Reality Bites – A Year of Art, Wolf Problems and Hard Decisions

2018 has, for many people I know myself included, been a really tough year. In terms of family, we’ve been through a lot of hard times, worst than most, and survived it, though it’s fair to say that my family now is considerably smaller. That means that close family friends we’ve had for years, and in some cases my entire life, really do mean the world to us! ❤

I learnt years ago that family is not about blood, it’s about who loves you unconditionally and who you love unconditionally, about special friends, people you can rely on in good times and bad and people you’d do anything for. I’d jump in front of a bullet for either of my darling Goddaughters and would do anything for my lovely supportive mates in deepest darkest Wales who I feel such a kinship with.

So when we faced the prospect of losing several very close and dear family friends to various cancers, including my lovely Godmother (who thankfully beat all the odds and the grim prognosis she was given); it makes you reassess things and clarify what is really important – a case of “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”.

While I’m able to produce a lot of high quality art relatively quickly, something I admit has always come easily to me, I must stop beating myself up for being less prolific in my writing. As much as I love writing and it’s always been a part of who I am, it does take a greater toll on my health and tends to burn me out quite badly.

Part of recovering from illness is being honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do and not castigating yourself for your limitations. Too many of us are our worst critics and being too critical of oneself can be tantamount to creative paralysis!

So despite being the world’s slowest writer (George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothing on me!) I’m determined not to spend 2019 procrastinating over how slow I am. I WILL finish Book 2 and Book 3 and finish the series, but I’ll have to do that at a pace I can cope with. Ironically, I actually have two brand new short novellas out, A Friendship Forged and The Siege of Kallorm, published by Grimbold Books on December 1st 2018, which are set before the events in my novel White Mountain, so at least that’s something new for my incredibly patient and loyal fans. 😀 ❤

This year it’s been great to see my illustration business take off and how ridiculously busy I’ve been with commissions, but the dominating factor has been the sadness surrounding one of my four wolfies becoming disabled. Anyone that knows me, knows how important my boys are to me, I’m called the ‘Mistress Of Wolves’ for a reason! So facing a horrible inherited disease that has no cure, that we can do nothing about and that is always fatal, Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), has been a devastating blow. 😦 My two white German Shepherds turned 9 years in June, not exactly old dogs, but long before that my beloved Tolly was diagnosed with DM.  😦  We’ve spent thousands we can’t afford on trying to fight this horrific disease but to no avail. The only comfort we have is the fact that we’ve tried our very best even using the latest cutting edge veterinary techniques like Platelet Rich Plasma to help combat this disease. It’s been heartbreaking to see Tolly’s startlingly swift decline over the year from running around in the snow in February to being unable to walk or stand by the end of August when he lost the use of his back legs completely and had to have a doggie wheelchair. We now face another devastating realisation that his biological brother, Korrun, is also now showing clear signs of having DM too. 😦

In a strange way, it was Tolly’s illness that pushed me onto creating more artwork this year (to pay for extortionate vet bills) and was the catalyst to me eventually opening my first Etsy Shop – Sophie’s Artisan Arts, which has really helped since setting it up in July. The highlight of the year though was being a shortlisted ‘Best Artist’ in the 2018 British Fantasy Awards and being an Artist-In-Residence for Dan Holloway‘s fabulous Oxford University funded game, Mycelium, which was launched in October and for which I created all the artwork (50 images in total). Still so proud to be involved in such an amazing project.

The other unsaid thing, which will remain unsaid by me for a while until I’m ready to talk about it, has also been all consuming this year. I’ve battled it alone as I just haven’t been in a place where I feel comfortable sharing it with anyone or asking for help (something I’ve always been bad at).

What the future brings, I don’t know…lol, but my life has certainly never followed a conventional path! 😀

Even when I was a kid I knew that certain paths were not for me. I never wanted that fantasy princess day, walking down the aisle in a white dress, centre of attention, to exchange one man’s name for another. Hell no. I know it works for most people, so good for them, but it’s not for me. I’m a great believer in personal freedom and in everyone choosing the path that suits them best rather than ‘doing the norm’. Life’s too short to waste it following someone else’s idea of how to live rather than what works for you and makes you happy.

