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Image: Beanie the paralyzed dog
Larry Wadsworth / TAMU, College of Veterinary Medicine
Beanie the dachshund has lived a happy life despite being paralyzed from the waist down for eight years. Still, her owners can't help but wonder what her life might have been like had she been able to avoid paralysis.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 2/17/2012 10:34:56 AM ET 2012-02-17T15:34:56

Beanie the dachshund rocks her tiny wheelchair. The mere sight of it causes her to wriggle with excitement; she knows it means a walk or some other adventure is about to begin.

Even though she’s paralyzed from the waist down, Beanie is a happy little girl, and her owners are glad they’ve been able to meet her needs ever since she ruptured a disk in her back and severely injured her spinal cord in 2004. But life with a paralyzed dog isn’t exactly easy: Beanie’s owners must help her go to the bathroom manually four times a day, and going out of town presents a huge challenge because it can be so tricky to line up pet care.

That’s why Dr. Jay Griffin, who owns 14-year-old Beanie and also happens to be a veterinarian, is so intrigued by an experimental drug that’s being tested in dogs with spinal-cord injuries. Researchers are hopeful that the drug, dubbed Illomostat, may help dogs avoid paralysis if it can be administered very quickly — within hours of an injury’s occurrence. If successful, they hope their research will someday help people with similar injuries.

“Had Beanie been treated initially [with the medication] ... there is a chance that she would have regained the use of her legs and gone on to live a normal life,” said Griffin, 33, who works at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, where the drug is being tested.

Image: Jay Griffin with his paralyzed dog, Beanie
Larry Wadsworth / TAMU, College of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Jay Griffin walks his dog, Beanie, outside the Small Animal Clinic at Texas A&M University where an experimental drug is being tested in dogs with spinal-cord injuries.

Illomostat is being given to short-legged, long-torso dog breeds like dachshunds, beagles and corgis that can suddenly rupture disks in their backs and damage their spinal cords, the way Beanie did. The U.S. Department of Defense is funding the effort with a $750,000 grant because the drug could hold promise for wounded service members and other people who experience traumas to their spinal cords.

“We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to understand spinal-cord injury,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, the veterinary neurologist at Texas A&M University who is testing the drug in dogs. “We want these dogs to get better, and we want people to get better.”

‘Remarkable recovery’
When dogs and humans bruise or lacerate their spinal cords, something similar happens: A certain protein becomes elevated, and inflammation sets in. This can cause nerve fibers and nerve cells to die and contribute to long-term paralysis.

The experimental drug being tested in dogs does not attempt to regrow injured pathways in the spinal cord. Instead, it aims to block the secondary damage caused by the action of that one protein and reduce the destruction of tissue, local inflammation and blood-vessel leakage. When scientists at the University of California, San Francisco tested this approach in mice, it proved wildly successful.

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“The mice showed remarkable recovery after injury,” said neurobiologist Linda Noble-Haeusslein, who led the research at UCSF.

Noble-Haeusslein has teamed up with Levine at Texas A&M University for this next phase of research. She said it would be “phenomenal” if the drug also reduces paralysis in dogs.

“We are in a unique position of being able to treat a dog population where there are simply no current therapies that could effectively improve their hind-limb function,” she said.

Story: Deformed puppy, rescued from trash, learns to walk
Image: Dog in a wheelchair
Larry Wadsworth / TAMU, College of Veterinary Medicine
Pet ownership can become challenging after a dog becomes paralyzed — but many pet owners report that their dogs remain happy and playful despite their injuries.

Noble-Haeusslein and Levine have done a small-scale clinical trial in which about 40 recently injured dogs were given Illomostat with their owners’ consent, and about 70 were given a placebo. The data from that trial is being analyzed now.

The researchers plan to begin a more in-depth trial with dogs in October — and their ultimate hope is that their findings will one day help people with injured spinal cords. About 12,000 new spinal-cord injuries occur in the United States each year.

True love
Not all dogs who rupture disks in their backs and injure their spines become paralyzed. Many recover after surgery; Beanie did not.

Beanie’s owners came to terms with her injuries years ago, but they’re still following the clinical trials being done on dogs with great interest. Griffin said it’s hard not to wonder what Beanie’s life might have been like had she avoided paralysis eight years ago.

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He said he knows a lot of people wonder silently about level of care and devotion he’s willing to give his paralyzed dachshund — but he doesn’t regret one minute of it.

“Some people spend their money on a vacation; some people spend their money on a new car,” Griffin said. “But the only [thing] that can love you back is your dog.”

