By Linda Riegger
Holly is a six year old black lab/bloodhound mix who bears a striking resemblance to Julia Child. Big-boned and intelligent with a friendly demeanor, Holly’s favorite place, just like Julia’s, is in the kitchen.
The first six years of Holly’s life were dedicated to detecting the impending seizures of her former owners. At age two, Holly was purchased from a North Dakota service dog agency for a young epileptic boy. She was returned after being confined to a crate for the vast majority of each day and suffering abuse at the hands of the youngster. Holly’s second owner was Karen, a wheelchair-bound seizure prone woman who loved Holly almost to death, over-feeding her until Holly could literally no longer walk.
Medical assistance dogs are on duty twenty-four hours a day. Many of them get very little exercise. In Holly’s case, her lack of exercise didn’t allow her to burn off any of the many high-calorie foods and treats that Karen fed her all day. Holly packed on the pounds, as did Brutus, Karen’s bowling-ball shaped Chihuahua. After being admonished by Holly’s vet about the dangers of her bourgeoning weight issues, Karen occasionally tried to hide the dog treats, but resourceful Holly, having been trained to open all sorts of doors, had little difficulty figuring out where the food was stashed and breaking into the cabinets every time she wanted a snack. And after all, Karen reasoned, Holly was such a help and source of reassurance, she deserved the treats.
Holly had literally saved Karen’s life on numerous occasions. She would alert Karen before a seizure occurred, allowing Karen time to get to a safe place. She would carry Karen’s pill bottle to her, gently held in her lips. On one occasion, Holly warned Karen of a seizure, but Karen was waiting for a bus that was late in arriving. Karen began to seize, and her unlocked wheelchair started rolling into heavy traffic. Holly leaped up and put her paws on Karen’s chest, effectively stopping the chair’s potentially fatal momentum.
Nothing was too good for Holly. She had sweaters and rain slickers to wear each time she went outdoors. Stuffed animals were Holly’s favorite toy, and she had shelves full of them. Besides the frequent rawhides and treats provided to her, Holly was fed an abundance of table scraps during the course of a day. When Karen and Holly would go to a restaurant, against training protocol Karen would slip hefty portions of her meal beneath the table to her friend.
Medical issues began to plague both Karen and Holly. Living on the limited funds of her disability check in a small apartment, Karen did her best to address Holly’s issues, but was not always able to follow through on suggested treatments. The two became virtually housebound. Holly’s weight had affected her mobility, causing her to limp heavily on her left rear leg. Her fur was falling out in clumps, leaving her entire stomach and inner leg area bald. She scratched at her face and bit at her paws. Several vets gave conflicting opinions, and it was finally decided that Holly had Addison’s Disease, was hypothyroid and had allergies, in addition to being morbidly obese with tendon and ligament concerns in her bad leg. She was useless to Karen in her current state of health. When Karen approached the service dog company for assistance in dealing with Holly’s medical issues, they suggested Holly be euthanized. Karen had just recently sent the last installment on the $15,000 she owed them for Holly.
Unwilling to sentence her beloved Holly to death, yet unable to afford the continuing vet bills and costly medicines to control Holly’s Addison’s Disease, Karen contacted an online canine Addison’s Disease group. They were able to find a permanent home for Holly with me. When I took possession of Holly, she weighed 138 pounds. Her nose was dry and cracked, and what was left of her fur was as bristly as hog-hair. She favored her left hind leg and licked and chewed at her skin incessantly.
It’s been 3 months since Holly and I started on the quest to regain her health. Her prior vet history is lengthy and conflicting, so my vet and I decided to start at square one. We have a long way to go. What is apparent, though, is that with a regulated diet, a normal amount of exercise and limited treats, the weight has begun to melt off Holly’s bones. Because she now has to carry less weight around, her mobility has increased and her limp is becoming less noticeable. Her eyes, formerly goopy, have cleared up. There is even a hint of a waist appearing beneath fur that is becoming silky and soft. She runs in the back yard with a refreshing bounce to her gait.
Holly did not have a choice about her diet or exercise regime. Not many dogs do. The responsibility falls on the pet parent to monitor their dog’s weight in order to prevent obesity and the problems it causes. Will your dog love you more because you feed her a Snausage or two every time she stares at you? Or will the continued good health and longevity of your best friend be the evidence of your caring and commitment? It’s completely up to you. Yes, Holly’s Addison’s Disease would have developed regardless of her diet, but most of her other medical issues can be resolved by lifestyle changes. The layers of fat that cocooned Holly for so long were smothering her capacity to live a healthy life.
Being a lab, Holly will by nature always be a food-hound and pleasantly underfoot every time I walk into the kitchen. And like pet-parents everywhere, I don’t want to deprive her of treats. But, I’m lucky. She’ll wolf down a carrot chunk just as greedily as she would a Beggin’ Strip. For those with less enthusiastic gobblers, whose pets turn their noses up at raw veggies just like some of us humans do (I’d rather have an Oreo cookie than a broccoli floret myself!), there are plenty of high-quality, low-calorie treats available at local pet food markets. As the saying goes, “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything”. And when you’ve got a healthy dog, they’ve got everything, also – and it’s you that can provide that health to them.
Holly now lives in Minneapolis with her MWCR Collie friends Willie and Allie Mae. She has taught Willie how to play like a lab, affording Allie Mae the opportunity to bark at their antics like a self-respecting Collie is meant to do. Included here are ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of Holly, who now weighs 117. She still has at least 20 pounds to go, but she’s lookin’ good!