Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gimme' Shelter

Last week, while preparing to leave for work, I happened to look out of our bedroom window and glimpsed a small brown figure next to my truck. In the early light, it was just possible to make out the slight figure of a dog, rooting around for food. It was obvious even from a distance that this dog had missed a few meals.

Stray dogs are a common sight in rural Virginia. Whether for economic reasons, cultural reasons, educational reasons, or all of these, people are less likely to spay or neuter their dogs here than in more urban areas, or to properly care for the dogs they own. Some will simply dump dogs that they no longer want, rather than take them to one of the few overworked shelters. One previous visitor was dropped literally at our doorstep, and this one may have been, too.

As soon as our latest visitor saw us, she retreated in terror under the truck, refusing to come near us. Recognizing her malnourished state, Tom placed a handful of dog food in a bowl and left it near the truck. No movement. So, Tom went inside and we watched, and within a few minutes, our guest was wolfing down the food. Next he took her some water, and again after leaving for a few minutes, she crept out and drank all of it.

We decided that we needed to know more about our guest, in order to determine what to do next. So I walked out slowly, and crouched down about 20 feet from the truck and called out to her in a low voice. The dog was clearly terrified and she let out a warning “woof” that was not quite believable. Her eyes were wide with panic and she trembled with fear. But after a few minutes, she crept, nearly on her belly and shaking every step of the way, up to my outstretched hand. Once she came close enough, I was able to reach under her chin and stroke her face. Her eyes nearly closed and she literally sank with relief that I wasn’t going to hurt her. She curled into me like a long-lost friend. At this point, I could see that this was a young dog, no more than 6 months old (later verified by her teeth). Other than her general ribiness, she appeared to be healthy and not quite her ultimate adult size.

I abandoned any hope of making it to work on time. Tom and have a background in companion animal rescue and we are familiar with the many resources for finding lost dog ads. I called the County Animal Shelter, the local
SPCA, checked Craigslist, the local papers, and several Internet lost pet sites. Apparently, no one was looking for a lost adolescent mixed breed female dog in Burkeville. So, I posted “found” announcements in all these same resources. Within an hour, I had calls from two sad people looking for lost members of their family. There is little more heartbreaking than knowing that your pet may be in harm’s way and being unable to locate him or her. I really felt for them and wished them both luck.

So, now we have Cassie, short for Cassandra (Tom’s name). Cassie has discovered that we are nice, we have food and we can be trusted. It took no more than half an hour for her natural exuberance and joie de vive to outweigh her initial fear. She loves attention and will follow us anywhere. While we are waiting for her owners to come forward (though people aren’t exactly falling all over themselves out here to claim stray dogs), we will make sure that she is treated for parasites, vaccinated, and spayed. We will teach her to sit, lead and behave in the house. If no one claims her, we will try to place her in an adoptive home. If anyone asks, we will tell them that she is an Appaloosa Dog. One of the best things about unregistered dogs is that they can be any breed you want.

But we are realistic about the number of companion animals that are now in harm’s way because of the economy, and the relatively few homes available for them. Household pets were among the earliest casualties of the wave of foreclosures to hit much of the country. In rural areas, where animals are dispensable even in easy times, many are at risk and many more will lose their homes in the impending recessional economy. Cassie was very lucky in finding help when she most needed it and her willingness to trust people even over great fear may have saved her life. After a week, she is back to being a normal, cheerful puppy who just needs affection, regular meals and a few more lessons in housebreaking.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blind Horses

We recently had an inquiry about an Appy that a private rescue had taken in, and who was being a difficult keeper. They had said that she had "moon blindness" in one eye but it seemed that more was going on to make so difficult to handle, and appear so nervous in the stall. Jorg responded to the rescuer and I thought that it was such an excellent summary of the issues to do with blind horses that I am putting it verbatim on the blog. This is what she wrote:

"What you are describing is a functionally blind horse. Appaloosas are about eight times more likely than other horses to develop equine recurrent uveitis (ERU) at some time in their lives. The disorder is a booger to diagnose because it doesn't impact one organ in the eye, rather it affects a larger area generally called the uvea. The eyes can appear pretty normal on examination, but still have suffered a lot of damage from flare-ups caused by allergies, stress, genetics, etc. So the vet might have difficulty determining the degree of damage - it's fairly subtle and we've had a lot of vets miss it, or more commonly, misjudge the severity.

