A Diagnosis for Foster Puppy Coco’s Strange Gait

Since I last wrote about Coco, the little dog with the strange gait (her front feet move normally, but she can only bunny hop with her back legs moving together) who I’m fostering for my local shelter, she’s had a couple more veterinary visits:

  • She had a better x-ray than the ones she received when she was still a near-feral little wild child; this one, taken while she lay on her back in a V-shaped cradle – and without any sort of sedatives on board! Such a good girl! – ruled out any problems with her hips or pelvis. (In fact, the vet said her hips look great!)
  • She had blood taken for a test that would rule out a possible protozoal parasite infection that can cause neurological symptoms (Neosporum caninum) – but the test was negative.
  • She had an acupuncture treatment and some laser therapy for some tenderness in her back. (Honestly, I think this was less due to any adverse health condition than it was due to the rough and tumble wrestling/running/body-slamming games she plays with my 5-year-old, 70-pound, rock-solid pit-mix, Woody.) I didn’t see any change in her gait or level of comfort after the treatment.

At this point, my veterinarian was willing to consider some of the more exotic possible causes of her bunny-hopping gait, things like myelodysplasia, which includes anomalies of the skin, vertebrae, and spinal cord that are secondary to faulty closure of the neural tube in the puppy in utero, or pilonidal sinus (dermoid sinus, dermoid cyst), another consequence of faulty neural tubulation that appears to be inherited.

But each of these conditions requires magnetic resonance imaging (MRI, to the tune of at least $1,000!) to definitively diagnose them. Gulp. Since there is no treatment for any of these conditions, however, and because Coco is not in any amount of pain, my veterinarian suggested that I continue with physical therapy and daily massage for Coco. I scheduled an appointment with a veterinary physical therapist; there is a several-week wait to see her.

But then I got the results of a Wisdom Panel mixed-breed DNA test that I had impulsively decided to order:

Wisdom Panel estimated that Coco is 40% American Staffordshire Terrier, 38% Weimaraner, and 15% Labrador Retriever.

And suddenly, a condition called spinal dysraphism started to look like a fairly likely diagnosis. First, because it’s endemic to certain lines of Weimaraners. (There is actually a test, developed by the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California – Davis, that can determine whether a Weimaraner carries the gene that can cause this condition.)

Second, because affected Weims move just like Coco.

How do I know? I was Googling furiously – furious because though I found page after page of links, all the linked articles contained nearly identical brief, dry, and undetailed descriptions of the disorder – when, about four pages of Google results in, I saw a link for a Facebook group dedicated to the condition. I clicked over to the page with excitement, and saw that the owner of the page had posted a number of videos of not one but two Weimaraners with the disorder – and they moved exactly like Coco moves.

I feel in my bones that this is what Coco has – and this made me both happy and sad. Happy, because the condition is not progressive and not painful. Sad, too, though, because there’s no cure and not much you can do to improve matters. Physical therapy will be helpful for keeping her conditioned and limber, but it’s never going to make Coco walk normally.

Coco is happy to be Woody’s little brown shadow – which is why I have her spend time at my friend/co-foster person’s house, so she gets also exposure to the world without having to lean on Woody.

So I think the next steps for Coco (unintentional pun) are to start taking interviews for her next home – which has me and my friend Leonora, who has been hosting Coco at her house some days and nights – a little tearful. We’ve both gotten attached to the happy, funny little dog, goofy gaits and all. She’s smart and affectionate, loves snuggling on the couch at night, and is game to go anywhere we go and do anything that we do. I just have to find a prospective adopter who won’t mind Coco’s funny gait. Ideally, it would be a home with a large enough yard or property, or access to off-leash trails. Like the Am Staffs, Weims, and Labs who were her forebears, Coco loves to run (and frequently gets the zoomies) and is best behaved when she’s getting a lot of exercise. And while she certainly can be walked on leash, I think she does best when she has the freedom to adjust her pace to her human handler without having to stay in the short span of a leash. It might be a tall order; we’ll see.

I’ve been posting lots of pictures and videos of Coco sleeping and playing with Woody, who always takes my young foster dogs and puppies under his wing. Because Coco looks so happy and bonded with Woody, there’s hardly a person who has seen these photos who hasn’t said what all foster providers cringe when they hear: “She’s so happy; you have to keep her!”

I’ll just repeat what I always say: If I keep this one, I really can’t foster any more. Three dogs is my household limit – and really, one dog more than my husband would prefer we have. That said, if I don’t find someone who adores this little dog, of course she can stay.

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