In the late summer of 2010, I flew from our long-time Alaskan home to Seattle to pick up a very special delivery – an eight-week-old, 20-pound Akita puppy. He was tired and cautious after his long flight from Ohio, but in short order he stepped out of his crate. I was completely gobsmacked. He was gorgeous and everything his breeder said he would be. Not only did I fall head over heals in love with him when I first smelled his puppy breath, but it was clear to me that this puppy (who we named Roshi) could grow up to become a stunning show dog. Indeed he did, earning his AKC Championship easily.
A year ago, having just turned eight, Roshi developed a slight limp. Being the hyper-vigilant pet parents that we are, my husband immediately got Roshi in to see our vet thinking it was a shoulder issue. X-rays of Roshi’s shoulder showed nothing out of the ordinary, and we were advised to give Roshi time to rest as he may have suffered a soft tissue injury from playing with our other Akita, Dante.
Over time Roshi’s limp became more pronounced, so we decided to have him seen by an orthopedic specialist/surgeon. My husband and I sat in the small exam room while the vet performed a thorough exam. He poked and prodded Roshi’s back legs looking for any signs of abnormalities or pain. The same exam was performed on the right front leg with no reaction from Roshi. The vet moved to the left front leg and in just a moment he said, “He has a hard mass here on his elbow.”
The vet said he wanted to do an X-ray of Roshi’s lungs to see if it had spread. Although he never said the word, it was clear that we were talking about cancer. It was a kick in the gut. Cancer? We came in for a limp.
The X-ray was normal. A brief moment of calm. Next, the vet said that he wanted to make an appointment to bring Roshi back in for a biopsy to find out what type of cancer it was. There he said it: Cancer.
Within a week, Roshi was back at the vet’s for the punch biopsy. Later that day my husband and I went to pick him up. While we were waiting for the tech to bring Roshi out, the vet came out to tell us that all went well with the procedure and that we would have results in the next few days. He sat down with us and then started talking about amputation. WHAT? How did we go from a limp to talk of amputation in a matter of less than a week? My stomach did flip flops as the vet spoke about how well dogs do after amputation. We were reassured that there was no reason to think that Roshi wouldn’t do well after amputation of his left front leg.
I felt queasy. How well would Roshi really do? My Roshi: 110 pounds, deep chested and front heavy? How well would he really do?
A few days later the vet called with the biopsy results: Chondrosarcoma. Cancer of the cartilage in his elbow. The vet again spoke about amputation and suggested that we get a second opinion from a veterinary oncologist.
It took an agonizing 2 ½ weeks to get in to see the oncologist. She concurred with the orthopedic specialist: amputation would be curative. There was no data to show that Roshi’s type of cancer would respond to chemotherapy or radiation. The good news: amputation would cure the cancer. The bad news: amputation was our only option.
From the first day we saw the orthopedic specialist to the time we decided to have the surgery done was almost four weeks. At first I cried nearly every day. I cried because I was afraid we were going to lose Roshi. I worried incessantly over how Roshi would handle the amputation. I didn’t want him to be in pain. I didn’t want him to suffer. I didn’t want him to go through the pitfalls he would surely have to go through recovering from such an invasive surgery. To think of him hurting; to think of him confused and not knowing how to balance without his leg was agonizing to me.
We all moved forward though and Roshi was scheduled for surgery in mid-July. We dropped him off knowing that the next time we saw him he would never look the same.
The following afternoon we went to the vet hospital to pick Roshi up. After what seemed to be an interminably long time, we saw Roshi come out with a vet tech. Wrapped tightly with surgical dressing, he came bouncing toward us. This was hard work for him.
The following week was pretty tough. When we took him out to the backyard, he seemed to stumble with nearly every step. He did face plant after face plant trying to get his balance. Each time he stumbled; each time he fell; I stuffed my tears and told him, “Good boy Roshi. You’ve got this. You can do this. Good dog.”
The next week we began six weeks of formal rehabilitation on the water treadmill. Each week the rehab tech suited up in waders and got in the tub with Roshi increasing both speed and resistance. It was hard work, but Roshi was a trooper and even attempted to do three-legged zoomies after getting out of the tub.
In addition to the water treadmill, the rehabilitation included cold laser treatment to help the 12-inch incision heal. Each time Roshi received a cold lazer treatment he was required to wear Doggles, which served as a great source of levity in a very difficult time.
At the same time we were participating in formal rehab, we began our home rehabilitation. At first we walked him across the street. Once we got him across the street, he lay down panting and trying to catch his breath. We told him what a good dog he was. We told him that he could do it and, in time, we picked him up by his harness and brought him back across the street and into our house where he collapsed with exhaustion.
Day after day, week after week and month after month we would go just a little bit further; then just a little bit further. We were constantly working to find the balance between pushing Roshi and exhausting him. In time, Roshi was able to walk a brisk 15-minute, 12-block walk and that is as far as he can go.
Five months after Roshi’s amputation I had the opportunity to show him one last time at a specialty show held in conjunction with the Akita Club of Puget Sound and the Rose City Classic. He was not going into the ring to compete; he was going to be shown as a “Title Holder.” He was going to be shown in a class by himself.
As I walked around the ring with Roshi happily bouncing at my side, the audience erupted into applause for our once broken but never defeated dog. As one friend told me later, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Nowadays Roshi’s life is fairly normal. He gets his 15-minute walk every day and plays happily with Dante and our 2 cats. He greets us joyfully whenever we come home. He comes upstairs every night to go to bed. He wakes up each morning with his baritone Akita “Woo Woooo!” and a smile on his face. The only real difference is that we put a harness on him to bring him downstairs in the morning.
I can say without hesitation that this has been a tremendous learning experience and affirmation in how dogs have the power to heal us. Roshi has shown such determination, such grit and such resiliency. He has also shown us that when adversity strikes, you just pick yourself up and get on with it. There is no feeling sorry for yourself when you are a dog. If that is not a life lesson we humans could use, I don’t know what else is.
For more information on tripawed dogs please visit: www.tripawd.com
Editor's note: Cynder is one of our outstanding team members that you will find at our Healthy Pets Northwest Woodstock store. All of us at HPNW are grateful to Cynder for sharing Roshi's heart-wrenching and ultimately heart-warming story.