There are probably several things going on here. First, owners lie :). But in these cases, the owners often don't know the extent of their horse's vision loss because he or she is acting perfectly normal at home. In their own backyards, horses are very adept at memorizing where everything is. But when you move them to a new location, you get the reaction you are describing. All of a sudden, they are anxious, running into things and going ballistic. We have learned that the statement "some vision left" by an owner actually means "probably none." I suspect your girl is at the "shapes and blobs" stage. In other words, in a bright light, she can make out the location of large objects. But in dim light (like a barn or in a stall), she can see virtually nothing. That's why they call this "moon blindness" - in low light, they lose light and dark contrast
, but can still see during the day.

There are some things to look for that will help you evaluate where she is:

1. When walking into a shadow from a bright light, does she try to step "into" the shadow, or look as if she is gingerly walking over the line? If so, the shadow appears black to her and she cannot see anything at that light level.

2. When walking her, does she seem to rely a little heavily on what you are telling her to do, rather than relaxing and being able to see for herself?

3. In dim light, are her movements jerky or hesitant? We know she is running into things, which is another cue.

4. Try turning her on her hind feet. Does she seem a little unbalanced? This
could indicate a more severe vision loss.

5. When walking towards the gate, does she see the gate, or will she just walk into the fence? This is a "shapes and blobs" distinction.

6. Does she have scrapes, cuts or hairless patches? These are all indicators of running into things she can't see
, and hairless strips on the back of her hind legs indicate that she is being bullied and is unable to defend herself.

7. Does she frequently tilt her head, as if she is listening intently? This is a symptom of profound blindness and means she has begun to rely more on her sense of hearing than her vision.

We have several of these horses at the moment and have had many in the past. The vast majority of them will settle down, once they get their bearings. If it is really a vision problem, it's not the stall she is fearful of, it's the inability to see in dim light and the fact that she has no clue where she is. She's just frightened. While sighted horses dislike being left alone, blind horses are even more anxious and they need reassurance that other horses are near. If she is a little high strung to begin with, or the onset of the condition has been sudden or recent (likely, at her age), this will add to her anxiety. Here are some suggestions for handling her:

1. Put her in the brightest light you can find. Outside is, indeed, easier on her than inside, if you can do this. Can you light up her stall with a bright light? Does she calm down when you do?

2. Fences should be solid and easily visible. No barbed wire (not recommended for horse paddocks anyway). Paddocks should be free of tripping hazards, guy wires and especially low hanging branches. Walking the paddock is just (even more) important with a blind horse as with a sighted one).

3. In new paddocks, putting vinegar in the water trough will help her find it until she memorizes the location. Navigating stalls and small paddocks should be learned within a week or two and she should stop running into things so often.

4. ERU can be painful and many horses will show tearing, will squint, or will clench their eyelids. Flare-ups can be controlled or lessened with powdered aspirin (cheap at Valley Vet) added to their food. Severe flare-ups can be treated with steroid ophthalmic ointment or atropine. This also prevents further damage to the eyes. Fly masks will help protect against wind and mUV radiation and will also protect her head if she hits something. Just feeling better will help her attitude.

5. Try to find a gentle pasture buddy. This often takes several trials with different horses, and we've learned to test them over the fence, first. Blind horses are easily picked on and can be brutalized by a bully. Minis usually work really well for this. If she is attached to the other horse she came in with, this is one reason why- she's learned to depend on him and worries when he is not there.

There are a couple of rescues out there that specialize in blind horses.
We have a good setup here, but we can only keep a limited number of these guys at a time because they must be kept separate from the bigger herds. They do far better in groups of two, or at most, three. At the moment, we have three horses at the stage yours is probably at, one more that is blind on one side, and two others that are in earlier stages and can still generally see but need treatment.

Adopting these horses out is difficult. Once they settle down, they are easy to care for. But in the current market, there is little demand for special needs horses. If she can be ridden, and many can be if they trust their riders, that will help. Also, profoundly blind horses often learn to spook in place (they learn that bolting hurts!) and many can be safer lead line or parade horses for this reason. But a lot depends on individual temperament and what she knew and was before the vision loss. Some honest answers from the owner about this would be useful.

I sure hope this helps. Thank you taking her in. I understand about the decision to euthanize - we have to make that call too often, ourselves. But you might want to give her a little time to see what she does. Even high strung horses
generally learn to adjust to stalls if they mean food and shelter. Some just take longer than others. But please don't hesitate to give us a shout if you have any more questions, or if there is something else we can help with."

We intend to talk about quality of life issues in a future post, and taking on a blind horse gets right to the center of this question. The debate has been fierce on whether keeping a blind horse is a good thing or not, and we experienced the best and worst of this question with Rudy (see a previous post).