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Has Your Dog Had a Mystery Illness?

My cattle dog, Maybelle, had a series of late-night episodes I worried were seizures. They never were diagnosed. Has your pup ever had a problem her veterinarian couldn't explain?

Theresa Cramer  |  Jul 2nd 2015


I’m not a veterinarian, but I have to assume that one of the biggest challenges of treating four-legged patients is that they cannot speak. Last summer, when Maybelle threw up and her muzzle swelled to twice its normal size — leaving her looking more like a Sharpei than a cattle dog — I assumed she had been stung by one of the bees she’s always chasing. But I was almost certain she’d been stung before, so I wondered if Maybelle had been bitten by something else, maybe a spider. When Benadryl only partially solved the swelling problem, I took her to the vet, but all we could do was treat the symptoms.

Poor Maybelle looked pretty pathetic with her swollen face.

Poor Maybelle looked pretty pathetic with her swollen face.

This wasn’t the first time the vet and I had found ourselves wondering about one of Maybelle’s medical mysteries. A few months after I adopted her, she woke me up in the middle of the night. This was very unusual, so I assumed she had to go to the bathroom. I started to head downstairs, but Maybelle just stood at the top, suddenly afraid of the steps she had gone up and down hundreds of times over the past few months. I called, cajoled, and begged her to come, eventually managing to get Maybelle to descend part of the way before finally carrying her to the bottom.

Once we were outside, she milled about but did not relieve herself. I noticed that it was a strangely warm night in early spring. It was even a little steamy, so I began to think there might be a storm on its way that I could not hear but that Maybelle could. Eventually we made it back upstairs, though she moved from step to step slowly and sideways. But she was still restless. When she crawled up onto the loveseat where she sleeps, she sat straight up, looking back and forth, like she was watching a very slow tennis match. When I called her name, she responded. She slowly crawled off the loveseat, sticking her paw out like she was testing the waters before actually jumping down. Eventually she settled down beside my bed and went back to sleep.

This happened two more times, about every three months or so, before I finally brought a video of her behavior to the vet.

By this time, I’d seen Maybelle’s behavior during an actual storm and knew that fear of thunder was not a viable explanation. Were these episodes normal for her? Was this a new phenomenon or had this been happening her whole life? I had no way of knowing since I adopted her as an adult, and I could not tell the vet much beyond what she could see in the video.

If you asked most of my family members, I had a ghost problem. The cats, apparently, weren’t bothered by this, but Maybelle was. I, however, was worried these were some kind of mild dog seizure. The vet shared that worry, and also suggested a possible problem with anxiety.

Maybelle is usually very relaxed.

Maybelle is usually very relaxed.

I left the vet’s office with two instructions: I was to keep a log of these episodes and to consider the idea of a pet communicator. Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more convinced that this had something to do with the all-in-one flea-heartworm medication she was taking. The vet, however, did not think this was a factor.

It was November in Connecticut at that time and already very cold, so I discontinued her flea-heartworm preventative as part of the experiment. We made it through the winter without any more “episodes,” and in the spring I changed her to different prevention medications.

We’ll took our chances with the fleas during the snowy season.

We took our chances with the fleas during that snowy season.

Maybelle never had another episode after that visit to the vet. They stopped as mysteriously as they started. I credit the change in meds, though my vet still thinks that was a coincidence. And if you ask the pet communicator I eventually contacted (mostly for laughs), Maybelle was just reacting to the ghost of a small, orange female dog who was checking up on us to make sure we were a good fit for each other. (I’ve never had a small, orange female dog, so I assume she was one of Maybelle’s acquaintances.)

It’s not likely that we will ever figure out what was really going on with Maybelle on those late nights, but I learned a few things about helping my vet, who has the unenviable job of communicating with a patient who can’t speak. Here are some tips:

  • Take pictures/video — This will help in cases where your dog’s symptoms come and go, whether it’s a late-night episode or a intermittent limp.
  • Keep accurate records — I not only logged the episodes but other seemingly relevant information, like when I gave her medication or did anything else out of the ordinary.
  • Pay attention — A vet’s job is even harder when the pet guardians don’t pay enough attention to their dogs to know when a behavior began or even if it’s out of the ordinary.

Has your dog ever had a mystery illness? Please share your experience in the comments.

Read more by Theresa Cramer

About the author: Theresa Cramer is a journalist and editor by trade, an NPR addict, and an avid gardener. She blogs at Writer on the Prowl, where you will find pictures of her garden, her pets, and musings about whatever is on her mind. She is working on a book about content marketing and how to make the transition from journalist to brand journalist.