Not quite right ... veterinary head trauma's long-term aftermath
I finally adopted him! "Gaston" — so named for his arrival during the on- and off-again threat that was this summer’s eponymous hurricane — is now a permanent member of my household. Head tilt, neurogenic dry eye, not-quite-right-ism and all!
In case you missed it or don’t remember, Gaston (pronounced Gos-TONE) was the stray min-pin who was injured by a hit-and-run driver and scooped up by a kind soul who happened upon the accident. Bleeding profusely from the nose and suffering obvious head trauma as he was, I figured he had maybe a 50 percent chance of making someone a nice dumb pet.
So you know, severe head trauma patients usually don’t fully recover, and when they do, "fully" generally means they barely know what their name sounds like or where they’re expected to piddle and poop.
Severe head trauma’s a downer.
But Gaston is different. He braved the odds and somehow eked out a recovery just under the skinny slope to the right of the bell curve. Which means he can walk, run, jump, bark, play, beg for food, chase a chicken, and learn to sit-stay-come. He can even manage a standing-leg pee with deadly aim. But I won’t lie and say he doesn’t fall over every once in a while, mid-stream.
No, he’s not perfect. That head tilt I mentioned up front? It’s pretty impressive. Yet standing still, it’s no biggie. You might even think he’s giving you that cute quizzical look I call the "pug tilt." It’s only when he runs that you start to get the impression that all is not right in his world. And the more you get to know him, the more you’ve got to wonder what else is "off" about him.
Because there’s a lot that's "off" about him.
No, he’s not dumb. In fact, he’s clearly smarter than my other two dogs (Vincent and Slumdog will never be poster children for impressive canine IQs). But he does have a odd way of reacting to things like sudden movements and sudden changes in light. Turn off the light while he’s in mid-run and he will run into a wall. Turn suddenly while he’s prancing around during his mealtime excitement phase and he will yelp and appear to fall over sans physical inducements. Indeed, he will vocalize — in excitement or out of fear — when there is any sudden change in his immediate environment. (He also "walks funny," over-extending his legs out, in what we call a hypermetric gait.)
Yet the problem, as I’ve come to understand it, has to do more with how he perceives the world than how he reacts to it — though his reactions are obviously my only measure of his perception.
Which raises the obvious metaphysical questions: Do animals perceive what we perceive? Do we all share the same version of perception? Is my blue the same as your blue? … as your dog’s blue?
If so, does it not stand to reason that animals experience the aftermath of head trauma in much the same way? Trouble speaking or ambulating is what we would expect of any human after a massive injury to the head. An impaired understanding of language or even of the more basic sensory inputs (vision, hearing, etc.) is common as well.
And yet — crucial as this issue may seem to you and me in light of our increased understanding of head trauma in sports and war — veterinary medicine does not yet seek to distinguish between different degrees of head trauma when it comes to its lasting effects (or that of neurologic disease, in general). It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that we don’t think there’s anything we can do about it … so why the need?
I got to thinking about this subject last weekend when my boyfriend downloaded an electronic copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to our shared Kindle account. Though I’ve not read through this popular book that relates "clinical tales" of human neurology, I’ve already taken issue with his preface. In it, the author and physician Dr. Oliver Sacks offers us this all too common take on the non-human brain:
…I am equally interested in diseases and people … am equally drawn to the scientific and romantic, and continually see both in the human condition, not least in that quintessential human condition of sickness — animals get diseases, but only man falls radically into sickness.
So enamored is he with the concept of his human subject and his/her person-hood that he actually supports the historical description of the left brain as "the unique flower of human evolution." This is a backhanded condemnation of animal creativity, to my read, and one that fails in its ability to reflect the basic curiosity of a scientist. After all, what could be more compelling to a clinical neurologist than to observe a personality-depriving organic disease across the species divide?
To Dr. Sacks and others who would exclude animals from their scientific and/or philosophic consideration in such a seemingly knee-jerk fashion, I would argue that there is always value to be found in studying the intersection of behavior and neurology in non-human animals.
And just in case anyone needs some convincing, I can send them a video of one not-so-normal min-pin for their consideration.
Dr. Patty Khuly
P.S. - Some of you recently asked about Pinky. Pinky has found her forever home as of a few weeks ago. She's doing very well. We miss her mightily, however, and regret that we were unable to adopt her. Sadly, pit bulls being what they are — namely, illegal in Miami-Dade County — we were unable to offer her a place in our home. That, and the chicken-catching thing. But who's counting chickens, anyway? ;-)
Pic of the day: "Colorsplashed Gaston" by Me