With that in mind…I’ve decided NOT to make any New Year resolutions. 😀

2019 will bring what it will bring. I have aspirations I’d like to achieve, but I know life rarely follows the route you think it will, so I’m just going to plod on, try to learn to say “NO” to people when I know I don’t have time to do something (rather than killing myself to get it done in time) and just ‘roll with the punches’!

So…Happy New Year everyone, I hope 2019 brings you happiness and peace in whatever form that means to YOU.

😀 ❤ xxxx

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Mistress of Wolves – the pleasures and pains of having wolfies!

I’ll be writing a blog post about making a living as an artist and my glacial progress on the writing front, but this really is a post for all of you who have fur babies, those four-legged members of the family who are so much more than ‘just a pet’, and the emotional challenges that brings.

This will also, hopefully, be an informative post for those who are dealing with the dreaded degenerative myelopathyDM (previously called CDRM – canine degenerative radiculomyelopathy) a horrendous progressive inherited disease of the spinal cord similar to multiple sclerosis (MS) in humans and which tragically has no cure at the moment. 😦 DM is caused through a breakdown of the myelin sheath protecting the neurons of the spinal cord. The cause of the demyelination itself is unclear, though it is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. 😦

As many of you know, I have four beautiful wolf babies, my two 8yr old White German Shepherds, Tolly/Tollam (our long haired boy) and his brother Korrun (short haired) + my two 4yr old Alaskan Malamute brothers, (big) Bere (our 65kg white bundle of gorgeousness) and his brother Fenn (the darkest of our handsome boys).

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love them (and I don’t care how sad that sounds!) 😀 Basically it’s a love-in at our house with them kissing and licking each other all the time and me if I’m not quick enough to avoid the occasional tongue in my ear! Eeeew! 😀

That’s not to say life is perfect. Anyone who knows malamutes knows they’re the toughest most stubborn breed to train (being the nearest dog breed to wolves) and my two are definitely Houdini’s at exploring, escaping through hedges and fences and squeezing through impossibly small places (the sole reason we had to fence in the entire stream!), not to mention being natural-born hunters so all the wildlife in our garden must beware. Cheeky boys! 😀

2 years ago we noticed that our big Alaskan Malamute, Bere, was suddenly losing weight despite having a ravenous appetite and had very loose stools. We didn’t wait, we saw the vet straight away and did a ton of research (including finding out about a cutting edge Bristol University study) and found out that he had EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) a nasty inherited disease where the dog’s own pancreas stops working and doesn’t produce the enzymes needed for digestion and breaking down food. It’s a horrible condition where basically the dog starves to death from the inside as they eat and eat and eat but nothing is absorbed and just passes through. I came across a lot of owners who, on finding out the diagnosis, had their dogs put down. 😦 Sorry, but that ain’t us, we fight for our family and we weren’t going to just let Bere die. Lol, I’m nothing if not tenacious! Long story short, we found a solution, by liquidating pigs pancreas (a natural substitute which is full of those missing enzymes) and mixing it with every meal, Bere went from 40kg to 65kg! Although he has the condition for life, he couldn’t be happier or healthier now. No-one would ever know there was anything wrong with him. It really was like watching a miracle, and yes, a hell of a lot of daily hard work and expense, but he’s so worth it. 🙂 ❤

Then I have my two German Sheps who were rescues which, despite being amazing with wildlife, explains a lot of their social anxieties around people particularly strangers. From the little information we were given by the rescue centre, the RSPCA rescued their mum (who died shortly after) and the whole litter of 10 from what sounded like an awful puppy farm. My views on greedy unscrupulous people, who usually have no qualifications, formal training or morals for that matter, and who are just into using animals to make money, are pretty stringent. I think they’re the lowest of the low basically, often breeding 4 or more litters from a single dog too old to have anymore pups, to squeeze as much money out of them as they can, and yes, sadly, often breeding all sorts of nasty inherited diseases too, which lead to heartbreak for the animal and their owners. 😦

