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A celebrity dog, an injured eagle, a pet ferret: WSU vets treat 10,000+ animals a year

By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Published: January 15, 2024, 6:00am

PULLMAN — On this particular day in November, they begin arriving at 8 in the morning with their pets: dogs (a lot of dogs), cats, a Quarter Horse, sheep, a rabbit, cows, a parakeet, a ferret and a python. The bigger animals have a separate entrance, and stalls.

This is Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which saw 10,600 patients in 2022. That’s a lot of critters.

When you talk to the pet owners who’ve come here, they’ll inevitably tell you: When your pet is in trouble, there’s no better facility than this one.

It’s not your local vet that has a $2 million linear accelerator that aims radiation at cancer tumors with pinpoint accuracy. It’s one of a handful of veterinary teaching facilities in the country certified as Level I by the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, providing emergency care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. About 4,000 to 5,000 of the patients seen at the hospital annually are emergency cases. (Pet owners don’t need an appointment for emergency care, but for specialty services, a referral from their regular veterinarian is required.)

The pets in the lobby this morning are remarkably well-behaved, sitting quietly by their owners in the chairs spread throughout the 2,500-square-foot room. The owners — well, they also sit quietly, although for some, the concern on their faces is unmistakable.

On this day, 106 pets will be seen by the staff. Some intakes are simple enough — a vaccination, a new kitten exam.

With others, the concern of the owners is understandable. A domestic shorthair cat with blood in its urine. A Great Pyrenees who is stumbling and exhibits facial paralysis. A pug with a chronic, worsening cough.

DALE GUTMANN, 71, a retired public utility lineman, had a 3 1/2 -hour drive from his home in Pasco. He is here with Bentley, a 6-year-old Labrador. It’s just Gutmann and Bentley at home on their half-acre. A couple of years ago, Bentley developed a growth in his mouth — “the size of my thumb,” Gutmann says.

His local veterinarian cut it out. “But it came back in a very short time,” says Gutmann. The vet recommended the WSU hospital. Of course, Gutmann knew about the place. “Great reputation, great people.”

Bentley now is on his fifth round of electrochemotherapy, which uses a small electrical current that makes it easier for the chemotherapy to get inside the cancerous cells. The tumor shrunk at first, but not in the later rounds. In a few months, another drug will be tried, says Gutmann. Meanwhile, Bentley tends to drool because of the tumor.

So far, Gutmann has spent around $4,000. It’s a financial hit for the retiree, but, he says, “Once you get a pet, you do what you can.”

Bentley gives him the gaze of devotion that canines through the centuries have learned captures humans.

Some of those 10,000-plus animal owners who arrived last year drove hundreds of miles to get here. Some made the trek from the west side of Washington state; others from Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California. There were a few from Canada and assorted states ranging from Florida to Hawaii. The local Holiday Inn that’s nearby even has a special WSU hospital rate.

PHYLLIS ERDMAN, A professor in the WSU College of Education, took part in a survey in 2020 of some 4,000 dog owners during the COVID-19 era. The vast majority said their pets reduced their feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness.

She says that with dogs and people, “They have truly moved to a different level in the last 20 years. They’ve moved from outside companions to living inside with us. Look at the money people spend on them, on little holiday outfits, the special diets.”

When her family’s Lab, Duke, was throwing up and had diarrhea, she remembers, off he went to the hospital. “My husband said that they basically had a blank check,” says Erdman. There never was a conclusive diagnosis. That was $1,000 to $1,500.

MOMO THE GIANT CAT was one of the pets whose owner traveled a long way, for specialized surgery that cost $18,000. Abhay Patwa and his wife, Priyankaa Kothari, live in Canton, Ohio. He’s a food scientist; she’s a productivity analyst for a global supply company.

They have two other cats and a dog, all rescues. They have no children.

“They’re everything to us. We would do anything in our power to make their lives healthier,” says Kothari.

She tells how Momo, a domestic shorthair named after a steam-filled Nepalese dumpling, “sleeps like a baby in the middle between me and my husband.”

When they got Momo about three years ago, he weighed 17 pounds. But he just kept putting on weight. He finally was diagnosed with a tumor on the pituitary gland in his brain. That led to an overproduction of growth hormones that would have meant Momo would have kept on growing and growing. The inevitable result would have been death.

