Several times each day, Savannah Amberson’s 8-month-old German Shepherd puppy, Eli, prepares for a meal.
He wriggles backward to sit upright on his haunches in a wooden doggie highchair while Amberson places his front paws on a tray equipped with a built-in bowl.
It’s an adorable trick. And it’s also the only way that Eli, afflicted with a condition known as megaesophagus, can keep a meal down.
Amberson, a vet tech at Ada Animal Hospital in Southwest Boise, first met Eli when the pup was only a few weeks old. He was brought into the clinic by breeders when they noticed he was vomiting his puppy food and failing to grow at the same rate as the rest of his litter.
Tests found that Eli was suffering from persistent right aortic arch, a “ring anomaly” in the heart that constricted his esophagus.
“It’s a pretty common condition in large breed dogs, but he has one of the more extreme cases we’ve seen,” said Amberson, who took over fostering the puppy when his original owners decided they could no longer care for him.
Amberson syringe-fed Eli every two hours for months as they trudged through a series of surgeries to correct his PRAA and, they hoped, to restore his stretched-out esophagus to a point where he would be able to digest food normally.
Amberson raised about $1,500 through a GoFundMe campaign to send Eli to WestVet veterinary surgeon Sean Murphy so that the doctor, who had seen similar cases, could adjust the dog’s esophagus. Ada Animal Hospital’s Dr. Wayne Loertscher footed the rest of the discounted surgery bill, but the news was less than ideal.
“His esophagus was as big as it was supposed to be, but the muscles had died,” Amberson said. She started to wonder whether euthanasia would be the best option for Eli, who was still severely underweight and, at times, being fed through a feeding tube.
When surgery could only take Eli so far, Ada Animal Hospital called on yet another friend — Dan Sherwin, whose sister, Candy Sherwin, is practice manager at Ada Animal Hospital — to devise a more innovative solution. They wanted a Bailey Chair, a tailored throne (named for the inventors’ dog, Bailey, who spurred the idea) that allows a dog to sit upright as he eats so that gravity can help pull the food through the dog’s digestive system.
A software developer by trade, Dan Sherwin also has an interest in woodworking. After long discussions with Eli’s vets, taking detailed measurements of the pup and doing some precise calculations, he drew up plans for Eli’s very own Bailey Chair — one the underdeveloped shepherd could hopefully grow into.
“If the chair doesn’t fit the dog, it can actually be a detriment,” Sherwin said. “To be effective, each one has to be measured to each dog. That was the scary part — getting it all right.”
Eli’s chair is made of pine wood with red vinyl padding. His name is in red letters.
After more than a month with the chair, Eli has become a pro at backing into the seat. Amberson then closes the cabinet-like door on the chair and places his bowl in the feeding tray.
It’s the sitting still part for 10 minutes or so after meals (so food can make its way down his digestive tract) that’s hard for a curious, energetic young dog.
“This solution ... gives him a semi-normal life — for a dog in a highchair,” Amberson said with a laugh.
Just shy of 40 pounds now, Eli has gained much of his weight since using the Bailey Chair. His progress has inspired Dan Sherwin to set up an Etsy store to design Bailey Chairs for other dogs. He hasn’t had any clients yet, but Eli’s success is reward enough for now.
“Knowing (Eli’s) basically alive because of some part I played in it ... it’s the best feeling in the world,” Dan Sherwin said.
“I think it’s important to know that there’s always something we can do, and the least you can do is fight for them because they can’t fight for themselves,” Amberson said.
To buy a chair
Dan Sherwin’s Etsy store, named DansMill, offers options for customizable Bailey Chairs for dogs with conditions similar to Eli’s. Visit etsy.com/shop/dansmill.