Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the progress my dog Lily has made since I adopted her in 2018. She will be 3 in October, and it is amazing looking back on how much she has grown (and not just physically).
Lily had a rough start in her young life. She was the standard 6 weeks old when I brought her home for the first time. She was a friend of a friend’s backyard litter (I live in the South). While I had a dog at one point, he was an outside dog, and I had started boarding school not long after he joined our family. So naturally I was freaking out a little about raising a young puppy for the first time and especially while in the middle of a chemistry PhD program. I think I binge read three books on dog training and German Shephard dogs (Lily’s breed) two days before I saw her. I remember being home and the first five minutes just being like, “What do I do now? Do I feed her? What am I supposed to feed her? Wait, I don’t have any dog food!” It’s funny looking back now on my frazzled state, as I imagine most first-time dog owners do. I will say I was incredibly thankful for my mom to help me. She was this calm presence, probably because she has raised two kids, so what’s a puppy?
The first three days with Lily, I was at my parent’s for Thanksgiving, so I had all this help with feeding, cleaning, and watching Lily. Then I packed everything back up and drove back to South Carolina to continue grad school life. Around five days after driving back, Lily got very sick. I was getting ready for work one morning after I had already taking her outside, and I called her name to come to me. She stood up from where she had been trying to shred a toy apart, as puppies do, but then she fell back down. That was weird. I called her again, and she stood back up only to fall back over again.
Concerned, I got in touch with a friend who had adopted another pup in the litter who had been having health problems, one of which was trouble walking. I was urgently told to get in touch with a vet and have Lily checked out. I had arrived at work when I received her message and concern was quickly becoming fear. My boss, who also has dogs, was gracious enough to let me leave work and take Lily to the vet. Now, I had not even chosen a vet yet. I mean, I had her for four days. I was going to research a few places I was recommended and make a decision from there. Well, that plan was thrown out the window, and I took her to a vet a friend used for her dog. When I got home to take Lily, she could not even stand at that point. I can still hear her cry from pain when I picked her up to put her in the pet carrier (yes, she was that small back then).
I was terrified out of my mind. I had somehow broken this young creature in less than a week. I still did not even know what half the sounds she made meant. The three hours we were at the vet were very influential on my bond with Lily. I hadn’t felt the attachment for her people often talk about with their pups, and I was questioning if I even liked her (again, only four days in). But having this small thing curl up in your arms because you’re their safe place does something to you. Seeing how scared and how much pain she was in brought that emotional connection, of course. At one point, the vet assistant had taken Lily to go draw blood, and I could hear Lily crying the entire way down the hall from the room I was left in. All I felt was this strong desire to take her back and keep her safe. The point where I finally broke down was when the vet was examining Lily, which meant we had to physically move her legs. At that point, any movement made Lily cry out in pain. The vet was saying calming words, and I broke when she said, “It’s okay, sweetie, you’re okay. You have a good mama. Your mama did the right thing.” That was very emotional because this whole time I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong.
Lily was diagnosed with a rare condition called neospora. The vet told me that it was so rare that she would probably never see it again in her career. Neospora is when a dog has a parasite that attacks the central nervous system. My experience with this disease is purely what I observed with Lily, some case studies the vet gave me, and light internet research. Essentially, as the parasite attacks, slowly the body starts to shut down. Usually, the back legs are the first to lose function, resulting in paralysis, and it works its way up until it reaches the part of the nervous system responsible for breathing, maintaining the heart rate, and other basic functions. If not caught, it can result in the dog dying. There are two primary sources for the parasite: either the environment it was born in or directly from the mother of the liter. Because puppies are too young for vaccines, they are more at risk for diseases, which is what happened with Lily.
By the end of the day, Lily had lost function in both of her back legs. The medication the vet prescribed helped with her pain, and I was assured that she should regain use of her legs with time. For the next month, although it felt like longer, I watched Lily relearn how to stand and how to walk. It was very slow going. It started with her being able to stand for a few seconds. Then minutes. Then it became a step or two before falling. It was literally like teaching a baby how to walk for the first time. I am happy to say that Lily made a full recovery and the only sign of her paralysis is her back feet point slightly inward when she stands.
Lily has come a long way since then. We have participated in various training classes, and she is incredibly smart, as expected being a German Shepherd. Raising a dog has been an incredible experience. I can definitely say I am more responsible now than I was before having Lily. With all her vet bills, I had to develop a budget. I cleaned more frequently, mostly to keep her from chewing up books and shoes or running of with socks. But I have also developed a strong bond with her. Now, I know what all her sounds mean. She has learned how to tell me when she needs to go outside or when she is hungry. I can’t imagine life without Lily. She’s my shadow that goes everywhere with me. Raising a dog is hard. There were so many days, there ARE so many days where I think “I can’t do this.” And then Lily will have a small breakthrough that makes it all worth it.
If you had read this far on this long post, I appreciate you. I wanted to share our story because I think it’s important to tell stories where there was struggle. I have found the dog community to be incredibly supportive, and the dog owners who want what is best for their dogs have never judged me with Lily. The owners who have said, “Don’t worry, I’ve been there. I remember those days when [insert dog name] was that age and acted like that.” These interactions are incredibly validating and helped me survive “puppyhood.” My hope is by sharing our story that other new puppy owners will see that they are not alone and people are more than willing to help.