Denali AKA Mt. McKinley


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"Now being able to balance is a pretty fundamental ability, so losing it makes life very   
difficult, and the symptoms look pretty scary -- and must feel awful for Fido. If you've ever
suffered from a bout of vertigo yourself (or even been really, really drunk), then you'll
have some idea of how he's feeling. Luckily this problem is not nearly as serious
as it looks and most dogs make a full recovery with little or no treatment."
~ SeniorTailWaggers.com website page about this condition

I've had the pleasure to live with dogs all of my life except when I was in undergraduate college -- German shepherds, a cocker spaniel, two Siberian huskies, two Norwegian elkhounds, a Lab-Rottie  mix, and five purebred Labrador retrievers, to be exact.

All these dogs received regular veterinary care. Over the years I've had to deal with common canine medical conditions ranging from hot spots and neutering/spaying to more serious issues like a torn ACL and several kinds of cancers, but never in my life have I ever heard of "Old Dog Vestibular Disease!"

Jim holds Cody-pup the day we got him at six weeks old;
Tater, who was about six at the time, looks dejected.  (May, 2003)

Cody was my first crate-trained pup. He liked to sleep in cozy places such as under the furniture
until he got too big to sleep there. He was just seven weeks old in this photo.  (May, 2003)

At twelve years, five months of age, Cody-the-ultra-Lab has lived longer than any of my other fur-kids. He's been remarkably healthy and energetic from a combination of excellent breeding, good nutrition, routine medical care, and lots of exercise and love.

As he's grown older he's developed a few soft, flexible lumps called lipomas. We've had a couple of them biopsied but they were benign. Vets have told us the soft, floppy ones are OK but beware if any of the lumps are hard and don't easily move. Cody did get one of those a couple years ago and we had it removed when it came back malignant. He recovered quickly from the surgery at age ten.

Cody in our yard in Billings:  with Jim at age 7 weeks (above)
and Sue at about 3 months (below) -- he grew a lot in that time!

So last evening when I took him out to potty at our campground in Fairbanks I was shocked that he was moving around like a drunken sailor!

He was fine all day, just like normal. All of a sudden after supper, however, he kind of stumbled out of the camper when I took him for a walk. Occasionally he's missed one of the steps so I wasn't initially too concerned.

However, he also had trouble walking once he was on the ground. His hips and back legs were very wobbly and he fell over a couple times in the grass. I had to prop him up to do a three-point pee and squatting down to poop was difficult for him.

Seven months old and every bit a puppy! He still loves to
lie on his back and wiggle around.  (October, 2003)

Cody especially had great difficulty climbing back up five steps into the camper but I finally helped him get inside. Although he's on the smaller side for a male Lab, about 70 pounds, getting him back inside by myself was no small task. Jim was out getting fuel and not around to help.

Right before bedtime we both took him out to pee and his balance was still out of whack.

Cody climbed 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert in CO with us when
he was 17 months old in August, 2004.

At just under two years old, I was training Cody for our Appalachian Trail
Adventure Run/Hike. This was at Dragon's Tooth in VA.  (Feb., 2005)

First day on the AT:  Cody and Tater pose with us at Springer Mtn., GA  (4-30-05)
He ran a lot of miles with me on that long trek to Maine.

We worried all night about what was wrong. We hoped it was "just" a strained muscle, tendon, or ligament and nothing torn -- or worse, like some type of poisoning, neurological disorder, spinal problem, cancer, etc. Even torn soft tissue would heal very slowly at his advanced age.

Fortunately, he didn't seem to be in pain, just terribly disoriented. As far as we know he didn't eat anything bad for him (I swear, Labs will eat anything!). He did have a little trouble jumping up into the truck yesterday morning but appeared OK after we first got to our new campground in Fairbanks.

Above and below:  Fast-forward to October, 2012:  Cody, age 9+ has a
new, provocative little sister named Casey who is just two months old . . .


Above and below:  Gentle Giant and Protector of Baby Sister

I tried to sleep on the couch so I could hear Cody if he whined, whimpered, or really needed to go out to pee. He slept quietly. I didn't, so I went to bed about 1:30 AM. I couldn't sleep there, either.

I kept worrying about Cody. He's my baby boy and I didn't know what was wrong with him or how to "fix" it.


Even though our intention was to leave Fairbanks this morning and head for Canada we resolved to stay long enough to find out what was wrong with Cody and get him treated before leaving the country.

