Labradoodle pup now leaping, scampering despite two-month tetanus fight


Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.

Mocha Delight acts like any other puppy: The 6-month-old chocolate-colored Australian Labradoodle (a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle) runs and wrestles with her snow-colored sister, Mollie, and is a glutton for attention.

But two months ago, Mocha (her middle name is "Delight," her mother's name) was rushed to the Small Animal Hospital at the University of Florida as immobile and outstretched as a bear rug. She couldn't move, eat, or wag her tail. Only her eyes could move, and they were terrified, recalled Joan Standlee, Mocha's breeder, who lives in Tavares.

Mocha had a severe case of tetanus, which humans get immunized against but dogs don't because they rarely get it. Horses are the only animals particularly prone to tetanus. The clostridium tetani bacteria is found in soil and enters animals through wounds.

But when Mocha's muscles started to stiffen — the first sign of the disease — the first two vets who saw her couldn't find any wounds. Doctors later speculated she had become infected through cuts in her mouth from teething, or an infection in her umbilical cord passed down from her mother.

"She had a fever of 110, and it was spiking," Standlee said. "(The vet) thought something was wrong with the thermometer."

The vet advised putting her in an ice bath and making her drink a lot of water, but then Standlee discovered Mocha couldn't eat or drink anything because her throat muscles had tightened. Tetanus is characterized by a contraction of the muscles.

A veterinary neurologist diagnosed the condition and referred Mocha to UF's Small Animal Hospital just in time.

"I couldn't stand the thought of that little dog dying," Standlee said.

And neither could Mocha's doctors. Mocha had the most severe case of tetanus they said they'd ever seen in a dog, and she would require two weeks of isolation followed by four weeks of rehabilitation. Only about 50 percent of dogs with tetanus survive it.

"She was fully paralyzed. Both her front and back legs were split, like being on a cross," said Alessio Vigani, a resident in emergency and critical care at the Small Animal Hospital.

Vigani explained that tetanus produces toxins that enter the central nervous system.

"Unfortunately, once the toxin binds to the nerves, there's no way to reverse it. We just had to manage her," Vigani said.

For two weeks, Mocha lived at the hospital inside a cage in a dark room. She had IVs for feeding and tubes all over her body from machines that monitored her vital signs. No one could touch her because the stimulation might have caused her blood pressure to rise to dangerously high levels.

As Vigani explained, the toxin that binds to the nerves causes extreme reactions.

"If she got scared, her heart rate could have gone so high she would have died," Vigani said, adding that Mocha had to take antibiotics to rid her body of the infection as well as sedatives to calm her down since, even though her body was paralyzed, she was alert.

"Mentally, she knew what was going on, but she couldn't understand all these strange people, or why she couldn't move or pee by herself," Standlee said.

After two weeks, Standlee finally could see her again.

"I remember when I first saw in her eyes that she was going to get better," Standlee said.

Mocha used an underwater treadmill to learn how to walk again and underwent acupuncture for pain relief.

"We had to reteach her body to put her limbs where they need to go," said Justin Shmalberg, clinical assistant professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at UF, who was in charge of Mocha's rehabilitation.

Realigning Mocha's limbs was critical because she was a growing toddler, Shmalberg added.

"Now she's completely normal, which is completely phenomenal," he said.

In fact, she had the run of the hospital Wednesday morning and was so energetic that Vigani joked, "Never put your puppy in a cage for four weeks."

Mocha didn't require follow-up therapy, and there are no long-term side effects of tetanus, Vigani said. In total, Mocha's rehab and initial treatment cost several thousand dollars, the hospital said.

When Mocha's owners, Bob and Debbie Rape of DeBary, took Mocha home, she fit right into the family.

Apart from Mocha's sister Mollie, also an Australian Labradoodle, the Rapes have two other dogs: Max, a golden retriever, and Maggie, a Labrador.

"She follows her sister and the other two dogs. That's all the therapy she needs," Standlee said.

Bob Rape said Mocha ignored the carpets they had put out for her, instead walking on the hardwood floors like the other dogs. She immediately ate the other dogs' dry food instead of her wet food.

Mollie taught her to go up and down stairs.

"Those two are best buds," Rape said. "We have our own little WWF match every night in our home."

Australian Labradoodles, which can cost between $1,500 and $2,000 for puppies, are normally bred to be service dogs: Because of their sweet and eager nature and hypoallergenic coats, they make especially good dogs for handicapped people with allergies, Standlee explained.

But the Rapes adore their latest addition and are Mocha's permanent parents, she added.

"I'm not going to give her up now," Debbie Rape said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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