In a tale of resilience and collaborative care, Belle, a 4-year-old Australian shepherd, made an uplifting return to dog agility competitions after a bout of paralysis.

The story began last June, when owner Mary Harris noticed Belle wasn’t walking quite right. Not long after, the normally active dog could barely walk or stand. Harris quickly turned to her primary veterinarian Katie Clevenger DVM '18 at the Blue Ridge Animal Clinic, where Belle was put on a pain management plan.

Despite these initial efforts, Belle's condition continued to deteriorate, prompting a referral to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg for an emergency consultation.  

"We chose to go to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital because of the rapid onset of the condition and because I knew that we needed specialized care," said Harris. "As an alumna of Virginia Tech, I had confidence in the vet school and the capabilities there to get what we needed."

Under the care of Ana Figueiredo, clinical instructor in emergency and critical care medicine, Belle had an acute spinal issue of an unknown cause. At that point, Belle regained some strength in her back legs, so Figueiredo offered two options to Harris: transfer Belle to the neurology service for an MRI and potential surgery or a more conservative approach of rest, medication, and continued monitoring.

"I always treat the patients I see as if they were my own,” Figueiredo said. “In Belle's case, since she was still strongly ambulatory, I thought we had a good chance with medical management first." 

While Harris was prepared to do whatever Belle needed, she said she appreciated Figueiredo explaining what to consider for each treatment plan. The commitment to a “spectrum of care,” a principle that emphasizes the importance of considering a variety of diagnostic and treatment options, resonated with Harris.

"I felt comfortable we were on the right path," Harris said. “They were very clear about what it might be, why they made the decisions they did, and then offered good directions on what to do if I were to need them in an off-hour emergency. The communication with my primary vet was also excellent.”

Belle responded to the strict regimen of rest, medication, and an added rehabilitation plan. Slowly, she regained her strength, allowing her to return to agility ring, albeit with shorter courses and less intense obstacles. 

“Agility is not like riding a bike,” Harris said. “Along with the physical recovery, we had to catch up with training as well.” 

Working together with the veterinary team, Harris and Belle returned to the sport just in time for them to attend the North American Dog Agility Council's 2023 National Championships in Springfield, Ohio. 
“Belle did great,” Harris said of the event, where over 250 dog and handler teams competed. “She’s never been the fastest dog, but she’s absolutely committed. I’m glad we did it.”  

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