Leeloo’s Last Weeks

that sucked

I never imagined I’d be writing this post, at least not for another decade at least, but here we are. I would also like to apologize for the inconsistent use of tense. Obviously all of this should be written in the past tense but I’m having a hard time talking about Leeloo in the past tense so I keep switching back to present tense without realizing it and reading and re-reading this for editing purpose is hard so you’ll just have to deal with this fairly rough edit. Maybe someday I will come back and fix this up, but for now this is the best I can do.

Sunday April 23

I noticed some lumps under Leeloo’s jaw while giving her a good grooming in preparation for our spring vaccination and wellness appointment.

Monday April 24

Spring wellness appointment. Juniper’s eye injury is healed and looks good. Overall both girls look good and healthy (healthy coat, healthy weight, bright eyed, lively, etc.) and get vaccinated. We discuss Leeloo’s continued reluctance to be touched on her barrel or back end and decide to treat for ulcers. The lumps under Leeloo’s jaw are swollen lymph nodes, lots of possible causes, no other symptoms of anything else so we opt to schedule a dental appointment to get a better look at what is going in her mouth. Dental appointment is scheduled for May 18.

Tuesday April 24

Leeloo is acting a little lethargic but it is also one of our first nice sunny days in a while, so I don’t think too much about extra napping in the sun.

Wednesday April 25

Leeloo doesn’t eat all of her breakfast (not normal!) and is definitely lethargic and not eating as much hay as normal. Also starts to salivate a lot, like, a lot.

Thursday April 26

Leeloo eats even less of her breakfast (really not normal!), is even more lethargic, having a hard time eating, and the amount of extra salivation has gone from odd to gross. Lymph nodes have gotten larger and warmer. Call the vet panicking a bit that if we don’t get an appointment soon I may be calling for an emergency colic visit over the weekend because she is just not eating enough.

Friday April 27

Vet was able to rearrange a couple of things and get out to see us. Lymph nodes are super swollen and warm and the amount of saliva she is producing is remarkable. Assumption going in is that there is probably a fracture somewhere in her mouth, however the dental exam is inconclusive. There are three odd things but none of them are “the problem” – foxtail lesion from that stupid hay that guy sold me (selling foxtail contaminated hay to someone with horses is terrible), older two-inch cut along her tongue but it is healing and no sign of infection, something is wrong with her farthest back tooth and she will not let the vet deal with it even after being sedated three times. No obvious sign of a fracture though.

Working theory at that point was that when Juniper kicked Leeloo in the fall she may have cracked that farthest back tooth. At the time she was kicked it was well contained in her jaw so she didn’t show any signs of anything, but as it was growing out it had room to start moving and that could be causing our symptoms. The only way to be really sure would be to bring Leeloo into the U of M’s equine hospital for a head CT Scan but since I am not made of money and don’t have a truck or trailer we went with option two which was to treat her with some antibiotics (fourteen giant pills twice a day for a week or two), some pain killers (bute), and to start a week of ulcer guard since all of that would make any ulcers she had worse.

Saturday April 29 – Monday May 1

We give Leeloo her medicines mixed in with her normal food and some coconut sugar to hide the taste along with some cut-up apples and alfalfa pellets because we really need her to take her medicine. Imagine trying to give your toddler medicine but she’s 1200 pounds and can get her head much higher than you can reach. She eats everything fine all three days and is mostly back to her normal self though her lymph nodes are still slightly swollen, but big improvement over Friday and the extra salivation is mostly gone.

Tuesday May 2

We try banana as the special treat to our regret. Turns out Leeloo hates banana, as do I, so I should not have been surprised. Leeloo only gets about half of her medicine that morning and that night after several failed attempts we have to syringe her meds into her mouth which doesn’t go well.

Wednesday May 3

Things do not go better. We try everything we have in the house to get her to eat her medicine before having to take a break so I can go have carpal tunnel surgery. We stopped at the store afterwards to try some new options and learn that Leeloo is no longer willing to eat any of the following: apples, cherries, pumpkin, maple syrup, molasses, brown sugar, coconut sugar, vanilla pudding, alfalfa pellets, cumin, rosemary, or oregano. Juniper of course was down with it all and got to finish the rejected banana and the cherries; Nate had the rest of the vanilla pudding with the extra bananas.

Thursday May 4

Several more failed attempts lead to having to syringe the medicine into her mouth again. However now I’m down my dominant hand so Nate had to hold her while I used my left hand to hold the syringe and my right palm to just push it in. This was not pleasant for anybody. We decide to try the one thing that helped last time Leeloo decided she wasn’t eating her medicine, HS-35. HS-35 is a horse vitamin and mineral supplement that Leeloo loved and would eat anything that was mixed with it. Of course, this supplement has lots of additives that aren’t healthy which is why it was so tasty and why I stopped feeding it. The HS-35 worked at first but after she got about half-way done with her meds she stopped again. Her lymph nodes were starting to get bigger and warmer again and the extra salivation was coming back.

Friday May 5

The HS-35 didn’t work at all and we had to resort to syringing the meds into her mouth again and it went as well as it did Thursday. We were at that point out of medicine because we had wasted two doses with the various failed concoctions over the week. After consulting with the vet we decide to give everyone a few days break since I had just had surgery and was also supposed to go to Wisconsin to visit some friends and we will decide on Monday if we want to try a different antibiotic or do the head CT scan. At this point her appetite for hay was relatively intact and she was still drinking fine. Though the overall amount of poop in the pasture seemed to be less than it should be. The biggest issue with food was that Leeloo was unwilling to eat anything “special” that we were trying to give her. The weird extra salivating was getting worse but not as bad as the previous Friday and same with her lymph nodes, getting worse again but still not as bad.

That night I sent a follow-up emailing asking if we needed to be worried about cancer since we have this weird lymph node thing going on and the vet said that considering she’s only 14 it would be highly unlikely and that we should go with the rule they tell their vet students, “when you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.”

Saturday May 6 – Sunday May 7

Leeloo is starting to eat more of her medicine-free breakfast and we were able to get her to eat grass from our hands (hard to hide a pill in grass). Her overall demeanor however was trending towards the lethargic end again and she wasn’t eating as much hay as she should be.

Monday May 8

Leeloo ate more of her breakfast which is good, but she is getting even more lethargic and the amount of poop in the field is definitely less than it should be. Some of the piles we do have look odd (small amount and mucus-y) which the vet says is a sign that not enough food is going through the system so what is there is taking longer to make it through. We decide to try injectable antibiotics to see if that gets us better results and then I just have to try to get the pain meds into her. We make an appointment for Tuesday to do the first dose of the new antibiotic.

As Monday goes by I notice that Leeloo is developing neurologic symptoms; mostly crossing over her back legs when she walks. She is also starting to have discharge from her nose, lymph nodes are getting more swollen, and she actually let Juniper steal some of her food right out of her food tub as she was eating which is unheard of. I cannot emphasize how abnormal that was. We also saw Juniper playing with the treat toy and Leeloo didn’t care; this goes beyond unheard of into blasphemy, treat toy is life.

Tuesday May 9

Check in with vet to see if we can adjust our appointment today to be a bit longer since Leeloos is even more lethargic, not eating her breakfast, increased nasal discharge, breathing is starting to be labored, and neurologic symptoms are worse; she is uncoordinated and stumbled getting into and out of the stall for breakfast. Vets come out and do a series of tests. She has a fever of 104° F (normal horse temperature is about 100°F give or take a degree), her neurologic symptoms are present but it is unclear if they are just a side effect of the fever and her overall feeling really crappy from whatever is causing said fever or if they are their own symptoms. An in-the-field infection test shows that she is indeed fighting some sort of infection, but the test can only tell if there is a bacterial infection at work and if it is severe, it doesn’t tell you which one. I don’t have any frame of reference for the score but the level Leeloo’s test came back with made both the vets on site swear and the vet they were consulting with on the phone said “holy shit” when they told her the number. At this point the thought is that there is more than one thing at play, possibly whatever is happening in her mouth which is making it hard for her to eat plus some infection, there is a tick-borne disease which can cause fever and neurologic symptoms that is the number one suspect, it would be easy to treat so we are all hoping it is that. They take a ton of blood for further testing as well as some nasal swabs and give her a dose of banamine to get the fever down until we know what we’re dealing with and can get a treatment plan in place.

After the vet leaves we have an appointment with a builder to finalize the contract to start the barn and write the first check to pay for materials, plan is to break ground June 1.

Tuesday night I give her another dose of banamine and offer her more food which she eats some of but not much. We also get some initial results and they lead to more questions and no answers. Leeloo was anemic and had some abnormal white blood cells on her CBC. Her platelets were also low, but the pathologist will help us understand if that is a real finding because sometimes platelets clump during transportation. The chemistry panel also shows many of Leeloo’s electrolytes are low as well as the protein albumin. This is common in diarrhea cases but we haven’t seen any evidence of diarrhea and didn’t match with the healthy gut sounds the vet heard.