In August 2022, Patwa made the journey from Michigan, where the couple then lived, to the WSU hospital. He spent nearly two weeks in Pullman. By then, Momo weighed 22 pounds.

At WSU, Dr. Tina Owen was one of the first veterinarians in the country to successfully perform a procedure to remove the pituitary gland. She’s now done it more than 100 times for cats and dogs.

It was a four-hour surgery for Momo, accessing the brain through the soft palate on the roof of the mouth. It meant using a carbon dioxide laser and drilling into the base of the skull, using a CT scan to precisely guide the drill. Then graspers with suction were used to remove the gland.

Kothari says Momo has continued to put on weight since the surgery. He’s now at 29 pounds. She says the couple’s local veterinarian is monitoring Momo’s health, such as making sure the walls of his heart don’t expand.

“When we remove the pituitary gland, we don’t know exactly what happens. They become food-oriented — eat, eat. We have to do some behavior modification,” says Owen.

Kothari says that means Momo and the couple’s two other cats have had microchips installed that work to open their particular feeders. Except Momo follows the other cats and pushes them out of the way when their feeders open. “So we made an obstacle course,” Kothari says, consisting of a cardboard tunnel that allows only one cat at a time.

THE SPECIALIZED EQUIPMENT that’s used at WSU, says Raelynn Farnsworth, the chief medical officer at the hospital, is the same as that used in hospitals for humans. A sampling: $145,000 for an ultrasound machine, $2 million for an MRI machine, $140,000 for anesthesia monitoring equipment. It adds up if you want specialized care.

WSU does have a Good Samaritan fund that relies on donations for animals needing lifesaving procedures. In the fiscal year ending in June 2023, the fund had received around $128,000.

I told Owen that I wondered what my late grandmother, a no-nonsense farm woman, would have thought about spending $18,000 on surgery for a pet.

“Even my family is shocked at some of the stories we have about what people will do for their pets,” Owen says.

But you do what you gotta do.

“These pets are family members,” says Owen. “And, certainly, there are a lot more wealthy people willing to spend the money.”

The WSU College of Veterinary Medicine is proud of its tradition, saying it was founded in 1899 with a single $60 shed ($2,200 in today’s dollars). It is the fifth-oldest veterinary college in the United States.

Admission to the college is tough. For Fall 2024, there were 2,411 applications for an incoming class of 140 students. That’s a 6% admission rate. It is the fourth-year students who do a clinical rotation at the hospital.

DURING MY VISIT in November, I met Dash, a Golden Retriever who turns 13 on Jan. 9, and his owner, Ande Edlund, 51, of Redmond.

Dash needed to have his spleen removed after it had developed a large mass. It likely was causing an irregular heartbeat; plus, if the mass were to burst, death would be likely.

Edlund took to GoFundMe to pay for the $8,000 surgery. A triathlon and fitness coach, “Our financial resources are somewhat limited,” he posted.

He rapidly raised $18,770 from 466 donations. Edlund says any GoFundMe money not used for Dash will go to the 15/10 Foundation, which says it pays for making “shelter dogs with medical needs more adoptable.”

The reason for such a huge response — in part, anyway — is that Dash is an Instagram celebrity at @dash.dog, with 65,900 followers.

It began on Sept. 5, 2018, when Edlund posted a picture of Dash at a Mariners “Bark at the Park” night where you can bring your dog to the game. Dash looked — well — dashing and quite endearing. It was understandable why the image garnered so many likes.

Dash wore the team’s cap and a bandana, and held a hot dog sideways in his mouth for maximum visual effect. Somebody also took a video of the photo shoot, and the whole thing went viral, from local TV to “Good Morning America.”

“Sending a big WOW from the Netherlands,” one of the Instagram comments read. “This is absolutely amazing … You rock, and we love you for being so cool!!!”

A 1994 WSU grad in hospitality business management, Edlund has kept up his connections with the school, taking part in fundraising there and continuing to post images of Dash at various locations, whether by the Space Needle or the infamous Pike Place Market Gum Wall.

These days, Edlund also lists another occupation for himself: “social media manager for celebrity dog.”

After being pronounced fit to go home, Dash was his usual agreeable self. Edlund posed him with Dr. Pete Welsh, the small-animal surgical resident who did the surgery, and Molly Satterwhite, a fourth-year veterinary student who was helping out.

