It’s not because my heating bill is about to go up or because I hate driving on icy roads. The reason is that my girlfriend’s two dogs are deathly afraid of thunder. So afraid that they will try to claw their way out of the fence around my yard to escape it.
And at their ages, that’s a potentially deadly prospect.
A few years ago they were physically able to escape and be OK, albeit with a little luck. Three years ago when they were living in Sparks and got out of their yard, Washoe County Animal Services found them on a freeway onramp.
But that was then. Their bodies no longer can handle that level of exertion. About a year ago, after coming to live with me in north Reno, they dug their way out of the yard and Canyon, a beautiful white 12-year-old wolf mix, was missing for about three days. When we finally found her, she was dehydrated and hungry and quite lucky to be alive.
But Canyon is not as much of a concern as Layla, our 11-year-old Saint Bernard. Layla is a heavy dog — “Big Mama,” we call her — weighing about 140 pounds. The combination of her age and weight have crippled one of her back legs to the point where it is difficult for her to get up from a sitting position. She also can’t walk or stand for long periods of time nor can she run — but it doesn’t stop her from trying.
She proved that two weeks ago when my girlfriend and I were in Gardnerville at a family barbecue. Sure enough the clouds rolled in, the rain started to fall and we saw lightning to the north. All this on the one day when I thought the weather was clear so I left the dogs in the yard instead of in the house.
Knowing that the booming noise would scare the dogs, we cut our visit short and drove home. Luckily, Layla and Canyon were in the yard but the debris we had stacked against the fence was moved and Layla’s paws were caked in dirt. Even worse, she couldn’t stand up — a sign that she had been overexerting herself clawing at the fence and ground.
Fortunately, we caught her in time. Then again, maybe she never would have gotten anywhere no matter how hard she tried. Layla isn’t the same dog who once could scale fences when the thunder came rumblin’. These days Layla basically walks on three legs: She compensates for the one bad leg by using both back legs as one. She kind of looks like a bunny hopping.
Dr. John Crumley, a veterinarian at Baring Boulevard Animal Hospital in Sparks, said it is common for any animal to compensate for a weak or unusable limb by overusing the other. Pet owners should be cautious, however, to make sure the excessive strain on the good limb does not lead to more problems.
“We walk on two legs, animals walk on four legs,” Crumley said. “I don’t want to say they have a spare, but they have much better compensation mechanisms.”
Layla’s bad leg has been a degenerative condition, and knowing that arthritis is common in larger dogs, I have always treated her accordingly. Crumley said an animal can live with anthritis through weight control, taking vitamins and physical therapy. I feed Layla dog food with glucosamine to help her joints and walk with her around the yard for 10 minutes or so each day.
A more serious condition, such as cancer or spinal cord disease, can mimic arthritis, Crumley said, so a pet owner will want to keep that in mind if symptoms appear.
As for Layla’s reaction during a storm, Crumley said it is impossible to know what goes through a dog’s mind. I often ask her what she is thinking when she tries to dig her way out of the yard in her old age and with a bad leg. She still hasn’t given me a satisfactory answer.
“Dogs are like children,” Crumley said. “We definitely have to step in and be the adults in the room in that situation.”