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Harlow by Alana – When food is the cause

Published on January 31, 2024.

Story from Harlow by Alana – When food is the cause

Harlow is a Weimaraner with a personality as big as her ‘Dobby’ ears, who has endured a journey of phenomenal perseverance. Harlow was diagnosed with an extremely rare illness that had her described at one stage as “the sickest dog this department has seen”. The tremendous care provided by SASH specialists, and Harlow’s awe-inspiring drive for overcoming adversity, saw her defy all odds.

Extraordinarily, the intervention that led to her survival is one that we never would have guessed…

In 2020, Harlow suddenly began losing weight. Despite the large amount of food we constantly fed her, we just could not get her to gain any weight. We ran multiple tests with our wonderful local vets; but all her tests continually appeared normal without any answers. We tried multiple interventions and changes in diet types, but the weight just kept dropping. Whilst we continued to urgently investigate, Harlow continued to rapidly deteriorate before our very eyes. Then came bloody vomiting, gastric torsion (volvulus) and multiple bouts of bloat (gastric dilatation) as her condition further declined. At this point, we were averaging an emergency vet visit 2–3 times per week. Her veterinarians saved her life through every crisis, and Harlow fought alongside them to beat the odds against her. I have never met a dog so resilient and so determined to live; to overcome any challenge life throws at her. As the mystery continued, it was then suggested I take Harlow to an internal medicine specialist—a profession I had not even known existed! It was then that we met Dr Amy Lam at SASH Ryde. 

Amy and her team conducted further specialised testing, including a very carefully performed endoscopy with biopsies that found Harlow’s gastrointestinal tract to be severely inflamed. Amy had found a diagnosis for Harlow’s ‘mysterious’ illness: severe chronic neutrophilic enteritis, the rarest form of chronic enteropathy – inflammatory bowel disease (CE-IBD) with, sadly, a poorer prognosis than other types. Despite Harlow’s extremely poor prognosis, Amy said something to me that sparked hope in a time that had felt like all hope was lost: “I will not give up on her”. And she certainly kept her word.

Canine IBD is a hyperimmune/autoimmune condition that essentially involves an immunological (or ‘allergic-like’) response to dietary proteins and/or intestinal bacteria. We trialled further interventions often utilised for managing IBD, though bizarrely, Harlow’s condition continued to worsen. She was horrifically emaciated as her weight had dropped from around 24 kg prior to disease onset, down to just 13 kg—almost half of her initial body weight! However, throughout her emaciation, vomiting, bloating and diarrhoea, Harlow never lost her spark…

We have always thought of Harlow as a very special girl; full of life, cheekiness and overall affection. She always has a twinkle in her eye and a wag in her tail. I had told myself that as long as she still had that spark, I would continue to try everything I could to save her. Then came the day in March 2021 when that spark was eventually snuffed out… Harlow was tired and weak to the point she could not lift herself up and down. I had to carry her and bathe her constantly from the uncontrollable soiling, and she refused to eat or drink. I slept on the floor next to her bed and set hourly alarms during the night just to check that she was still breathing. I remember sitting in front of her, in tears, begging her to eat something… Anything. The wag in her tail was gone, and that sparkle had left her eyes. She had fought valiantly, and my spouse and I knew that we could not let her suffer—we owed it to her to make a selfless choice and let her go peacefully. It was a Friday evening, and we sat on the floor, sobbing in tears. I have always felt that Harlow is my ‘heart dog’. There is just something so special about her and this heart-breaking moment was one of the lowest and most helpless I have ever felt. We wrote a bucket list of Harlow’s favourite activities and endeavoured to help her experience them in any capacity she could over the weekend, before planning to say goodbye to her that coming Monday. However, in miraculous timing, our plans were mercifully interrupted…

The next morning, I received a phone call from Dr Amy on her Saturday off. Amy encouraged us to hold on and explained that she may have figured out the problem. With a new glimmer of hope, we immediately carried Harlow out to the car and drove straight to SASH Ryde, where Amy met us. She explained that she suspected Harlow’s immune response was so sensitive and severe, that she was reacting to all animal proteins, even when hydrolysed. Her immune reaction was so strong, that even the immunosuppressants were also not able to keep it entirely at bay. Amy suggested we trial one last thing: a plant-based diet!  

To our astonishment, Harlow (who had been refusing to eat anything for days) instantly devoured the new food—a science-backed hydrolysed vegetarian formula. The relief was beyond words. The bloating instantly stopped, the vomiting stopped, the diarrhoea stopped, and she finally started gaining weight! Her spark returned and her personality came shining back through. Her tail wagged again and her bark, which had been reduced to a mere squeak, returned to its usual deep woof. That twinkle in her eye was brighter than ever before as she grew strong enough to lift her own body up again and hold her head up high. Her cheekiness returned and she regained her confidence. We had never seen her so regal and so full of life! If it weren’t for Amy going above and beyond, for her extraordinary expertise and for her unwavering dedication, Harlow would not be here today.

Harlow’s complex care had also involved a lot of medication tweaking and supportive therapy. Amy was able to find the delicate balance that helped to stabilise her, and not long after, Harlow was successfully weaned off all medications under Amy’s guidance. Her CE-IBD has since been fully controlled by her specialised diet. Months later, Harlow had gained ALL of her lost weight back and as of November 2022, Harlow’s surveillance tests determined her to be in remission!

Harlow has since fulfilled her bucket list as a healthy girl again. She has taught us many life lessons and not a single day is taken for granted. Some say the universe works in mysterious ways… This journey and the invaluable mentorship from Dr Amy inspired me to return to university in pursuit of a future career in veterinary medicine. I hope to follow in similar footsteps to that of Amy’s and to one day help other animals like Harlow by hopefully specialising in Internal Medicine-Veterinary Nutrition—an area I have become so passionate about as a result of this journey. Dr Amy has been an extraordinary inspiration and without her dedication, encouragement and mentorship, and without Harlow’s fighting spirit, I never would have found what I feel is my true calling. Amy has granted us a gift in more ways than one. Every day with Harlow is a blessing and to see her so happy and with a new lease on life is all I could have hoped for. Furthermore, this new journey I have embarked on would never have occurred without Amy, and my life is ever richer for it.

I will always have so much gratitude for the care and compassion that Harlow’s veterinary team have provided. The countless hours Amy has spent supporting us—all the emails, phone calls, check-ins and flexible appointments—will never go unappreciated. An additional special mention and sincere thanks to wonderful SASH specialists (both past and present), Dr Sophie Tyler (Dermatology), Dr Iñaki Prado Checa (Cardiology), Dr Damon Leeder (Cardiology), Dr Barry Cherno (Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation) and Dr Filipe Espinheira Gomes (Ophthalmology), who have all been pivotal in Harlow’s journey. Thank you to all the wonderful veterinary nurses and staff as well, who have helped make Harlow’s recovery possible and have shown the utmost care and dedication throughout all of our visits. One would think with all Harlow has been through, that she would have developed a fear of the veterinary hospital. But not this girl! She gets excited every time we show up for a check-in, strutting her stuff through the front doors with a cuddle ready for all the staff. She especially lights up every time she sees Amy. I have no doubt that Harlow knows the impact Dr Amy has had in saving her life—after all, as we Weim owners know, a Weimaraner never forgets. 

Harlow before vs after:

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