Greta's Gift - by John Sealander

When Greta initially arrived at our house, she was fifteen pounds underweight, wearing an e-collar and still suffering from one of the worst cases of ehrlichiosis we had ever seen. We thought at the time that providing a foster home for this gentle, very sick stray while she continued to receive medical treatment for a laundry list of ailments was a small gift that might help speed her recovery while she waited for the permanent home she deserved. Little did we know at the time that it was Greta herself who had the real gift to give.

Working with stray and abandoned Dalmatians can be a heart warming experience. It can also be heartbreaking. There are almost certainly hundreds of dogs like Greta waiting for almost certain euthanasia in animal shelters all over the country. These older, sick and almost always heartworm positive Dalmatians are often overlooked by people looking for a younger, healthier pet to adopt.

Greta's time was almost up when I initially saw her. Since she didn't meet the standards for the shelter's adoption program, animal control told me that she would be euthanized the next day if nobody claimed her. Greta certainly didn't appear to be in good shape. In truth, she was just skin and bones, but I just couldn't turn my back on her. I told animal control that I would take responsibility for the dog and after signing a few forms; Greta and I left the shelter and headed toward a future that although uncertain, had to be better than what she faced the next day at the city shelter.

Our first stop was the veterinarian. I was hoping for the best, but really didn't expect miracles. Greta was so thin that you could count every one of her ribs. I was hoping that this was just malnutrition, but as it turned out, she was suffering from a severe case of ehrlichia. This tick-born disease can literally cause an animal to waste away if left untreated. We immediately began the recommended treatment regime in hopes of getting her healthy enough to deal with her other medical problems.

The next few months were an uphill battle. Greta was a finicky eater and it was much harder than we thought to get her to gain weight. She also had a suspicious mass in her abdomen, but we couldn't do the necessary exploratory surgery because her blood was so anemic that any type of surgery was out of the question. We occasionally wondered whether we'd done that right thing to even try to save a dog like this, but usually all it took was one look into her face to convince us that she was worth whatever effort this undertaking was going to take.

Greta was a beautiful dog with an almost angelic face. It was hard to imagine how an animal like this had ended up emaciated and abandoned in a city pound. She quickly became a favorite of all the vets who were working to help her regain her health and return to a normal life. Greta was so sick that this was all touch-and-go for quite a while. We kept her kenneled at a veterinary clinic for several months so her condition could be closely monitored.

Very gradually, her condition appeared to improve. She began to eat regularly and gain weight. Although she had a resistant strain of Ehrlichia that didn't respond well to the normal doxycycline treatment, we continued to try alternative treatments and very slowly her blood chemistry began to improve. Everyone said that she still had the disease, but after about four months of treatment, her platelet count appeared normal enough that anemia was no longer a factor that put her at serious risk for surgery. We went ahead and had the suspicious tumor removed. When the pathology lab told us that the tumor was benign, everybody cheered.

It was after this surgery that Greta came to live with us. We initially thought that our own Dalmatian, Petey, might have problems with Greta. Petey has problems with just about everything. We had tried to introduce him to other dogs before, but for one reason or another, it had never worked. Petey is so neurotic, that after a few weeks, even the most tolerant and even-tempered of dogs was usually sick of him.

We weren't really worried though. In our minds, we were just keeping Greta until she fully recovered from her surgery and we were able to get her past all the damage caused by the Ehrlichia disease. We had plenty of crates and kiddy gates and knew, that at least on a short-term basis, we could keep the two dogs safe.

Greta didn't seem to know that this was the plan though. Even though she still had the big, ungainly e-collar around her neck to keep her from picking at her stitches, she seemed completely at home. She loved her meals, she liked the back yard, and no matter how crazy our neurotic Petey acted, his strange and unpredictable habits never seemed to faze her.

Greta wasn't food aggressive; she didn't seem to mind Petey's incessant barking, and even when his behavior was totally irritating, she simply ignored him. This had never happened before. Petey's unique combination of alpha male and generally neurotic behavior usually had a big influence on other dogs. A bad influence! When dogs were around Petey for any length of time, they barked more. They growled at joggers and bicycles. They became possessive about yellow tennis balls. They often became frightened of thunder and lightening.

