Recovery From FHO Surgery

written by Eric Hughes

Surgery was the afternoon of 7/22. We visited her that night and then picked her up late morning on 7/23. She was obviously groggy from all the op and post-op drugs; but she was still all Phoebe, excited as ever to see us with her tail wagging and a small hop in her front steps.  She was pulling her bad leg up and hopping on the other 3 but when she stood in place she would drop it down to the floor - which the vet said was a very good sign for her recovery.  We left the vet with only a pain patch on her chest to manage the pain, which was fine until later that night when all the more potent drugs seemed to wear off at once.  She was in considerable pain for the whole first night, whining and moaning and not being able to sleep.  Nicole spent the majority of that first night on the floor with phoebe trying to soothe her as best she could but nobody ended up sleeping that first night.  This is our first piece of advice - plan on leaving the vet with pain pills and having enough of a supply to last for the first 2-3 weeks...gradually decreasing the dose as the leg gets used more and more.
Mostly she was able to get around just fine on her 3 good legs for the first few days.  All we did was shuffle her around from x-pen to x-pen between our bedroom and main living room/kitchen area, where we spend the majority of our time.  It seemed to us that the most frustrating part for her was the fact that the wound area was too sore for her to sleep on so she always had to lay down on the same side...and that was not her favorite sleeping side.  She would turn many circles trying to lay down on the bad side but would ultimately turn the other way.
She was kept separated from our other two dogs for the first week of recovery but they were allowed some minor interactions when we were right there with them all and during the last few days of the week when we started to walk her around to the backyard to go potty rather than right outside the front door.  After the first couple days of recovery we began short walks once a day in the mornings before work, basically just a few houses down and back and adding a house or two every couple days until we were going around the full block by the second week.  During the day while we were at work she was kept in our office with a baby gate seperating her from the other dogs.  She absolutely hated being kept apart like that and the last couple days of that first week she had recuperated well enough to scratch up the door frame a bit trying to get out.  However, she needed this separation to keep her and our other Airedale from playing too rough with each other while we were gone.
By the end of that first week she was putting the leg down more and more, and she was thrilled at us taking down the x-pens and being able to feel like she was part of everything again.  She was actually already starting to use her leg some on our walks by this point which was great, and even more impressive she was able to go up a flight of stairs.  We hadn't tried going down at all since the vet cautioned us against this initially, but she was able to get up them very slowly using all 4 legs.  She needed some support under her belly the first few times but after that it was all on her own.  Then it came time for the stitches to be removed.
At the vet's office we were all excited about her progress and the vet said she'd love to see her using it even more by now but that her progress was still outstanding.  She asked if we thought she needed more pain pills since we had just run out, but we decided against this since she was already using it and sleeping on it and allowing us to rub her leg and such.  The vet said in addition to the walking, we should also start stretching the leg back as far as we can until we feel some resistance. Phoebe would let us know when we reached that point too.  well, this is where our second piece of advice comes in:  plan on leaving the vet with pain pills and having enough of a supply to last for the first 2-3 weeks...gradually decreasing the dose as the leg gets used more and more.  Sound familiar?  This all makes sense to us now looking back, but that next week we saw very little progress with her leg.
She wasn't using the leg any more often and in fact almost seemed to be picking it up more.  We weren't sure what was needed so we decided to start taking two walks each day.  By this time we were up to two blocks on our walks so we decided to have one fun walk a day where she did what she liked and one shorter, slower, more serious rehab walk where we verbally pushed/encouraged her to use the leg.  By the end of that next week and still seeing only a little more progress it finally hit us that the only thing that had really changed was the pain pills.  We all know how stoic our Airedales can be and this was a prime example.  We went back and picked up some more pills and started giving her 1/2 a dose and that was the trick.  It seems that even though she wasn't in considerable pain, there was enough of an edge to it that she decided it was just easier to pick it up than try to use it.  So we lost about a week of good recovery time and essentially set up a mental road block with her thinking it was best to pick it up.
We continued the twice a day walks for another week or so and now when we say "use your leg Phoebe" she puts it down and walks almost normally.  But even at this point now, over a month after surgery, we feel that this week lost was crucial.  All that seems to be left with her recovery now is the mental strength to make the decision to use it.  She's fairly impatient and knows she can make it some place faster by hopping on three so she most often chooses not to be inconvenienced by her leg and just works around it.  We have to slow her speed down a notch and only then will she use it on her own.  However, whenever we visit a new fun place for a walk she forgets for awhile about the leg and gets caught up in the excitement and uses it.  Mostly still though, it's a constant decision for her to use it or not and a continuous verbal encouragment from us to do so.  We encourage her often to use it but at this point it seems the final step is going to have to be something she realizes on her own and in her own time.
This is my last piece of advice to someone going through this:  don't get caught up too much in expectations but rather just use them as a guideline.  We felt initially based on what we had read and were told that after a few weeks we should be seeing her using it frequently, almost normally.  This really was about the time frame we were on initially before losing the drug advantage.  But even if we had kept up with the pain pills i think it's important to remember that this is a major surgery and patience and compassion are the two biggest tools you'll have for recovery.  The muscles atrophy and take time to strengthen, there is no way around this. For some dogs it could be a quick recovery, for others it could take will all depend on not just the physical state of the dog but also, and maybe even more importantly, the mental state of the dog.  I think Phoebe could sense or concern and frustration during that week where we saw little progress and i think that combined with the little pain she was still feeling only brought her down.  I think if the pain pills are there with just enough to take the edge off for those first 3 weeks or so, then all that is needed is a good amount of normal activity and some loving patience to see them through.


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