Sunday, August 12, 2012

She ain't heavy. She's our Daphne.

If there were anything that defined our year so far, it has to be a mysterious little island off the shores of Singapore.

It is neither Pulau Tekong nor Ubin, but one of the smaller, more obscure islands we have never heard of. I have no clue what it's called. You probably can't even see it on a map! Yet, our shelter life of late has very much revolved around it. 

Our first batch of puppies were born on the island and spent the first three months of their lives there, living like little scavengers, surviving on rain water and scraps that they could find. Dabao, Sparkles and Georgia have found families who love them. Daffy and Dazzle are still at the shelter drinking in whatever love that we can afford to shower on them.

And then came Daphne. She was similarly rescued from the island. I have gone on ad nauseam about her. If you have been keeping up with this blog, you would already know she was pregnant when came to us. We thought she had just given birth because she was found with two other puppies by her side. We were flabbergasted when Daphne gave birth to five more puppies at our shelter on 15 June this year.

Because one of the puppies, affectionately known as White Paws, was very much smaller than the others, we were very worried it would not survive. We removed one of the fattest puppies in the litter so that Daphne could concentrate on nursing White Paws. White Paws needed the nutrients and he needed them fast.

Which one is the smallest?

The chosen puppy was fostered by one of our regulars, Jiawen, and was later officially adopted by her family. He is a fat bundle of joy named Dong Dong and on hindsight, he really is the luckiest of the lot.

Removing him from the litter was a blessing in disguise

The removal of Dong Dong turned out to be a good move. While White Paws was still small in stature, he grew steadily stronger.

When the remaining four puppies turned about five weeks old and were no longer as dependent on Daphne, we decided it was time to find them homes.

Our shelter is located within a farm where many other shelters are situated. Where we are, there are hundreds, if not a thousand dogs. Add this to the fact that our set up is an outdoor one and very much exposed to the elements, this was not the place for vulnerable dogs.

At the beginning, the puppies were safe. They had the protection of maternal antibodies they got from their mother in the first few hours after birth. It did not make sense to vaccinate them as these antibodies would make the commercial vaccines redundant. Besides, vaccination meant injecting a mild form of the virus into their systems. We didn't know if they were old or strong enough.

And then there were four! We called them Blackie, Brown Paws, White Paws and Brown Girl based on their distinctive features. 

However, the maternal antibodies from Daphne only provided protection for a number of weeks. With time, the level of protection from viruses weakened. As the puppies grew older, we felt an urgent need to rehome them and remove them from the shelter environment altogether. They would be safest that way.

Hence, we embarked on trial homestays that we hoped would lead to successful adoptions. We really tried. Brown Girl, Brown Paws and White Paws all went for home stays. But to our greatest regret, none of the homestays worked out. Reasons given ranged from health concerns, familial disagreements to inability of the incumbent dog in getting along with the puppy.

Trial home stays are just that - a trial. Sometimes, there was just no one to blame and all we could do was bemoan the situation. These puppies had no choice but to return to the shelter, until the next interested applicant came their way. Returning to the shelter also meant exposure to the harsh elements once more.

White Paws returned to the shelter for about three days. He was then brought for a second trial homestay. To our horror, we received a call from the couple who brought him home, informing us that the poor boy vomitted eight times within an hour. Startled, we immediately sent him for emergency treatment at the vet's, where he tested positive for Parvovirus. At one point, we thought this little puppy would not survive the week.

Our brave little warrior

What is Parvo really?

I'm not a science person at all. The workings of the human anatomy confound me, let alone the canine one. But shelter work has forced me to proactively find out more about diseases that impact our dogs, from heartworm to heatstroke, Shar Pei fever and now Parvovirus.

There are different types of Parvovirus. Cardiac parvovirus attacks the heart muscles of very young puppies and is less common. More relevant to our case is intestinal parvovirus, which attacks the cells lining the intestines of puppies or unvaccinated adult dogs.

The affected puppy would begin to lose the ability to absorb nutrients into its system. It will suffer from diarrhea and vomitting and may die from organ failure arising from the dehydration.

Parvovirus is highly contagious. It is spread by oral-fecal transmission. This means that an infected dog that comes into contact with its poo and licks another dog on the mouth will spread the disease to the latter. Thankfully, it is not airborne. And not to worry, us humans can't get it either!

While contagious, parvovirus is easily prevented. All you need to do to keep your dog safe is to ensure its annual vaccinations are up to date. The Parvo vaccine is often included in these annual boosters.

Our puppies were only 6 weeks old at the time the virus struck. The younger the dog and in turn, the less developed its immune system, the weaker its chances of survival. Imagine how petrified we were when White Paws tested positive for Parvo. Anxious, we brought all the remaining puppies to be examined by the vet.

It was a chaotic day. I was on break from work and was the lucky winner of our send the puppies to the vet lottery.

