Happy Monday, everyone! For those of you who don’t know, I have a 3-year-old Yorkie named Tucker. And if you’ve been following the blog for awhile, then you probably know that Tucker was born with a liver shunt since I’ve mentioned it briefly in a blog post or two. As you may have noticed, my blog’s name is inspired by him. He’s always by my side whether we’re relaxing in bed with a Sunday Netflix marathon, having brunch alfresco at one of my favorite restaurants or traveling across the country to visit friends and family. 

Tucker at 4 months old

I’ve been wanting to share his health story ever since I started Yorkie in Tow, but I waited until now because this week will mark 3 years since he’s had his liver surgery (I call it his “surgery-versary”). I know it may be silly to some to dwell on this because to some people, he’s just a dog. In reality, he has helped me through more than I ever thought possible. I call him my security blanket because he brings me so much peace and love regardless of whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into that day. I can’t imagine my life without him.

So, I wanted to share his journey to reach out to those whose furbaby has had/is having health problems. It’s an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing and depressing time. Our pets are a huge part of our family and when they’re not doing well, it feels like our hearts are breaking. I’ve been there so I hope sharing this story helps any other doggy parents who are in a similar place.

The Start of Something Not So Good

I got Tucker when he was a little over 3 months old in late spring 2014 after doing some research online and finding out he needed a home. He was sick (something I wasn’t aware of when I initially brought him home) and I would soon come to realize he wouldn’t have been alive much longer if someone hadn’t saved him.

Walking around Georgetown

Tucker and I took a roadtrip to D.C. the weekend before July 4th weekend of 2014. I had only had him about a month at that point and even though he was 3 pounds, he walked for miles with me all over the city. To this day, it’s still one of my most favorite and cherished times with him.

Roadtripping back from D.C.

Shortly after getting back from that trip, Tucker started throwing up and having accidents all over my apartment. This was happening multiple times a day for a few days in a row, but I brushed it off as something he had accidentally eaten. He was still acting and eating normally. I didn’t want to be one of those dog parents who takes their pet in at the slightest sign of an issue. Plus, I didn’t want to put Tucker through any unnecessary tests and anxiety at the vet.

However, a few days later, he stopped eating. Tucker had always had a voracious appetite and never said no to food so that started concerning me. He was still playing with all his toys and had plenty of energy as usual. 

Then, on July 4th weekend, I found him laying on a pile of clothes in the darkness of my bathroom. He didn’t want to play. He didn’t want treats. And he didn’t even wag his tail. He was usually always glued to my side.

This was the last straw. I had to take him to the doctor. And because it was a holiday weekend, I took him to a 24-hour emergency vet. Sidenote: I came to find out later that this emergency vet was one of the best in the tri-state area and people drove for hours to take their animals there. So, I knew Tucker was in good hands. 

The Diagnosis

It was late afternoon by the time I took him in and they checked his vitals and ran some initial tests, including one for parvovirus, which can be particularly common in unvaccinated puppies. Parvo is life-threatening so I was hoping that wasn’t the case.

The good news was the parvo test came back negative. Instead, the vet tech told me that Tucker’s urine/stool looked as though he lived on a farm because it was full of toxins and bacteria. Last time I checked, my apartment was not filled with livestock.

Then, the doctor came to an even scarier conclusion: it could be a portosystemic shunt in the liver. I was told that Yorkshire Terriers, along with several other breeds like Miniature Schnauzers, Golden Retrievers and Cairn Terriers, are 35 times (yes, 35 TIMES) more likely to have a predisposition to liver shunts. It’s a genetic disorder that is passed down from parents. So, based on Tucker’s symptoms and his breed, the doctor was fairly convinced a liver shunt was the issue.

Waiting for some initial test results. Fun fact: He ended up peeing in my bag!

Tucker was lethargic, vomiting, unable to eat, dehydrated and his weight had now dropped to 2.5 pounds. He was over 3 pounds when I first picked him up. That might not seem like a large weight loss, but since he was already so teeny tiny, it was huge concern. Plus, he’s supposed to be growing at this point in his life, not losing weight!

Without successful treatment, the doctor estimated that Tucker would not live past 10 months old. 

We came to the conclusion that it was best for Tuck to stay the night at the vet to be monitored and to get some fluids back in him. I immediately started tearing up in the middle of the exam room. I knew he needed help and would get top-notch attention at the vet, but I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving my little boy, who was already terrified, overnight in a strange and scary place. I never expected myself to react that way since I had only had him for about a month and a half, but the thought of losing him was devastating. It still makes me tear up now just thinking about it.

I went home that night to see his toys and blankets all over my floor. My apartment was quiet and dull without him. I remember calling my mom for some comfort because I felt so alone. I knew I had to do whatever it took to get Tucker better.

In Limbo

I started graduate school right after July 4th weekend so while Tucker seemed to be doing better after his overnight stint at the emergency vet, I was still keeping a close eye on him as best I could. Luckily, my schedule allowed me to come home at least once throughout the day to check on him. I kept him in a large pen with plenty of blankets, water and toys while I was in class. I also set up a video camera to make sure he was doing okay. Yes, I’m an over-protective pet parent.

Tucker receiving fluids. He used to love playing with my hair ties to stay busy!

He still wasn’t eating well and was vomiting on and off. Over the next few weeks, he was in and out of the emergency vet at least twice. He stayed overnight multiple times while they tried to pinpoint exactly what to do next. I called the vet many times a day to check on him (which probably annoyed them so much) and was able to visit him twice a day.

