In a tale of resilience and collaborative care, Belle, a 4-year-old Australian shepherd, made an uplifting return to her beloved dog agility competitions after a harrowing bout of paralysis.

The story began last June, when owner Mary Harris noticed Belle wasn’t walking quite right. Not long after, the normally active dog could barely walk or stand. Harris quickly turned to her primary veterinarian Katie Clevenger DVM '18 at the Blue Ridge Animal Clinic, where Belle underwent an examination and was put on a pain management plan.

Despite these initial efforts, Belle's condition continued to deteriorate, prompting a referral to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg for an emergency consultation.  

"We chose to go to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital because of the rapid onset of the condition, and because I knew that we needed specialized care," explained Harris. "As an alumna of Virginia Tech, I had confidence in the vet school and the capabilities there to get what we needed."

Under the care of Ana Figueiredo, clinical instructor in emergency and critical care medicine, Belle's condition was attributed to an acute spinal issue, but with an unknown cause. At that point, Belle regained some strength in her back legs, so Figueiredo offered two options to Harris: transferring Belle to the neurology service for an MRI and potential surgery, or a more conservative approach of rest, medication, and continued monitoring.

"I always treat the patients I see as if they were my own,” Figueiredo said. “In Belle's case, since she was still strongly ambulatory, I thought we had a good chance with medical management first." 

While Harris was prepared to do whatever was needed to support Belle, she appreciated Figueiredo explaining what to consider for each treatment plan. The commitment to a “spectrum of care,” a principle that emphasizes the importance of considering a variety of diagnostic and treatment options, resonated with Harris.

"I felt comfortable we were on the right path," Harris said. “They were very clear about what it might be, why they made the decisions they did, and then offered good directions on what to do if I were to need them in an off-hour emergency. The communication with my primary vet was also excellent.”

Belle responded positively to the strict regimen of rest, medication, and an added rehabilitation plan. Slowly but surely, she regained her strength, allowing her to return to the agility ring, albeit with shorter courses and less intense obstacles. 

“Agility is not like riding a bike,” Harris said. “Along with the physical recovery, we had to catch up with training as well.” 

Working together with their veterinary team, Harris and Belle returned to the sport with no limitations, just in time for them to attend the North American Dog Agility Council's 2023 National Championships in Springfield, Ohio. 
“Belle did great,” Harris said of the event where over 250 dog and handler teams competed. “She’s never been the fastest dog, but she’s absolutely committed. I’m glad we did it.”  

Written by Margie Christianson, communications manager at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing