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. ūüė¶ 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.¬†ūüė¶

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!) ūüėÄ 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! ūüėÄ

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! ūüėÄ

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. ūüė¶ 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. ūüôā ‚̧

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. ūüė¶

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. ūüė¶

We are utterly devastated that our¬†beloved Tolly looks like he has it. ūüė¶ 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. ūüė¶

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! ūüė¶ 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. ūüė¶

So, what can you do when faced with an incurable fatal disease? Р 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 200¬Ķg 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

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When time is the enemy – manically juggling!

Well it’s true to say that I started 2018 on the ground running – it’s been an utterly¬†manic year already and we’re only a few months in!

As with most people, I find myself constantly juggling. For me, working part time in a library, means juggling that with working full time as an illustrator, trying to find some time for writing and personal artwork, as well as home responsibilities, personal goals¬†(particularly for this year – more details later in the year on that one) and having four huge wolfies who require a LOT of time and attention. I’m not called the ‘Mistress of Wolves’ for nothing!

Cover artwork by Antonio Javier Caparo.

But recently even I admit that things have¬†been insane. Basically from November 2016 to now, I haven’t stopped. As the writing has taken a back seat, my illustrating has never been in more demand. After a couple of HarperCollins’s commissions and a hastily short deadline for Penguin Random House (for ‘The Mad Wolf’s Daughter’ by Diane Magras, published March 2018) and a¬†few individual commissions, I happily signed up for a very exciting and MASSIVE commission¬†funded by¬†Oxford University and created by writer, self-publishing guru¬†and Creative Thinking World Champion, Dan Holloway. Basically Dan has invented a brilliant new game, Mycelium’, as an amazing¬†training tool and fun game to promote and expand creative thinking. To say its clever and inventive, like it’s creator,¬†is a colossal understatement.

Dan Holloway is one of those rare people you only meet once in a blue moon, a true inspiration. I first knew of him as a fellow writer on the now defunct HarperCollins online writing site, Authonomy, then met him in the flesh at the second Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival¬†founded by Debbie Young.¬†Think of Elon Musk, Bob Dylan and Basquiat and you get close to how talented this chap is. He’s a huge brain, an amazing performance poet, writer and…well, in my opinion, a bit of a¬†genius!

Mycelium final logo which will be on the back of each card.

Anyway, he liked my artwork and wanted me to create the visuals for this amazing game, starting with producing 50 images for the first playing pack of cards. I can’t reveal the artwork I’ve done for this yet, but will as soon as I’m able. ūüėČ

So this is where the juggling really comes in,¬†with time becoming an enemy that you’re constantly chasing.

The irony is that ‘chasing time’ has become a bit of a metaphor for my life, particularly at the moment.¬†¬†Time has flown by so quickly and suddenly your life and life decisions are reduced down to a tiny window of opportunity in an alchemist’s grand experiment! Blink, and you’ll miss that window forever.

Although I’ve done allsorts of commissions and projects¬†which usually take a month to complete, due to fitting illustration work in with a job etc., I’ve never done 50 images for one project before. Gulp! Being the idiot optimist I am, the deadline seemed reasonable, 60 days for 50 images and small images too. Easy, eh? Lol, well of course, me being me, I just cannot rush through anything crap so I created 50 folders, one for each image and trawled through countless books and the internet gathering inspirational images for each piece of artwork before drawing them. Once drawn, they then had to be inked up in permanent ink and then hand painted.

It really has been one of the most amazing, inspiring, varied and challenging commissions I’ve ever done and I have loved every second of it BUT…being such a perfectionist I should have known that creating 50 pictures in only 60 days just wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, despite my very best efforts of time pacing, doing the more complicated images first, I only really realised the sheer amount of work involved when I was already halfway through the commission! My juggling skills were put to the test and I’m afraid they failed me entirely.

For the last 60 days my¬†four wolfies have not had much of a mum, my daily walks with them have all but stopped to just a few hours playing and exercising in the garden, my normal home chores have fallen by the wayside, my library job has, if I’m being honest, not had the best of me, I’ve been absent from all social media and friends and I’ve become somewhat of a stranger to sleep. But try as I have, to my own disappointment and for the first time, I missed my deadline. I was gutted, having worked so damn hard. Dan was wonderful of course and I’ve made¬†sure I’ve rewarded that kindness with awesome images, but yes, I was several weeks late in delivering all 50 finished painted images and only finally finished them a few days ago!

So what do you do when time becomes the enemy, when juggling manically still doesn’t work?

Lol, I really wouldn’t recommend what I have done several times now, drawing in bed on a light-box until 4 or 5am when you suddenly realise that it’s getting light outside and you haven’t slept at all!

The only thing I can think of to help pace your time, when you have an insane amount of things to do and no time to do them in, is, to be honest,¬†create a detailed colour coded weekly schedulebreaking your time into 2 hourly chunks, giving yourself time to eat, do chores, do housey things then back to work. As daft as¬†it seems, it really helps to organise you and¬†maximise productivity¬†from each time period.¬†I’ve also started using an alarm clock set in hour or 2 hour slots, trying to finish one section of work in that time frame before the buzzer goes!

