German shepherd in Walkin' Wheels dog wheelchair

Claire Hegarty lives in Wales where she teaches and practices many and varied types of spiritual techniques, and runs two successful businesses helping and teaching others how to live the lives of their dreams. Claire has been a dog lover all her life. With her first German shepherd, Heidi, she was actively involved in dog training, and ran a dog display team until sadly, she lost her dog to epilepsy. Then Neo came into her life. Neo loved to swim so Claire and her partner would take him to the beach regularly.

“Neo came into this world with an older sister Heidi (my first female GSD) who I also nursed through many illnesses, one of them epilepsy, and we lost her at age five. Through her repeated seizures and weeks away in the hospital this was distressing for Neo, so I started letting him sleep in my room, on the floor next to me and under the bed. I would even sleep with him in his bed. Oh the joy of waking up to a German shepherd in Walkin’ Wheels dog wheelchair’s nose in your face in the middle of the night!

“A large German shepherd with long legs, Neo struggled with medical problems from early on. He suffered with panosteitis, a condition where the bones and ligaments don’t grow at the same rate, (the equivalent to growing pains in children), and causes lameness in dogs. “I nearly lost him as a young pup. At one point I had to hand feed him liquids through a syringe. Neo was vocal, dramatic, and one of the gentlest giants one could ever hope to meet. He always battled through his bouts of illnesses and sprang right back, as dogs do so well!

A few years later he needed a cruciate (ligament) operation. Since he was such a big dog, he had to be fitted with a stronger plate, which since they could only fit the plate once required a more serious operation.

As time went on, we started to notice a wobble in his back end, so we had his hips screened. They were normal, so we had to explore other possibilities. After various tests–MRI’s and blood tests–Neo was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM). At that time vets knew very little about DM, and we were told to treat him with the drug Tramadol. And then to put him to sleep.

At this point Neo was still his normal, healthy self. Yes, he wobbled a bit, but he was still fully independent. I would not accept that diagnoses; we started him on a program of physical therapy. The vets, physical-therapists and nurses who cared for Neo were absolutely amazing, very holistic in their care. Neo had treadmill sessions, physical therapy, and lots of vitamins and B12 injections. They showed me ways I could care for him and slow down the progression as much as possible.

My partner Jon and did a lot of our own research. We found the BIKO brace, which really helped. Since his front legs had always been  strong, the BIKO helped his movement. He would go from the treadmill to Hydro in the pool and he could still drag himself around to chase birds. But as time went on, Neo would become less and less mobile on his back legs. When we put him in his Walkin’ Wheels (dog wheelchair), he ran about and had such fun on the beach. People not used to seeing a dog with wheels on his hind legs turned and stared. Many commented on the love and hard work we were putting into giving Neo the best life he could possibly have.

I had held off getting him wheels, as I hoped he would somehow get better. I felt that getting the wheels would be giving into this awful condition. Then the day I decided to see how he took to them, and saw my brave boy running on the beach with his ball like he always did, I wished I had gotten them sooner.

For a long time I kept him in his BIKO while still in his wheels, thinking that the more he can keep his weight on all four legs the better. But soon Neo realized that he didn’t need to use his back legs in his wheels, and went for the lazier option. Over time, he lost the use of his back legs, but still ran about like any other dog with his wheels. He would go in his wheels twice a day, go to the beach, we even took him on holiday with us in Wales where he ran about in the welsh hills and slept by the fire.

I always monitored his meds as they often made him drowsy. I didn’t like him not being himself; towards the last couple of weeks of his life he wasn’t. I thought it was his meds, so I cut them back. The last couple of days he seemed to lose strength, he wasn’t really eating and didn’t want to play-–which wasn’t Neo.

I really want people to understand that DM is not the end. There is so much that can be done. There are other answers. As long as the dog is happy and has a good quality of life, so much can be done to slow down the progression. We were lucky with Neo, he was one in a million; he just soldiered on!

Caring for DM isn’t easy; it’s a 24/7 commitment, mentally, emotionally and physically. Your dog becomes completely dependent on you, and what breaks your heart is that no matter how hard you work to care for them, you can never make them better. But caring for DM creates a bond that you can’t describe, a bond that goes beyond the normal dog/owner bond. A bond that will stay with you forever.

The day Neo left us on the 2nd February 2012, I knew it was his time to go. He didn’t want to eat or play, his eyes were grey, and I knew he was telling me it was his time to go. Making this decisions was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, even more difficult than his care day in day out.  It wasn’t the DM that took him in the end; the vet thinks it was a stroke because he went down hill so quickly.

He was paralyzed in all four legs, so he couldn’t even use his wheels. I knew that was no life for him, and that the kindest thing was to let him go so he could run free at the bridge to heaven.

We have set up a very busy page on Facebook “Caring for DM/CDRM”, a website and a twitter page to help others going through this, to offer help and support, and to advise, especially since very few vets really know much about DM and people are often told to put the dog to sleep even when the dog is still walking.

Neo’s Walkin’ Wheels are now with another large German Shepherd so that he too can enjoy running about.

We want people to know that DM is not the end. Dogs with this condition can live a long and happy life with a good quality of life. The help and support we can offer to anyone else caring for this illness is one way in which Neo’s name lives on.

Neo I miss you so much, you will always be in my heart xxx