Relief for Reefer

December 13, 2010

by Hayley Gallaher

I knew HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) would be an unforgettable experience—I’d be surrounded by skilled veterinarians and technicians from all over the country in a supportive, case-based learning environment. However, I quickly realized that the most valuable lesson I'd take away from the experience was checking my preconceived notions at the door.

Reefer and Blaze
Reefer and his companion, Blaze, wait for their exams at an HSVMA-RAVS clinic.

My first case—two muscle-ripped pit bulls—approached us in a beat-up, 80’s sedan. The owner looked like he had just walked off the set of a hip-hop video and was sporting a shirt with a bold marijuana leaf emblazoned on it, appropriate for living in California’s Emerald Triangle. His gregarious and friendly two year-old pit bull, fittingly named Reefer, charmed the pants off of us immediately.

Localizing the problem

As we started the dog's physical exam, I immediately noticed a limp in his hind leg. When I asked the owner about it, he said it had been like that after he got out as a puppy. He had never stopped limping, but still seemed to get around okay.

I called over one of the staff veterinarians, Dr. Kate Kuzminski, to have a look. With her help and guidance, we performed an orthopedic exam to localize the cause of Reefer's limp. After extending and flexing his joints, feeling for crepitus and a possible break, we were pretty sure the problem was in the hip joint; the muscle atrophy in his leg was an indication as well.

While radiographs could have confirmed our diagnosis, we didn’t have the luxury of that option in the field, and Reefer’s owner couldn’t afford to take him to an animal hospital. We had to make do with the knowledge that we had.

The dog's history indicated that he may have been hit by a car as a puppy. I learned from Dr. Kate that it's common for puppies to fracture their femoral head at the growth plate, rather than dislocating the joint as an older dog would. Since the bone had likely been broken on a growth plate, it had never properly healed and likely never would. Instead, the two bone parts would continue to rub against each other, causing Reefer increasingly more pain and gradually worsening his quality of life.

We explained this to the owner and informed him that the best possible treatment would be to do a surgical procedure called a femoral head osteotomy. During the healing process, a fibrous joint would form, giving Reefer better mobility and ultimately relieving his discomfort. However, Dr. Kate adamantly explained that the surgery was only an option if the owner was committed to doing rehabilitation exercises with Reefer every day for six weeks post-operatively.

Never judge a book by the cover

I was caught off guard when the man said it would be no problem at all, since he was already accustomed to helping his brother, who suffers from epilepsy, with rehabilitation therapy. It was then that I realized just how lucky Reefer was to have such a dedicated owner.

Dr. Eric Davis performed the surgery with my assistance, and the dog recovered well. When Reefer's owner returned to pick him up a few days later, it was the first time we'd seen the dog wag his tail since he'd been dropped off. As they left the clinic, I felt confident that he would be well taken care of and that a little bit of well-timed help had made Reefer's future a little brighter.

Animal lovers come in all shapes and sizes, I learned. As veterinarians, technicians and students working in underserved areas, we have the opportunity to interact with people who only want the best for the pets, but don't have the means of giving them proper veterinary care. I'm very proud to have taken part in a service that helps so many people and their animals.

Hayley Gallaher is a veterinary student at the University of Wisconsin, Class of 2011. She was an HSVMA-RAVS intern for the 2010 clinic season.