Saving SpongeBob

February 9, 2010

By Kate Kuzminski, DVM

The cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants is exceptionally outgoing and energetic, and one could imagine that a dog named after him would be equally as vibrant. But the mixed-bred Rez dog we recently met was nothing like her namesake when she came to the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) Clinic on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

Although they said she was about 5 years old, she had already had multiple litters of pups and looked, and seemed, much older.

Life is hard for Rez dogs, and SpongeBob was living proof. While the other dogs in the clinic bounced around in excitement, SpongeBob was quiet, lethargic and somewhat disinterested. She was underweight and limping on her hind left leg. There was pus draining from what looked like bite wounds and her abdomen sagged.

Complications arise

SpongeBob gets a new lease on life thanks to HSVMA-RAVS.

Although she came to us to be vaccinated and spayed, we were suspicious that SpongeBob had Ehrlichiosis—one of the diseases commonly seen on our trips to the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache Reservations in Arizona.

Transmitted by the brown dog tick, this bacterial disease suppresses bone marrow function and causes abnormal red blood cells and platelet production. Dogs who are unable to fight the infection experience enlarged lymph nodes, fever and decreased appetite, and ultimately can become anemic and develop bleeding problems from this life-threatening condition.

As we thought, SpongeBob's blood test was positive for Erlichia. Not only that, but she was also positive for heartworm disease, a serious illness transmitted by the mosquito. These diagnoses put her at risk for surgery, as did her poor general condition.

Taking a risk

We explained the situation to her family and discussed the potential anesthetic and surgical risks.

After careful consideration, they felt that in the long run, the benefit of having her spayed far outweighed the potential surgical risk. They loved her, and trusted that we would do everything we could to ensure a safe surgery.

We started treatment for the Ehrlichiosis and heartworm disease immediately, and decided that it would be best for the family to come to our next clinic on the San Carlos Apache Reservation—a 2 ½ hour drive away—to reassess her condition. It was a risk; we knew we faced the possibility that we wouldn't see her again.

Successful outcome

Luckily, a week later, SpongeBob was back to see us. Her family had left at 6 a.m. in order to arrive at the clinic early. They had rubbed her with anointing oil and prayed for a safe surgery.

Two veterinarians performed the surgery, which went quickly and without complication. It was discovered during the procedure that she was in the early stages of another pregnancy, which would have been a huge physical burden on her already weakened state.

She recovered like a trooper, eating that night as if her food was the best thing she had ever tasted. Not only had we treated her life-threatening illnesses, but we ensured that her body would not suffer from future nutritional deficiencies as she attempted to carry yet another pregnancy.

The next day, she went back home to her loving family—a family who had made a 5 hour road trip to give their dog the best care available to them.

Improving lives

Our experience with SpongeBob embodied the true spirit of the HSVMA-RAVS program—giving families an opportunity to help their dogs or cats, despite the extreme financial, educational, environmental or geographical challenges they may face.

It's about partnerships and improving the life of a resilient Rez dog, a dog who somehow managed to beat the odds and survive the diseases, parasites, nutritional inadequacies and other life-threatening circumstances that a hard life on a reservation throws at her.

We made a critical and substantial impact on the life of this dog. Had HSVMA-RAVS not been there, she might not have made it. We changed her life, and we changed her family's life—something which we are all very proud to have been a part of.

Dr. Kate Kuzminski is a staff veterinarian with HSVMA-RAVS and a frequent volunteer with Veterinarians Without Boarders in Guatemala.