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Sonny the survivor: Pooch recovers from stomach torsion surgery

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Debbie Gnegy, of Strasburg, drives with her dogs, Sonny, left, and Abby, on the family farm. Sonny has been recovering from surgery for stomach torsion, a common and often fatal condition in dogs. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Allan Haley, 94, of Strasburg, gives Sonny a treat. Haley, a neighbor of the Gnegys, was Sonny’s caretaker while he recuperated from his surgery last month. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Sonny rests in a shady spot on the farm. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Josette Keelor-jkeelor@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- As Debbie Gnegy called to her dog, Sonny, an 8-year-old lab/beagle mix, on a recent summer morning, he looked as effervescent as any other dog. Followed closely by his pal, Abby, a 13-year-old collie/lab mix, Sonny hurried to Gnegy's farm truck. They were on their way to their neighbor Allan Haley's house -- Haley, as Gnegy, 47, calls him.

"Aww, he loves Haley," Gnegy said a few minutes later at Haley's house on Moores Ford Road, where she entered the house and Sonny made a beeline to the 94-year-old Navy veteran.

The dogs go to see Haley often, Gnegy said, "and sometimes they come the back way across the creek and come here on their own."

In recent weeks, though, they all have become even more fond of Haley, since he became Sonny's caretaker during the dog's recovery after surgery for stomach torsion.

It came down to a matter of minutes, Gnegy said of her rush to get treatment for Sonny.
It was a freak accident that led to a life-threatening condition, but Gnegy said stomach torsion actually is the second-leading cause of unexpected death in dogs. The first is cancer.

"He looked like an animal that had already died, he was so bloated," she said. Not knowing what was wrong with Sonny, Gnegy rushed him to Shenandoah Animal Hospital in Woodstock, arriving minutes before they closed. There, veterinarian Tom Truban recognized Sonny's condition, Gnegy said.

Truban did X-rays and gave Sonny a liter of fluids before driving the dog to Valley Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center in Winchester for surgery.

"I do credit them with the surgery that actually saved his life," Gnegy said, but added that she believes it was the quick action of Truban that kept Sonny alive.

Stomach torsion, Gnegy said, occurs when a dog's stomach flips over, and his abdomen area swells to a disproportionate size.

"It blocks the digestive tract and then cuts off the blood supply to organs," she said. After repairing Sonny's stomach, doctors stapled it to the stomach lining to lessen the chance of this happening again.

Since that frightening day, Gnegy thinks she has pieced together Sonny's adventure and how his injury occurred.

She let him and Abby out on Monday morning, Aug. 8, and the dogs ran off like they always do, to hunt groundhogs.

She learned from the vet and from her research online that stomach torsion can happen when a dog drinks too much water on an empty stomach and then increases his or her activity level.

"Their stomach's usually full [with] gas, food, water, maybe all three," she said. "It's usually in breeds that have room for that to happen too," she said. Truban told her at the vet's office that the injury happened during the previous four hours.

"He was drinking when they were walking, and then he ran home," she said. "He's obsessed with his water bowl."

Gnegy figures Sonny would have been looking for water anywhere he could get it, "and Tom did say it happens very quickly," she said.

When the dogs didn't come home, she did not worry at first. Then Abby came home without Sonny, and she knew something was wrong.

"She's not really a whiner," Gnegy said, but Abby was whimpering at the door. Sonny did not return until that evening, when Gnegy's husband Jon, 47, was moving rolled hay bales on the couple's 54-acre farm. Sonny was making his way slowly and painfully home.

"[He] gave me those 'Help me, Mom' eyes," Gnegy said.

After getting a cost estimate from the animal hospital, she and her husband agreed to approve the surgery if the doctors did not find Sonny had significant tissue and organ damage.

Even though it's not an uncommon condition, Gnegy said Sonny is one of the lucky ones.
"That's how the dog in the movie 'Marley and Me' died," she said.

Since her experience, Gnegy has decided to help teach others about stomach torsion in dogs, in part after reading the blog at www.critterchatter.com/index.php.

She stressed that survival depends on early detection and emergent treatment. Sonny's stomach was very bloated, he was moaning, could hardly move, his breathing was abnormal, and he looked scared and anxious.

The cost estimate she received from the hospital said the surgery and overnight stay for several nights could have amounted to $5,300, Gnegy said. She ended up paying $3,665 after bringing Sonny home early to rehabilitate him herself. His lab reports were normal, but he was not eating, she said, and she believes he wanted to come home. She and her husband began planning for Sonny's return home two days early and brought him home on Aug. 11.

"We had rehabbed dogs before, so we kind of knew what we were in for," she said.
"Each day he was better," she said, but the recovery was a long one, and she and her husband needed to find help for Sonny while he recuperated.

"Who's going to take care of this dog through post-op?" she remembered thinking. Then she thought of Haley, a lifelong friend of her husband.

Haley and his wife, Miwako, mainly talked to and fed Sonny during his recovery, but it made a big difference to the Gnegys.

"I would've ended up missing work if it had not been for a caretaker," Gnegy said. "And they both just think the world of Mr. Haley," she later added.

"He took his job as the caregiver of Sonny very seriously."

This was Sonny's third surgery, she said. His first two were for noncancerous tumors on his feet, and he had to have a toe amputated.

As a result of his recovery, Gnegy and her husband have taken preventive steps of their own. Before Sonny's accident, they would feed the dogs once a day, filling their bowls with dry food. Now they give the dogs two smaller meals a day, a mixture of wet and dry food.

Gnegy said Sonny has made a full recovery and will return to work on the farm.

"He's the border patrol," Gnegy said. Groundhog hunting, mainly.

"That's an activity of theirs," she explained, as well as attempting to herd cows.

"With his original owner, he was kind of a house dog," she said. "We made a farm dog out of a house dog."

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