When I first told my best friend Serena that I was going to become a foster parent for Muttville Senior Dog Rescue she literally laughed in my face saying “there’s no way you’ll be able to give up a dog!” Two years later, I am proud of the nearly one dozen dogs for whom my home has provided a safe haven before passing on to their forever families (or, in the case of my darling Franny, passing out of this world). But last week, Serena’s prophecy finally came true; I found a dog I couldn’t give up.
In dog rescue terms, a foster family that ends up adopting their charge is called a “failed foster” – good for the pet, bad for the organization who depends on foster families to rescue dogs from shelters with low resources and high euthanasia rates. Over the last couple of years I’ve run in to a number of people who have told me they “used” to foster or “tried” fostering but just couldn’t let go of the dog they were supposed to care for “temporarily.” I completely understand this. I’ve fallen in love with every single one of my foster dogs – gentle Cassie, spunky Layla, loveable Arkie… And the longer they stay, the harder it becomes to imagine your life without them. I still regret giving up Debbie, the toothless ten pound Pomeranian that lived with me for four months.
But there is something about Ginny that is different. She came to me as a skinny, frightened creature. She had big patches of scabs on her back and stomach and a ratty, hairless tail. Deaf, missing half an ear, and dragging her right hind leg, if you had told me three months ago that this was the dog for who would be my fostering kryptonite, I wouldn’t have believed you. But Ginny has blossomed over the months in to a fluffy and charming little lady. She now knows several commands (taught using hand signals, of course) and is even learning to enjoy the car, a thing she first feared. Ginny is far from perfect – we will be managing her on-leash reactivity issues for the rest of her life – but the thought of her soulful brown eyes looking up at some other guardian just broke my heart… Completely by accident Ginny found her forever home.
I failed this time around, I admit, but if my past record is any indication, I have a dozen more dogs to look forward to fostering in the future!
It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon as Ginny and I crossed the Bay Bridge headed to Walnut Creek for a Muttville adoption event*. Two different families were interested in meeting my sweet girl and our hopes were high. Ok, well Ginny’s hopes were probably at the same level as usual, but mine were soaring – there is never any rhyme or reason as to why some dogs are adopted more quickly than others. At one month and counting, Ginny has been with me longer than any foster dog since Franny.
Adoption events are high stress environments for dogs. Many are overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar furry bodies smooshed together in a small space and each handles this stress differently; some dogs get barky, some become overstimulated and can’t settle down, others prefer to curl up somewhere quiet and ignore the chaos. The most energetic dogs, however, are often those that have not yet visited the vet to be neutered. These new arrivals to Muttville are not just dealing with the excitement and stress of losing their homes but with years of testosterone surging unchecked through their doggie bodies.
Dogs like Buddy, a 15-year old Aussie mix that arrived at Muttville this week from a broken home and a history of neglect, spend the adoption event trying to get close to the eligible ladies and posturing around the more high-strung males. Muttville, like nearly all rescue organizations and shelters, spay and neuter their pets prior to adopting them out. In part, this is to slow down the cycle of dogs producing puppies that eventually turn in to unwanted dogs that wind up right back in the shelter. But neutering and spaying is not to stem the tide of needy dogs, it also has health and behavior benefits.
In male dogs, the second leading form of cancer is testicular and enlargement of the prostate effects 60% of intact males over the age of five. The most common malignant tumors in female dogs are found in the mammary glands. It is more than three times more likely that an unspayed female will develop mammary cancer than a spayed female. The strong desire to roam to find sexual partners in both male and female dogs is also greatly decreased by spaying and neutering. In urban and suburban environments, dogs that roam are much more likely to be wounded or killed by cars than those that stay put. Spaying and neutering can decrease wanderlust but up to 90%!
And then there is the matter of behavior. Neutering and spaying has not been proven to decrease play, activity or the desire for affection and attention. It has, however, been proven to decrease aggression and behaviors such as mounting which can quickly deteriorate from play to fight. It also decreases inappropriate peeing such as excessive marking. There are very few risks associated with spaying and neutering adult dogs**, besides the unavoidable risk of the anesthesia the dog receives to undergo the surgery. Since breeding becomes dangerous for females over the age of 8, spaying may curb the slew of potential problems that could arise there, as well (such as ruptured uterine walls). Once spaying and neutering in an adult is complete, it will take a few weeks for testosterone and estrogen levels to drop and, during that time, your dog may continue to display intact behaviors like wandering and mounting.
A dog is essentially never too old to reap benefits from spaying and neutering. And if it’s the look of an intact male dog you worry about losing, check out neuticles – prosthetic testicular implants made just for dogs!
