March 8 was a difficult day for Michele Piper and her family from Upper Tyrone. Kahlua, their 4-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, started losing control of her hind legs.
Piper immediately sent a text to her veterinarian, Dr. Justin Kontir of Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital, who had her bring Kahlua to his office.
During the examination, Kontir noticed the same problem was beginning to affect the dog's front paws. At first, Piper said Kontir thought the problem might be caused by a spinal blood clot.
"There is a list of things, 25 things, from botulism, a herniated disk, spinal cord stroke, even arthritis," Kontir said. "In a young dog, they can herniate a disk. In a young to middle-age dog that is active, arthritis didn't seem very likely."
He had Piper take Kahlua to Dr. Kendra Mikoloaki, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM (Neurology) at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty Services, located on Camp Horne Road, north of Pittsburgh.
"The only place to diagnose this type of problem is the specialty clinic in Pittsburgh," Kontir said.
Mikoloaki examined Kahlua. By the time Mikoloaki saw the dog, she didn't have a patella reflex (in humans, checked by striking the kneecap).
The signals (from the dog's brain) weren't getting through to her legs," Mikoloaki said.
She diagnosed the illness as acute canine idiopathic polyradiculoneuritis (ACIP), commonly known as Coonhound paralysis.
Kontir and Mikoloaki said the problem is rare.
Kontir said he vaguely remembered hearing about Coonhound paralysis when he was in school, eight years earlier. He had never seen one in his practice.
Mikoloaki said she sees just a few cases each year.
The actual cause of the disease is unknown. Kontir said one possibility is contact with raccoons or raccoon saliva. Whatever the cause, the disease triggers the autoimmune system that attacks the nerves.
Initially, Piper was worried she might have to have Kahlua put down. Mikoloaki said that is not necessary in a young, otherwise healthy dog. The treatment involves no medication, only intense physical therapy.
Piper opted to take Kahlua to Woodlands Animal Care Center in Farmington, where Shari Facchine, certified K9 rehabilitation therapist, began therapy on March 16. Facchine said the clinic was built by Joe Hardy as part of his pet-friendly Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.
"At that time she (Kahlua) wasn't able to hold her head up or eat and drink on her own," said Facchine, who used a syringe to give her water and food. "She was not strong enough to use her tongue to drink from a bowl."
Facchine worked with Kahlua during the days, giving her range-of-motion exercises and cold laser treatments, putting her in a "quad cart" and having Kahlua work on an exercise ball.
According to Facchine, the process involved teaching the dog to use her body again, from using her legs, to learning to drink and eat to going to the bathroom.
Facchine explained that the Cutting Edge Class 4 cold laser helps regenerate nerves. The device is rarely used on humans because insurance companies consider it an experimental therapy.
Facchine said therapy for Coonhound paralysis normally takes up to six months. However, Kahlua's rehabilitation was accelerated by what Facchine and both vets said was the dog's happy and energetic nature, a motivated animal.
Eventually, Facchine discharged Kahlua, who is at home, completely free of the condition that once took away her ability to move.
For Michelle Piper and her family, the process has been rewarding, but expensive. She said the vet bills and therapy have cost approximately $3,000. But she would have found it difficult to end Kahlua's life.
Now, even her husband, Varden, whom she described as "not an animal lover," is happy with Kahlua. Kahlua will go to the refrigerator, take a beverage handed to her to Varden in another room, then wag her tail and bark at him, Michelle Piper said.