Sadly this time we’ve come up against one of those insidious diseases that we can’t solve – degenerative myelopathy (DM), an awful debilitating progressive spinal cord condition inherited by those carrying the DM gene and most associated with German Shepherds (in fact it used to be called the German Shepherd disease!), that leads to paralysis and sadly kills 100% of those afflicted with it. Tragically at the moment there is NO cure. 😦

We are utterly devastated that our beloved Tolly looks like he has it. 😦 It came out of the blue too which has made this even more difficult. Over Christmas I noticed a slight tremor in his hind legs. We weren’t unduly worried though, our boys do so much running around we’ve often had the odd sprain. But in January Tolly’s hind legs were noticeably shaky and weak, we contacted the vets and were initially told just to monitor him as there were no signs of pain – thankfully that is the ONLY positive thing about DM in that it is a non-painful condition. By February though he was dragging his back paws, particularly on the left side, and his hind legs were crossing over and collapsing on him once or sometimes twice a day. He is still very mobile though, still running brilliantly and is as active as ever, but after resting or sleeping, that’s when you see the back legs go – this apparently is the early stages of DM. Also, Tolly’s two middle claws on both his back feet are also worn down where he has dragged them.

To say we have researched the hell out of degenerative myelopathy would be an understatement. We’ve combed sources, websites, blogs, joined Facebook groups on the subject, sent countless emails off etc etc. So far, all evidence points to DM being an incurable fatal disease with little to no hope once a dog has it. Yes, some dogs have lived for several years with the condition, using mobility carts when their back legs give out on them, which we ourselves will do when the time comes, but in every single case the same inevitable outcome – death. 😦

Tolly is only 8yrs old, and we’re utterly heartbroken for us and him. Worse still, as DM is a hereditary disease, we think his brother Korrun may have it too as we’ve noticed a slight tremor in his hind legs! 😦 xxx

It is true that other conditions like slipped discs, arthritis and hip dysplasia which do cause pain, can have similar signs to DM and that often to gain an actual diagnosis of DM all other conditions have to be ruled out first. But we know our dogs so well, as much as I wish it wasn’t DM, we’re 99% sure it is. 😦

So, what can you do when faced with an incurable fatal disease? –  Fight! Fight like hell against it!

These are just a few of the things you can do if you think your dog has degenerative myelopathy:

