When the Colorado Great Pyrenees Rescue was still fully functioning to take in dogs, Dawn & Ken hardly turned a dog away. Some rescues only take "highly adoptable" dogs, and that was never the case with CGPR. They took dogs with broken legs, tumors, heart worm disease, gun shot wounds, you name it. And, of course, dogs with heart conditions.
In 2009, two tiny pups came into the rescue. They were found abandoned in a snow storm and left to fend for themselves. Affectionately named Fluffy (the girl) and Tuffy (the boy), they entered the rescue and quickly found homes, as puppies are tend to do. Tuffy had a heart murmur, and needed further diagnostics before he was adopted out. Upon taking him to a specialist, it was determined he had severe Subaortic Stenosis, and a grade 6 murmur. His prognosis was to live to be 2 years old. In a nutshell, Aortic Stenosis describes a condition where there is narrowing (stenosis) in the heart which causes jet lesions and thickening of the heart wall, which eventually leads to sudden death or congestive heart failure. Dogs with mild conditions can lead relatively normal lives, but severe cases can be marked by fainting, lethargy, and exercise intolerance prior to true heart failure. Naturally, they need to be on medication to slow their blood pressure, and blood work done every 6 months to ensure optimal liver & kidney function which can be impaired by prolonged drug use.
Tuffy found a woman who loved him, and he lived with her for 5 months. She was unable to keep him, and he returned to the rescue. By this point, he was 10 months old and had, in theory, a year of life left. I took Tuffy, renamed Cahota by his previous owner, and agreed to foster him. Fostering is hard in general, but very rewarding. I took Cahota to adoption events, where he quickly won hearts of many. He is sweet, handsome; a great boy. When I disclosed his condition, people retracted and lost interest. I can't blame them.. to love an animal so deeply and intensely, knowing your time is so limited, is tough. I told Dawn when he was over 1 year old, I would keep him. He deserves to know a real family, and sitting up for adoption too long was more heartbreaking than his prognosis.
I recall the last adoption event I attempted to take him to. It was time to go; to throw on the "adopt me" vest and meet Dawn at the event. He was playing in my back yard, in the snow, with our 2 other dogs. Nope. I'm not asking him to stop playing today. Not today, not ever. Cahota became ours. Before truly committing, I had to run it by my boyfriend who I live with. Concerned, because I am a big softie, he was sure to ask me all the key questions. "Are you sure you can do this? It's not going to be easy." I answered, no.. I wasn't sure. But, it didn't matter. Nothing was going to lessen my grief when that day was to come, but also, I am in school to be a veterinary technician and have a clear understanding of his condition.
Cahota, who I affectionately call "Coatsy", is now 19 months old, and doing well. As a lazy breed, I am not quick to see signs of lethargy or exercise intolerance, as that pretty much can look like most Pyrs, especially ones a little older. Cahota already also has allergies, but in addition I learned shortly into having him that he has bi-laterally luxating patellas (both knee caps pop out). At first it was just one, but now they are both luxated. My sweetie is from the land of misfit dogs! Typically this condition is never left untreated, and surgery is the best option for correction. Without correction, they are at risk of tearing the ligaments there, should their knee pop out at the wrong time. He cannot undergo surgery due to his heart, so we had to get him on an anti-inflammatory/analgesic drug to help alleviate the swelling. His drug has worked wonderfully, and he only pops out infrequently now. My veterinarian assured me that I can pop them back in as needed, and Cahota actually will look to me and lean in for me to do this for him! He knows "mom" always makes him feel better. For his allergies, I give him fish oil pills and they work wonders. I didn't want to give him Benadryl or any other drug, as his poor liver is already processing two other drugs as it is. My Coatsy is made of spare parts, but it's okay because I have a ton of spare love.
Through all the special needs dogs we have seen with this rescue, I wish more people were inclined to consider them. The reality is, is that we never know how much time we have. Certain disease conditions, such as cancer, can hit young and we can never anticipate them. I wouldn't suggest a special needs dog whose condition is fatal for someone as their first dog, as I fear the experience may put them off of dogs forever once the inevitable happens. In my head, I remind myself that every creature has a life expectancy, and Coatsy's is 2. It's sad he, and dogs like him, won't get more.. but they still need you. And you never know.. he may give me a lot more years! Coatsy's gift to me every day, is that I am constantly reminded of how little time we have together, and I always give him an extra hug and kiss, on top of the approximately 1,290 he probably already gets! I look at my other 2 dogs, and then I give them extra ones too.
Update, March 3rd, 2012:I have been working for a veterinary cardiologist. We took Coatsy in recently to get him a check up. We learned that his condition had not progressed very much, and he was doing good! I attribute the lack of disease progression in part to his breed: Great Pyrenees are sleepy dogs, so he doesn't frequently exert his heart. He still has severe subaortic stenosis, mild mitral valve regurgitation and mild aortic insufficiency. While still at risk for sudden death and bacterial endocarditis (part of his heart is thickened, not allowing for 'safe' passage of bacteria that may enter his blood through an infected wound... so infections or surgery are still potentially life-threatening) my board certified Cardiologist feels he is not at risk for Congestive Heart Failure for up to 3 years!!!
The most important thing I've learned working in cardiology is that heart failure isn't an immediate death sentence. It sounds ominous, but it can be treated and controlled for potentially considerable lengths of time. A dog can come out of failure for a period of time and live somewhat healthy. While his heart can never be 'fixed', I know with great care I can manage his condition and manage his disease through heart failure and get more time with my Coatsy.