Welsh says the spleen showed localized histiocytic sarcoma, a rare type of cancer. Dash began chemotherapy on Dec. 12.

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, the hospital deals with an astounding variety of cases. Looking through the hospital’s postings about past patients, I ended up calling Thomas Shows, 31, of Olympia.

He told me the story of his pet ferret and how his friend, Bill Long, paid $7,000 so the ferret could get radiation treatment after a cancerous tumor was removed from along his spine.

Long and Shows first met nine years ago, when Shows answered a job to fix things around Long’s house. The latter was a paralegal with the state’s Office of the Attorney General.

“We became friends. We clicked somehow, mostly on antiques and food,” says Shows.

Six years ago, Shows decided to get a new pet after his cat went missing and never returned. He decided on a ferret, and Long helped choose it. A ferret might not be everybody’s idea of a pet, but Shows loved him.

“He was the one who jumped into your arms and wanted to be held,” says Shows. He named him Burkle. “It sounds like ‘burglar,’ and I wanted a ferret with the traditional colorings with that burglar’s mask.”

The ferret had free roam of the house, crawling into drawers, following people. “He was like a son to me,” says Shows.

In November 2022, Shows was petting Burkle and noticed a lump along his spine. The diagnosis was bone cancer. A local veterinarian did the surgery to remove it, but radiation therapy for any remaining cancer cells would have to be done at WSU. It’d be 10 radiation sessions. Shows didn’t have that kind of money.

Long said he’d pay. Then, the paralegal was fighting his own cancer battle with melanoma.

“He wanted Burkle around long after he was gone,” Shows says about his friend.

Long died on March 10 at age 60.

The ferret lived for around 11 months after his radiation treatments and died in early November.

Shows misses them both, and says that he’s sure Long would have paid for more radiation treatments if they would have helped.

“That was Bill in a nutshell. He cared a lot.”

I ASKED THE hospital to break down its patients by types of animals. Because of its system, it could provide me a breakdown for 10,421 patients, not the 10,600 actually seen: dogs, 5,778. Cats, 1,813. Horses, 955. Birds, 494. Cows, 274. Rabbits, 202. Rats/mice, 166. Goats, 146. Reptiles, 136. Ferrets, 107. Guinea pigs, 89. Camels, 78. Sheep, 73. Pigs, 49. Raccoons, 17, Rain frogs, 15. Hedgehogs, 15. Anole chameleons, 14.

In the category of wildlife treated at the hospital, I got to visit a golden eagle at the nearby Stauber Raptor Facility, named after the late Erik Stauber, a WSU professor who devoted 40 years to caring for raptors.

Inside was a golden eagle who on Oct. 3 had been found in a ditch by the side of a road near Lapwai, Idaho.

Each year, veterinarians at the facility treat about 100 sick and injured raptors, which include eagles, falcons, hawks and owls.

“It’s one of the more common injuries we see, getting hit by a car,” says Dr. Marcie Logsdon, an exotics veterinarian at the hospital, and a falconer. “Raptors are attracted by a road kill. They’re opportunistic and want to take advantage of an easy meal. They’re not paying attention.”

A motorist saw the injured eagle, happened to have a crate and used it to transport it to Pullman. The eagle’s left wing was fractured and needed a splint. The wing healed, but an injury to its left eye meant it could not be returned to the wild.

The eagle had lost its depth perception, meaning that in going for a kill of a rabbit, it would miss. Logsdon says an eagle can eat a rabbit a day.

I watched as she examined its wing. The 8-pound bird let her. Its wing spread was at least 6 feet.

When I looked at the eagle, and he looked back at me, it seemed as if he had some anger issues. “It’s the supraorbital ridge,” Logsdon explained, meaning the brow ridge. “It’s what gives raptors that fierce appearance.”

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The ridge acts like a baseball cap to shade its eyes from the sun.

Logsdon has been in contact with a Native American tribe that might be willing to take the bird for its aviary and collect its feathers for ceremonial and religious use.

I asked Logsdon what she would tell the general public about raptors. She figures she’s been dealing with them for 17 years.

“They’re such beautiful birds,” says Logsdon. “I hate to grade them against other birds, but they’re so powerful and regal.”

Then, for me, it was back to the hospital’s lobby. More dogs, all also regal in their owners’ eyes.