When Your Horse Is Too Sick To Go To School

Dublin sick day 2

My mother’s words will follow me forever, no matter how old I get.

“If you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to go out to play.”

OH the risk of claiming a tummy ache on a school day. Sure, maybe you start feeling way better about an hour after the school bell rang, but it just didn’t matter. You played the sick card, so you were doomed to a day under the covers with a Sprite and some saltines on the bedside table. If you were lucky, there might be some new comic books included.

And after school? When your friends all came racing home to play and you were feeling much, much, much better? Too bad, so sad. You played the sick card.

Too sick for school, too sick to ride your bike. Too sick to play hide and seek. Too sick to go see the neighbor’s new puppy.

Not fair.

Now, as a living-by-my-own-rules adult, my mom’s rule still has a magical effect. If I don’t feel up to going to work, I’m not allowed to go out of the house that day or that evening. No one is here telling me that, it’s just the dang rule.

But today, my day as the enforcer has finally arrived. I get to impose Mom’s No Go/No Play rule on my horse.

It all started with one simple sentence.

Easter bud 2“You should go out to check on your horse,” Jim said as he came in the house from feeding the barn menagerie. “He didn’t want his dinner.”

Uh oh. Those are the words that make a horse owner’s pulse step it up a notch.

If a human isn’t hungry and skips a meal, it’s no big deal. If your dog or cat seems a little off and skips one meal, it’s not generally a race to the emergency vet. But when a big, stout, never-miss-a-meal horse turns his nose up at a ration of yummy sweet feed? Well, it can be an early indication of colic.

My horse savvy friends just cringed.

For my non-horse-savvy friends, colic in horses is a fairly common disorder of the digestive system. The true definition of the word simply means “abdominal pain,” however when it comes to horses, the term refers to a condition of severe abdominal discomfort characterized by pawing, rolling, and sometimes the inability to defecate. More to the point, suspicion of colic means you call your vet and you call fast.

There are different types of colic, and the severity of the illness varies greatly. Sometimes a horse may have a mild bout of abdominal pain that resolves with a single dose of medication. In other cases, if a horse suffers a displacement, or, in highly technical terms, a twisted gut, emergency surgery is necessary. When blood supply to the intestines is cut off…let’s just say it’s a bad situation. In worst case scenario cases, euthanasia is the only humane answer.

I have seen worst case scenario with one of the best horses I’ve ever loved. I know not to mess around when I see even the most mild symptoms of a potential colic.

When Jim told me that my big boy, Dublin, didn’t want his dinner, I immediately raced out to the barn to check on him. Let’s start a symptom list: 1: Lack of appetite.

When I walked into the barn, Dub was standing quietly watching the other horses finish their grain. Symptom 2: Fat pushy horse quietly watching underling horses eating.

I walked straight to my boy and haltered him. Symptom 3: Dub let me walk right up and halter him without a 15 minute game of keep-away. Yeah, he’s generally naughty that way.

I gave him a quick once-over. He wasn’t sweating, he wasn’t nosing his belly, he wasn’t trying to lie down or roll – all additional sure signs of colic – but his breathing was a bit shallow and rapid, his nostrils flaring with each breath. He was stressed and uncomfortable. Symptom 4: Breathing that would have made an excellent obscene phone call.

Colic symptoms can truly be that innocuous. Someone who is not a horse owner would likely not even notice from these early signs that big trouble could be on the horizon. But with years and years of experience with horses, these quiet symptoms immediately warranted an after-hours on a holiday weekend call to our large animal veterinarian.

Because that’s just about the only time my large animals manage to have an emergency. Talk to me about the once-upon-a-time Christmas Day emergency call. Sorry, Doc.

By about 9:15 in the evening, the veterinarian arrived. Dr. Meg Hollabaugh stepped out of her truck and, without much of a hello or how ya doing, got straight to work. Colic is serious business.

After an initial exam, checking his heart rate, listening to his lungs, listening for stomach sounds, it was time to give the boy a little sedation for “the” exam. The long glove exam. The “just relax” exam.

If you ever thought for a nanosecond that you might want to be a large animal veterinarian, one glimpse of your vet, arm buried to the shoulder in your horse’s backside, just might change your mind. Yup. Don’t try this at home. Leave this one to the pros.

But it’s an important part of the exam because the veterinarian has to check for an obstruction and needs to obtain a REALLY fresh stool sample. Really fresh.

Long exam story cut short, Dr. Hollabaugh determined that Dub had an impaction in his small intestine. Well no…she did not determine that from her arm-length exam. Horses have about 50 to 70 feet of intestines (Really? Really!). She arrived at the diagnosis through what we shall call veterinary detective work based on the appearance and texture of his manure sample, his gut sounds, and his other symptoms.