To learn more about the spinal-cord research being done at UCSF and Texas A&M University, click here.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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Photos: How swimming, and lots of love, saved Harper the puppy’s life

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  1. A sad prognosis

    On Aug. 31, 2011, a puppy was rescued from a garbage bag in Central Florida. She was afflicted by a condition dubbed “swimmer puppy syndrome,” formally, pectus excavatum. It's rare in puppies, but when it happens it causes them to lie flat on their chests with their legs perpetually splayed out. It's usually a symptom of serious neurological problems that most puppies cannot survive. Veterinarians recommended putting her to sleep. (Dolly's Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Changed circumstances

    Erica Daniel, who provides foster care to dogs in serious need, decided to take the puppy home for one full day of love and affection before she was to be put to sleep the next morning. After a few hours of being massaged and cuddled, Harper began to lift her head and move. Encouraged, Daniel contacted Bev McCartt, a therapist with Hip Dog Canine Hydrotherapy & Fitness in Winter Park, Fla. McCartt, pictured here, offered to treat the puppy free of charge. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A fish in water

    At her first hydrotherapy session, the puppy – whom Erica Daniel named Harper – responded remarkably well. Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt explained that swimming helped teach Harper what her natural gait should be. “Her brain kicked in and by the end of her first session, she was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ ” McCartt said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Getting going

    “Hydrotherapy and massage actually build on that instinct for a dog to move,” Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt said, adding that Harper is “a real testament to a dog’s determination to get up and just go.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Just the right help

    Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom and head of a dog-rescue organization called Dolly’s Foundation, said Harper has benefited from a mix of treatments: hydrotherapy, massage therapy and electric stimulation of her muscles. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ‘Loosey-goosey’

    After one of her early massages, Harper got “all loosey-goosey, like we all are after a massage,” Bev McCartt said. “She just kind of melted into the pad.” Later that same day, she started to trot. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. ‘So much determination’

    “She has so much determination and grit,” Bev McCartt said. “She’s a miracle puppy. That’s how I see her. She’s a walking miracle.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Relaxed and happy

    Harper has thrived after receiving personalized attention and care. Her foster mom, Erica Daniel, plans to give her up for adoption in late October – if she can stand parting with her. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Unstoppable

    Harper took her first actual steps on grass, then on carpet, then on concrete. “She still can’t walk on tile or hardwood floors,” Erica Daniel said on Sept. 20. “But she’s getting there.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A whole new life

    Harper has been holding her own and playing happily with the seven other dogs at Erica Daniel’s home. “My dogs really egg her on,” Daniel said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. ‘Dogs need love’

    “Pit bulls are just dogs,” said Erica Daniel, noting the negative image of Harper’s breed. “Dogs need love, and they need homes.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Help from new friends

    Harper has benefited from an outpouring of support from a variety of Central Florida residents. Flyin Fur Pet Photography donated photography services when capturing these "day in the life" images of Harper. All money raised from sales of Harper's photos will be directed toward Harper's medical bills and the work of Dolly’s Foundation, Erica Daniel’s dog-rescue organization. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. No worries

    “The whole world was against her, but she’s such a fighter,” said Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom. “She’s a blessing. She’s awesome.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: True ‘tails’ of animal survival

  • It's tough out there for a...

    NBC News
    A cat who went missing for nine years. A beagle who went missing for five. An enormous, affable hog who survived a serious truck accident on the way to the sausage plant — thereby avoiding the fate of being turned into sausage.


    These and other amazing tails — er, tales — of survival are contained right here in this slideshow. Some feature reunions with long-lost family members thanks to the miracle of microchips. Others spotlight the acts of kind-hearted humans. All of them will make you smile.

  • A dog's four-year, 1,100-mile journey

    NBC News
    A missing Missouri dog is found four years later and four states away.
    Who knows exactly where Mickey the Boston terrier went, what he ate, how he traveled and who he met during his four long years away from home? Well, Mickey does — but he's keeping his secrets to himself.

    The pup disappeared from his backyard in Kansas City, Mo. — and about four years later in 2007, his owners were stunned to receive a phone call from an animal shelter 1,100 miles away in Billings, Mont., saying that Mickey had been found and identified with the help of a microchip. Mickey's family said their dog no longer knew his name when he came home, and his teeth bore signs of wear and tear — but other than that, he was fine, and they were thrilled to have him back in their lives.

  • Oh Fudge!

    Image: Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten
    SWNS
    Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten.
    Attention, pet owners: Here’s a cautionary tale about leaving washing machine and dryer doors open. Ashlea Boon of Somerset, England left her dryer open in August 2010 — and Fudge, her tiny new kitten, hopped inside the machine and curled up on a soft duvet cover for a cat nap. Boon had no idea Fudge was in there when she switched the dryer on to give the bedding a refresher spin.

