“Stella was a special girl. I have rescued over 100 dogs but Stella’s name is tattooed on my shoulder. To me there is no other word that can describe strength like Stella,” said DogHeirs member France Turcotte, founder of Valley Boxer & Mastiff Rescue.
Stella the Neapolitan Mastiff came to France and her husband, Gil, in January 2011, when a local veterinarian intervened with her owner and asked the woman to surrender her. The day of her rescue, Stella was 89 pounds and about 2 years old. The owner had claimed that the dog was not hers and that she had found Stella on the street. “We learned that to be questionable, locals said it was her dog,” France told DogHeirs. “We will never quite know the truth.”
Stella had been staying in a barn with a horse and had been eating hay and manure, causing her stomach to swell with bloat, which did not go away for several weeks. “Her stomach had filled with gas from the fermenting manure she had eaten to survive,” said France. “This was a great concern to the vets.”
Stella was also suffering from an injury that prevented her from bending her knees. “She was walking like she has sticks for legs,” described France. Her owners had said Stella had been trampled by the horse and later said she had been hit by a car. The truth was unclear.
On the first night after Gil brought Stella home, France was unsure Stella would make it. “She could hardly stand, her back legs would shake uncontrollably. There was no strength in her legs, if she tried to stand, she would collapse from her own weight. Her eye was leaking and she could not open it. She was not very receptive towards us and she did not accept food. So we placed her in front of the warm fireplace to rest for the night. I told Gil: she is going to die tonight, so be prepared. It was like she had nothing left in her, she had no spirit left, nothing.”
“Next morning, there she was, still covered in horse manure, one eye open, almost like she had slept the best sleep in her life. We introduced her to the pack and quickly noticed a change. Stella was the queen of the castle. As weak as she was, all understood Stella was boss and she was to rule the roost. Bruno, our 180 pounds male Dogue de Bordeaux would tip toe around her, if she moved he would run away like a scared little mouse,” said France.
“That’s when I sense it: Stella was a fighter, a real warrior. She wanted to fight for her life. I knew she wanted to get better. She started eating and gained 7 pounds in 3 weeks and within 3 months we were up to 112 pounds. Yet, her legs would still shake off and on. That spring, Stella was at her best,” wrote France. “She would never be like that again.”
By April 2011, Stella was strong and happy and made it up to 112.7 pounds. But France, a trained nutritionist, knew something was still wrong.
“She would only be able to sit on her hip, not straight like a normal dog. She would fold her leg and sit in this funny manner. She would also sleep with her body contorted in unnatural ways,” said France. Stella was taken to Dr. Michel Rheault in Gatineau, Quebec (“a very experienced old-school vet”) and he concluded that Stella had both her back legs broken at one point. He suspected a blunt force trauma caused the injury and that it was left unattended so her knees had calcified and healed with time.
But her injured legs were not France’s primary concern. Stella was going through cycles where she would gain weight and then deteriorate. “Stella was dying, then she would get better and gain weight, then she was dying again,” France explained. “We knew Stella was hiding something we could not find.”
France and Gil began to make sacrifices in order to care for Stella. “We were struggling for funds, sacrificing all for Stella. I was working overtime. We had a menu of peanut butter sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches and Kraft dinner for 9 months to save our pennies for Stella. Gil even quit his job to be with her full time. We had a plan. The sanctuary was taking life as something was taking Stella’s life hostage. That feeling of hopelessness is as terrifying as it is maddening. We did not know where to go, where to find answers, nobody knew what was wrong.”
They thought it might be stress, so they built a special kennel for the other dogs so Stella could have some alone time during the day. “We renovated the basement for the other dogs to have a space to call home so that we could care for Stella one-on-one,” France said. “We spent thousands of dollars to accommodate Stella and her disease without even knowing what it was. Buying foods, medications, natural remedies to rebuild her immune system, researching hours upon hours.”
