Vesper on Wheels


Written by Judy Jooste and Heather Whitfield of Paws-itive Paw-abilities

Photography by Michelle Raath

I first met “Vesper the Brave” one sunny day at Woodrock Animal Rescue Centre, near Johannesburg. This little black-and-tan mite never lacked attention and she was absolutely adorable. She was also paralysed in her hind legs…

Making a big commitment

Vesper has Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) and her spine had been operated on. Having a paralysed dog can be very daunting and overwhelming – it’s a huge commitment as they need constant monitoring and help. Vesper’s previous owner realised that she couldn’t offer the specialised care that she needed, and surrendered her to Woodrock. I salute her, as she saved her twice: by adopting her from the SPCA and by having her operated on for IVDD.

A few months later, I lost my eldest Dachshund, Gunther. I went to Woodrock; being there helped with Gunther’s passing. I was sitting cuddling this little sweetie, whom I renamed Vesper, when I decided that she should come home with me. I told Estelle Meldau, Woodrock’s owner, to pack Vesper’s things. At first they thought I was joking, that I wouldn’t cope and, lastly, that I was completely off my rocker. And what about the rest of my dogs?

But Woodrock and I had walked a mile before when I fostered Sandy (a very mangy Labrador-mix who ended up staying – yes, I know, foster fail!). Having some background in medicine and with disabled animals would make things easier. The deal was that I would foster her with first option of adoption. In June this year, I brought Vesper home and, with a few adjustments, she fit right in at home with the other dogs.

Taking in a paralysed dog is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a lot of work – but also such a joy.

These wheels were made for walking

We sourced wheels from Rehab-a-Pet, and I found a wonderful hydrotherapist nearby who was prepared to offer us rescue rates in order to see if she could be rehabilitated. We started treatment and I realised that I was a “soccer mom”. The more I did my motivational spiel, the harder Vesper worked. We also got her the Lil’ Back Brace from America, which keeps her back stable while she’s doing her “spinal walk”. She’s an incredible dog who just wants to run, and to love everyone around her.

Unfortunately, Vesper slipped a disc in her neck earlier this year and had to be operated on again. IVDD causes vertebral degeneration and I know we’ll have to deal with this sporadically. However, with all the help and support from Woodrock, Heather Whitfield (Vesper’s hydrotherapist at Paws-itive Paws-abilties) and Vesper’s supporters, I know that she’ll have a long, happy life with me.

Vesper the brave

Animal hydrotherapy is incredibly powerful in helping these little dogs lead full lives. Vesper is having treatment to regain her mobility and strength after her operation. I doubt if she would have been so strong and handled the operation so well had she not had her maintenance sessions. Although her stamina is not what it was, she can do her walkies in her wheels and brace.

She is and always will be one of the greatest inspirations in my life. I am in awe of her ability to live in the moment and to surpass all obstacles. A disabled dog does not consider itself to be disabled; it just carries on with life.

Vesper is a joy and I have never regretted taking her home. She has enriched my life and has become a mascot for disabled dogs (even appearing on the Kwêla TV show). She is an inspiration to others.

She is Vesper the Brave.

The Vesper on Wheels Project

When Vesper came to stay with me, I received help and guidance from a lady who’d gone through this. She introduced me to www.dodgerslist.com, which is basically the IVDD 101 guide on the internet. I learned so much and Woodrock then began referring people to me for help because I seemed to cope so well with Vesper. 

I started giving advice about nappies, cleaning floors, and how to breathe when you panic because your baby has either just been operated on or just become ill. I realised that people struggle because they have no idea what the next step is. Clearly there was a real need for an information hub and a helping hand.

I established the Facebook group Vesper on Wheels; the Vesper on Wheels project was a natural progression from there. 

The next thing I realised is that most people simply don’t have the funds to buy wheels, especially after paying R20,000 for an operation. I was fortunate that Vesper’s first wheels were donated. I also discovered Rolling Pup, an organisation that makes wheelchairs for paralysed dogs and donates them across the world. They make them from PVC and distribute their schematics (plans to build your own wheelchairs) freely. They inspired me to try and do the same. 

I began asking for donations of wheels and the “wheels cupboard” grew; then suppliers came on board too. I endeavour to direct owners to the suppliers, specialists, hydrotherapists, and other mobility devices. If I get donated wheels, I try to match them up with dogs or cats, and advise on the different wheels out there.

At this time, we have applied to become an official Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) to allow us do more fundraising to sponsor more wheels.

Through all of this, I’ve met incredible people, people always willing to help. And all because of a little dog called Vesper. A brave little dog who inspires me every day to try and help others.

If help is needed, please contact me through vesperonwheels@gmail.com. Follow Vesper’s progress on Facebook: “Vesper on wheels – the most amazing disabled dachsie”.

Heather Whitfield, owner and manager of Paws-itive Paws-abilities, explains more about IVDD and hydrotherapy for dogs like Vesper

In short, Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation is the treatment of dysfunction in the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems, as well as the maintenance of optimal function and the prevention of dysfunction. The goal of my profession is to maintain, restore, and maximise optimum movement and functional ability throughout the lifespan of an animal. But this requires teamwork. In consultation with the disabled pet’s veterinarian, rehabilitation specialist, and owner, compliance is vital to the success of a well-designed rehabilitation programme.

IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease) – the condition affecting Vesper – is a syndrome of pain or neurologic deficits resulting from displacement of part of a spinal disc. Intervertebral Disc Herniation (IDH) is a general term referring to displacement of a portion of the disc. Although normal discs can herniate due to major trauma (e.g. an accident), most herniations are secondary to pre-existing disc degeneration. Associated decreased water and proteoglycan concentration (molecules forming an important part of connective tissue) reduces the disc’s cushioning ability and predisposes to IDH.

Vesper suffered from both thoracolumbar, and, more recently, cervical disc disease. Should her highly dedicated owner not have continued with a rehabilitation programme, Vesper wouldn’t have been able to recover so quickly from her latest surgery.

There are so many lessons to be learnt from Vesper’s story and, because she hasn’t allowed her disability to impact her zest for life, for me the most important lesson was to inspire others.

Prevention is better than cure

Every responsible pet owner who has a pet prone to a certain disease really must implement a few fundamental rules specific to that condition. For dogs prone to IVDD (as well as hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament weakness, etc.), here are some rules:

 ·       Teach your dog from puppy stage not to jump up and down from furniture.

·       Give your dog a really good, well-balanced diet and ensure that he or she is not overweight.

·       Keep your dog’s core muscles strong by doing balance exercises.

·       Should your dog present any symptoms from disc herniation, do not wait for the problem to “blow over” – get professional help.

For any condition or predisposition, always do your research and find out what you can do to prevent it from starting or to reduce flare-ups.

How to help your paraplegic pet

It’s so easy to maintain a paraplegic pet’s functional mobility, although prevention is first prize. Keeping up with a rehabilitation maintenance programme is critical. Here are some modalities you could consider:

 ·       Assisted standing and walking with a supportive harness will alleviate some stress on the spine and give your dog the confidence and sense of security to bear weight on the limbs.

·       If you have access to a pool or spa bath, teach them to swim. A dog life jacket will increase both support around the spine and buoyancy.

·       Support your dog when it is eating and standing by placing the limbs in a rectangular conformation in a normal stance position.

·       Implement daily massage, stretching, and passive range-of-motion sessions.

·       Balance boards and balls will assist with core strengthening and mobility.

·       Lastly, make an appointment with a professional Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation and Hydrotherapist to show you how to correctly implement some exercises that you can easily and safely do at home. Your vet should be able to refer you.