    Fudge spun with the blanket for a five-minute cycle. When Boon removed it from the dryer, she was horrified to see her tiny kitten collapse lifeless on the floor.

    “She was limp and wasn’t moving,” Boon said, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “She was just dead when she came out. She was very limp and just lying on the floor. I was very shocked. It was horrible.”

    Boon, a nurse, rubbed Fudge’s belly in an effort to revive her, and she started breathing again. She then rushed Fudge to the vet, who feared the kitten had brain and vision damage. But after being treated for 24 hours and given steroids, Fudge bounced back. She’s doing just fine today.

    “It was really emotional and horrible,” Boon said. “I would warn anyone else with pets to be aware when leaving the tumble dryer door open.”

  • Gone with the wind, saved by a psychic

    Chihuahuas are tiny little dogs, and at 6 pounds, Tinker Bell the Chihuahua was especially small. So perhaps it won't come as a huge surprise to learn that a 70-mph gust of wind was able to sweep the little girl off her feet. That's precisely what happened to her in April while she was minding her own business at a Michigan flea market.


    What may come as more of a surprise is that Tinker Bell flew completely out of the sight of her owners, Dorothy and Lavern Utley, who turned to a pet psychic for help. They said the psychic directed them to a wooded spot almost a mile away from the flea market — and, what do you know? There was Tinker Bell! After two days on her own, she was hungry and dirty but otherwise fine. Dorothy Utley said the little dog "just went wild" when she saw Utley.

  • Should I call myself a cab, too?

    AP
    Talk about planning ahead. The owners of an African grey parrot in Japan spent two years teaching the bird to recite his full name and address in case he ever got lost.

    And that's just what the parrot did in May 2008 when he escaped from his cage and had to be rescued from a neighbor's roof in the city of Nagareyama, near Tokyo. He spent a night at a police station, where he stayed quiet as a church mouse — but after he got transferred over to a veterinary hospital, he started chatting it up. "I'm Mr. Yosuke Nakamura," the bird announced to the vet, and he also spelled out his address and sang songs to the delight of the hospital staff. Because the address the bird provided was flawless, he was easily reunited with his family.

  • Kitty rescued from PVC pipe

    NBC News
    Myra Amado of Wareham, Mass., heard crying sounds in her backyard for several days in June 2009, but she just couldn't identify the source of the cries. She finally checked an out-of-the-way area near her shed, and — gasp! What was that peeking at her out of a section of T-shaped PVC pipe? The head of a tiny orange tabby kitten!


    The 6-week-old feline was wedged inside the pipe so tightly that Amado had to call firefighters for assistance. Two hours and a dollop of vegetable oil later, the kitty was free from the pipe and on her way to a nearby animal shelter, where she was treated for dehydration and a broken paw. The name given to her by her rescuers? Piper.

    Video: Trapped kitten rescued from pipe
  • No swine before its time

    Stephen B. Thornton / Arkansas D
    Picture this: An enormous, 800-pound hog is riding in a truck in Arkansas along with about 90 other pigs, unaware that he's bound for the slaughterhouse — (but maybe slightly suspicious). There's an accident on the journey, and the truck flips. About 60 of the pigs survive. This one escapes.

    Not only does he escape, but he survives on his own for an entire week before deciding to take a dip in LeAnn Baldy's swimming pool. Baldy was stunned when she happened to notice that her pool was overflowing in June 2009. She was even more surprised when she saw the immersed hog cooling off in the water and enjoying a drink.

    This "ham on the lam" was spared a second journey to the sausage plant because slaughterhouse officials had no idea what he had been eating during his week on his own.

  • Reunited after Hurricane Katrina

    AP
    This is one of those stories that can make your heart hurt, even though it involves a happy reunion between a man and his dog. The drama began when Jessie Pullins had to evacuate New Orleans with his family in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approached. He figured he'd be gone a day — maybe two at most — so he left his Labrador-shepherd mix J.J. with a generous helping of food and water.

    Of course, Pullins was not able to return right away. J.J. ultimately got rescued and adopted by two sisters in California who cared for him deeply and wanted to keep him. After legal wrangling, the sisters returned J.J. to Pullins in 2009. The saga is detailed in "Mine," a PBS documentary about pet-ownership disputes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

  • 'Dead' pet cat returns... nine years later

    Fame Pictures
    Gilly Delaney of Birmingham, England never quite believed it when she was told in 1999 that her pet cat Dixie had been killed by an oncoming car. She always had a feeling the cat might return home — so much so that she nixed a move to Malta that she and her husband had been considering.

