Pet rehab helps transform four-legged survivors

Apr 24, 2012, 7:57 PM

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Snarf was underweight with a heart murmur and a possible ulcer when he was rescued from a Kentucky puppy mill. He had hookworm, fleas and ticks, infections in his eyes and ears, red skin and patchy hair.

The 10-year-old Japanese chin wasn’t house trained and didn’t know how to play with people. He hardly seemed like anyone’s idea of a pet.

But thanks to several months of rehab, he is.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals set up a rehab center for Snarf and the other 117 dogs rescued in October from a Kentucky puppy mill.

The ASPCA is the only national animal welfare organization with a behavior team dedicated solely to rehabilitating cruelty and disaster victims. Last year, the anti-cruelty behavior team coordinated rehab for more than 1,200 cats and dogs.

Many pets who end up in rehab are victims of abusive owners who have been arrested for dogfighting, hoarding or puppy mill violations. Other animals survive natural disasters.

Snarf had been crated, isolated and used for breeding all his life before he spent six months in rehab.

His medical conditions were treated and he was taught how to socialize and play with humans and animals, how to walk on a leash and to urinate outside of his crate.

Hoarded or mill dogs have been trapped in small spaces and denied human contact so they lack social skills and are often afraid of sights, sounds and experiences, said Pamela Reid, an animal behaviorist and vice president of the ASPCA’s anti-cruelty behavior team.

Another rehab graduate is Timmy, a 5-month-old dachshund born with a growth defect after the dogs were seized. The radius and ulna in both front legs are deformed, said Andrea Blair, director of communications for the Kentucky Humane Society, so Timmy appears to be running on his elbows. He also had surgery to repair a hernia.

In foster care, he’s gained strength and muscle tone and now has a potential owner and an appointment with an orthopedic specialist.

Can rehab save every animal? “Saving depends on your definition. We certainly save them from cruel and inhumane situations,” Reid said. “There are medical cases where it’s more fair to the animal to euthanize than to attempt treatment or treatment is not possible and the quality of life they are suffering is too great.”

In February, 692 cats were seized from Caboodle Ranch, an overwhelmed Florida sanctuary. At a temporary shelter in Jacksonville, 13 cats were euthanized for severe medical problems, and treatments started for others.

All of the cats got regular meals and visits from volunteers.

Dogfighting and disasters can be more challenging. Fighting dogs might show aggression toward other animals, but appear sweet and friendly with people. Disasters each bring their own kind of fear.

Reid’s behavior team watches how each dog reacts to pleasant greetings and unpleasant greetings. They watch as workers clip its nails, pull a burr from its fur, give it a toy and food and take them away. They expose the dog to a toddler-size doll and a life-size dog mannequin, scold it and watch it interact with other dogs.

Behaviorists look for eye contact, posture, the dog’s tail and ears and what it does when it sees a person it knows.

A dog has to do well with the doll before behaviorists will recommend it for a home with children, Reid said.

With puppy mill, hoarding and disaster dogs, the emphasis is on new or frightening experiences.

The behaviorist might put food down and then open an umbrella nearby. They watch the dog to see how long it takes it to recover and get back to the food or leave the food and go to the umbrella.

“Either is OK,” Reid said. “Those that go into a corner and shut down are the ones we are concerned about.”

Whatever their problems, you just have to keep working with animals, Reid said. Sometimes they will partner a troubled animal with a friendly animal. “Dogs are very good at picking up on the emotional state of their companions,” Reid said.

Many of the ASPCA’s shelter partners, including Kentucky, have full-time behaviorists who take over for Reid and her team. Every dog that arrives at the shelter, which places 6,000 animals a year, is evaluated for adoptability, Blair said.

Puppy mill dogs are fairly easy to place, Blair said. They come with a lot of publicity and they aren’t really second chance pets, like most shelter animals. “These dogs have never had love or a forever home, so this is the first time around for them.”

Cats have more trouble adjusting, Reid said. They are more likely to hide than show aggression, so you have to spend more time with them.

As for Snarf?

In March, 65 of the rescued dogs, including Snarf, were sent to the Kentucky shelter. Almost all have been placed, Blair said.

Scott Franke and his wife Andy Kyle, from New Albany, Ind., saw Snarf’s picture on the shelter’s website. “When we went and saw him, it was love at first sight and we had to have him,” Franke said.

In his new home for about a month, Snarf loves to curl up on the floor close to the couple. If they mention his (ASPCA-given) name, he raises his head and wags his tail.

“We hope to give him the happiest rest of his life we can,” Franke said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Pet rehab helps transform four-legged survivors