None of this happened with Greta. Whatever Petey did, Greta simply went about her business and ignored him. She wasn't scared of Petey and would often climb up on the bed and take a nap right next to him. Since she was a picky eater anyway, she never seemed to mind that Petey always wanted to eat the last bit of kibble in her bowl.

Nothing dramatic happened at first. But over time, we began to notice something remarkable. Greta was actually starting to influence Petey's behavior. In her own weird way she was doing something that hundreds of dollars worth of training classes and behavior evaluations had been unable to accomplish. She was turning Petey into a nice dog!

After three or four months with Greta, the changes were dramatic. We could take a walk in the park without worrying about our dogs lunging at passing bicycles or growling at the neighbor's pets. Petey would wait patiently while Greta ate her dinner and Greta would always leave him the final scrap. The dogs would sleep right next to each other on our bed without any growling or fights over territory.

Maybe Petey knew Greta was sick. Or maybe he eventually just figured out she was right. With each passing month, the two dogs began to bond. Neither dog was very playful, but they both enjoyed sunning themselves in the back yard on a warm afternoon, or taking a nap together on the big low platform bed in the bedroom. As the danger of aggressive behavior began to fade, we were able to focus our attention on keeping both dogs healthy.

Petey had severe hip displacia and was already taking Rimadyl for pain. Other than his arthritic hips however, he was quite healthy. Greta's condition was more serious. Ehrlichiosis is often called "the AIDS of the canine world" and it's easy to see why. Dogs with severe cases of Ehrlichia often don't respond well to treatment. Unfortunately, by the time the disease has reached the third, or chronic, stage, it is often too late.

Veterinarians told us that they had never seen a more severe case of Ehrlichia than Greta's. After an initial six-week treatment with doxycycline, the current drug of choice, her blood chemistry showed no signs of improvement. We then repeated this treatment, and although the results this time were encouraging enough to proceed with the surgery she had needed, she still had the disease. After giving Greta time to recuperate from surgery and the massive amounts of antibiotics she has received, we tried a different type of treatment using injections of Imizol(r), a new drug that some researchers found promising. Following the series of Imizol(r) shots, we did a follow-up CBC blood panel and discovered that after everything we had done, Greta still had a high positive titer and showed signs that the disease was active in her body.

Our veterinarian suggested that we give her a rest. She told us that some dogs with chronic ehrlichiosis never did fully recover from the disease. This certainly wasn't what we wanted to hear, but since Greta was still gaining weight and appeared healthier than when we found her, we thought that with a good diet and frequent exams to monitor her condition, she still might be able to lead a normal life.

For the next several months, we practically forgot about the Ehrlichia. We discovered that the dogs rode well together in the car and we began to take them to new and different places for weekend walks and adventures. We had fun dressing them up for Christmas pictures and bought Greta countless plush toy animals that she loved to carry around in her mouth. Greta liked to get up a bit earlier than Petey and it was fun to watch how she gleefully greeted each new day.

When we brought Greta home to live with us, we never dreamed she would end up having such an influence on our life. Day-by-day she seemed to charm our grumpy Petey into becoming a better dog. Petey's internal spring had always been wound a little too tight. He overreacted to everything. A single squirrel in the back yard could send him into such a frenzy of frantic activity that after the chase was over, he would be limping for the rest of the day. Once he barked so long and so hard at some unknown danger that he gave himself kennel cough. Petey would growl if you touched his feet and had a bad habit of eating his own poop. Needless to say, Petey's irritating and unpredictable behavior tended to drive other dogs nuts.

Greta simply ignored his antics. Petey initially growled at Greta when she lay down on the bed next to him. When she didn't respond to Petey's vocal antics or try to challenge his occasionally aggressive behavior, I think he began to see that Greta was not a threat. She just didn't care what he did. The growling slowly ceased. When Greta got on the bed first, as she often did, Petey would just take his place beside her. Every once in a while I would see them curled up right next to each other. It might not have been love at first sight, but it was love. For the first time in his life, Petey had a friend.

What a difference a little trust can make. When Petey and Greta began to bond, our house became a much more enjoyable place to live. We could enjoy mealtimes without worrying whether a food fight would break out between the dogs. We could watch TV in the evenings without having to constantly place ourselves between the two dogs to keep them apart. Once an initial level of trust had been established, it was amazing to see how good the dogs were at sorting things out among themselves. The kind of behavior we were seeing is probably so normal it is taken for granted by most multi-dog families. With a neurotic, aggressive dog like Petey however, normal behavior was nothing short of a miracle.