    And sure enough, in 2008, animal shelter workers showed up at the Delaneys' home — with Dixie! They had found the cat wandering less than half a mile away from the Delaneys' home, and they identified her because she had a microchip. The Delaneys were ecstatic. "Dixie's personality, behavior and little mannerisms have not changed at all," Gilly Delaney told the Daily Mail newspaper. "She is still a happy, contented cat who just wants to sit next to you on the sofa and have a fuss. She hasn't stopped purring since she came back through the door."

  • A 'flush' with death for tiny puppy

    TODAY
    Kids do the darndest things. Especially 4-year-olds who are playing with itty-bitty puppies. Daniel Blair, 4, of Middlesex, England, decided to give his 1-week-old cocker spaniel puppy a bath in the toilet in June 2009 because the puppy was muddy. And then — oops! — Daniel flushed the toilet!

    Daniel's mother, Alison, told Britain's Daily Mirror that she was convinced the puppy had drowned. Not so, however. A drainage company used a special camera and found the wet, startled and very alive puppy about 20 yards from the house. Four hours later, the puppy was out and safe. "I'm so, so sorry, " Daniel told the Daily Mirror. "I won't do it again."

    Video: Puppy survives trip down the toilet
  • 'Please Rocco, come home'

    TODAY
    After the Villacis' beagle Rocco strayed from their yard in Queens, N.Y., in 2003, the whole family was devastated — but no one took it harder than little Natalie. The 5-year-old cried for extended periods, and she never parted with the dog's favorite toy, a stuffed cat.

    And then in 2008, more than five years after he had disappeared, he turned up 850 miles away at an animal-control office in Georgia. He was reunited with his family because of his microchip. "When my mom told me they found Rocco, I cried hysterically — just like I did when they told me he was lost," Natalie told the New York Post. "Every time I would see a dog on the street, I would say to my mom, 'Maybe Rocco will come back.' She would say that he probably isn't going to come back. I would say, 'I know, but maybe he will.'...At night, I would wish, 'Please Rocco, come home.' And now that wish came true."

  • Somebody help this poor doggie

    This is the story of an impossibly small Chihuahua and an impossibly large barbecue fork, and it is not for the faint of heart.

    It happened at a barbecue in London, Ky. Somehow a huge barbecue fork broke in two and went soaring through the air — and its 3-inch prongs lodged deep inside Smokey the dog's head. The 12-week-old puppy barked in pain, ran off and disappeared into a wooded area for two full days before his frantic owner, Hughie Wagers, managed to find him.


    A trip to the vet, Dr. Keaton Smith, revealed that the fork had impaled the dog's brain. Smokey was operated on immediately. During a TODAY interview, Wagers told Matt Lauer that his pooch "did wake up weird" from the surgery, but Smith expects Smokey's brain to recover completely since he's still a pup.

    Video: Chihuahua impaled by BBQ fork
  • Tossed turtle makes 670-mile journey

    TODAY
    Ten-year-old Carley Helm thought it was OK to bring her new friend Neytiri, a coin-sized turtle, back with her on a flight from Atlanta to her home in Milwaukee. And so did AirTran Airways personnel — at first, that is.

    But, after Carley and her reptile friend were on board, flight attendants ordered the turtle off the plane. 

    The Helm kids set Neytiri in an airport trash bin, after calling their father William to come retrieve the animal. When he arrived, he wasn't able to find Neytiri. Turns out, another AirTran employee had already fished the turtle out of the trash, handed it off to a co-worker, who then took it home as a pet for their son.

    Jennifer Forbes, a cruelty caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, learned of the case and ran interference for the family. Eventually, Neytiri was retrieved and made the 670-mile journey to be reunited with the Helms.

    Video: Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap
  • David, Brooke and Jake – together again

    PeoplePets.com
    Whether you're rich or poor, famous or unknown, the heartbreak of losing a pet can be devastating — and the thrill of being reunited with that pet can be the best feeling in the world.

    Just ask celebrity couple David Charvet of ABC's "The Superstars" and Brooke Burke, the Season 7 champion on "Dancing with the Stars." They were distraught when their chocolate Labrador retriever Jake went missing for nine long months – until they got a shocker of a phone call informing them that Jake was fine and ready to be picked up.

    "Someone found Jake in our town, had no idea who his owner was (Jake had no collar) and gave him to a neighbor who took him in and cared for him," Burke wrote in her blog on ModernMom.com. "The man took Jake to a vet for a random check-up and for blood work. After telling the vet the story of how Jake came into his life, the vet decided to scan Jake. David had an identity chip put in Jake as a puppy. ...

    "Thank God for honest people who are selfless enough to do the right thing. I hope something wonderful happens to [Jake’s rescuer] ... for caring for Jake and letting him go."

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