Dr. Hollabaugh treated Dub by passing a long tube through his nose and into his stomach. This is done for several reasons…in Dub’s case to check for reflux and hopefully help break up an impaction; oftentimes it is to pass oil into the horses digestive tract to help things “move along.” You can’t exactly ask a horse to drink a quart of oil like a good boy.

Finally, with pain meds and sedation on board (for the horse…for me? Nada. Not even anything to help with the pain of the after-hour-holiday-weekend bill), it just came down to a game of watch and wait.

Watch for more signs of discomfort. Wait for my horse to shit. Yes, in this case, poop, and lots of it, would be our friend. Each pile of manure would be a positive sign that Dub’s intestines had dislodged and were on the move.

While the wonderful Dr. Hollabaugh headed out to salvage what was left of her Friday evening (Did you draw the short straw for holiday weekend on-call duty, Doc?), Jim and I secured an unhappy Dub in the barn for a night of observation.

Dub was not pleased. Horses do not like to be separated from their herd mates. And Dub is the leader of his pack (Jim might say bully), so he was raising a bit of a ruckus calling out from his stall into the dark pasture. Honestly, his displeasure was actually a good sign in my mind. He felt good enough to be annoyed. Maybe we were going to skate by with just a mild case.

Finally the other horses answered Dub’s insistent calls and wandered up to hang out around the barn. Everyone calmed down and Jim and I made a plan that we would take turns visiting Dub through the night. I took the first, late night visits, Jim took the wee-hours-of-the-morning visits. Jim is WAY better at the past 1:00 a.m., pre-dawn stuff. (He might be a vampire.)

Dublin colic day 9-5 2 redoBy morning, Dub’s breathing was normal. He was relaxed, no signs of stress. He had pooped a couple of times, though not as many times as we would have liked. But he was interested in the small handful of grain I offered him. Interested to the point that my fingers were a bit in danger.

Good sign, but not out of the woods yet. Jim and I would keep close watch on Dub for the rest of the day, offering small amounts of feed or hay every two hours. If all continued to go well (and that included seeing many more piles o’ pooh), I would let him out of the barn Saturday night when the temperatures cooled. All of these precautions would be enforced despite Dub’s sincere and emphatic protests.

Oh, to be stuck inside on a glorious, sunny day. In Dub’s opinion, he was fine, fit, and ready to head back out to assume his role as boss horse of Tails You Win Farm. But by my rule, if he was too sick to eat dinner the night before, he was too sick to go out to play the following day. And I needed to be sure he was ok. I needed to be 100% worth-pissing-the-horse-off sure.

Oh Mom. You taught me well. I may not have human children to introduce to your old rules, but I have one large pouting horse learning your timeless lesson right now. And maybe I’m learning a new lesson too. All these years I thought you enforced that rule just to thwart and/or punish any feigned illnesses. I’m sure that was part of it. But I also think you needed to be really, really sure your baby was truly ok.

Thanks for that, Mom. Right now, to me, I have the most beautifully sullen, but healthy horse in the world.

Tumbling dogs, Guinness Records, and Birthday Cakes. Oh My.

toby 083009-03 (2)

Toby on the job with Jim.

How long can you hold your breath? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Stig Severensen of Denmark holds the record at 22 minutes. Held it, that is, until I came along.

Step back, Severensen, Nancy Gallimore is on the scene and your record has just been shattered. Twenty-two minutes? Piff. I just held my breath for two hours and seven minutes. That’s 127 minutes. (Mad math skills, right?)

Record shattered.

Of course I had no officials from Guinness hanging around to verify my feat. Lucky for you Stig. The crown is still technically yours.

Stig did a long dive underwater to set his breath-holding record. Well, sure, anyone can hold their breath when there’s no air available to breathe. Isn’t that cheating? I held my breath, completely surrounded by oxygen, from the moment I left my Dalmatian, Toby, at the veterinary hospital until the moment I got the call telling me he was safely out of surgery.

It may have been the exhale heard ’round the world.

Backing up a bit to a point several days prior to this post, our dear Toby took a tumble down the stairs. He’s an older guy and we prefer he wait for us to offer him a little assistance on the stairs, but he has his pride.  The problem is that somehow Toby has decided that when navigating the downward path from the second floor to the first on his own, he should just take a giant leap of faith about three quarters of the way down.

This time, he did not stick the landing.

Jim was home, heard the crash, and found Toby in a crumpled heap at the base of the evil staircase. Initially shaken, Toby recovered fairly quickly and seemed to walk it off like a true Olympian would. We watched him carefully the rest of that day and into the next.

Everything seemed fine. Until it wasn’t.

