Foster home helps puppy stand tall

Sweet Baby James the puppy in a wheelchair
Faces of no-kill: Sweet Baby James could hardly even crawl when he first came to the Sanctuary, but today he’s stronger and in a home of his own.
By Sarah Thornton

There are few things as lovable as a roly-poly puppy. And from the moment Sweet Baby James arrived at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary from a nearby shelter — just a week old and tucked close to his mama Carolina’s side — that roly-poly charm caught everyone’s heart. He was tiny and fragile, and it seemed Carolina had already been through a lot just to get the two of them as far as she had. A drooping eyelid and nearly healed wounds on her face spoke of an encounter with another animal in her recent, unknown past.

They needed help — somewhere safe, comfortable, and quiet to recover and grow. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary supports shelters in reaching no-kill by taking in pets who may need extra care before going to homes — pets like Carolina and Sweet Baby James.

After an initial checkup by Best Friends veterinary staff, veterinary assistant Tina Sylvester took the little canine family home to foster them. There, Carolina would have a chance to unwind while Sweet Baby James received the necessary care and attention to ensure a healthy start in life. It would soon become clear, however, that he’d need a bit more support than most to find his footing.

A puppy puzzle

Even in the best situations, young pups face many challenges, and Sweet Baby James was not thriving. When he should have been gaining weight every day, the numbers on the scale barely changed. It was hard to tell exactly what was happening — whether Carolina wasn’t producing enough milk for him or whether he was having trouble nursing for some other reason. When Tina would move him to his mom’s belly, he’d immediately start suckling, only for Carolina to get up and step away, more interested in whatever else their foster person was up to.

Tina began supplemental feedings for Sweet Baby James to get him those extra calories he so desperately needed, and he spent much of the rest of his time sleeping. That wasn’t odd, of course; puppies spend a lot of time napping. Rather, it was the way he snoozed that began making things click into place.

“He would lay with his back legs splayed out, and I first thought, ‘Oh, that’s so cute,’” Tina recalls. “But then I realized he was always doing that. I was watching him one day, and I noticed he wasn’t crawling like he should be.” When he should have been scooting up to his mama’s belly or exploring his small section of the world, Sweet Baby James was having trouble just getting traction. His back legs weren’t working with him. They didn’t have the strength to help push him forward, and he would wind up stranded on his blankets unable to go anywhere.

[Big love for little dog with wheels]

X-rays taken back at the clinic didn’t reveal any physical reason for Sweet Baby James’ mobility issues — he had no injuries that would have caused paralysis — so veterinarians began looking for other explanations. The one that seemed most likely was swimmer’s syndrome, a developmental condition that causes puppies’ legs to splay out to either side of them. The only thing they can do is paddle around the floor (thus the name).

In most cases, swimmer’s syndrome is only a temporary hindrance. With early intervention and physical therapy, puppies typically are on their feet in just a few weeks. So, feeling hopeful, Tina and the team put together a treatment plan to get the diminutive doggy on the road to recovery.

Puppy gets stronger every day

Acupuncture was part of the treatment plan, and so Sweet Baby James started going to appointments right away. He was a model patient. He’d spend the whole time distracted, playing with Tina and intrigued by her hands and the toys they often held. They also tried laser therapy with him, using a deep-penetrating cold laser to help reduce inflammation and pain to aid in the healing process. He was always bright and happy with all the attention, even if the session went long.

With care at home, he’d finally begun putting on weight and getting bigger. He’d been weaned from his mama and she had moved out, catching a ride to another location to get adopted. And once Sweet Baby James was hefty enough to get his vaccines, twice-weekly hydrotherapy was added to his routine. The water — and his adorably tiny life vest — helped support his weight as he took one step after another along the submerged treadmill.

Outside of scheduled acupuncture, laser, and hydro therapies, Tina spent time each day helping Sweet Baby James through physical therapy. “We did the physical range-of-motion exercises to build those muscles,” Tina says, “because if they’re not using them, they start to lose them.”

Sweet Baby James also received his own set of wheels: a little cart to help him get around more easily. Even though he could scoot around using his front legs, because he was now growing so quickly their strength couldn’t quite keep up with the rest of him. With the cart bearing most of his weight, however, he could run and play as much as he pleased. As soon as Tina got him in his wheels, Sweet Baby James was off like a rocket to play with his new friend, Tina’s own puppy, Booth, whom he’d taken to the second he was old enough to be introduced.

With time, Sweet Baby James’ condition improved little by little. He’d get one back leg under him as he walked, and then he’d be up on all four. It wasn’t long before he’d plop back to his usual front-leg scooting, but even those short moments were cause for applause. However, he still wasn’t progressing as fast as most puppies with swimmer’s syndrome.

It seemed, as Tina and the rest of the veterinary team discussed Sweet Baby James’ condition, that it was possible his mobility issues could be more long-term than originally expected. There was a chance it could be lifelong. But he was otherwise healthy and clearly very happy. They agreed there was no reason to put off placing him in a home.

It would take a home with people who were comfortable with his condition and who didn’t mind if he might always need a cart to get around. But it didn’t take long to find such a family. Sweet Baby James’ future was already looking brighter.

Homeward bound

Pretty quickly, Sweet Baby James outgrew his first cart. With his huge paws and his continuing growth spurts, it was bound to happen eventually — and all signs point to him becoming a big boy. With a size up, however, his new chariot got him right back out to play just in time for his debut as an adoptable pup.

[FAQs About Dog Wheelchairs]

With his sweet face and charming personality, he got a lot of attention from families looking for a new addition. But his continued care seemed a bit daunting for most — at least until Kayden Cattrell and his mother, Tiffany, spotted him on the Best Friends website.

“We did a virtual meet and greet to discuss his prognosis and what that might look like in the future because they wanted to know everything before they came and got him,” Tina explains. Kayden and Tiffany took everything in stride, and soon they were on their way from Las Vegas to southern Utah to meet Sweet Baby James. Just like that, he had a home.

His latest cart went home with him to carry him along until it’s time for another upgrade.  And he still regularly goes for acupuncture, laser, and hydro therapies with his new vet in Vegas, while his people keep up with his physical therapy at home.

It’s been a long journey, and there’s still a ways to go. But Sweet Baby James is getting stronger every day. And he has his family and friends to support him the whole way there.

Sweet Baby James the puppy yawning
Photo by Molly Wald

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