Pictured is Aladdin in his prime.
I’ve mentioned a few times my horse was in Equine Intensive Care for 9 weeks. Well, today I’ve decided to tell the story… I held off telling it because he is still not right. He is still off. But, he isn’t dying anymore. And, he’s pretty happy considering. So for that, I want to spread the word in case this ever happens to a horse you know.
A DISEASE SO RARE…
“A disease so rare, it doesn’t even have a name.” That’s what they said when they finally figured it out. Let me tell you, if it doesn’t have a name, the Veterinarians and Specialists will have a hard time diagnosing it for obvious reasons. And, as our Lead Surgeon exclaimed when he got the muscle biopsy information back, “This one is for the books!” Sigh.
Here is a picture of Aladdin just as I was starting to notice a problem. The first sign that something was wrong was he rapidly lost the muscle tone around his top line. I was alarmed to say the least. The vet at the time said it was old age and probably Cushings. Well, he was only 16. And, he didn’t have Cushing. So, they then generalized it as Glucose Intolerance and suggested I feed him low carb Senior and simple grass hay.
OK. But, no result. He was getting weaker and losing more tone.
Let me describe Aladdin. He is a Morgan gelding who carted me around safely for 12 years (still waiting to find another like him…). At the time before the onset of his illness, he had a big gut, no matter what I fed him or how often I rode. He generally had a cresty neck and his skin was chronically itchy. He wasn’t always this way, but for his years 12-16, he was. During his 16th year, I moved with him three times because I forced him to go with me when I followed a dream. Looking back, I’m sure this created more stress than being separated from me. For many reasons, I should have left him home. I see that now. Anyway, during this third move, he was due for his Spring shots. I used a new vet in the area. That vet gave Aladdin way too many shots at one time, IMHO. His neck swelled up like a balloon and a month after those series of shots is when I noticed the severely atrophied top line.
Aladdin and I moved back to our own ranch within 8 months of the onset. He was still eating well. His eyes were still bright. But, he kept losing muscle, energy and weight. I had a few vets look at him by then and they all said he was just older and probably had an underlying insulin based issue. I accepted that. However, we kept scratching our heads. Aladdin was getting worse. He shuffled around like an old man, his sheath was severely swollen, his skin irritated, his neck cresty, and he just looked generally hang-dog and like a 30 year-old horse. We took blood and everything was fine. We did a Cushings test again — all clear. We were concerned but really had no idea what to do.
One morning in early December, Aladdin was now 17, I found him cast in his stall. Except when I looked more closely, he wasn’t cast at all. He just couldn’t get up. I called the vet and we got him up. And, Aladdin walked off as if nothing had happened. So, we thought it was odd but alright. Nope. Not at all. The next morning I found him down on my front lawn. He had been paddling for hours and had slammed his face into the ground so many times that he was swollen and bloody.
I made the decision to bring him to the nearby (but fantastic) equine hospital, Loomis Basin.
Immediately, they ran every test possible. He had no impactions, nothing showed up on any blood tests, he didn’t have Cushings, his sugars were fine, his organs were good, nothing showed up on any X-rays, he had a chest and belly Cat Scan, they brought in specialist… NOTHING. There was nothing wrong with this horse but he was definitely very ill.
On the fifth day, Aladdin manifested a heart murmur that was severe. He had constant EKGs and within three days that stabilized, mysteriously, and never came back. Another oddity, when they tried to do a belly tap, they didn’t have a needle long enough to get through the dense fat pad on his belly. Again, very odd. Aladdin would hardly eat. He would not lay down – ever. The hospital had 24 hour watch on him and he never, NEVER, laid down. He was exhausted and he was dying slowly. The vets consulted with every specialist they could find across the country and did every obscure test. With all of the great minds in equine medicine intrigued and thinking, no one had any idea what to do.
After observing Aladdin for a few weeks now, Dr. Fielding at Loomis had a hunch it had to do with his muscles and took three biopsies to send to Davis for testing. You can see the patches in Aladdin’s coat. Then, we waited. It was Christmas. Things moved slowly at the lab. We were all distraught. As we waited we watched him decline.