Wednesday May 10

Leeloo is even more lethargic than she was on Tuesday and less willing or able to move. Nate and I decide to just feed her out in the field instead of making her walk into her stall. She tries to eat but seems to be having a harder time, half the food that makes it into her mouth falls back out and she gives up before finishing it. The amount of poop seems slightly better and less mucusy but still not what it should be. Fever is still present and her breathing is more labored than the day before. She still seems interested in eating hay but is having a hard time actually eating it. Neurologic symptoms are changing, not crossing over any more but her movements are stilted and she’s holding her head very oddly when she tries to walk.

Keep checking email and phone for update from the vet.

Wednesday afternoon Leeloo still has a fever so we try sponging her off to see if that helps and I see I have an email from the vet asking me to let her know when I’m available to talk. I tell Nate I have a bad feeling. We’ve emailed about everything else but this is something that isn’t fit for an email but it wasn’t an emergency because she didn’t immediately call me. I email back that I’m available all day and shortly after get a call from the vet.

It’s a zebra. 

Leeloo has an incredibly rare form of cancer which is virtually unheard of in horses, some sort of leukemia or lymphoma, at this point the cancer is all throughout her lymph system and in her bone marrow. My vet had combed through every paper she could and only found two ever written regarding this type of cancer in equines and between both papers there were only 18 documented horses. We are now in uncharted waters, and not the good kind with adventure and treasure, but the kind with hidden shoals and terrible currents that sink your ship and kill everyone. There aren’t any documented treatment options or even palliative care options. At this point all we can do is try our best to keep her as comfortable as we can until it is time to say goodbye. We are both hoping we can get Leeloo through the weekend and give me time to wrap my head around it and have a chance to spend some time with her as well as figure out what to do with Juniper, who cannot stay at our house by herself. This would also give the vet a chance to figure out if the University can take Leeloo afterwards to do a necropsy for research purposes since this is such a rare form of cancer for horses.

Our strategy for palliative care is regular doses of banamine and a daily dose of a steroid. My neighbor is able to give IM (intermuscular) injections and is willing to come every day to give the shots as long as Leeloo stays with us. We give our third dose of banamine for the day and our first dose of steroid and hope they make a difference.

That night I go out to offer Leeloo more water and to make sure she has easy to reach hay and leave the water buckets by the shelter so she doesn’t have to walk as far. The steroid and the banamine don’t seem to be doing much because her breathing is still labored, she still feels fevered, and her overall demeanor is weak and lethargic.

Thursday May 11 – Leeloo’s birthday.

Leeloo is in even worse condition than the day before. It takes her two hours to walk from the shelter area up to the hayboxes and water area which is where Juniper was. She takes one single staggering shaky step and then pauses for about five minutes to catch her breath before taking the next. We offer her breakfast, but she doesn’t eat any. She is willing to eat some grass out of our hands and at this point is willing to eat apples and carrots and hay pellets from us again but that’s about all she will eat. She can’t seem to reach her head down into the water tank so we bring water to her. Her breathing is really labored.

I text the vet and tell her I don’t think Leeloo will make it to Friday and I think we need to say goodbye today. I find myself unable to say the words “put her down.” Vet makes some calls and says that she can get someone out today from her office but the truck to pick up Leeloo’s remains can’t make it until Friday so she would have to sit under a tarp in our yard all day. That is too much for me. The thought of killing her on her birthday and then letting her sit under a tarp in the hot sun all day only to be potentially eaten by the bears and coyotes that I know are in the park across the street are just too much for me and I can’t do it. I ask if giving her two doses of steroid might help her make it to tomorrow and she says that if one dose didn’t do much giving two in one day won’t either, but that giving her a double dose at one time might. The neighbor comes over again to give her the double dose and it does make her more able to move and increases her appetite a bit. Leeloo and Juniper make it back to the shelter area from the hay area in only 15 minutes and she is actually eating hay, however her breathing is still incredibly labored and now she is sweating profusely.

Thursday afternoon she is incredibly lethargic, uninterested in eating hay, very labored breathing, and when she does try to move is very shaky. I spend the afternoon sponging her down and brushing her.

This next part is upsetting, and I am going to go into detail so you may want to stop reading at the end of this paragraph and skip the next one. I have gone back and forth about whether I should write it or not but I decided I should because (a) I’m hoping it will help get the memories out of my head so I can please stop reliving them and (b) part of what made this all so terrible was that I had no frame of reference. I have never had a horse through the end of their life, they always moved on to their next earthly human family not into death and I have never seen anyone fight for their life and then die. My hope is that if you read this and then have to deal with your own loss of a loved one it will, if nothing else, offer at least a tiny bit of mental preparation. Or not. Death is part of the natural order of the world, but it can also really suck.