**There is some evidence that neutering a dog too young leads to health problems that may include distorted bone structure, hyperthyroidism, and obesity, though not all veterinarians agree that there is a link.
Friday afternoon I got a text from Annie at Muttville that a sweet little Border Collie mix just came in and needed an immediate foster home. That evening I went to Muttville Manor to pick her up. When I walked through the front door half a dozen fuzzy little creatures came to great me, but none fit the description of my new girl. Sherri led me back to the kitchen to find a little black dog curled up on a soft bed in the corner. She was asleep and barely lifted her head when we walked over to her.
Ginny was found starving in a ditch it Grass Valley. Apparently her owner passed away and the family, instead of doing something humane like dropping her at a shelter, left her to die. Ginny is deaf and one of her ears was either deformed from birth or was damaged in some kind of unintentional (or, god forbid, intentional) accident. Ginny has hyperthyroidism and is on an anti-fungal medication. She is itchy; her underbelly is scaly and hairless and in the spots she has fur, it only thinly covers a flaky, dry mess of skin. Ginny is also significantly under weight. Her skin is loose and her ribs are too visible. Ginny stole my heart immediately because she looks much like the dogs that overrun rural Central America – starving mutts with thinning hair, desperately trying to appease anyone that might give them food rather than kick them or hit them with a stick.
It is always hard to understand why someone would give up an animal but there are many reasons that could be considered legitimate. But to abandon an animal, to leave it to starve, confused and frightened, is downright cruel. This is what happened to Ginny. This gentle, loving soul was betrayed by the humans she thought were good…
And then, she was found. She was taken to the vet and nursed back to health. She put on a little weight and, when it was time, Muttville took her in. After almost 48 hours with her, the light is already coming back in to Ginny’s eyes and with a medicated bath and a good brushing yesterday she is looking quite handsome. Ginny is a great sleeper but she’s also quite an active girl. She has an independent streak – she isn’t afraid to be in a separate room alone – but she has already begun to ask to be let up on the couch or bed to snuggle warmly against me. Ginny is fully house broken and today I discovered she likes toys! Ginny is a food monster and can’t get enough of any yummy treat that may come her way. Many dogs that have experienced starvation guard their food; Ginny doesn’t seem to be showing that behavior but she did give me a growl when I got too close to the Bully Stick she was happily chomping on. Ginny was overwhelmed by the half a dozen dogs in her face at Muttville Manor, growling to warn them to back off, but in a relaxed environment, like meeting another pup on the street, she has had no trouble at all. I predict that in the next week or two, Ginny will become increasingly playful and loving. She walks nicely on a leash and, although she has a small limp on her rear right leg, it doesn’t seem to bother her. Once her health improves, I imagine she will be a pro-walker.
Ginny is a wonderful senior dog that deserves a forever home where she will be appreciated for her sweet nature. For more information, visit Muttville’s website!
Bruno’s adoption would have happened a day earlier had it not been for something I had noticed over the preceding days: this treat monster kept refusing to eat his meals. In the beginning, I thought that maybe his teeth were bothering him – he had eight pulled two weeks prior. I switched to feeding him only wet food to see if that would help. It didn’t. When he did eat, it was gingerly. He seemed to have trouble picking it up out of the bowl and often dropped it from his mouth. It was a bit better when I fed him little meatballs of wet food by hand but he still wasn’t exhibiting the eagerness I would have expected, given how interested in treats he was.
On Monday morning, I made him an appointment at Pets Unlimited to have his teeth checked out. Lynette was scheduled to meet Bruno that evening and I wanted to know what was going on, and get him the treatment he needed, before he began his new life. Dr. Sierra greeted us warmly and listened closely to the problem but when he tried to look in to his mouth, Bruno gave an ominous growl. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘we are going to have to bring him in to the back to sedate him so I can get a good look inside.’ He said he could reverse the sedation but that Bruno would probably be pretty dopey for most of the evening. When Bruno disappeared in to the bowels of the pet hospital, I called Lynette to postpone our meeting until the following day. I wanted her to see Bruno in his best light, not as a groggy little man.
Over an hour later, as Bruno was waking up from the sedation, Dr. Sierra came out to describe what was going on. He saw what he believed was a secondary infection from his teeth extraction two weeks ago. He showed me a photo of the inside of his mouth where he had big angry rash-type spots blooming on the inside of his lips in the same spot Dr. Sierra had tried to lift earlier that afternoon. He suspected that the antibiotic Bruno was given following his dental work was a type resistant to this kind of secondary infection and put him on a course of a different form of antibiotic and painkiller/anti-inflammatory.
