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Crippling disease forcing retirement for Armstrong K-9 Klif

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger
Armstrong County K-9 Officer Klif, pictured above with his handler, Detective Mark Heider, will be retired in three months because of a degenerative disease in his spine. Tuesday May 6, 2014

Armstrong County K-9 Officer Klif will retire within three months because veterinarians discovered he has a degenerative disease in his spine.

Tests at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in McCandless revealed that the 8-year-old German shepherd has canine degenerative myelopathy, an incurable and progressively crippling condition similar to Lou Gehrig's disease in humans.

“It's always difficult to see your partner retire under any circumstance,” said his handler, Detective Mark Heider. “You're always thinking we've got one more month, one more week, or even one more day. But the reality is Klif has a working life, which is now controlled by this disease.”

During the next three months, doctors believe the disease will weaken his hind legs to the point he will no longer be able to work. Heider took Klif to the doctors in April when Klif came up lame and he thought the dog had damaged several discs in his back.

Although doctors discovered several damaged discs, the disease is what led to weakness in his back legs.

There are no cures for the disease, and Klif's only treatment will be exercise, physical therapy and supplements, said Edward MacKillop, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center.

Typically, it takes the disease about eight to 10 months to paralyze a dog and can eventually cause problems with brain functions, MacKillop said.

“The sad answer is there isn't much that can be done for Klif,” MacKillop said. “There's no surgical or drug treatment available, and there's also no telling how quickly the disease will spread.”

The county's only K-9 officer will continue working until retirement but will be limited to odor detection searches in relatively flat areas. He won't be able to handle slippery or rugged surfaces and is prohibited from any kind of labor-intensive patrols, Heider said.

“It all depends on how he is when we need him,” Heider said. “Klif is going to have his good days and his bad days. We just have to be patient and let him take it at his own pace.”

Heider expects Klif to live the rest of his life at his home in Sarver. His life expectancy hinges on how quickly the disease spreads.

“We're not there, but all I can say is we'll cross that bridge whenever we come to it,” Heider said. “But making sure he has a good quality of life is going to be the main focus.”

In April, Heider started the Armstrong County DA K-9 Fund at Farmers & Merchant Bank to collect donations to cover Klif's medical bills, which are expected to exceed $5,500.

The fund is now being used for Klif's ongoing treatments and possibly to purchase, train and equip another K-9 officer for the county. Officials plan to apply for grant to get a new dog, Heider said. Klif was purchased by the county six years ago with a Department of Homeland Security grant.

“The idea of taking Klif off the street is not good, but I do take comfort knowing he was able to work for six years,” Heider said. “It's hard to think about, but no matter what, we need to have a dog in Armstrong County.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or

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