walk is so hard,” she says. “I was tired and exhausted.”

Over that weekend, Lauren remembered another veterinarian she had known in the community. She took Sugar first thing Monday morning, but she was told that the veterinarian was off that day. Lauren was distraught. The clinic staff called Dr. Barbara Calm at home and she came in on her day off. Dr. Calm took new radiographs and did blood work on Sugar. “She also told me about the WSU veterinary hospital when I brought Sugar in,” she says. “But I expected she would need back surgery and I didn’t think I could afford it.”

One week later, Lauren was sitting in the parking lot of a big box retail store getting ready to buy more puppy pads and diapers for Sugar when Dr. Calm called. Based on the test, Dr. Calm said she wasn’t sure what was wrong with Sugar and hoped that Lauren would reconsider going to Pullman.

“I hung up, looked at Sugar in the rearview mirror, and called the WSU neurology unit,” she says. “At first, they told me they didn’t have any open appointments for two weeks, but said they would talk to the doctors. I got a call back within hours and they wanted to see Sugar the very next day.”

Without any time to think about it, Lauren packed a bag and made the six-hour trip to Pullman from western Montana. “I couldn’t put my dog down until I knew why I was putting her down,” she says. “Finding answers would put my mind at ease. I wasn’t afraid of a little debt to find out what was wrong.”

At WSU, neurology resident Dr. Tom Jukier examined Sugar and ordered an MRI. “The best test for spinal cord conditions is an MRI,” says Dr. Jukier. In Sugar’s case, the disease was advanced enough that the x-rays, or radiographs, were difficult to interpret. “We took radiographs, but because she had degenerative changes to her spine, it made it difficult to interpret if it was inflammation or something more benign like arthritis from the radiographs alone.”

The MRI results: Discospondylitis, an infection of the spinal discs most often caused by bacteria. For Sugar, it also affected her spinal cord.

MRI allows veterinarians to see things they sometimes can’t with an x-ray alone. “It is vastly superior for earlier detection, so we can treat sooner,” says Jukier. Dr. Jukier prescribed antibiotics, and Sugar started feeling better within days.

“I never expected what happened,” says Lauren. “Two days later she was standing.”

Sugar stayed on the antibiotics for about nine months. Today, at 12 years old, Sugar is hiking and doing the outdoor activity she loves. Lauren keeps a close eye on her to make sure the infection doesn’t return, but she also knows that as Sugar is aging symptoms of arthritis can mimic infection. “I’m always watching for it,” she says.

“Lauren put in a lot of dedication to help Sugar,” says Jukier.” If it wasn’t for her dedication, we wouldn’t have had such a good outcome.”

Sugar Rising

Lauren, a professional photographer by trade, chronicled Sugar’s illness and time at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.