BronteKneeA few weeks ago, we got some bad news. It started with Bronte showing some lameness on her front leg around the first of July. I wasn’t initially alarmed, since the dogs do injure themselves sometimes with all the running they do on uneven ground. There was a little bit of swelling in her knee, but not much, and she was still getting around just fine and was cheerful. I gave her some NSAIDs I had left over from her spay, and it seemed to improve.

Once the meds were gone, it got worse, however. The swelling increased, as did her lameness, and her demeanor started to change, as if she was in more discomfort. I worried that perhaps it was a bigger injury, like a tendon that needed surgical intervention. I called to make an appointment to have it x-rayed. My description to the vet that it was a strange, “hard” swelling made her instantly say “bone cancer” on the phone, even without seeing it.

Hauling Bronte to the vet and hoisting her onto tables and such is non-trivial, but we got ‘er done. And, cut to the chase, yes, it is bone cancer, osteosarcoma. This is my first ride with it, but it’s common in dogs, especially big dogs, so we’re in good company. Even my vet just had her pet dog go through the ordeal, so she was especially well-versed on the topic.Her dog only lived 7 months past the diagnosis, BTW, despite its owner being a vet and being able to do every possible treatment approach.

The crux is, by the time you see these symptoms, it has most likely already metastasized, usually into the chest, and the dog is now in the category of “dying of cancer of some sort.” So, that means it’s all about palliative care- keeping them comfortable and doing what’s reasonable to prolong quality life. But, we’re talking months, not years.

This news was tough to swallow. Bronte is seven, so that’s getting older for a giant breed, but still, I don’t consider her old. I find with livestock protection dogs, it’s not quite the same emotional impact as a house pet. You don’t find yourself lamenting “I’m going to miss snuggling with you on the couch, and walks on the beach…” We don’t have more than a few minutes of daily interaction, and it’s socially superficial compared to the bond I have with the house dogs. There is, however, emotional impact, it’s just a different kind. The thought of not having that dog here, competently handling the protection of the sheep 24/7 is a very emotionally vulnerable thought indeed. All grieving for the loss of another is inherently selfish. Sure, there’s a philosophical part where you lament their loss of more time on this earth. But that isn’t really the part that hits you in the gut, it’s the part where you lose what you’re getting out of the equation that’s so hard to bear.

I had a few teary-eyed days. Especially because her discomfort made me wonder if this was already the end of the line, time to consider euthanasia. Bone cancer is a very painful condition, so often it apparently hits a point where the dog is just too uncomfortable to go on. Thankfully, once I got her on a strong set of NSAIDs, she rebounded, and she’s back to her old silly self, sprinting and playing. She’s favoring the knee, but not too badly. So, there is at least a little time.

We discussed amputation. It can be an option if the cancer was caught early and has not metastasized, but that’s unusual. And, it can be an option to address the pain, to literally remove that entire area that’s in pain. For house dogs, this is an obvious choice straight-up. But my vet had sound advice on this, I thought: she felt that until Bronte is walking three-legged most of the time by her own choice, amputation isn’t the right choice for her. She moves about on such rugged terrain, learning to move on three legs will be a dramatic adjustment for her. It could put her at risk for other injury, as the body has to completely re-tool its muscling and core strength to handle this change. Better to let her do it slowly on her own terms than to do it abruptly, with a front leg, to boot. So, that’s an option we’re saving for later. BrontKnee2

Another approach is to do a pamidronate IV infusion, which is a drug that slows or stops bone turnover. It can also help alleviate pain in the joint. I did her first treatment last Wednesday, and I do think it helped. I could see her lameness subside to barely perceptible, and she started travelling very smoothly at a trot. I’ll need to repeat this treatment once a month or so. And again, this is not trivial: now she’s wise to being loaded up into the van, and tries to fight it. Wrestling a 125 lb panicked dog is a challenge. At the vet, she ran into the glass wall- you just forget how much an outdoor dog doesn’t know about the indoor world. She finds her time at the vet to be very stressful. But hopefully it’s worth a month of less pain…

The other option I’m weighing is radiation, which is also supposed to help knock back the cancer progression in the bone, and reduce pain. The most affordable way to do this treatment is to drive to WSU. I’ve had coworkers in this routine before: it takes 1-2 days of vacation. You drive over there one day, do a treatment in the afternoon, stay in a hotel, do a 2nd treatment in the morning, and drive home. This is going to be more of a challenge to fit in, both time- and vacation-wise; as well as I’m concerned about how much stress she’ll endure on such a trip. I’d also need to board her at the hospital, because it’s not like I can have her in a hotel room at night! She’s not housebroken, and won’t go potty on a leash. The logistical challenges with farm dogs are just… different.

Once I spent a week processing the news and plans for next steps, there was another obvious aspect of planning that needed immediate attention: succession planning. Bronte is our best protection dog, she is truly bonded to the sheep and very protective of them. So, ideally she needs to be around to help rear a replacement pup, so she can correct it when it tries to chase sheep, and help it establish a sense of territory, boundaries and community. This is part of why I’m focused on, and willing to invest money in, making her as pain-free as possible in the coming months. I’m asking her to give one last, and most important gift to the farm and the sheep: another generation of protection dogs.

So, this arrived on Friday night, a MiniMe. More stories to come, for sure!