And then it really wasn’t. Two days after Toby’s “look what I can do” tumble down the stairs, he started acting very disoriented and depressed. He seemed weak and unsteady, his rear legs starting to fold on him. He seemed uncomfortable and Jim and I started running through the list of symptoms with our veterinarian, who is also a dear friend, who is also on speed dial.

Then we took his temperature and it was 104.8. Yikes. Emergency vet here we come. (Because OF COURSE all of our animal related emergencies take place after hours.)

Several vet visits, IVs, x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, exams, pokes, and prods from a team of veterinarians later, we came to the conclusion that we still had no conclusion. The problem could be an organ damaged by the fall, or the fall could have nothing to do with it and this could be the manifestation of something far more sinister. You know, that “C” word that we shall not speak of unless we have to.

He had symptoms that pointed to several possibilities, including blood-tinged fluid in his abdomen, but none of the images from x-rays or ultrasounds could pinpoint the origin of the problem. There was only one road to the answer and it involved a scalpel and the mad skills of our very trusted veterinarians.

Toby had to have exploratory surgery to determine what was wrong.

And it required me to hold my breath for 127 minutes.

I have found that when stress hits, I am far better off if I stay very, very, very busy during the “wait and see” period instead of sitting still somewhere waiting. At 7:36 a.m. yesterday morning, I left Toby in the capable hands of our most trusted vets knowing that Jim would arrive in time to be there for his surgery.

Me? I headed to work where I could pace, run around like a mad woman, and keep myself from sitting and flipping through the worst-case-scenario book that is always tucked away in some dark crevice of my brain.

You know, this is the one book that truly should be burned someday. But it’s in my brain.  So, no.


Post-surgery and home for the night. Morphine is his friend.

Finally, at 9:43 a.m. (I might have been keeping track), Jim checked in to let me know that the surgery was over, the very large incision was being closed, and Toby had come through just fine.

So you might think this is the end of the tale and that we have our answer. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

It does appear that Toby injured his liver in the fall. There was a portion of the liver that had died (HOLY COW, portions of organs can die and we keep walking around?), and that had caused the remaining liver and entire abdominal cavity to be very, very angry and infected.

Apparently you should not punch yourself in the liver.

It would be great if this story ended with “injured organ, dead part removed, infection treated, all is well, hooray.” And it may.

But there were a few things in and around the liver that looked suspicious. Those things required a biopsy. So while we all like the idea that this is just a nasty infection caused by a nasty fall, we have to be sure that the nasty fall and subsequent nasty infection aren’t actually secondary to the fact that the C-word could be hiding inside Toby too.

It’s a very crooked world around here while we await results because we are all leaning SO hard toward the just-a-nasty-infection outcome that we can hardly even walk. It feels like a failed attempt at reenacting Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” music video. (Sigh. Younger crowd…You Tube. It was 1986 and showcased really cool special effects for that era. Go enjoy it…or giggle at it. We thought it was genius in the day…and I still do.)  

So now we continue to wait. This is not the first time I’ve had a wait like this. I doubt it will be the last. It’s just part of the deal when you choose to love another living creature, whether it be human or animal. Life can be fragile. Sometimes you stick the landing with a perfect 10, sometimes you don’t.

Jim and I are well accustomed and equipped to take care of Toby. We will always do our best for him, as we do for all of the wonderful animals that grace our farm and our lives. First and foremost in this tale is Toby’s well-being and we will make decisions with that always in mind. We are Toby’s advocates, his guardians, and most importantly, we are the humans who love him dearly.

Sometimes decisions are easy. Sometimes decisions require us to set “self” aside. This is what it is to love animals; to love lives more temporary than our own.

I’ve decided not to hold my breath for the 24 to 48 hours it may take to get the biopsy results back. I don’t want to intimidate poor Stig, and I still can’t get a representative from Guinness book to come verify my world record obliterating attempt.


Yes, we do fix a real cake for each dog’s birthday. This one is lemon. (and yes, we know chocolate is a no-no)

Plus, either way, Toby is surely going to feel better soon and we have a birthday cake waiting to be consumed. Yep, in the middle of all of this trauma/doctoring stuff, Toby celebrated his 13th birthday. Well, I can’t say he celebrated. It’s hard to get too festive when your liver is trying to check out on you, and you’re hooked up to an IV, but that problem is resolved and the big, spotted guy will feel like donning a party hat in no time.

Staircases, infections, and Guinness records, be damned. Let’s eat cake!

It’s ready when you are, dear Toby. We’re saving the first bite for you.

419009_3567443188411_1486329491_n   Snow dogs

Dog Trainer, Heal Thyself. Or Should That be Heel?

ImageSaturday morning got off to a smooth start. Or as smooth a start as a multi-dog household can expect. I’m going to remain vague on the exact number of dogs lest representatives from Animal Planet Hoarders happen to be stalking the internet looking for new intervention prospects.

