It was October of 2009 when Melinda Billig first saw the adorable little face poking out of a transport crate that was headed to the local pet store. It never crossed her mind that that face, belonging to a tiny Cavalier King Charles Spaniel pup, might soon become a focal part of her life. Melinda owned a wonderful one and a half year old Yorkshire Terrier and was not in the market for another housemate. But when she snuck back to the pet store for a closer look-despite admonitions from her coworkers—“Don’t go in there, you’ll come out with a puppy!”—she could not resist the charms of the lone little puppy who wagged his tail frantically and showered her with kisses. Realizing that this was in fact the cutest puppy in the world, she knew she had to bring him home. Little “Igor” soon won over anyone with whom he had contact and lived the puppy life to the fullest. Igor did everything with gusto—eat, play, jump, and chew up leather wallets. Known since the 16th century to be a breed to cuddle and comfort, (and devoted to Melinda,) he was irresistible.
By late January of 2010, Igor seemed to slow down a little, maybe a little more than a growing puppy should. By the end of that February, Igor was starting to have some trouble walking. Before long, his legs would splay out from under him when walking and his coordination was affected. He scratched inexplicably at the right side of his neck. As all these signs worsened Igor became lethargic and depressed. When Melinda’s daughter came home from college on break, she was shocked at the deterioration she saw in this once exuberant puppy and told her Mom that Igor had to get to a vet, that something was terribly wrong. Igor was admitted to The Canine Chiari Institute at Long Island Veterinary Specialists on April 28, 2009 where he immediately underwent an MRI of his brain and neck. Igor had his diagnosis, Chiari-like malformation. This is a condition that affects people and dogs and can cause a wide range of neurologic deficits. Imagine having a completely normal and healthy brain, but then squeezing it into a skull a size or two too small. The part of the brain that controls coordination and balance gets the brunt of the compression and can actually be forced out of its normal location. Because of the location of the compression within the skull, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid that normally lubricates and protects the central nervous system can be interrupted. This often results in pockets of fluid collecting within the tissue of the spinal cord itself. Balance problems, muscle weakness, difficulty walking properly, and head or neck pain are just a few of the more commonly seen problems. After Melinda heard the results of the MRI, she took a day to think about what to do. She made the difficult decision to have Igor undergo surgery to relieve the compression on his brain. Igor was anesthetized at 3:50 pm on April 29th, the surgery went smoothly, and he arrived in the recovery ICU at about 6:30 pm. Igor’s vital signs were good post-operatively and he slept quietly through the night.
The next day, Igor ate his breakfast heartily and won over the entire medical staff with his undeniable charm. Although not able to walk immediately after surgery, day-by-day Igor got stronger and his coordination improved. With the help of his team of rehabilitation practitioners he was standing on his own and walking with assistance by day 14 following surgery. (And oh yes, wagging his tail.) He continued to improve daily and was discharged from the hospital on May 23rd. Igor still had healing to do, but he was strong enough to mend at home. As happy as Melinda was to have Igor home, she was very concerned for him and monitored his every move. Almost immediately, something didn’t seem right to her and within a couple of days, she felt surely that things were not going as well as they were supposed to. Once again, Igor became lethargic, depressed, and painful, and then became unable to walk. Melinda sadly returned to LIVS on June 1st and was told that Igor would need to undergo the surgical procedure again, that a revision of the surgery was necessary to correct the probable scar tissue was re-compressing the brain. Melinda agonized over the news and wasn’t sure that going back under the knife was what either she or Igor wanted to do. But Igor looked at her with his big, soulful eyes, and she realized that she needed to do anything possible to save the life of this “sweetest little soul.”
Igor’s recovery from his 2nd surgery was not as uncomplicated as it was the first time around. His vital signs were not as strong following surgery this time and there was concern about his ability to satisfactorily maintain appropriate oxygen levels. A decision was made to put him on a ventilator for several days so that his body could be supported and so he could heal. This is quite a serious decision to make; most animals that are sick enough to need a ventilator do not live to be discharge from the hospital. After several days, Igor was off the ventilator and breathing on his own. However, he had developed pneumonia, another life threatening condition. He was still completely unable to walk. Igor did recover from pneumonia and was considered “stable,” but he would remain in this state for two long months. Everyday his examination notes were the same, “Non-ambulatory X 4” (unable to walk on any of his four limbs.) Everyday his caretakers held his food up to him and syringe fed him water. Everyday he underwent several sessions with his tireless and devoted rehabilitation practitioners. No progress was noted until August 10th, when his team saw that he was making an attempt to stand on his own.
Igor goes home
Later that same day, Igor was actually trying to walk during one of his sessions. Four days later, Igor was actually walking when assisted by a team member. As he continued to grow stronger and push himself, everyone could see his sense of self-confidence returning. By the end of August, Igor was walking tentatively on his own. No one was more surprised and gratified than Melinda, who had been visiting Igor in the hospital every weekend watching as her little boy struggled to live.
By mid-October, Igor was ready to go home. And this time, home he has stayed. Gaining strength daily since his discharge, Melinda reports now that he runs down the block and up and down stairs without a care. Only Melinda can detect the slight occasional misstep that remains as a memento of his long arduous journey. It was almost a year ago that Igor Billig first arrived at The Canine Chiari Institute at Long Island Veterinary Specialists; it will be many years that we are uplifted by the story and indomitable spirit of this special little dog.