Last night we did an online search for veterinarians in Fairbanks and narrowed our choice down to the two largest clinics. Aurora Animal Clinic (1651 College Ave.) has six vets and one specializes in canine sports rehabilitation. Cool! The website and photos in the office show various kinds of dogs, including exuberant Labs, doing PT in a pool, with a balance ball, etc.

I called when they opened at 8 this morning and sounded desperate enough (I was!) to get a 9:20 AM appointment with Dr. Jeanne Maddux. She's not the rehab specialist but she definitely seems to know her stuff.

Jim, Casey (age 3), and Cody (now 12+) relax in Haines, AK earlier this summer.  (6-12-15)

After seeing Cody walk and hearing all the symptoms she closely examined his eyes and ears. She also palpitated his body to check for signs of pain and found none.

Within a few minutes she gave us her diagnosis and let me tell you, it was a great relief to us -- "old dog vestibular syndrome" (or disease), a sudden-onset balance problem in the ear. Apparently his kind is short-lived (1-4 days) and will disappear just about as suddenly as it appeared.

Although Dr. Maddux diagnosed the ear problem she couldn't see anything wrong like an infection, just some excess wax. She zeroed in on the specific problem he has primarily because of the way his eyes were moving (sideways, which indicates one type of ear problem) and the way he cocked his head.

Like any good Lab, Cody loves the water. Here he's in the Eagle River
north of Anchorage during a hike with me two months ago.  (6-29-15)

Dr. Maddux didn't prescribe any meds for nausea (a common symptom of this disease, but not one he has) or infection (none noted).

She did recommend a ramp for the truck and camper when we told her about living in our RV full time and traveling in a pick-up truck that's rather high off the ground. She said the main thing we need to watch is that Cody doesn't injure himself before the problem resolves.

It's kind of frustrating not being able to do anything else to help him recover from this, but it's good to know that he doesn't need meds, expensive testing, surgery, rehab, etc.

The doc also recommended a type of double harness called Help 'em Up that would help us lift him but we didn't get one of those. Because of our shoulder problems we can't lift him up into the truck or camper that way. Without the harness she suggested using towels under his body to help him get up and down the ramp.

The vet charge was only $50. We can't believe we got out of there that cheap!!

Sweet pups "sleeping" in the camper -- with their eyes open while I take their picture. (2015)

Our preferred pet store is PetSmart but there isn't one in Fairbanks so we went to Petco. They had just one kind of ramp, the kind the vet uses. We purchased it for $131. At least there isn't any tax in Alaska (no discount with a Petco card on this item today).

The ramp is sturdy plastic and has a triple fold. The non-slip covering doesn't really prevent Cody from slipping because of his toenails so we are using towels flat on the ramp surface to help him get a better grip going up and down.

We used the ramp several times today with the truck and camper and, as long as we're both there to keep him going straight on it and not falling off, he does well on it.


Cody improved dramatically within a few days, before we even got back to the Lower 48. He was fully recovered in about ten days. Once we realized his condition wasn't a serious -- or at least terminal -- problem we joked about him not being able to pass a sobriety test for a few days!

We are so grateful for the vet's accurate diagnosis. When we researched the syndrome on the internet we read on at least one site that some dogs have been euthanized when mis-diagnosed and people don't think they can afford the expensive treatment(s) recommended. That's so sad.

Cody and Casey sleeping  peacefully in the truck while we're traveling.

After we got to Great Falls, MT and knew that Cody was going to be fine I wrote a glowing online review of the clinic and Dr. Maddux for seeing us so promptly, getting the diagnosis right, and not doing any unnecessary testing or treatments.

Here's one of the web pages we read re: the condition. Because the "fix" is so simple, and can apparently be incorrectly diagnosed by some vets, I've mentioned the syndrome to several other folks who have older dogs. I hope more people see it when they read this entry.

Note that once a dog has this condition, (s)he has an above-average chance of getting it again. Subsequent episodes are usually similar in intensity and duration as the first.

As of August 5, 2016 -- yes, I'm that far behind in writing this entry -- Cody hasn't had a recurrence of this condition, although he's had two other problems (pancreatitis and dehydration) that required overnight stays at veterinary hospitals. He's now a still-energetic 13 years, 4 months old.

Long live Cody!

Next entrythe drive from Fairbanks to our overnight stop east of Tok, AK

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil