Could a chronically ill shelter dog find a home before the holidays?
“Come on, Princess Fiona,” they said as they lifted her wide behind – with a tail that everyone agreed belonged to a rat – into the car for another adoption event.
The pandemic puppy craze that has overwhelmed shelters across the country is well over. In its place, a ruff economy. More and more furry friends are being abandoned. Washington’s Humane Rescue Alliance is literally teeming with animals, with many dogs living in crates because every kennel is full. For much of December, the shelter gave up adoption fees for large dogs, hoping that at least some of his abandoned pooches would find homes before the holidays.
Maybe they could even find someone to take in one of the shelter’s oldest residents: Princess Fiona, a seven-year-old, 48-pound pit bull mix with stress-induced syndrome. called hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease. His hair loss, constant thirst, frequent potty breaks, and beer-chic physique are all the result of excessive production of cortisol, the hormone best known for the “fight or flight” response.
Princess Fiona, her caregivers reported, was not one for fighting, stealing or any activity that didn’t involve being attracted to snacks. During her nearly four months at the shelter, she had been repeatedly referred to as a “potato,” “earth hippo” and “little ogre.”
But unlike Princess Fiona in the movie ‘Shrek’, whose monster form becomes permanent, vets believed this Princess Fiona’s condition was likely to improve – if only she could find a less stressful environment to live in. .
So she arrived at a northeastern Washington mall on the first Saturday in December, along with four other destitute dogs and a truckload of abandoned cats. People jostled past them as they rushed to do their holiday shopping, their heads bowed against the whipping winds of the day.
Princess Fiona’s caretaker, volunteer Alesha Bryant, knew it was not an ideal day for an outdoor adoption event. But Bryant said that’s not why Princess Fiona looked so concerned. Beneath his floppy ears, the wrinkles on his forehead never disappeared.
Like many, Princess Fiona seemed perpetually worried about the state of the world.
Bryant took her inside PetSmart to warm up. Princess Fiona approached the Rudolph chew toys and immediately started peeing. Her illness made her so thirsty that at the shelter she drank from two large buckets. And even for a princess, that water had to go somewhere. She pulled Bryant to the kibble aisle and left a puddle there as well.
As another volunteer unloaded wads of paper towels, Princess Fiona allowed staff to dress her in a brightly colored Christmas jumper. Her bloated belly – caused by weakened abdominal muscles and an enlarged liver – made it a crop top.
“Fiona is adorable,” Bryant told a family in love with an energetic pup named Cranberry.
“Just so cool,” Bryant told a couple who adored a Pyrenees mix named Grand.
Another man hurried past without sparing a glance at the dogs.
“Okay,” Bryant sighed to Fiona. “You can have a little more water.”
This wasn’t the princess’ first trip through the Vault. Her original owner brought her to the Humane Rescue Alliance in January, knowing there was something wrong with her but unable to care for her any longer. She was quickly adopted, with the recommendation to her new owners to put her on Vetoryl, a drug that could ease her symptoms. But this drug is expensive, between $50 and $100 per month. In August, Princess Fiona was back at the shelter.
Veterinarian Emily MacArthur immediately knew her condition had worsened.
“I saw her belly rocking,” MacArthur said, “And I said boy, you’ve got the Cushing real hard…She’s pretty, she’s just kinda naked.”
Cushing, who can also strike humans, is named after the “father of neurosurgery” Harvey Cushing, who made his discoveries, in part, by experimenting on the brains of dogs in the early 1900s. Cushing surgically removed the pituitary glands puppies, then watched them grow.
Princess Fiona, by all accounts, received much better treatment at the Humane Rescue Alliance. The longer she stayed – well beyond the three-week average for dogs – the more volunteer admirers and staff she gained. She has become particularly prized for her ability to “spit,” a Dictionary.com-approved word for when an animal falls onto her stomach with its hind legs splayed out behind it.
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It was this quiet salon that made Monica Whitaker, on her way to PetSmart with her daughter to look at adoptable cats, pull up outside the store.
“Is she pregnant?” Whitaker asked.
The staff explained to her Cushing’s disease, Fiona’s long stay, the medical care she would need.
Whitaker called out to her 16-year-old son, who was sitting on a bench ignoring her. He shook his head, indifferent.
Her little sister, Myanni, 5, then shook her head at her brother. “Teenagers are too much,” Myanni said.
She rubbed the wrinkles from Princess Fiona’s forehead. A volunteer handed him a stick of cheese to tear into smaller pieces, explaining how much this pooch loves snacks.
Myanni said she likes snacks too. She handed Fiona the whole cheese stick.
Then the kindergarten turned to the volunteer with a question.
“Do you take Cash App or Card?”
Whitaker started tearing up. She looked at Princess Fiona and thought of her 19-year-old son. About the bicycle accident he had when he was six years old that resulted in a head injury. About explaining to people that yes, he was left with an intellectual disability and a speech impediment. Pretty much every time she’d had to fight for him to be treated like the other kids. Just because someone has medical problems, she had told him over and over again, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the life they want.
They wouldn’t have a cat after all.
“You’re going to sleep in my bed,” Whitaker told Princess Fiona.
The next morning, Whitaker walked into Humane Rescue Alliance to find the princess still in her Christmas jumper, surrounded by staff who waved an emotional goodbye to her. It was his 119th day at the shelter.
“I thought I was going to have to take you to my house for Christmas so you weren’t alone,” said MacArthur, the vet, kissing Princess Fiona’s muzzle. “I never want to see you again.”
Staff handed Whitaker a month’s worth of medication, a scarf to help Fiona climb the stairs and a pack of cheese sticks.
Whitaker’s oldest son was waiting in the car. At home, he would be the first to take Princess Fiona out every morning. He would ignore his mother’s orders not to put Princess Fiona on the couch. He wrapped Princess Fiona in her sister’s unicorn blanket. And within days, Whitaker would swear Princess Fiona’s belly was already getting less bloated.
As she took the leash from the shelter staff, everyone started cheering.
The staff knew that later that day another pit bull mix with Cushing’s disease was going to be sent back to the shelter. It didn’t work out with its new owners. They would need to find another home for Pooh Bear.
But for now, they were staring at Princess Fiona’s rat tail as she headed for the door.
She was waddling in the sunlight. Then she started peeing.
This story had previously misidentified the hormone that is overproduced in dogs with Cushing’s disease. It’s cortisol.