The first challenge was removing the puppies from Daphne. At that time, Daphne was angry and could be aggressive. Since her rescue from the island, we had been isolating her in a cubicle to give her privacy and space to nurse her puppies.

Daphne had been isolated since we found her with these two little ones

Perhaps she had been cooped up for too long... She seemed to harbor plenty of pent up resentment and distrust. Her post pregnancy hormones certainly didn't help matters. She had no qualms about lunging at us if she thought we were up to any funny business.

Blackie and Brown Paws were active and curious and when you called out to them, they would trot towards you instinctively. That gave me the chance to open the gate to Daphne's cage and scoop them into my arms quickly.

Brown Girl, however, was listless. She had taken to cooping up at the far end of the cubicle, making it difficult for me to remove her safely. I had the mammoth task of fending off Daphne while picking the puppy up at the same time.

What I failed to notice... was that Daphne herself had begun to appear lethargic. Instead of barking at us at the top of her lungs as usual, she let me in quite easily. My mission was done for now and we could finally start heading to the vet... another challenge in itself.

We had no transport that day.

Our drivers were not available and the usual pet taxi we hired had other jobs. We were left trying our luck with cabs. I called a cab and told the operator I had three puppies in a crate. No cab responded. I really think Lady Luck took pity on us because just as I was starting to fret, a kind taxi uncle who randomly passed us by agreed to let me and my canine wards hop on.

At the vet's, our greatest fear came true. Brown Girl tested positive for Parvo too. While her two brothers, Blackie and Brown Paws, tested negative, they were not in the clear. The vet was worried that the virus was still incubating and had not surfaced, giving a false negative reading. The virus could incubate from 3-10 days before symptoms emerge. As a result, all three puppies underwent parvovirus treatment.

This pretty girl looked fluffy but if you carry her, you'd be able to feel her ribs

There is no treatment available to tackle the virus itself. Vets will usually do their best to treat the symptoms. Our puppies were each hooked onto an IV fluid drip to rehydrate them. They were given a plasma transfusion from a recovered dog to provide some passive immunity and were also administered antibiotics.

This isn't where puppies should be...

After the puppies were safely warded, we could finally turn our attention to Daphne. She was hardly touching her food and had watery foul smelling diarrhea every day. She was reduced to an angry messy bag of bones. Like her puppies, we felt she needed medical attention. She looked like she was going to wither away any time.

Because we couldn't touch her, we could not muzzle her. Yet we had to find a way to send her to the vet.

When we took in our retired working dogs earlier, their handlers provided us with some large carriers. Gutsy Choo placed one of these carriers in a corner and used a plastic shield to calmly guide Daphne into the carrier. Daphne was slightly afraid of the big grey shield and to avoid it, she scurried into the carrier. Choo quickly latched the small gate of the carrier and we were on our way!

Daphne in the carrier. Dull coat, sunken eyes, protruding ribs... This is what Parvo did to her.

I recall Feng and I debating whether either of us should follow or if we should both stay and handle the shelter chores. It was a weekday and there were just the three of us around. Fortunately for us, we decided that Feng was to go along with Choo. It turned out that Choo needed all the help he could get.

Daphne was quite calm in the van. She even ate all the chicken that Wee had cooked for her. But she was petrified at the vet's.

Based on what I heard, she ran haphazardly around the examination room, trying to find a route of escape. When the vet assistant tried to hold her, Daphne panicked and unceremoniously bit down on him. Even Choo who was trying to help out sustained a bite on the stomach. After all the drama, the vet declined to go on with the treatment, simply prescribing us some oral medication to curb the symptoms.

We attempted one more visit to another vet, who informed us that there was no way to administer the usual treatment without sedating Daphne each time. Even if they could administer the sedation once, they didn't think it was sustainable. We were politely turned away and went off with even more medication.

With no where to go, Daphne returned to the shelter. She had vomited all over the carrier during the ride home. We now needed to clean her up.

We managed to leash Daphne and hook her to the gate. But oh how Daphne hated to be leashed. With no thought for herself, she banged her body against each side of the gate and slammed herself onto the ground to untangle herself from the leash around her neck. It was heartbreaking seeing this stubborn girl do what she was doing. She tired out eventually and we managed to rinse her with water once over. She even allowed Choo to get close.

In the subsequent week, we did our best to smuggle Daphne's medication into her food. We couldn't touch her and so, it was impossible to force feed the medicine down her throat. Whether Daphne recovered was down to her willingness to take the medication and her desire to live on.

Perhaps Daphne sensed our despair. Because in the week ahead, it seemed her condition was finally showing signs of improvement.

Long ago, her coat was shiny... Now, it has lost its sheen

When Florence reached the shelter one fine week day and saw a neat pile of poo in Daphne's cubicle instead of her usual watery mess, she snapped a picture of it and sent it to us. I don't think any of us were happier to see poop. Elation was an understatement. We were practically jumping for joy! Dorky, I know, but it had been weeks since we saw well formed poop from Daphne. Could this be the start of her recovery? Had the tide finally started to turn for Daphne?