Next Up: Surgery

By the last week in July, it was time to make some moves. I met with a surgeon who specialized in liver shunt surgeries at the same emergency vet. He actually studied under the woman who pioneered the surgery. 

The doctor explained everything to me and made sure I understood. I’m still so grateful to him because he was patient as I asked all of my questions and wanted me to feel comfortable with the possible outcomes.

Basically, in a normal dog, the blood should go through the liver to be filtered and detoxified. Then, it can go back into the bloodstream fresh and clean. Instead, the liver shunt was causing Tucker’s blood to bypass the liver and was therefore prevented from being filtered through the liver. Then, the “dirty” blood went back into Tucker’s bloodstream and eventually into his brain. Dogs can become blind, have seizures and experience many other life-threatening health problems. Hence why Tuck may not have made it past 10 months without surgery. 

The liver shunt should have gone away on its own once Tucker was born, but because of the genetic abnormality, it stuck around. 

For those of you who want to know more about liver shunts, there are a few potential scenarios. Tucker could have had one large shunt that went around his liver, multiple shunts around his liver, one shunt through his liver or multiple shunts through his liver. Since it’s extremely difficult for the doctor to tell without surgery, Tucker needed to have “exploratory surgery” to find out exactly which one it was. Some shunt types are more difficult to care for than others.

The morning I had to drop Tucker off for surgery was one of the hardest moments of my entire life. I cried as I signed his papers, I cried as I handed him off to the vet tech and I cried once back in my car. I had to pull over on the side of the road. On top of that, I had to go to class that morning, but I was in no mood to tackle Financial Accounting.

Tucker post-surgery

I usually never have my phone out in class, but I made an exception that day. Around 11 AM, the vet called to let me know that Tucker was out of surgery and was doing well. He discovered that Tucker had one large shunt going around his liver. Luckily, this was the best case scenario. It could be easily treated by placing a metal ring around the shunt. The metal ring had proteins inside that would slowly release over the next 72 hours, ultimately closing the ring and cutting off the shunt. It would then force the blood to go through Tucker’s liver like it should have originally.

The Recovery

While it was a successful surgery, we weren’t out of the woods yet. Tucker’s body needed to accept the metal ring so the following 72 hours were crucial. If he showed any signs of seizures or other abnormalities, it wasn’t going to be good.

So, over the next couple of days, Tucker stayed at the emergency vet. I came by for my 2 allowed visits a day. I always went once in the morning before class and once at night after class.

He seemed to be doing as well as could be and was given a new low protein, prescription food to cater to his liver. The vet techs said they even fought over who would get to take him outside and feed him because they were so in love with him. It made me feel much better knowing he was getting plenty of attention there.

Tucker and I were so fortunate to have had this emergency vet and its staff to care for him. He may not be alive if it weren’t for them and we’re eternally grateful for all of their hard work! I’m hoping to bring Tuck back there soon (maybe this fall) to show them how well he’s doing.

COMING HOME + 3 Years Later

Tucker in July 2017, desperately needing a haircut.

Tucker made a full recovery. His body accepted the shunt closure and his new prescription, low protein food seemed to work well with his liver. He had one moment about a week after his surgery where it seemed like he had a brief seizure, which was scary, but fortunately it was an abnormality. *knock on wood*

Fast forward to today. Tucker’s bloodwork is great in terms of his protein levels. I’ve had to recently switch his food to a different prescription because his triglycerides came back high a couple of months ago. He needed to have teeth pulled back in early June, which was the first time he had been under anesthesia since his surgery. It was nerve-wracking, but the prep bloodwork showed his vet that he needed to switch foods to something low fat and low protein.

I’m still keeping an eye on him. If he ever starts vomiting or acting a bit lethargic, I take him into the vet. I never want him to relive those first 6 months of his life.

In terms of the lifelong effects of this liver shunt, his doctors are unsure. He could live a perfectly normal and healthy life. Or he could have some other complications later on that shorten his overall life span. I don’t ever want to think that he could leave me earlier than expected.

The good news is that the liver shunt was discovered before it was able to cause permanent brain damage. He can be positively exhausting at times, I will admit that. Occasionally, he does act erratically and has difficulty remembering things like where to go to the bathroom. He also still has something I call “the zoomies”, which is strange at his age. He gets intense bouts of energy that cause him to run about 100 MPH in figure eights. Those are all things the liver shunt has caused. It’s another reason I don’t get him vaccinated or have him take things like flea medication. Those chemicals can hurt his body in ways that it wouldn’t with a normal dog. I’m actually in the process of learning a more natural way to feed him as well.

But, for now, I’m staying optimistic (which is very unlike me) and soaking up every minute I have with him. It’s yet another reason I love blogging so much. It allows me to stay at home and hang out with him much more than I was able to with my typical office job.

Sorry to get all sappy! I can go on and on about how much his health struggle has taught me. I never take any day for granted with him. He’s helped me through so much, including my anxiety. If you have a dog, you know how much they touch your heart. It’s the purest form of love.

All of my family and friends are absolutely obsessed with him. He has a personality that is one in a million and I swear he was some sort of genius human in his previous life.

Whenever I get frustrated that he had yet another accident in the house, is barking incessantly at an animal or destroying something he shouldn’t, I always bring myself back to that first night I had to leave him at the vet and go home to an empty, quiet apartment without him. 

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Thanks so much for sticking with me through the post! I hope this helps any of you who have gone/are going through a tough time with a pet. Your pet is so lucky to have you and there are certainly happy endings to many frightening experiences.

If you guys have any questions or want more posts about Tucker and his health updates, just let me know! He’s such a huge part of my life so I always love sharing him with you. Tuck and I are sending lots of love!