I’m seriously not complaining here, I’m very thankful for all the work I get especially as I don’t advertise and¬†do recognise that it’s far better to be incredibly busy than to have time on your hands, but once, just once, I wish I really could stretch the space/time continuum! ūüėÄ

On a personal note too, I’ve spent the last year climbing Everest and trying to stretch time to achieve my goals. So yes, as much as we are powerless to stop the march of time, perhaps a healthier more mindful approach to the passing of time would be more beneficial to us all. As clich√©d as it is, we only have one life and it flies past so damn quickly that we owe it to ourselves to take stock and really notice what is happening around us.

Mindfulness has been a key word that has entered the zeitgeist in the last few¬†years, but the principles behind it can be applied to every area of our lives. As an M.E sufferer (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) it’s a very important concept that helps us to regulate our condition and pace ourselves and the daily tasks we do.

As someone who has been overweight for most of my adult life and has decided to make a permanent life change at last, having committed myself to losing weight and getting fitter (my Chris Pratt Challenge) Рmindfulness plays a key rolebeing aware and present in thought over everything you do. Being mindful of everything you put into your body so there is NO mindless snacking, everything is focused on, thought about.

The same too with life and time. Being mindful of your life, of each passing day, each hour, each minute, making you more aware of the choices you make, of the time you are using, of the time you have left.

Don’t sleep walk through your life. Be mindful of it.

So yes, being mindful and applying that to this commission also helped, particularly latterly, in making sure that the work I did was not only the best it could be but that I was working as productively as possible in each timed slot.

In an age of such mindlessness – Trump bigotry & idiocy, Brexit xenophobia & lies, political cruelty, government corruption and inherent unfairness – being mindful has never been more important!

‚̧ xxx

 

Face to face: face those fears and show them the door!

We are all in our own way battling fears and self doubts, about decisions made, life choices, jobs, creative endeavours, pretty much everything. Yes there are those lucky few who sail through life never second guessing anything they say or do, who have unswerving self-confidence regardless of any reasons pro or against – well good for them. But for the rest of us mere mortals, especially those of us who are pursuing a creative career, writers, illustrators, actors, singers etc., crippling self-doubt kind of comes with the territory. ūüė¶

The fact that you have chosen an entirely subjective career path which by the nature of it, is open to a great deal of criticism, speculation and even ridicule, hardly helps. Neither does the fact that most creative people tend to be very sensitive – almost a precursor to being a writer, poet or artist of any kind.

Pencil portrait of Richard E Grant

So, apart from navigating the choppy waters of crippling self-doubt and external criticism, sometimes, just sometimes you have to man (or woman) up and face your fears.

For me, some of that is allowing myself to be bold enough to actually set goals for myself. To say that this year I am going to achieve ___________.

Setting goals is a scary business, it’s laying your cards face up on a table and saying to the world – this is what I’m going to do and risk that ridicule and criticism if you don’t manage it.

But, as a brilliant writer friend of mine has said, someone who has ambitions and rightly so (watch this space people), what’s holding you back? Face those fears, fly your flag, pin your colours to the main brace and declare “I am here, and here is what I am going to do! I WILL achieve this!”

img_0129

So, I am risking¬†the embarrassment of setting out my goals for this year – there is no try, there is only do or do not: ūüėÄ

  1. Completely finish writing and edit Darkling Rise (the very long awaited sequel to White Mountain that has taken me FAR too long to write!).
  2. Lose a minimum of two stone (hopefully three) for long-term health benefits and a major life commitment I have made to myself (before I’m too old for it to work) – I’ll be less cryptic when I’m nearer to achieving this goal.
  3. Continue writing short stories and my dark novel, Ravenwing (hopefully to a first draft stage).
  4. Continue building my illustration business. So far I haven’t had to advertise as people have been approaching me, but I need to step up my game and get more commissions going and widen my reputation.*
  5. Build a stronger online presence, as my mate calls it, sort out my ‘brand’, which will help grow followers, fans and help sales as well as getting more reviews and make me more visible to potential opportunities. Yes we’d all love the Game of Thrones success of George R. Martin (though I’ve never fancied the fame bit)¬†but at the end of the day, most of us just want to be able to write and create full-time and make a living from it (enough to pay the bills at least).
  6. Finish my picture book ‘The Little Girl Who Lost Her Smile’ (the story is written but I need to finish drawing and painting all 24 illustrations – I had no idea just how much work is involved in making a picture book!).
  7. Bite the bullet and try subbing to agents, both for my picture book and Ravenwing (once it’s finished) and stop being afraid of success or trying to be successful!!!!
  8. Continue the daily Artmaniac Challenge, creating new art EVERY DAY for a whole year!**
  9. Pay more attention to my lovely little blog (yes, you guys) and blog more often – Sorry!

So there you go,¬†9 goals for the year. Will I achieve them all? Only time will tell, but I’m going to try my bloody hardest.

Face your fears…

So, what are YOU going to achieve this year?

Pencil sketch of Christopher Walken by Sophie E Tallis

* Yes, I have some exciting news to share to do with HarperCollins. I have signed a contract with them and will fill you all in very soon! ūüėÄ

** The reason for my doing portraits at the moment for the Artmaniac Challenge, is due to the wonderful inspiration that is the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year (and yes, I am thinking about doing it next year!) ūüėÄ xxx