EAST GULL LAKE -- Last year Taku was a dog at the top of her game.
The spirited canine, a 4-year-old Bernese mountain dog, competed in agility and obedience dog competitions throughout the state and was ranked third nationally in the Novice A agility division and ranked fourth nationally in the Novice B obedience division in 2001.
Then Taku was stricken last September with lymphosarcoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes. Her veterinarian, Dr. Steve Rehnblom of Animal Care Center in Baxter, gave her less than a month to live.
The news devastated Taku's owners, Brent and Carol Manley of East Gull Lake.
The Manleys had owned Taku since she was 8 weeks old. She was the heart and soul of their family, which includes four cats and two other dogs from Heartland Animal Rescue Team, where Brent serves as a board member.
"There is such a light in her," Brent said of Taku. "You get some special dogs and they don't come along all the time, but that's what she is."
Carol teaches dog agility and obedience classes for the Brainerd Kennel Club, and had always wanted a Bernese mountain dog to own and train because of their personalities and people-oriented nature. They got Taku six months before they lost their beloved Frisco, a golden/yellow Lab cross, from an undetermined illness.
It was Taku who helped them pull through Frisco's death and then at age 3, it appeared Taku was going to be gone as well.
Rehnblom gave the Manleys two options. If they did nothing, Taku would be dead in less than a month from cancer. Or they could have her undergo chemotherapy, which would give her a 50/50 chance at having a quality life in one year. It wouldn't cure the cancer, but would put her in remission and prolong her life. The Manleys spent a few days discussing their options and decided to take the chance, choosing chemotherapy for Taku. She started the first three-month induction phase of chemotherapy after Labor Day last year. It was a tough time. Taku lost weight and was often sick.
The Manleys heard about Dr. Deb Teasck's holistic approach to veterinary medicine at Pequot Lakes Animal Hospital and decided to incorporate her help in treating Taku.
Rehnblom and Teasck worked together to create a plan for Taku. While Rehnblom employed conventional veterinary care in treating Taku, Teasck used natural remedies and Chinese herbs and medicines to help strengthen Taku's immunity and give her more energy.
"It's becoming more popular, even with human people to look for alternatives," said Teasck. "We try to look at the whole dog and not treat just the symptoms."
The Manleys changed Taku's diet entirely. For example, she gets tea pills for indigestion, milk thistle to clean her liver and even garlic supplements for her overall immunity. She takes about 12-16 pills each day -- which Taku enjoys and eats like dog treats -- and she is fed primarily raw vegetables and real beef.
"She thinks raw broccoli is cool," Carol Manley said with a smile. "She was eating a banana earlier."
Taku is now completing her maintenance phase of the chemotherapy treatments where she goes to the veterinary clinic every three weeks for treatment. This will continue until Christmas. She lost some hair early on as a result of the chemotherapy but otherwise she appears healthy and happy most of the time. She's even five pounds overweight.
Chemotherapy for Taku was a big decision the Manleys wrestled with. They wouldn't do the same for each one of their pets, but Taku was special. She also was young and they wanted to give her a fighting chance. If she refused to go willingly to the veterinary clinic for treatments or if she wouldn't take her medications, the Manleys said they would have stopped the treatments immediately and let her go.
"We just enjoy her presence," said Brent. "Through it all, she never stopped wagging her tail."
"She's a very willing patient, she has a great spirit," Rehnblom said of Taku. "She wins you over. She can walk in a room and everyone wants to pet her. She's that type of dog."
Still, despite the one-year success of her treatments, Rehnblom said Taku many only have at the most 18-24 months to live. That's the prognosis for dogs in similar situations. She could beat the odds, of course, but she is only in remission, not fully cured of the cancer.
Still, it is a feat that Taku recently celebrated her one-year anniversary of being in remission.
"We are very happy," said Rehnblom. "This was our goal. Brent and Carol dreamed of one year. That's where we're at, and we're in the process of formulating the next plan."
Rehnblom said they could continue with chemotherapy for Taku or take her off the medications and use another method. It's a decision that will need to be made.
In the meantime, the Manleys are thrilled that Taku never lost her spirit throughout her battle with cancer. Although Taku enjoyed participating in dog agility and obedience competitions, she no longer has the stamina and is sensitive to hot weather. The Manleys have no intentions of entering her in competitions again. Those days are over.
"She's back to enjoying life," said Carol. "It's irrelevant if she gets back in the ring again."
"I hope we can get her to double digits," said Brent. "If we make it to her fifth birthday, I'll be thrilled."
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