“We made everything as stress free as possible as we were associating her episodes with stress. It seemed Stella would bounce back and then crash again. It was fooling us to think she was getting better and that things would be fine. Then we started noticing Stella losing weight and struggling to eat her food. She would turn away from certain foods. She would struggle to swallow and regurgitate the food. We changed her food many times, from canned to kibble, to home made to kibble again and so on. Macaroni and cheese was her favorite as it seemed easy to swallow. We would supplement with meat and vitamins to provide a balanced menu.”
By July, Stella’s weight had dropped back down to 101 pounds. Then it settled and she would begin eating fine again and gain weight. By September, she was back up to 109 pounds. Then France sensed Stella was sick again in February. “It was like this mysterious disease was hiding in her and then would come out and show it’s ugly face,” explained France. “Then it would go dormant and hide again for a few months. Doctors were clueless.”
“She was tested for everything from mega oesophagus (the barium test was terrifying as all the barium went in her lungs when the vet saw the X-ray she put her hand on her mouth and gasped, when I looked at the X-ray I almost passed out)…. brain tumor, cancer, malabsorption syndrome, myasthenia etc. All came back negative, over and over. Her blood showed no abnormalities.”
A month later (in March), Stella was admitted to hospital at 81.1 pounds and hospitalized for 5 days. Again, doctors had no conclusive diagnosis. And again, she got better, gained weight even at the hospital. France described that despite her ailing health, Stella was still herself. “By May Stella was 86.4, still emaciated at an urgent level. But she had energy, running in the field every day happy as can be. Just Stella as we knew her. She was thinner than normal for her breed, and it became normal for Stella to gain weight and lose weight like a yoyo. She showed no symptoms of sickness for months at a time, then it came back with a vengeance.”
“I went on a witch hunt to find what was wrong,” said France. “Her CK levels (creatine kinase) in her blood were at 1884, normal is 235. Muscular dystrophy came up right away with the symptoms: difficulty swallowing, muscle weakness, tremors, shaking. There I had it, it all made sense: inability to chew and swallow properly because of abnormal function of the muscles of the oesophagus, black on white. That was our Stella. She was having episodes of the muscular dystrophy, that’s why she got better, then got worse, then got better.”
They travelled to Montreal in August and visited veterinarian Dr. Madore. “Stella has begun an uncontrollable descent in weight loss, regurgitating and struggling to eat,” said France. When Dr. Madore tried to insert a catheter to look in her throat, the smallest one would barely fit. X-rays revealed a previously unknown injury – all the little bones that hold the throat together had been shattered in tiny little pieces. France said, “We suspected the old injury was from being kicked by the horse. Only something that strong could have caused that much damage.”
“So the final diagnosis of Stella was suspected muscular dystrophy with pharyngeal achalasia,” France told DogHeirs. Stella couldn’t swallow her food and the disease was attacking her oesophagus and her legs were shaking constantly.
“Dr. Madore said it was time to take her back to the sanctuary to let her go. We did discuss other options like a feeding tube and special trials in the USA but we knew it was too late,” said France.
“We gave her a final run in the field, she did the happy dance and ran with her pack.”
“The next morning August 16 2012, with only a dose to euthanize a small cat, she left us in the same clinic that had called us for her rescue.”
“Stella was ‘daddy’s girl’. Gil was the one that rescued her out of that barn and he was also the one that had the dignity to escort her to the vet for her last moments. This disease had taken her body hostage and there was nothing we could do about it. When I lay down on the floor with her that morning and Stella could hardly breathe, I knew it was time. The disease was shutting down her air way … but it still made us believe for a moment that maybe again, she would get better.”
“The strength that Stella had is beyond words could ever describe. All bowed down to Stella, never had I seen dogs treat another dog like they did Stella, like she was a true leader, all feared her with her with a sense of respect and understanding,” wrote France. “Those who knew her understood. She was a force. We miss her every day.”
Here’s a video of Stella and Bruno running in the snow. France said, “We only had one winter with her and she loved it.”
Stella enjoying time outside with her pack.
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