Things were going so well that we decided to try one more time and see if it was possible to cure Greta's Ehrlichia disease once and for all. This time we tried doxycycline again, but at a much higher dose. Amazingly, this worked! After a month and a half of treatment, Greta's blood chemistry had finally returned to normal.

Life settled into a pleasant routine. Greta knew she had a home by now and her personality began to blossom. Unlike Petey, who loved large red rubber Kongs and chewing the skin off tennis balls, Greta liked soft plush toys. She wouldn't tear them apart like some Dalmatians we've had, but would just kind of gum them. Often she wouldn't chew them at all, but would just carry the stuffed animals from room to room and keep them near her. She also had her own special blanket that she dearly loved. Both dogs seem to know which toys were theirs and there was very little jealousy. Petey had no interest in Greta's growing stuffed animal collection and she didn't have strong enough jaw muscles to enjoy playing with Petey's industrial strength Kongs.

We began to suspect that Greta was even older than Petey. Since both dogs were strays when we adopted them, it was impossible to know their true age. Neither dog ever appeared younger than five or six years old, but there were times when each of them appeared much older. Greta certainly didn't have the teeth of a younger dog. Her front teeth were worn down practically to the gum line. Her apparent age certainly didn't detract from her appearance however. As her overall health improved and she began to approach her ideal weight, we couldn't take her out on a walk without someone commenting on what a beautiful dog she was. She loved all the attention, but of course this is just normal Dalmatian behavior. I haven't seen a Dalmatian yet who didn't enjoy being the center of attention.

Greta generally wasn't very playful, which is one of the reasons that she and Petey got along so well. She did have her moments though. Once or twice a week she would get a burst of energy and race around the house tossing her toys in the air and hopping on and off the bed with reckless abandon. Even though these moments didn't last long, you could tell she was having fun. Sometimes when her spirits were high like this, we would try to teach her to catch a ball like Petey. She never quite got the hang of it, but would always make us laugh, pouncing on the ball like a cat.

As summer approached, Greta became quite the backyard hunter, chasing lizards and other illusive critters through the shrubbery. She never caught a lizard that I know of, but the hunt could keep her entertained for hours. Luckily, she didn't learn too much from Petey, but it was almost inevitable that she would pick up a few of his bad habits.

Greta never barked when we got her. Thinking back, I can't remember her barking at all for the first month we had her. Petey never stopped barking however and one day Greta decided to try this strange behavior herself. After a few tentative barks that seemed to surprise her, she decided that barking was a lot of fun. It was almost comical to hear the two dogs barking together. Petey had a powerful, deep bark, while Greta sounded like a canine Minnie Mouse. They loved to bark at the garbage truck, strangers walking down the alley behind our house, and most of all, the neighbor's grey cat.

Greta and Petey's two-tone barking probably drove the neighbors nuts, but it never failed to make me laugh. The pitch of their barks was so far apart that at times it almost seemed like they were playing the high and low notes in a musical chord. When not attempting to be musical, the dogs spent their days begging for treats, taking long naps together on the bed and digging holes in the back yard. It was a dog's life and life was good.

One morning I noticed that Greta hadn't eaten her breakfast. I didn't think much about it at first, since she had always been a picky eater. When it happened again the next day, I tried mixing her dry kibble with some canned food to tempt her a bit. This seemed to work. After about a week, she didn't seem to like this arrangement either and stopped eating again. I began to worry.

It's never a good sign when a dog refuses to eat. I made an appointment to take her to the vet and see if we could figure this out. After the long struggle we'd had to cure Greta's Ehrlichia and get her weight back to normal, I didn't want to see things start to deteriorate again. Greta's medical history file was almost an inch thick at this point. We decided to make it a little thicker with a new CBC blood panel and X-rays.

Greta had been doing so well up to this point that I really expected we would find something very minor causing the problem - maybe the canine equivalent of heartburn or stomach flu. When our vet showed us a large, suspicious mass near her liver that wasn't supposed to be there, I was stunned. How could this have happened so suddenly? Nobody knew what the mass was, but it was obvious we had to find out soon.

We immediately scheduled Greta for an ultrasound exam and discovered that the vague, uncertain looking splotch on the X-Ray was a tumor somewhere between the size of a grapefruit and a football. We weren't positive whether the mass was located in her spleen or liver, but one thing was sure: Greta needed surgery. In just a few days, she went from being reluctant to eat to throwing up everything she managed to swallow. It was heartbreaking to realize that after almost a full year of TLC and rehabilitation, Greta was still very sick.

We are lucky to live near one of the best veterinary specialty surgery centers in the country and we knew Greta would be in good hands. Nevertheless, we were very apprehensive. What would it take to give this quiet, gentle girl the normal life she deserved? On the appointed day, we sat in the lobby at the hospital and nervously waited while the surgery took place. At first we were worried that the surgeon would come out too soon and tell us things looked hopeless. After three hours passed however, we began to worry that things were taking too long.

Eventually the surgeon appeared and told us everything had gone well. It was a difficult surgery. Two lobes, or about 20% of Greta's liver, had been removed. As bad as this sounded, the surgeon was still optimistic. From the way the growth had been attached to her liver, there was reason to hope that the tumors were benign. It would take several days for the pathology lab to examine the tissue samples that had been removed. We were cautiously hopeful. At this point the only important thing was that Greta was still alive.

Every day we would visit Greta at the hospital. The morning after her surgery, she was still pretty groggy. You could tell that the anesthetic wasn't completely out of her system yet. By the second day, her spirits had improved dramatically. She was alert, walking around normally, and wagging her tail when I came for my morning visit. We even talked with her doctors about the possibility of taking her home with us the next day.

That morning visit was as good as it ever got. By the end of the day Greta's condition began to deteriorate again. It was hard to understand why this was happening until we received the pathology report. Greta's tumors were malignant and had already metastasized. Even worse, the lab said that the cancer cells extended all the way to the cut edge of the tissue sample. The meant that it was almost certain that, despite a great surgeon's best efforts, the cancer was still in her body and her liver was starting to fail.

The rest of the week was terribly sad. Petey would smell Greta every time we came home from the hospital and couldn't figure out where she had gone. He would look in all the closets and then want us to take him outside so he could look in the car. Greta didn't understand what was happening either. At the beginning of the week she was throwing up everything she ate, but still walked into the surgery center, wagging her tail, knowing that she had a good home and probably thinking that she was just going to get a rabies shot. By the end of the week, she was lying on a blanket in an ICU, being sustained by IV tubes.

The doctors tried everything they could to get her liver functioning again, but her tired, frail body had just given up. All we could do when we came to visit was let her rest her head on our laps, pet her softly and tell her how sorry we were that we had let her down.

Greta was not a young dog when she entered our lives. I'll always wonder what she saw and what she learned during the many years before we met her. I am convinced she had one very happy year with us, but I truly hope there was more than this to her story. I think Greta must have learned many lessons, even though she had been abandoned and showed signs of being mistreated. She was definitely a survivor, although we'll never know exactly how long she survived. All we knew is that she had shared her life with us for a year and we were looking forward to celebrating her eighth birthday in just a few weeks. Of course, this could just as easily been her tenth birthday or even her thirteenth. We were just guessing about her age.

We had already bought her birthday gifts, but in the end she gave us the only gift that mattered. Just by sharing her all too short life with us, she had turned our difficult Petey into a nicer dog. She came with a live-and-let-live attitude and a goofy but charming cheerfulness that must have been just as apparent to other dogs as it was to people.

Petey had always been frightened of other dogs, and mostly this fear exhibited itself as bad behavior. I never dreamed I'd ever see the day when Petey would sleep tail to tail with another dog on the same bed. It happened though. Not because of anything we did. In truth, most of the training and socialization classes we'd given him were dismal failures. Petey's remarkable transformation was entirely the result of Greta.

In the end, Petey loved Greta. And that was her lasting gift to all of us.

If you enjoy these stories and would like to help this wonderful breed of dogs, please consider making a donation to Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas. Your donation will help Dalmatian Rescue continue to rescue and rehabilitate the hundreds of Dalmatians that are abandoned in North Texas every year. To help give a deserving Dalmatian a second chance, just click on the button to your left. You can use any major credit card to make your donation instantly and no matter what you choose to give, you can feel a little better knowing that you have helped a dog very much like Petey find the one thing it really needs: a home.

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