On a sunny day in late June, Rocky the French bulldog ate some wild cherries in his backyard. What seemed like an innocuous event at the time was the start of a six-week ordeal that brought two-year-old Rocky to multiple veterinarians, each trying to find the cause of his mysterious symptoms.
When he came inside, Rocky started throwing up to the point where he was bringing up blood. His family, the Padillas, immediately brought him to their local veterinarian, Dr. Jennifer Matteson of Three Notch Veterinary Hospital in Hollywood, MD.
“I just assumed they'd pump his stomach and he'd be fine,” Laura Padilla said. “But then my husband called and said I needed to come to the vet right away.”
Rocky had a temperature of 106 and was in critical condition. The Padillas brought him to another facility that could care for him overnight, where he was sedated and given supplemental oxygen. There they learned that the tree in their backyard was a wild black cherry tree, and that the berries turn to cyanide in the stomach.
Rocky was hospitalized for two nights, and was finally discharged after being treated for pneumonia from aspiration and esophageal irritation from the berries. However, the event left him with a persistent cough that worried his local vet. She referred him to Dr. Susan Simmerson of Dogs and Cats Veterinary Referral in Bowie, MD.
Soon after, Dr. Simmerson performed a bronchoscopy and diagnosed Rocky with laryngeal collapse. It appeared that the cartilage in Rocky's larynx had collapsed in on itself, making it hard, and sometimes impossible, for him to breathe. She then referred the family to Dr. Steve Garnett, a specialist at Dogs and Cats Veterinary Referral. Dr. Garnett confirmed the finding and also discovered inflammation in the back of Rocky’s throat.
Laryngeal collapse is an unusual finding—and when it does happen, it’s usually found in older bulldogs. With flattened noses, smaller nostrils, and longer soft palates – together called Brachycephalic Syndrome – these breeds often have breathing problems. If these breathing problems are left unchecked for years and years, the cartilage around the larynx can actually collapse from the pressure. However, Rocky was not the typical Brachycephalic patient. For one thing, he was a young dog, who’d had no breathing problems before eating the cherries. He’d also had surgery when he was one year old to correct some breathing issues.
Additionally, Rocky’s symptoms did not match those of a dog with classic Brachycephalic laryngeal collapse. He would alternate between being able to breathe fairly well at home to having sudden attacks, usually when he was excited, whereas laryngeal collapse is a constant breathing problem. Typically, the Padillas said, it sounded like Rocky was clearing his throat, and then he would be totally fine. The laryngeal collapse had also come on very suddenly in Rocky’s case, whereas it usually takes years to develop.
Still, Dr. Garnett had not found any other cause for Rocky's breathing problem when he performed the bronchoscopy. He suggested surgery to repair the collapsed larynx, or steroids. The Padillas chose steroids, and rest, but Rocky was still struggling to breathe. On July 10, Dr. Garnett performed surgery to remove Rocky's laryngeal saccules and shorten his soft palate, which he hoped would allow him to breathe more easily.
However, Rocky’s condition worsened. One day after returning from surgery, he was barely able to breathe and had to be taken to his local vet for oxygen. A week later, Rocky threw up violently, stopped breathing, and passed out. Laura Padilla gave him CPR and rushed him back, yet again, to the hospital. After spending a week and a half in the ICU at Dogs and Cats, he was sent home. One week after that, he collapsed again when he started barking at the door.
“That was when Dr. Jeanne Feldhaus of Three Notch Veterinary Hospital suggested bringing him to a university,” Laura said.
On August 9, Rocky saw Dr. Lillian Aronson at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital. At this point, Rocky was in critical condition. Upon arrival at Ryan Hospital, he had another attack and was put in an oxygen cage.
Since Rocky’s diagnosis didn’t entirely match his symptoms, Dr. Aronson and her student tried to take an additional set of chest X-rays. They were only able to take one before Rocky collapsed again. But on that X-ray, they noticed a tiny dot in the middle of his trachea. During the physical examination, they confirmed their suspicions. Staring at them, right behind Rocky’s larynx, was a tiny cherry pit.
“I think when he ate the cherries, it made him nauseous, and he probably aspirated one of those pits,” Dr. Aronson said.
The pit then slid up and down his trachea. Rocky would cough and temporarily dislodge the pit, but sometimes it would get stuck and completely block his windpipe, preventing any airflow.
The doctors removed the pit with a special snare and then treated Rocky for an infection in his lungs. With the pit gone, Rocky was able to make a full recovery, even breathing perfectly overnight in the hospital immediately after the procedure. The laryngeal collapse did not require surgery once the pit was removed. According to Dr. Aronson, the stress of the pit temporarily caused the larynx to collapse while Rocky struggled to breathe.
Today, Rocky is back home with his family. Although it was an incredibly stressful six weeks, the Padillas are able to name a number of positives. For one, their daughter, a junior in high school at the time, realized that she would like to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. Laura Padilla also reports that Rocky has become far more affectionate and snuggly after the ordeal.
“I knew how much we loved Rocky and I knew that it was all going to work out for the best,” she said.