When a dog refuses to eat, especially one that is a vacuum cleaner like Bruno, a few things might be going on…and none of them are good. Dogs that are highly stressed will refuse to take food; but this is usually triggered by an outside stimulus (a scary environment, an evil stranger, a ornery dog) and is often accompanied by other signs of stress including lip licking, yawning, stiff posture, and a tight facial expression. The other possible reasons are health related. In Bruno’s case, his refusal to eat was directly associated with pain in his mouth but not eating can also be caused by other kinds of pain – internal or external. In general, if your dog refuses to eat or shows a major change in his eating behavior in non-stressful conditions, it is probably worth it to take him to the vet to try to determine what is going on. Unfortunately, if the pain is not in the mouth, this can be difficult…especially if the refusal to eat is related to something like cancer.
When a technician brought Bruno out for me a few minutes later, the poor guy could hardly walk he was so out of it. When he got to me, he splayed out on the floor with his head on my knee. I scooped up all 35 lbs of him and struggled two blocks to the car. When I set him inside he looked at me and jumped back, startled, as if he hadn’t spent the last ten minutes like a bowling ball in my arms. But by morning, Bruno was back to his old self – his mouth still in pain, but his eyes bright and his tail wagging, ready to be adopted later that day.
Congratulations to Bruno and Lynette and thanks to Muttville for saving this wonderful dog!
By the end of Thanksgiving, I felt ready to let Franny go. Well, not to let her go, but to open my home and my heart to another dog in need. The house feels strangely empty without a dog and, let’s face it, the cats are getting a little uppity without one here to give them the stink eye. So on Tuesday morning I contacted Muttville; eight hours later I met Bruno.
I picked Bruno up from a grooming session at Animal Care and Control in San Francisco. Clean and with a handsome new haircut, he greeted me (and the bits of hotdog in my hand) with a happy wag. Bruno appears to be a Corgi/German Shepherd mix. He has short little legs and a thick, long body with a deep chest, but his face and tail are all Shepherd. So is his thick, beautiful double coat!
Bruno came from the Stockton shelter and we aren’t sure what his story is. He’s a sensitive soul and is a bit guarded when it comes to unfamiliar hands groping his sensitive underbelly. Sadly, he was so stressed out in the shelter that this sensitivity became fear which looked to potential adopters like aggression; they had trouble getting near him in his cage. But after a week at Muttville manor, Bruno was a totally different dog: friendly, sweet, and mellow.
Bruno did very well with all the other dogs at the Muttville manor but I think he’s happy to rule his own roost here at my little zoo. He has done wonderfully with the cats, Osito and Phoebe; he even seems a little nervous about them (maybe he got too close to an angry claw in the past?) Bruno is a quiet and thoughtful guy – I haven’t yet heard him bark. He’s pretty independent but he also loves people. He enjoys sprawling out on the couch during t.v. time just as much as he loves to go on walks. At the dog park he did beautifully!
Bruno is 8-10 years old, weighs around 35lbs, and is available for adoption through Muttville Senior Dog Rescue! Can you give this happy little man a forever home for the holidays?
Last night, Franny lay her head on my knee and passed from this world.
Just a few days ago, Franny was her normal self. Tuesday morning we went for a hike in Glen Canyon and off-leash Franny went nuts running all over the hillsides, digging holes, stomping through the river…
On Wednesday we took a walk in Golden Gate Park; Thursday it was Alamo Square…
When Franny violently vomited on Friday morning, I assumed it was something gross she ate. She had eaten only half of her breakfast – fairly unusual for her – and I figured she must be feeling pretty nauseous. We went for a walk in the neighborhood around 11am and Franny moved slowly. Her cropped tail which she usually holds high and wags was low and still.
I left Franny for 90 minutes to walk another dog and when I returned she was laying by the front door waiting for me. I pulled out the remaining cheese from my treat-bag and offered it to her. She took the cheese I held out but when I dropped the remaining pieces in her food bowl she walked away from it. I turned from her food bowl and realized the whole floor of the kitchen was covered in vomit. An hour or two later, she walked in to the backyard, vomiting again.
The last week or so Franny’s shaking had increased. She would occasionally get shaky – sometimes before a meal or when she first woke up in the morning – but it was now coming much more frequently. On Friday she shook all day. When dinner time rolled around I offered Franny some plain white rice and cottage cheese, a combination vets recommend when dogs have digestion problems. She didn’t touch the food and when I took her out for a walk in the evening, she looked at me questioningly, standing at the top of the stairs of my building, then slowly made her way down. Once outside she just stood there. I coaxed her on and she took a few steps and stopped again. A few more steps and stops later, we turned and headed back home; we hadn’t even made it half a block to the end of the street.