As an aside, I need to tell this part of it, too. I visited Aladdin on Christmas day. He was being walked when I arrived. To my surprise, one of the orderlies had braided ribbons in his tail and throughout his mane. I loved that. Here was this very, very sick gelding walking around slowly with bells and ribbons all over him. It broke my heart but also made me really smile. No one was watching this orderly… the whole hospital had the day off practically, and she didn’t know I was coming. Yet, she did this for him. I loved her for that. They care at Loomis.
BACK TO “THE IDEA”
Anyway, a few weeks into January, we still had no lab results and Aladdin was just barely hanging on. The poor gelding had not laid down for the 8 weeks he was there. He knew…
LAST DITCH EFFORT
Finally, Dr. Fielding could wait no longer and he called me to suggest that we treat Aladdin on his hunch because we might lose him before we had lab results. He said that we’d know in two days whether this was a good thing and we’d know even sooner if it was bad. We had come this far. Why not?
Dr. Fielding had a hunch that Aladdin’s body was over compensating or attacking itself. He felt Aladdin had some auto-immune disease that was inflaming his muscles. So, Dr’s idea was to get him on steroids to stop his body’s immune system. Aladdin was given a massive dose of Prednisolone. The next day, he was slightly better. Dr. Fielding kept the dosing high and we continued. The following day, he was even better. And, on the third day, they put him outside in the sunshine. He tried to trot. Hallalujah! It was working!
It was then that the lab results came back. The technician from Davis called Dr. Fielding and said that she had to call because this was very rare AND the most profound case of inflammatory neuritis she had ever seen or even heard about.
In layman’s terms, that means that Aladdin was in constant severe pain. His nerves were all inflamed — everywhere — and this created secondary atrophy in his muscles. When I asked the HOW, WHAT, WHY questions, there were no answers. This had only been documented once before. There were no answers.
After a week of steady but slow improvement, they sent him home with me.
Aladdin steadily improved. He gained his muscle tone back, although not perfectly. He still has some balance issues, which could be from damaging his nerves from thrashing about while on the ground. However, he no longer has a swollen sheath, he no longer has that huge fat pad on his belly, he no longer has a cresty neck, a heart murmur and he doesn’t appear to be an ancient horse anymore and no one know why. The only thing we do know is that this medicine regime is sustaining him. If we take him off of a now lower dose, he falls back into this syndrome. And, if I take him off of the doxycycline, he spikes a very high fever. No one knows why. So, we just don’t change anything. We keep him on his meds and cross our fingers.
I’M NO VET, BUT…
So, my deduction is that Aladdin had a low grade something that gave him simple but manageable symptoms (swollen sheath, cresty neck, thick belly). But, when he was over vaccinated, his immune system went into overdrive. (No vet will agree here on what started his neuritis.) Now, Aladdin only gets immunization for something that will kill him. Otherwise, no vaccines. In fact all my horses don’t get vaccines unless it is for something that will kill them. I’m no vet, this is just my response.
As you can see in the pictures, he recovered miraculously. The vets are busy writing this up for their journals. They all have said that not often would they have the time to figure this out with a horse who was so sick. So, most likely, there will not be many more cases since these really sick, undiagnosed horses are just euth’d. They still wonder if this is an emerging sickness or a rare disease. Only time will tell.
Here is a picture I took of Aladdin today when he was sleeping and I disturbed him. He is fairly healthy, has a good winter coat, has muscle tone, is eating and is muddy – which I love because that means he is laying down! But, truth to tell, he isn’t “right” and probably never will be again. His own body did major damage to itself. His nerves are not firing absolutely normally and it shows.
But for me, every time I look at him, every time he guzzles his meds and sniffs my hair as a thanks, I think to myself, “That’s what it is all about… another special day with my boy who has been so good to me for all these years…”
That is worth it.
*Aladdin showed neurological symptoms about a year later. Sadly, that outcome of his necropsy showed that Aladdin had brain and cervical spine cancer. The steroids that we had been giving him for the above issue was actually keeping the cancer at bay. Once we backed him off of his extremely high dose of steroids, the cancer took over. Aladdin passed mostly peacefully – I was kicking and screaming. His blog is linked here.