It started with a limp. So many veterinary problems can.
Carol and Greg Mann in Indiana noticed their latest boxer, Dylan, was having a little trouble with his front legs on walks, so in the summer of 2019 they took him to their general practice veterinarian and then to a specialty hospital. They were told there was a neck issue and Dylan would need an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.
Out of a list of possible veterinary hospitals equipped with an MRI machine, VCA Advanced Veterinary Care Center in Fishers, IN jumped out at them, according to Carol, even though it was more than 100 miles away.
“We’d taken our cocker spaniel there, and we loved the neurologist Dr. [Andrea] Sangster,” she says.
Dylan’s First Surgery and Radiation
So, in fall 2019, Dylan was sedated and received diagnostic testing, which included chest X-rays, an abdominal ultrasound and the MRI, which showed a growth on the spinal cord. The Manns agreed to let neurologist Dr. Sangster, DVM, MS, ACVIM, operate to investigate and possibly cut some or all of the tumor away.
As Dr. Sangster had feared, though, during the surgery in November, she discover that the cancerous tumor (meningioma) had been entwined with the spinal cord, and she couldn’t remove all of it. The next step? Radiation therapy to try to shrink that tumor.
Oncologist Dr. Kerri Rechner, DVM, DACVR, scheduled Dylan for 10 sessions of radiation, pinpointing the tumor’s exact location over two weeks. The Manns would drive him in on Mondays and pick him up on Fridays.
That first surgery and the radiation did the trick.
“Dylan recovered remarkably well,” Carol says. “You’d never know what he’d gone through. He was back to his normal, joyful lovable self.”
Greg said everyone was ecstatic: “We were so happy, hugging Dr. Sangster, telling her she gave us our dog back. He had that same wiggly butt and his little boxer jump back.”
The doctors, however, told the Manns that a biopsy of the tumor showed it was a slow-growing—but growing—tumor, and eventually it would come back.
‘They Could See the Tumor Had Grown’
In 2020, Dylan wasn’t feeling himself again, according to Carol.
“He started limping again, but this time his head hung down, and you knew he wasn’t feeling good,” she says. “He wasn’t one to cry out or whine, but you could just tell from his behavior that he was in pain.”
So, it was back to Advanced Veterinary Care Center, and the team the Manns had fallen in love with already: “They knew everything about Dylan, and he was so comfortable with all that staff. They have hearts of gold down there.”
Unfortunately, this time the choice for care was harder, according to Carol.
“They could see the tumor had grown. We could do nothing and try to manage his discomfort, opt for radiation again, or try surgery,” she says. “But if we went with radiation, it wouldn’t be safe to try surgery again.”
The Manns decided to try for the best outcome, so Dr. Sangster again performed surgery in March 2021 to remove as much as the tumor as possible. During the procedure, she saw that part of the spinal cord was necrotic, undergoing irreversible damage from cell death in the tissues.
Four days after the surgery, the Manns finally got to see Dylan, and it was a different experience than the first surgery, according to Carol.
“He had some paralysis on the left side of his body,” she says. “And the only thing he could was lift his head.”
The veterinary team was diligently moving, cleaning him regularly “and loving on him,” she says. Doctors and technicians were moving his partially paralyzed legs manually to keep mobility and muscle mass.
Having gone through neurology and oncology already, this is when Dylan and the Manns met their third doctor—rehabilitation specialist Dr. Emily Talaga, DVM, CCRP—who would oversee Dylan’s hardest turnaround in his short life so far.
“Everyone started to believe in [Dylan] and his abilities early on in his rehabilitation, and eventually he believed in himself.”
Road to Rehabilitation
Veterinary technician Liv Rogowski knew that Dylan would have a fantastic chance at rehabilitation, because the Manns were so devoted: “I vividly remember that day last spring where Dylan was brought in on a gurney to the rehab room, because he couldn't walk. He was a couple days out from his surgery and was looking like the farthest thing from a spring chicken. Dr. Talaga's words were, ‘His owners want to do everything.’ And we did.”
At first, Dylan’s physical therapy meant he lived day in, day out, at the hospital, and Carol and/or Greg came every day to visit. The Manns were so appreciative, Rogowski remembers, and they’d bring donuts every Wednesday (making every Wednesday “Dylan Donut Wednesday”).