After our walk, Franny couldn’t get comfortable. She was restless, getting up and standing awkwardly for several minutes at a time then laying down again, shifting around and shaking. I made a painkiller meatball for her and hoped it would help. When I offered her treats later that evening she ignored them.
The next morning was the same. I offered Franny another painkiller meatball and the remaining wet food I had, feeding it to her by hand. She ate the food and, bolstered by this slight improvement, I pulled out the cottage cheese, digging out bits with my fingers and giving it to her. After a few bites, she turned and walked back to her bed. Our attempt at a walk went much the same as it had the night before. Franny showed no interest in this activity which she adored; we didn’t get more than 50 meters from the house.
In the afternoon I called the 24-hr veterinary hospital at Pets Unlimited. I asked them “how do I know when it’s time?” They suggested I bring Franny in so I could consult with the vet. I called my dear friend Mark who has always been there for me in times of need and asked if he would come to help and he immediately agreed.
At 6pm we drove Franny to the vet and they had a private room ready for us. Dr. Villard joined us and asked me to recount the last 36 hours. I told him I was terrified that I was making this decision too early but more terrified that she might suffer. He said that what I was describing suggested to him it was the end – the increase in shaking was pain, the vomiting and refusal to eat was a tumor obstructing her organs (in stomach cancer, tumors will either burst causing blood in the urine and vomit or will grow to block normal functions). Dr. Villard told me that, though this was a personal choice, he, himself, would rather err on the side of early euthanasia than have the animal in deep pain. I found myself agreeing. For the last five months, I have done everything I could to make Franny’s last chapter the best it could be; to let her suffering increase would betray that effort.
At 6:45pm, Dr. Villard brought the lethal cocktail. I sat on the floor next to her, stroking her side as Dr. Villard injected the solution in to a catheter they had inserted in her front paw. As the drugs entered her body, Franny stretched her neck and we gently guided her head to my lap. Less than a minute later, Franny’s heart had stopped beating. She was gone.
Layla was adopted on Saturday night by a lovely young woman, Devi Feerick, who swooped her through the rain to her new home in Petaluma. Layla will join her new family – a 12-yr old Bichon, a kitty, mom and dad – to begin the rest of her life.
All rescue organizations and shelters charge fees for adoption that typically begin around $200; fees for puppy adoption can be much higher. So where does all that money go?
1) Grooming. Basic grooming can be done without a problem by rescue staff or foster parents but some dogs are pulled off the street or out of abusive homes in need of much more than just a brushing. Cassie, a beautiful Australian Shepherd I fostered in April, was so matted they had to shave her down completely.
2) Spaying and neutering. All responsible shelters and rescue organizations will spay or neuter the dogs they take in before they allow them to be adopted. This helps to cut down on the population of dogs in need of rescue. It also cuts down on potential health problems as the dog ages.
3) Vaccinations. All dogs are vaccinated prior to adoption to protect them from illnesses like rabies.
4) Dentistry. I have had several foster dogs with terrible, infected teeth in need of care. Debbie, a Pom I had last year, had to have all of her teeth removed because they were so terrible, turning her in to a gum smacking old lady…but a cute one. Animal dental care is ridiculously expensive – just a cleaning can be upwards of $300-400 – not to mention extractions.
5) Basic health care. In addition to all of these specifics, dogs that filter through shelters and rescue organizations often have health issues that range from worms to cancer. It is not unusual for a shelter/rescue to remove a limb to prevent the spread of cancer or to begin a dog on a long-term medical treatment for a permanent condition. And then there are the hospice dogs, like Franny, whose veterinary care will be taken care of until the end. In fact, if I needed them to, Muttville would also provide Franny with food and other basic necessities. Any time we pass by Muttville Manor, we end up with a trunk full of treats and other goodies that have been generously donated to the organization.
6) Day-to-day upkeep. This is more of an expense for shelters than rescues (although many rescues also keep several dogs at a time at their headquarters) that provide food, soft beds, toys, treats, and other necessities to keep their dogs as comfortable as possible.
In most cases, the $200 (or other similar fee) charged to adopters only begins to cover the expenses racked up by the dogs they rescue. So if it seems like a lot, remember that you are paying for the opportunity to adopt a healthy animal that (hopefully) will not have to return to the vet until its next check-up is due!