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Breath of life

  • Russell

    Breath of life

    Noninvasive procedure puts the pep back into Russell the Yorkie’s step

Since she first brought him into her home as a weeks-old puppy 12 years ago, a Yorkshire terrier named Russell has been the center of Lisa Brecount’s world. Russell has served as her constant companion over the years, but a recent health scare had Brecount worrying her time with him would be cut short. 

The trouble began not long after Brecount moved from Minnesota to Sioux Falls, S.D. in May 2020. The once peppy Russell seemed to be slowing down, experiencing a cough and trouble breathing. 

“He was coughing, and it looked like his stomach was working very hard to make him breathe,” Brecount says. “If I took him on a walk, he was having a difficult time breathing, and he would sometimes actually have to stop and cough. And that was unusual for him.”

At first, Brecount thought it might be caused by allergens Russell was encountering in the new environment. A couple of visits to the veterinarian produced a theory that he had a small airway for his breed. Russell’s breathing troubles persisted and, in time, caused Brecount enough alarm to take him in for an emergency vet visit. There, clinicians were finally able to pinpoint the source of Russell’s problems and found it to be much more serious than allergies. 

His trachea was collapsing. 

The trachea, also known as the windpipe, is a tube located in the throat and chest and supported by rings of cartilage that line the length of the structure. Tracheal collapse occurs when those rings lose rigidity and begin to collapse, narrowing the trachea and reducing airflow to the dog’s lungs. Symptoms of tracheal collapse include difficulty breathing, wheezing, gagging, and coughing—sometimes described as a “honking” cough. 

The cause of this condition is unknown but is thought to be congenital, though most dogs develop clinical signs in middle-age. Small dog breeds such as Yorkies, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, and pugs have a higher risk of developing the condition compared to other breeds. 

Medication often is prescribed as the first form of treatment, but Russell’s diagnosis was severe enough that clinicians recommended he be brought to the University of Minnesota to determine what type of treatment might be the best option for his case. 

In January 2021, Brecount and Russell arrived at the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and met with Tracy Hill, DVM, DACVIM, PhD, DECVIM, a clinical associate professor of Small Animal Internal Medicine and Interventional Radiology. 

Typically in cases of collapsed tracheas, Hill says the first step is medication management, so the dog is given anti-inflammatory steroids and cough suppressants. In more severe cases, a small tube called a stent is inserted into the trachea to open the airway and provide additional structural support. The severity of Russell’s case made a stent placement his best option for an improved quality of life. 

Two days after his initial visit, Hill inserted a stent into Russell’s trachea. A surgical complication kept him at the Veterinary Medical Center for an extra couple of days but his condition improved throughout his stay. 

We see a fair amount of improvement immediately following the operation because we’ve taken these dogs from trying to breathe through essentially a cocktail straw to opening up that space and allowing them to breathe through a normal airway again. The progress they make is pretty impressive.

Tracy Hill

“We see a fair amount of improvement immediately following the operation because we’ve taken these dogs from trying to breathe through essentially a cocktail straw to opening up that space and allowing them to breathe through a normal airway again,” Hill says. “The progress they make is pretty impressive.”

After being discharged, Brecount and Russell headed back home to South Dakota to continue his recovery. She says it took him a couple of months to return to normal, but his new normal is a whole new dog. 

 

Every day, it’s like he’s turning into a puppy again.

Lisa Brecount

“Every day, it’s like he’s turning into a puppy again. He’s feisty as ever. He’s even starting to look at the girls again,” Brecount says with a chuckle. “He's totally interested in everything around him. Nothing’s off the table anymore. Nothing is left unsniffed. But I think the first two months were the toughest after recovering and getting used to having the stent in his throat.”

Tracheal stents improve the quality of life for dogs that have them but are not a perfect solution to a collapsing trachea. Typically, a layer of tissue will begin growing on top of the stent and prevent it from moving around. In some cases, the tissue around the stent can become inflamed or granulated and require surgical intervention. As a stent ages, the risk for complications also increases. 

“The stent itself is a palliative procedure, so we're not reversing the disease process,” Hill says.  “Eventually, the airways will continue to soften and collapse over time and will progress beyond the point that medications or stent placement will help.”

My boy would not be alive today without these operations. Our experience with the university was wonderful, Dr. Hill and all of the students were wonderful. I felt that Russell was in the best of hands.

Lisa Brecount

Russell’s recovery hasn’t been without challenges. After developing a wet cough, Russell and Brecount returned to Hill in June 2021. Hill found granulated tissue had grown through parts of the stent. Russell underwent an operation to replace the first stent and has been doing well ever since.   

“My boy would not be alive today without these operations,” Brecount says. “Our experience with the university was wonderful, Dr. Hill and all of the students were wonderful. I felt that Russell was in the best of hands.