Macy Monday: Switching to a Raw Food Diet to Address Idiopathic Hypercalcemia

In February Macy had an accident and broke her leg. It was kind of the worst moment. Macy’s fallen a few times in her 11 years, nothing major, but this time, just one foot away from the ground while we were trying to get her leash on her, she slipped out of my hands, did a weird flip and landed on her ankle.

We took her to the emergency room the next morning when we realized it was still sore and she couldn’t bear weight. I learned that we probably should have just taken her in the middle of the night when there was no waiting for a doctor, because Saturday morning at the pet ER is bananas. We waited forever, got xrays, a leg cast with hearts and instructions to return for a visit with a Veterinary bone doctor.

macycast

The bone doctor wanted to do sedated xrays because she couldn’t tell where the fracture was. Boy was that expensive. We have pet insurance, ever since her ruptured disc, and it covered all but $400 of the cost of the fracture. That part was a relief. The part that was not a relief was that she took the splint off Macy and ultimately she was fine with no treatment whatsoever, just rest.

The chip fracture in her ankle ended up being a blessing in disguise, even though it was expensive and worrisome, because we found out by accident that she had elevated calcium levels. They came up in her pre sedation blood work before the xrays. I have no idea when or if we would have done blood tests on her, so I’m glad we caught it.

The elevated calcium levels were a cause for concern because they are an indicator of cancer or thyroid issues. We had to do soooo many rounds of testing to rule out what could be causing the elevated calcium levels. The diagnostic situation was complicated because, while Veterinary Emergency & Referral Group (VERG) was the vet who found the elevated calcium levels, they referred us back to our vet (Crown Heights/Prospect Heights Animal Hospital) for diagnostics. But then our vet uses VERG for some of their diagnostic work like ultrasounds. We were very familiar with VERG because that’s where Macy had her ruptured disc surgery.

We had a full ultrasound of her belly and chest, no cancer found. We had special hypercalcemia blood testing (that was $300 on its own) that had to be sent to a special lab in Michigan and took a week to get back to us. That found nothing abnormal, especially with her thyroid. They decided to do another ultrasound, this time of her neck.

Dara went for it with the vets about the cost of this because we had JUST paid $400 for the first ultrasound. Macy is under 14 pounds, you have to work really hard to NOT ultrasound her neck when you’re doing the abdomen. Dara reduced the cost to a recheck fee of $85, so I highly recommend you advocate for yourself with vets if they’re doing testing and retesting of things.

We got some of the money back from the testing on all of this from our insurance and the out of pocket on that was probably about $300. There’s a deductible of $250 on our policy per issue, and a cap per incident depending on the diagnosis.

Ultimately they found nothing wrong with Macy other than the hypercalcemia, so her diagnosis is Idiopathic Hypercalcemia, meaning there’s nothing wrong with her that they can tell but her calcium levels are elevated. I rolled my eyes because we had to go out of pocket over $1,000 to find out that they don’t know. A lengthy diagnostic process is so obnoxious, stressful, expensive and hard.

darawalkingmacy

This was especially emotionally taxing for us because, due to the broken leg, she fell way behind on her physical recovery from the ruptured disc surgery last summer. Also it was so triggering because her recovery from ruptured disc surgery was really difficult for Macy, she was so anxious for awhile we ended up literally attachment parenting for 2-3 months. For 2-3 months we didn’t go anywhere without her or without a dog nanny for her. I’ll talk about that in another post.

So once we knew she had Idiopathic Hypercalcemia the vet said we should just keep testing her calcium levels every 3-4 months. At the level she was she didn’t need medicine but if it raised and was left untreated the calcium would start to leave deposits in her organs. We decided independently to try changing her food to see if it helped her.

I knew from my experience radically changing my diet to address a chronic digestive issue that food is foundational and can make a big difference. We were primarily interested in trying a homemade diet for her and I did a lot of research and really wanted to try a raw diet. I had heard folks were having great experiences with their dogs having more energy and resolving issues with their allergies. Macy had been having flaky, itchy skin for about a year at that point.

We started with Primal while in the process of the diagnosis to see if a raw diet was of interest to her while we researched homemade diets. Suggested by Sequinette of Fur Majesty NYC, our in home dog groomer, as well as a few other folks on the internet, I began with a pricey bag of frozen nuggets from a boutique pet shop around the corner from VERG.

Primal works like this: You can feed your dog either frozen food that you thaw in the fridge (it’s good for up to five days) or freeze dried food to which you add a bit of water. We just went with the frozen because it seemed more natural and closer to the raw homemade diet I was hoping for.

macyturkeyneckThis is when I tried giving Macy a turkey neck to see if she would eat raw food like a regular dog I read about on the internet. I think this works for bigger dogs. She didn’t know how to deal with it.

Primal is served either in patties or nuggets, the patties are bigger and meant for bigger dogs, the nuggets are cute little bricks a little bigger than a standard ice cube. On the bag Primal suggests to maintain weight at Macy’s size she gets 5 nuggets per day, split into two meals. We used to just free-feed her wheat and corn free fancy dry dog kibble. Left to her own devices she’d eat a bunch, not eat for awhile, eat some more. She adapted very well to the meal times of Primal and seemed to really love the food and taste.

Primal is pricey. It’s $20-$40 a bag, depending on the kind of meat you get. (Duck is way more expensive at $35 a bag than $24 turkey & sardine, for example.) In general I prefer to eat humanely raised happiest possible animals, and I would prefer that for Macy. In my home cooking I’m pretty strict about it. With dog food that can be harder to find, and it seemed odd that Primal didn’t at least have free range chicken for that price and how precious it is to have to thaw out your dog’s food every day.

We would go through a bag about every 10 days, with 48 nuggets in a bag. Basically, her food expense leapt from about $20 a month to somewhere around $60-$80 depending on how spendy we were with the type of meat available at the pet stores.

She sometimes got really barky around her dog bowl. The barking concerned me. She’s always been treat motivated but is literally never a begger. (Training my dog to not associate me eating food with her getting table scraps is a lifestyle enhancement I cannot endorse enough.)

Dara and I figured out that her barking by her food bowl meant she was hungry. So sometimes we would give her a little more food, but we had heard from a friend who owns a pet store that the raw food diets like Primal don’t fill them up.

MacystaringThis face.

That kind of sucks, thinking of your beloved canine companion not getting enough food! I started adding a little brown rice to her bowl with the Primal and that seemed to help. She would do her best to painstakingly eat all the Primal but not all the rice, though I know she got some rice in spite of her efforts.

Dealing with Primal and dog sitters was hard because we had to get her food so frequently we would need to make sure the sitter had enough and it takes up some space in the freezer, etc… The freeze dried nuggets are a helpful work around for that, and for those times you forget to thaw the food. Macy would eat the freeze dried kind with no hesitation but I can’t imagine it was more delicious than the thawed meat.

Within 2 months of starting Primal it was clear Macy’s skin issues were gone and she had more energy! That was amazing. I loved how much of a difference in her quality of life we were able to make just by changing her food.

We switched to a homemade diet (more on that in a different post) at the beginning of July. Right around then we had her first blood recheck for the hypercalcemia (the recheck is $85) and her calcium levels are back to normal!!!

So switching Macy to Primal was great, because it cleared up a lot of minor and major health issues for her but possibly left her feeling hungry. I’m excited to see if the homemade diet keeps her in the same top health!

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