Let’s be clear, there are huge differences between my home and that of an animal hoarder. The primary difference—beyond the fact that our dogs, personal and foster alike, receive the best of care—is that I will happily place any of my foster dogs in wonderful new homes. The line forms to the left.

Ah, but I defensively digress. Back to Saturday morning. The dogs had all finished their breakfast. I had managed a shower, found clean clothes to wear, and was having an acceptable hair day. Things were going so well. Just as I was about to head out the door to attend a much anticipated conference for writers, I noticed Chip, one of our young foster dogs, doing a funny little dance across my kitchen floor. Break dancing? No. Trying to dislodge something disgusting that was protruding from his backside? Oh yeah.

Ok, it happens. You dog people out there—don’t you dare turn your backs on me. You know you’ve at least had to help your dog free itself of a long blade of grass or something similar. This however, was no blade of grass. I’m a tough gal, though, so I grabbed some paper towels and rushed to Chip’s rescue.

My rule of thumb is that if something protruding from that tender region of a dog’s anatomy comes forth easily, with just a little pulling assistance on my part, then all is well. Resistance is not necessarily futile, but it’s not a good thing.

So, I gave a gentle pull and voila! An impressive length of some sort of material came right out. Hooray! Now, run out the door, still on schedule. But no. Out of the corner of my eye I see Chip doing the south-of-the-border cha-cha once again. Damn it.

You guessed it. There was another length of foreign object exiting Chip’s nether region. Sigh. Dog ownership is oh-so glamorous. Another handful of paper towels, another gentle tug. Yelp! Foreign object not budging. Chip not amused. Damn it again. I yelled to my partner Jim, “Hey! Chip has something stuck in his butt,” which somehow did translate into, “One of the dogs has a potential medical condition and I need your assistance.” Oh how that man just gets me.

After Jim’s extraction luck proved to be no better than mine, we decided to call in reinforcements. It was time to admit that the “certified professional dog trainer” had not observed her young charge quite as closely as she should have. Oh how I longed for that now elusive ounce of prevention.

Fortunately, our veterinarian is also a close friend. After a rather hysterical exchange of text messages that were later chronicled on Facebook by said friend/veterinarian, I learned that there was not much sense in trying to get Chip in to see her at this delicate point. I believe the sage advice was, “If whatever it is has made it all the way through his intestines to his colon, then you just have to wait it out. Feed him some fiber.” Alrighty then.

I glanced at the clock. I glanced at Jim. I put on my best pleading face as I looked between the two once again. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Did I mention that I love that man? I was out the door in a flash and off to my conference, knowing that our little goat in Dalmatian clothing was in very good hands. Hopefully, nature, aided by a Metamucil wafer or two, would do the trick.

A bit later, as I was enjoying a wonderful panel discussion featuring some very respected and successful authors, I felt my phone shudder and quickly checked the text message. “Got it.” And then a photo. There was a pair of rubber gloves, a wad of paper towels, and a pile of blue…blue something.

“What was it?” I query, innocently.

“Your underwear.”


Rule number one in raising a puppy is to maintain a safe environment in which you keep things put away and out of reach. My laundry basket apparently runneth over. Chip apparently consumeth. Baaaaad dog trainer. Baaaaaad.

The next morning, as I’m finally putting my laundry away where it belongs I let my mind reflect on Chip’s close brush with Victoria’s Secret. Well, that which doesn’t kill my dogs makes me a better teacher, right?  I will make a note to review the importance of puppy proofing your home with my students. Yes. I will do that. Right after I find…find…DAMN IT! Where is my bra?


Please note…while we are all laughing at this little episode, the reality is that it is very dangerous for dogs to ingest foreign objects. The most common problem with this is foreign body obstruction, a potentially life-threatening condition. Foreign body obstruction occurs when an object ingested by your dog is unable to make it successfully through the intestinal tract.  If you know your dog has ingested something he or she shouldn’t have, call your veterinarian immediately.  Foreign objects that become impacted in the intestinal tract may require surgery to clear the blockage.

If your dog is sneaky, like Mr. Chip, supervision is key. If you notice your dog is unable to hold food down, if you see your dog straining to poop and not succeeding, if you notice your dog is distressed in any fashion, don’t “wait and see.” Seek immediate treatment from your vet or emergency vet. If an object is small like a bit of grass, it will likely pass on its own or with a little gentle help. If it is something like fabric or string, it is best not to try to remove it yourself. In our case, The object was material and was not passing easily on the second pass. We did immediately seek advice from our veterinarian and stayed in touch with her until we felt certain that Chip was in the clear. That included watching him carefully for the next 24 hours to be sure that all systems were functioning normally. It’s ok to laugh about it when you know the outcome was good, but don’t take it lightly in the moment!