Living With Spinal Decline in Dogs — And a Life Lesson From Vincent

Dr. Patty Khuly
Vincent the French Bulldog's spinal problems don't stop him from being his silly, clownish self.

There’s no getting around aging. Nonetheless, it’s clear that some among us age more gracefully than others. It’s a notion, I’m coming to understand, that has less to do with how we look or physically function than with how we feel and, thereby, with how capable we are of infusing the world with our own personal vision.

This object lesson was recently brought home to me, quite literally, by my ailing French Bulldog, Vincent.

Vincent has a winning personality. He’s solicitously silly, playfully goofy and adorably quirky in every way. That is, if you’re a human. If you’re a dog, however, he’ll have nothing but disdain for your presence. He might even growl and lunge at the canine you. But don’t worry; Vincent’s jaws are not designed for violence. In fact, they weren’t designed well for any purpose (apart from cuteness), as this tale of his physical woes will tell.

Challenged From Birth

As a cleft palate puppy, Vincent has had major medical issues since way before he emerged from his mother’s womb. Like many of his breed, he was born with a deformed spine (butterfly vertebrae and hemivertebrae), but his spinal diseases morphed into something even more sinister when he acquired intervertebral disc disease (a common spinal problem popularized by Dachshunds and currently making inroads into the French Bulldog population).  

After his first surgery to relieve the pressure of a wayward disc on his bruised spinal cord, his condition improved, only to worsen within the year when we discovered he had a congenital subarachnoid cyst compressing his spinal cord even further. Things stabilized after a second surgery, but, ever since, Vincent hasn’t been what anyone would consider a strong walker.

Enter the Wheelchair

Fast-forward 18 months and, by now, it’s clear that Vincent’s able-bodied days are numbered. In fact, his spinal decline had accelerated so precipitously over the past six months that I finally broke down and bought him one of those “doggie wheelchair” contraptions in advance of his very last four-legged moments.

Turns out, however, that he has made something of a rebound since the darn thing got here — as if his spine somehow sensed the impending doom signified by the wheelchair's arrival. Which is great news, of course, but it doesn’t dissuade me from pondering the inevitable any less. If anything, it makes me more philosophical about it (as this post doubtless demonstrates).

No Time for Self-Pity

Luckily, the reality of his condition doesn’t seem to affect Vincent much one way or the other. Which is partly because his particular brand of intervertebral disc disease is mostly devoid of pain — a psychological advantage too few disc disease sufferers can lay claim to. But pain or no, mobility or no, Vincent tends to remain his same silly self — careening around corners with hind limbs flailing and tongue a-lolling, as if the sum total of his abject goofiness exceeds his disease’s reach.

This uncanny ability to transcend the physical through sheer force of character is a personality trait we, as mere people, might consider exceptional. Yet as rare as it is among humans, Vincent is by no means alone in the dog world. It’s clear their species is fully capable of circumnavigating all manner of sniveling and self-pitying when it comes to their inevitable decline.

In fact, as unwelcome as the untimely ruin of his limbs might be, Vincent plods and prattles along with clueless aplomb, delivering his clownish Frenchie smile to every human he meets, whether they’re interested or not.

But it’s not just that he seems oblivious to his loss of normal function. It’s not just that he bears it all without complaint. Rather, what impresses me most is how Vincent somehow manages to make hay of his disability. He revels in the attention, basks in his silly decrepit glory and looks for all the world as if he’d never want it any other way.

This lesson to live by brought to you today by Vincent.

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