For a month, from March to April, Dr. Talaga says the rehabilitation team worked with Dylan seven days a week, one to two sessions a day.
“When we started, he was barely able to hold him head up and could only move one leg--the right front, and couldn't control it very well,” Dr. Talaga says.
First, the team helped Dylan to stand over a large, peanut-shaped exercise ball, and practice laying upright for short periods of time. They stimulated the nerves in his legs with vibration, touch and acupuncture.
“When he regained some movement in all his legs, we spent time in the underwater treadmill helping him to try walking,” Dr. Talaga says.
Three weeks after the surgery, Dr. Talaga gave the Manns information to buy, not just a two-wheeled cart to help with his back legs, but a four-wheeled cart that would make it easier for them to get this 90-pound around the house and into the backyard without carrying him.
Technicians would encourage him to crawl forward on tumbling or yoga mats, practice sitting, standing, and laying correctly, and get acclimated to four-wheel cart to support him while he tried walking.
Dylan in his cart and, eventually, Dylan up and moving on his own four legs again made him a bit of neighborhood celebrity for the Manns, who were dedicated to getting him all the exercise and outside time he needed to get healthy again. People would stop their cars and ask about the cart, and as Dylan’s conditions improved, celebrate his rehabilitation from afar.
“Carol would go behind him, to make sure he was staying in line and not getting off course, and I’d be running backwards up the sidewalk with a handful of chicken treats,” Greg says.
“He got a little stronger and more coordinated over time,” Dr. Talaga says. “Eventually he was walking without the cart."
The hospital grew attached to the hard-working, happy boxer, too. It was a joy to care for him and see him improve, says Dr. Talaga. When walking during his rehab appointments, Dylan would stop at every intersection and office door to see if any of his fans would give some pets.
He’d especially shine when the Manns would show up to get him, she says: “His best movement always came on Friday afternoons. He could tell when all his belongings were packed up and his harness was on that it was showtime. He would try to gallop to the front door as fast as he could, because the Manns would always park their car right outside the door waiting for him.”
The team took time to communicate regularly with the Manns during Dylan’s rehabilitation, sending photos of cuddles in his toughest moments right after his second surgery, a yearbook of pictures during care and after-care, and a picture immortalizing Dylan’s success story on the wall of their hospital.
“It’s a picture of Dylan,” Greg says. “And there’s a quote, ‘All things are possible. You will walk again, just like Dylan.’”
The Manns reciprocated by making and sharing T-shirts with the veterinary team that said, “Make it a Dylan day.” They responded by sending back pictures of all of them wearing those shirts.
Rogowski says Dylan’s recovery changed her forever: “Everyone started to believe in him and his abilities early on in his rehabilitation, and eventually he believed in himself. He ran, he played, he swam, and he jumped, all when statistics showed he might never walk again.”
Eventually, by October 2021, Dylan had tapered back to one rehab visit a week and was back at home full-time.
‘He Was Happy All the Way’
Dylan was an amazing success story, with his quick recovery from his first tumor surgery and radiation, and to his hard work and zest for life that carried him through a second surgery and months of rehabilitation.
In the end, however, the Manns always knew, from the first time Dr. Sangster told them about the tumor’s slow but continual path of growth, that Dylan’s life would be joyful but shorter than other boxers they'd had before.
“When things got really tough for us,” Greg says, “Carol and I would revisit our objective: we wanted Dylan to have quality of life, and only if that wasn’t possible, would be looking at the difficult decision to let him go.”
After his second surgery and rehabilitation, Dylan always seemed to be free from pain, but eventually he was more and more limited in what he could do and how he could move. The Manns and the veterinary team decided in January, as the boxer’s condition worsened, that compassionate euthanasia was the right thing to do for Dylan.
“He was happy all the way,” Greg says. “And we were the real winners, having 10 years of Dylan in our lives.”
Carol agrees, adding, “The team at Fishers always gave it to us straight and never let us down.”
Is your pet recovering from an injury? Healing from surgery? Living with a chronic condition? Veterinary rehabilitation can help your loved one achieve their best life. Learn more about our rehabilitation services – and find a VCA hospital near you – at our website.