“My dog is walking around in circles trying to vomit. He seems to be in agony, even struggling to breathe. What should we do?” I spoke urgently to the vet over the phone even though it was after 10pm on a Saturday night.
“Oh dear it sounds like torsion. Your dog is going to die,” responded Dr Visser
“No! What can I do?”
“Bring him into the surgery immediately.”
“OK. We’ll be there in 15 minutes…”
“No you won’t – it takes at least 20 minutes to Volksrust from Wakkerstroom – I want you to drive carefully. It’s a dark and dangerous road…”
We’d been out for dinner at the Mucky Duck, a local pub in the country village of Wakkerstroom, our home from home. As usual we’d left the dogs in the garden while we were away. As soon as we got back we noticed that Taj, our eight year old German Shepherd, was acting strangely. He seemed to want to be sick and was clearly very uncomfortable, breathing shallowly. Assuming he’d eaten something that disagreed with him, we let him wander around the garden attempting to puke while we began to get ready for bed. After a few minutes, it was clear that he was not well at all and it seemed more serious than just having eaten something strange. That’s when we decided to call Dr Visser.
It was an agonising 20 minute drive. Taj was clearly in pain and deeply distressed. I sat in the back of the car with him, terrified by the vet’s words that replayed in my mind…your dog is going to die.
Dr Visser was waiting for us at the small country surgery. What a relief it was to have him take Taj straight into the consulting room.
“Yes it’s definitely torsion,” he said, “we need to operate immediately.”
Gratefully we backed out of the room, only for Visser to look at us strangely.
“I’m the only one here. If we are to try and save him, you guys are going to have to help with the operation.” He explained this matter of factly while slipping on his green scrubs and fishing out a scalpel, a length of silicon tube and a bucket. He gave Taj a sedative shot and we all hoisted him onto the stainless steel table.
There was no time to panic. No time to explain how squeamish I am or how Geoff is likely to pass out at the sight of blood. No time to point out that we were most definitely not the best people to be operating on our dog.
Taj, already out for the count, was placed onto his back and Dr Visser shoved a breathing tube into his mouth and inserted an intravenous catheter into one of his legs.
“You are in charge of the anesthetic,” I was informed, “tap gently on his eyelid – if it flickers you need to allow more anesthetic into the tube. Too little and he will wake up, too much and he will die.” I was too horrified to protest.
Geoff was put in charge of instruments and administering the waste pipe from Taj’s stomach into the bucket. He looked just as stricken as I felt.
Dr Visser shaved Taj’s tummy and then in one smooth motion he sliced with the scalpel right down the length of his midriff, exposing all his innards. Geoff managed to remain upright as Visser began removing organs and lengths of intestine like an athlete emptying his gym bag.
“Ah, yes. See here. This is the spleen. Look how distressed it is. It should be the thickness of a belt, not bloated like this.” He showed us how the stomach had twisted over itself, constricting all the vessels that pass through the body. He unwound it and then stitched it to the wall of the body to prevent it from happening again.
“What caused this?” we asked with bewilderment. The vet explained that when the dog’s stomach is full and possibly bloated, and the dog rolls or jumps in a certain way, the stomach can turn over itself, laterally, causing the problem. “The ligaments holding the stomach in place become slacker and more stretched as the pet ages.”
The mortality rate is almost 100% and was once thought to be a rare condition, but evidence has brought to light the fact that this is occurring with ever increasing incidence and has been seen to occur more commonly in German Shepherds than any other breed. The symptoms of this condition are rapid onset of shock, abdominal pain and vomiting. The twisting stops the blood flowing to the intestines, causing tissues to die immediately. This condition causes a dilemma for veterinarians as the symptoms are often nebulis and diagnosis is difficult. The dog is usually “down” – in shock, making any surgical options a tough decision.(web-dvm.net)
It was time to put the organs back in place. Dr Visser was sweating hard at this stage. He explained that he had only recently recovered from prostrate cancer and was still feeling a little delicate. The process of retuning the organs to the rightful position seemed somewhat haphazard. “Um, no, this goes in first, below the stomach…”
Our eyes must’ve been enormous. I was just wondering if he shouldn’t have a manual handy for putting everything back together again properly, when he nudged me. “The dog is coming round. More anesthetic please!” I leapt into action. Clearly he was completely in control.
It wasn’t too long before the doctor was closing up the cavity with enormous, strong stitches and pronouncing the operation a success. We were all exhausted. “What time shall we come back in the morning?” enquired Geoff.
“There’s no one here to look after him overnight – it’s best if you take him home with you.” 😳
He helped us load a sleeping Taj into the back of the car. “Just don’t let the IV bag drop below his heart or he’ll die from the air bubble.”😱
We stayed awake all night monitoring our baby. We were so relieved when he got up to drink water and to pee in the garden. We followed him around, holding his bag above his head, having changed it during the night.
In the morning, we met Dr Visser for a check up. He was very happy and mentioned that this was the second dog with torsion that he’d saved in one week. Amazing, given the appalling stats!
Taj went on to live almost another four happy years, eventually dying from cancer of the pancreas in November 2011.
We are so grateful to wonderful Dr Visser who saved Taji’s life that night.
Sadly a friend of ours lost her GSD in Cape Town to torsion a few weeks later. They rushed her to the vet, recognising the symptoms, but had to queue behind another patient and it was too late to save her.
Geoff and I often talk about the experience of being forced to step in and assist in the operation. It’s nonsense to say that you just can’t do something. We would’ve said just that. When you are faced with a situation where you have no choice, it’s incredible what strength you find.