Birdie’s Story: What If We Can’t Afford Orthopedic Surgery?


By Jessica Dolce of


Birdie tore a cruciate ligament in her hind leg. It's possible she can regain a good quality of life without surgery.
Birdie tore a cruciate ligament in her hind leg. It’s possible she can regain a good quality of life without surgery.

This summer my 11.5 year old dog Birdie, the mellowest dog on the planet, tore the ACL in one of her back legs. I have no idea how she injured herself. It may have been from napping too hard.


Many trips to the vet later, orthopedic surgery has been recommended for her. I can’t really afford it. Which makes me feel like a not-so-awesome dog owner.


Here’s the thing: I’m a professional dog walker, former animal shelter worker, and have spent my entire adult life working with dogs.  I’m pretty good at giving compassionate, reasonable advice to people who are struggling to make the right call for their dogs.


But when it comes to my own dogs, I am not very good at hearing the kind, reasonable, forgiving lady that lives in my head. She talks to everyone else, but clams up when I ask her to weigh in on my own dog-related problems. Most of the time, I can only hear a weepy confused kid spinning around in panicked circles.


So when we went in for the consultation with a board certified veterinary surgeon, I found myself unexpectedly fighting off tears when I forced myself to ask her what would happen if I couldn’t afford the surgery that Birdie needs. Just asking the question made me feel like I was saying, “I don’t love my dog.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth


Here’s what the surgeon said, “You should feel supported if you choose not to do the surgery.”

You should feel supported. Those are some good words right there.


She went on to say that it was reasonable for me to weigh all the variables, including my dog’s age, her activity level, and my financial situation when making the decision to opt for surgery – or not.


The surgeon also patiently answered my two million questions about Birdie’s pain levels and what would happen over time to her other limbs since they’d have to pick up the slack of her bum leg.


We ultimately agreed that this was not emergency surgery and it was reasonable to give Birdie four weeks of rest combined with cold laser treatments and hydrotherapy (with an awesome physical therapist  Birdie knows and loves from previous work on her back and neck). And then we’d revisit the idea of surgery.


Birdie sniffin it up.
Birdie sniffin it up.

Of course, if the results from physical therapy aren’t what we hope they’ll be, it still won’t change the gist of the conversation I had with Birdie on the way home from the surgical consult:


Me: Birdie, I feel terrible trying to figure out if we can afford the surgery or if it’s even worth it to do it at your age. I don’t want you to be in pain, but it’s a lot of money. If you want the surgery, I’ll rob a bank to pay for it (or use up a credit card). Just tell me what you want me to do, ok?


Birdie: phumpfh.


Me: I don’t want to make the wrong choice and have you suffer for the rest of your life. I hate the idea of putting a dollar sign on your leg. You deserve all the bionic legs a dog could ever dream of having…I’m sorry I’m not rich. Just tell me: What do you want me to do?


Birdie: zzzzz-phumpfh-zzzzzzz.


Me: Dammit.


I wish dogs could tell us what they want. One of the hardest parts of caring for dogs is making decisions on their behalf and feeling badly that we’re not doing the right thing.  A lot of us are beating ourselves up and second guessing everything – from the everyday decisions about diet and training to the excruciating choices we need to make at the end of their lives.


It’s no fun being the one in charge of making the call. As humans we carry around all these conflicting, painful thoughts about the various options available and what the future holds for the dogs we love so much. It’s hard not knowing the exact right answer, the right call to make. Especially since the “right” answer is usually a little different for each individual dog and their family.  Luckily, our dogs continue living in the moment while we hash it out. Knowing stuff is our burden, not theirs.


You might think that those of us who make a living working with dogs would have an easier time making choices for our pets. We have a lot of experience and tons of personal stories from clients and colleagues to mentally reference in order to help us put our own situations in perspective.


But it turns out that when it comes to my own dogs, I’m in need of the same sort of outside perspective and compassionate counsel as everyone else. The situation isn’t life-threatening (for the record, I’m grateful the diagnosis wasn’t something more serious), but I needed someone else to help me get my footing.


I really appreciated that the surgeon told me not to feel guilty about considering my financial situation. And I could have hugged her for saying I should feel supported in trying a non-surgical option first.


It’s what I would have told myself if the confused, weepy kid in my head wasn’t busy shouting about how I was turning into Cruella De Ville for allowing money to pop up when thinking about what Birdie needs. It’s what I would have told any of you if you were in the same spot.


Right after the consult, we began rehab. Birdie is getting a combination of manual treatments, cold laser, and hydrotherapy sessions these days. She has compressed discs in her back, so these physical rehab sessions are treating Birdie’s whole body, which I like a whole lot.


We’ve also been exploring alternative methods for reducing pain and inflammation. That’s when I stumbled upon the Assisi Loop! (full disclosure, in exchange for an honest review, Assisi has been kind enough to provide Birdie with a Loop so we can try it out)


Now that I’ve gotten some alternative treatment options started for Birdie, I’m feeling a little less guilty for choosing to hold off on the surgery. The truth is that I can’t afford it. But I also know that even if I had all the money in the world, I’d still want to explore a non-surgical option for my older dog first. I’m trying to keep that in mind because you never know – sometimes the less invasive, less expensive treatment might turn out to be the right choice. I’m hoping that’s the case here and that I made the right call for Birdie.


In the meantime, Birdie still seems to love me, despite the fact that I’m thinking about the value of her leg repair versus the potential span of her life divided by my credit line. Maybe that’s because she’s thinking about snacks and smelly stuff to roll in, not surgery. That’s my job.


Birdie Just got her Assisi Portable™ a week or two ago.  We’re looking forward to an update on her condition as her treatment progresses.  We’re so glad we could add a Loop to Birdie’s treatment plan.  We’ll update you on her condition in a few weeks.