Itching For a Second Chance

June 18, 2009

By Eric Davis, DVM

HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) staff and volunteers address a host of animal health concerns in the remote, rural communities in which we work. Dog and cat overpopulation, infectious diseases like distemper and parvovirus, internal parasites, and evidence of neglect are common problems in these places.

However, one of the most grievous conditions plaguing the dogs on the reservations or "rez dogs", as well as the street dogs and strays of the world, is plain old mange.

A mite-y big problem

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These pups are just two of many reservation dogs that suffer from untreated mange.
Dr. Jennifer Scarlett/HSVMA

The fact is that mange mites—tiny creatures related to spiders and ticks—cause unimaginable misery to animals in the poorer corners of this planet. Just think about little, spiny critters chewing into your skin or wriggling down the shafts of your hair follicles!

The intense itching that mange causes drives dogs to chew and scratch until they are raw and bleeding. These sores then become infected, and many mange sufferers progress to having enlarged lymph nodes and a fever.

Additionally, because of fear of spreading the condition to humans—which may or may not be well-founded, depending on the type of mite—the dogs become pariahs. They are chased away from homes where they get food and gradually lose weight and become weaker. As the mange worsens, they find themselves in nasty downward spiral into abandonment and death.

Fred, the HSVMA Rez Dog Consultant, who is currently sleeping comfortably on the couch next to me at this writing, had a good case of mange when I picked him up some years ago on the White Mountain Apache reservation. His muzzle still shows some of the scars, though the parasites are long gone.

On the HSVMA-RAVS yearly series of clinics at White Mountain this June, the team used a lot of microscope slides and mange medication to diagnose and treat this ancient malady. It is particularly sad, because modern anti-parasitic medication is very effective and very safe at curing mange.

Unfortunately, these remedies are also unavailable and too expensive in places where they would be most useful.

Two abandoned pups in need

The worst of the mange cases this year were unquestionably two abandoned puppies, dubbed Itchy and Scratchy by our team for obvious reasons. They were dropped off in a dirty cardboard box at the clinic door of the Rainbow Community Center, where the HSVMA-RAVS team—under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Scarlett—was working.

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CSU student volunteer, Liz Georges, gives these pups some much needed TLC.
Dr. Jennifer Scarlett/HSVMA

Weak, nearly bald, and covered with sores, they were two of the most pathetic animals we had ever seen. However, their luck was about to turn around.

In order to ensure that they could handle the treatment for mange, lab work was done, followed by administration of IV fluids and dextrose to combat dehydration and hypoglycemia, as well as Benadryl to stave off the intense itching.

They were then started on a course of anti-parasitic medication for external and internal parasites and enjoyed a nice, warm medicated bath—and of course, some puppy chow, laced with some tasty scraps.

Over the span of a week, they went from miserable and lethargic to active, playful puppies with amazing speed. They became favorites with the student volunteers, who gave them enough attention and care to share with a couple dozen dogs.

These two dogs were on their way to a much better life, but it gets even better.

A long, but happy road ahead

Dr. Scarlett is also the Associate Veterinary Director for the San Francisco SPCA, one of the largest and most successful local animal protection organizations in the country.

Every time she leads a trip for HSVMA-RAVS, she is able to bring a number of abandoned animals back to San Francisco, for guaranteed adoption to well-screened, loving homes. For this trip, the count of lucky dogs was 28, I believe.

On the last day of the clinic, Itchy and Scratchy were loaded into a well-bedded kennel—with their favorite toys—for the 16 hour ride to California. In addition to exceptional veterinary care and a new home, they also got to meet Fred, the dog to which all puppies from the White Mountain Reservation aspire to become.

Dr. Scarlett's car had been kept at our house in Salinas during the clinic, so in the early hours of Sunday morning, she and Cara Yanussi, her co-pilot, arrived with the load of puppies, all of whom were ready for a potty break. Our dogs Ginger and Fred were there to greet them and show them the yard—and of course, mentor them in their new lives.

No doubt, as their difficult skin conditions continue to heal, Itchy and Scratchy will go on to loving homes in San Francisco, with plenty of toys and couches. And they just might give their new owners the same direction and guidance, as well as unconditional love, that Fred has given me.

It doesn't get much better than that. I think I'll give Fred another cookie.

Dr. Eric Davis developed the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program in 1995 and has served as mentor and inspiration to hundreds of young veterinary professionals over the years. He continues his hard work in the field and is currently a consultant for the program.