Warning this part is rough –

Thursday night around 9:30 PM I go out to check on Leeloo and offer her more water and hay pellets. She is laying down in one of the shelter bays and I can see from the marks in the dirt that she had been thrashing. The shine of my light seems to startle her and she tries to get up in a very panicky manner and can’t actually get up at first. She struggles a lot and eventually gets her butt into the corner of the shelter and uses that to get all the way up but she is standing with legs splayed and shaking and the look in her eye is panicky and unfocused and her breathing is incredibly labored. Once it seems like she isn’t going to collapse again I give her another dose of banamine and offer her more water and she drinks the whole bucket. I leave one of my lights in the shelter and go back up to get more water. When I get back she has managed to get herself into a different shelter bay that doesn’t have a light with her head facing into the corner and she seems slightly less panicked but is still quivering and unsteady. I text the vet that she isn’t going to make it to Friday and we need someone to come out tonight. Vet says she is on call and will be there as soon as she can but it will be a bit. I ask if giving her another dose of steroid would help her make it to the vets visit and she doesn’t think so but said it can’t hurt anything to try so I text the neighbor to see if she can come over. I’m pretty upset but also afraid to get close to Leeloo because she is so very unsteady and if she falls and flails she could easily hurt or even kill me if she got a hoof in the wrong spot in her thrashing. Neighbor comes and we give the second double dose of steroid that day. The first double dose in the morning seemed to kick in pretty fast (within 10-15 minutes) so we’re waiting to see what happens. Our neighbor heads back to her house to get everything ready to bring Juniper over once Leeloo is gone and to get some panels to help us protect Leeloo from any potential scavengers. Shortly after the neighbor leaves Leeloo turns around in the shelter bay which was the most terrible series of jerky and uncoordinated movements I have seen and she is shaking all over and her eyes once again look panicked and unfocused and she is struggling so hard to breathe. I am distraught and sobbing and telling her it’s okay and she can lay down, and please baby just lay down. Nate reminds me that Leeloo takes her cues off of me and that if I am upset and panicky it is not going to help her so I try to calm myself down and stop sobbing but just keep telling her that it is going to be okay and she should just lay down and its okay to stop fighting and if she has to go she can go and I’ll be okay, and please just lay down. She eventually stumbles out of the shelter bay and collapses on the ground which also makes Juniper panic a bit. Once Leeloo seems like she is still I approach her head slowly and stroke her ears and face and tell her its okay, she can go, and I’ll be okay. She managed to collapse right on the remains of the winter poop pile so Nate goes to get me a piece of cardboard to sit on and Juniper’s halter and lead rope. He holds Juniper while I kneel on the cardboard stroking Leeloo’s face and ear. Then the trashing begins. It started with her legs so I was able to get out of the way because then she just started thrashing so badly with her whole body I would have been seriously hurt had I not moved. I’m not sure if it was convulsing or seizing. I have been told that if she was struggling to breathe for that long the depleted oxygen levels in her brain could have triggered a seizure. All I know is that she just kept slamming her head into the ground over and over again and the sound was just awful and I couldn’t possibly get close enough to touch her and I felt like I was abandoning her when she needed me most. So we just stood there, Nate holding Juniper and me and I just tried to stay as calm as I could and talk to her as I listened to her slam her head into the ground again and again. Eventually the thrashing stopped and the sounds of labored breathing stopped.


You can come back now

I slowly approached her head and placed my hand by her nose, I felt a last small stirring of air but then that was it. I was still crouched by her head stroking her ear when the neighbor came back. She confirmed that she had stopped breathing and I texted the vet that it was too late and that Leeloo was gone.

The neighbors were very supportive, they helped us get her tail and cover her with some drop cloths and secure them. Then they took Juniper with them so she could have a sleepover with their ponies while I figured out what to do next, which for now was going into the house to cry a lot.

Friday May 12

Nothing disturbed Leeloo’s remains that night and the truck came to bring her to the U for the necropsy. He was able to get in to get her without us having to take down the fence and we were able to stay in the house and not watch.


And here we are, my baby girl is gone and my heart is broken. Not sure when we will get further results from the U, not that it matters for us, but I hope if nothing else it adds to the body of knowledge and the next horse and human who have to go through this have at least some clue of what to expect. My biggest regret is that I wasn’t strong enough to have the vet out to euthanize her earlier in the day before it got so bad. So that was my last lesson from Leeloo – when you know in your heart that it is time to say goodbye you need to do it. It doesn’t matter what day it is, it doesn’t matter what the weather is, it doesn’t matter if there is something that will make it harder for you. I should have had the vet out during the day on Thursday and didn’t and I will always regret that. But I know Leeloo has already forgiven me for this mistake, just like she forgave me for every other mistake I ever made. Horses are the most amazing animals and there is so much they can teach us and I don’t even have the words.

I will miss her forever but her lessons and her love will also live with me forever.