First, Toby DaCosta lost his voice.
Then the five-year-old Finnish Lapphund lost his energy, and seemingly, his will to enjoy life.
Toby’s veterinarian placed his symptoms into VIN (Veterinary Information Network), a worldwide online medical forum, and asked for a consultation. Dr. Brendan McKiernan, a retired faculty member from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, was the only professional to connect the dots and diagnose the laryngeal web condition that was causing the former champion show dog acute distress.
So impressed was Toby’s owner, Nancy DaCosta, that she drove the 1,225 miles from their home in Albuquerque to Urbana—twice—to have him treated here.
International Respiratory Expert
“When the question posted on VIN, everyone kept saying, ‘You need to see Brendan McKiernan,’” Nancy recalls. “That started our journey. That’s how I met Dr. McKiernan and Dr. [Heidi] Phillips, who were both just phenomenal.”
You see, Dr. McKiernan isn’t your run-of-the-mill retiree. On the Illinois faculty nearly three decades, he is a former director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and an internationally renowned expert in respiratory diseases in cats and dogs. So when Nancy began to suspect Toby had breathing issues, both were fortunate that Toby’s veterinarian, Dr. Brianna Wildgoose-Lister, knew where to turn.
Nancy, a retired attorney, participates in dog agility tournaments, which she describes as “a sport that middle-aged, dog-crazy old ladies with no kids indulge in.” She previously competed with a relatively new breed, a Eurasier—and still owns one, 12-year-old Jin, among the four dogs in her pack—but “after reading up on Finnish Lapphunds and the fact that they’re bred to herd reindeer, I thought I might like to work with one on agility.”
During a 2014 California vacation, Nancy arranged to visit a woman who bred Lapphunds. “I saw Toby and said, ‘Who is that?’” she recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s Toby. He was my stud, but I’ve got a new import and I’m looking to place him in some kind of performance home.’
“He was playing by himself in his kennel run, throwing a ball in the air and catching it, and it was clear to me this dude wanted to do more than just hang out. He was done being a froufrou show dog. The rest is history.”
It was more like a mystery, after Nancy adopted Toby.
Spotting Laryngeal Web Problem
“As soon as I put him in the car from California he panted a lot, but I thought it was just stress,” she remembers. “Then I got him to Albuquerque, where our elevation is like 5,600 feet. I thought he’d want to play ball, but after three or four throws he would lie down and he’d be done. I figured it was the altitude or he was a little overweight, because otherwise he’s a very healthy dog.”
It used to be you always knew where Toby was because you could hear him panting. Now … he’s a total stealth dog.
When his breathing didn’t improve, Nancy brought Toby to Dr. Wildgoose-Lister to have his throat scoped. The vet placed her findings, a video of Toby, and his history on VIN, and Dr. McKiernan quickly spotted one factor that could be to blame:
Years earlier, by a previous owner, Toby had been debarked.
“I’m not going to judge debarking,” Nancy says. “I’ve never had a dog debarked, but I know there are people who, due to their situation, feel like they have no other choice.” However, in Toby’s case the surgery left scar tissue that healed together and formed a laryngeal web, severely restricting his breathing.
Dr. Phillips, a faculty member and board-certified small animal surgeon who trains others in microsurgery techniques, performed two corrective operations on Toby. “I feel very comfortable with surgery in the larynx, but I had not seen this particular case before,” she says. “However, Dr. McKiernan had. He’s a professor emeritus here, so I’m able to draw upon his expertise.”
“I did assist in both surgeries,” Dr. McKiernan says, “but mostly I was just looking over her shoulder, helping her.”
The procedure was tricky, Dr. Phillips notes, “because you have to remove scar tissue in such a way that you don’t stimulate it to make scar tissue again. That’s hard, because any time you cut tissue you’re going to create a raw surface. And every time Toby breathes there’s going to be turbulence in that area.”
Laser Surgery, Chemo Drug
In the first surgery, Dr. McKiernan was optimistic that simply cutting through the center of scar tissue would resolve the problem. However, when the scar began to redevelop three months later, Nancy and Toby returned to Urbana. The second time, Drs. Phillips and McKiernan employed a diode laser to cut out blocks of tissue around Toby’s scar, then applied a chemical called Mitomycin-C.
“It’s an old chemotherapy drug, used only in rare occasions now and not developed for dogs,” Dr. McKiernan says, “but it has the effect of inhibiting scar tissue, so we used it.”
The result? “Toby is doing great, as far as we can tell,” says Nancy. “It used to be you always knew where Toby was because you could hear him panting. Now he’ll jump up on the bed and lay his head on the pillow next to us while we’re sleeping, and we don’t even hear him! We wake up to a cold nose every day. He’s a total stealth dog.”
Photos and video courtesy of Nancy DaCosta