We had no time to be hopeful. Shortly after, we received a call from our vet informing us that Blackie and Brown Paws could be discharged. After about 6 days of hospitalization, they once again tested negative for Parvo.

However, we were given strict instructions that they could not return to the farm. They had to be fostered by families with no dogs or dogs that were safely vaccinated. There was to be no direct contact with other dogs for ten days.

And therein lies yet another headache... We seemed to be having many of these lately. Where in the world were we going to find fosterers?

These puppies were vulnerable and needed an experienced eye to watch over them. We needed people we knew were responsible and could trust with all our hearts.

A few kindhearted members of the public did step up to offer themselves as fosterers. However, we decided to take our chances on the families who had adopted our dogs previously. These were people who loved our dogs. We had no doubt they would be wonderful fosterers.

We felt really bad burdening these kind people with our troubles and creating ripples in the calm waters of their lives. But the adopters whom we approached, whether they could help out or not, were all extremely pleasant about it. We could not have asked for more.

Eventually, Sparkles' family helped take in Blackie temporarily. They introduced into his life the laughter and warmth of a happy family that the little chap had never experienced before.

Blackie with Ian, the Dohertys' little son

Dribble's family helped us set up a fostering arrangement with relations of theirs. Caroline and her extended family helped take in White Paws. They didn't have another dog in the house, which worked put perfectly for White Paws who had previously tested positive.

White Paws at his fosterer's

Meanwhile, Brown Paws went on a trial homestay with Alice and her folks. I remember receiving an unexpected phone call when queuing to buy food during my lunch hour last week. Over the phone, Alice filled me in very earnestly about her family and the black mongrel they had for eight years until it passed away. She then informed me they were interested in adopting one of our puppies. I passed Alice's contact to Florence subsequently and the homestay was arranged. We are very happy to say that Brown Paws has been officially adopted.

Alice and her folks ultimately could not resist this cute face!

Brown Girl took slightly longer to be discharged. Her appetite was weak and the vet was concerned. To our relief, this little girl managed to pull through. She finally left the vet two days ago and went back to Rosa's home, where she had stayed previously during her home stay.

It's a bear... It's a rat... No it's a dog!!! Brown Girl for you

Besides Dong Dong and Brown Paws, we have yet to find permanent homes for the rest of our puppies. Our foster arrangements are only for a month. After a month, we believe they are strong enough to return to the shelter.

If possible, we hope that never happens. Being a shelter dog is tough. The dogs not only have to fight rampant diseases, they have to battle with the weather and find their place within the hierarchy of other dogs. They each only get a meal a day and a walk a week. And almost all of them are always thirsty for attention and affection.

Shelter life ain't easy

To shield them from shelter life, we need people to step up to the plate and take a chance on them. Daphne did a wonderful job with her puppies. Each one of them is gorgeous, happy and healthy. If you are thinking of adoption, we urge you to give these puppies a shot. Puppies are hard work but we do believe they are worth every ounce of effort. The end product is the enduring love, friendship and companionship of a loyal adult dog.

Even if you are helpless, remember, word of mouth is powerful. A simple click of the 'share' button of the pictures we post on our Facebook page does more than you realize.

Daphne is with us for the long haul. With her puppies grown and with the end of her nursing days, she can finally take her first steps toward living the life of a normal dog.

She stares at you for one second, then starts barking at you the next!

Daphne can be a lot of trouble. When she was at her fiercest just after the birth of her puppies, we took a half hour washing her cubicle because she wouldn't let us in. She just kept barking, snapping and charging.

The braver of us simply used the shield to fend her off (Wee, Choo, Suat). The more cowardly of us (yours truly) had to let her out of her cubicle, quickly latch the gate from the neighbouring cubicle and then climb into her cubicle to wash the place. Then we had to pass the pups from one cubicle to another so that they wouldn't be in the way while we cleaned up. It was a big and unglamorous operation each time. Looking back, it is a marvel how we survived those days!

Now, Daphne is much calmer. She is still extremely wary, she still barks when you first enter, but she no longer charges or snaps. We can sit beside her while she hides under her bench. We can hand feed her chicken slices and other treats. I can touch her butt gingerly when she is in a calm mood. The time we take to clean her room has halved. It is still far from perfect but all these improvements have filled us with hope for a better future.

Daphne feels safe under the bench

She ain't heavy. She's our Daphne. We love her. We care for her well being. Her puppies are our responsibility. She came from a faraway island and she found us. If that is not fate, we really don't know what is.

We hope this very special girl keeps on fighting. We have so many things planned out for her and we can't wait for her to begin the rest of her life with us.

We have three puppies still up for adoption. Please email us at if you are interested in adoption. All the medical explanations in this entry are based on my personal research. For more information, please seek a professional opinion. Any mistakes are mine alone.

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