  1. Get a DNA test done (which we’re doing), which can be either through a blood test or mouth swab test. Although a DNA test cannot definitively show if a dog has DM it will show if they are carriers of the faulty DM gene. If they are, then there’s a good chance they have or may develop the disease. If they are not carrying the DM gene then they CANNOT have DM, so it’s definitely worth getting a test and it’s a whole lot cheaper than an MRI/CT scan. DNA tests are generally covered by pet insurance too, but do check first.
  2. Daily exercise is key. Lack of exercise does NOT cause degenerative myelopathy, that’s a completely inaccurate wife’s tale, it is a genetic inherited condition and only dogs carrying the gene may develop it. BUT, daily exercise will hugely help keep slow down the progression of the disease and will aid in your dog’s mobility. I’ve been doing daily runs with Tolly, circuits around our 2 acre garden as well as weaving exercises around the trees. I would recommend avoiding walking on pavements and roads as this will further damage those worn down nails, walking on grass, gravel, sand (different textures is important) but they’ll also be softer on their feet.
  3. Daily leg stretches and massages. I don’t know if these actually help but Tolly certainly loves them and it helps you to feel the muscle mass in their legs, it’s also good to push against/put pressure on their paws/pads.
  4. As advised by the vet, have your pet walk on a variety of surfaces, spiky, smooth, textured, rough, etc., this will encourage the signals from the feet along the spine to the brain and encourage them to pick up their feet a bit more. I’ve done this in the past by placing socks on his feet too.
  5. Hydrotherapy – helps mobility and limb ataxia, eases any pain from related arthritis and problems caused by DM like sprains and is a great exercise for dogs as it supports their weight. BUT, it is very pricey. Our pet insurance will only cover this to £500 so it may well be worth finding your own alternatives – we’ll be taking Tolly for walks through the stream that runs by our house, which is also good for the different textures (sand, gravel, stone, weeds) under foot.
  6. There are no medicinal cures for DM yet but daily supplements and vitamins help hugely in the general health & mobility of your dog and can help alleviate some of the symptoms (the below are for UK residents USA residents can find these from other outlets):
  • Vitamin B complex (100mg) (B12 + B6) (found in Vetzyme products UK)
  • Vitamin E (1000 – 2000mg) (found in Vetzyme products UK)
  • Vitamin C (anti-oxidant 1000 – 2000mg) (VetUK joint supplement)
  • Selenium (works with Vitamin E) no more than 200µg a day
  • Omega 3 (either fish oil, ground flax seeds or fish products are also very rich in these) (Vetzyme high strength product UK)
  • MSM (ProTreat and Vetzyme high strength) MSM is a strong antioxidant, capable of binding and inactivating harmful free radicals. MSM is also a potent anti-inflammatory for autoimmune reactions, it also crosses the blood brain barrier and allows nerve cells to excrete products
  • Turmeric is a great detoxifier (not tablets for humans as these are too strong, use VetUK as these joint supplements are specifically for dogs)
  • Glucosamine and Chondroitin sulphate (VetUK, ProTreat and Vetzyme have these)
  • Nutritional yeast as well.
  • Raw garlic is antibacterial and antifungal as well as having an anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic. Add in ginger for it’s anti-emetic and calming effect along with mustard which improves digestion and bowel function.
  1. Other alternatives to try:
  • CBD oil  – (the legal cannabis oil, stronger than the hemp oil you can buy in supermarkets for cooking but as CBD oil is VERY expensive, if you can’t afford it then please do buy the Hemp Oil). We’ve ordered this but not tried it yet, but from all the things we’ve heard, this can really help relax your dog, help with any pain caused through twisting limbs/sprains and is an antioxidant and is great at combating autoimmune associated disorders.
  • Aminocaproic Acid (EACA)now this is the closest we’ve found to finding a cure! Unfortunately for UK residents it’s nigh on impossible to get over here (but we are still trying and I will post here any that we find!). This amazing USA Vet, Dr Roger Clemmons, is an expert in DM in German Shepherds and from his WestLab facilities in Florida he has had amazing results with aminocaproic acid in 80% of his patients where it slowed down the progression of the disease and even halted it! Be aware, this is extremely expensive!
  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC) – this (easier to get in the UK) was also the other medication Dr Clemmons used with aminocaproic acid for the best results.

So, at the moment we are fighting the good fight. We seem to have swayed our at first very reluctant vet (our usual amazing vet is on maternity leave) to look into aminocaproic acid in the UK as a treatment for him. We have Tolly on all those daily supplements and vitamins above, we’ve ordered the CBD oil which is on its way and will be having the vet do a DNA test hopefully next week, while we are rigorously exercising him every day, doing leg stretches and massages and generally doing everything we can to help him and slow this hideous disease. It’s the very least we can do for our darling Tolly.

We’ve even been looking into stem cell research as some progress has come through recently in regards to MS which is so so similar to DM.

So there you go. For any wolfie lovers out there facing this same awful journey, I hope some of the info on here has been helpful. I would recommend joining the Degenerative Myelopathy group on Facebook, which has been a great source of information particularly for breaking down the different stages of the disease so people know what to look out for and can prepare themselves for what is to come.

Information is always power.

For those that are owners of healthy doggies, just give them a tight squeeze and hug and keep your fingers crossed that you never have to go through this.

May the force be with Tolly and any other wolfies fighting this. We love you! ❤ xxxxxx