Ten dogs were brought into our clinic that day. All with the same owners, all in bad shape: malnourished, severely underweight, mangy and flea-ridden.
The worst of the lot was a black German shepherd named Maggie. She was rail thin. Every bone in her body showed. She was covered with open sores from her mange. I cradled her head in my hands and sighed, having seen cases like this far too often in my 15 years as a veterinarian.
Overpopulation is the leading cause of death among pets. Millions of dogs and cats are put down every year because no one wants them. That’s why I dedicate a big part of my practice to spaying and neutering. We’ve done more than 23,000 operations over the past six years, a lot for our small staff.
The clinic runs on a shoestring budget. I believed it was my duty to give discounts to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to get their pets fixed. More than once I prayed we wouldn’t have to close down. Who would take care of the animals if we didn’t?
“You can pick them up later on today,” I told the couple who’d brought the dogs in. I hated sending animals back to such poor living conditions, but I had no choice. At least after the procedure, they wouldn’t be able to have unwanted puppies.
We cleaned the dogs up and prepped them for surgery. Everything went smoothly, and most of the dogs recovered well. All but Maggie. She was extremely sluggish. An exam confirmed that she was bleeding into her abdomen.
I figured a tied-off artery was leaking or there was a nick somewhere. It happened once in a while and wasn’t a big deal. We’d find the source, stop the bleeding and close her up.
But I was shocked when I went in. Maggie’s abdomen overflowed with blood. I soaked it up with surgical sponges. That didn’t help. Blood spilled onto the table, then the floor.
My hands searched everywhere—every vein, artery and organ—but I couldn’t find the source of the bleeding. I closed my eyes to block out any distractions, concentrating on what I felt with my fingers. Where is the blood coming from? I did everything I knew to do, twice. Maggie was bleeding to death. Please, God, save this dog. I can’t.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. Just like that, the bleeding stopped. Completely. After a few minutes and a few more sponges, Maggie’s abdomen was clean and dry. There was no blood oozing from anywhere. And no explanation for what had happened.
The nurses stood in silence as I sewed Maggie up. We gave her fresh blood, drugs to prevent shock and infection, and bundled her in blankets. I didn’t think she’d last the night, which I told her owners when they came to get the other dogs. “Come back tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll see how she’s doing then.” I left the clinic exhausted and depressed.
First thing in the morning I went to check on Maggie. “Hey, girl,” I said. She looked up at me and weakly wagged her tail. “You’ve got more fight than I gave you credit for.” We put her on a special diet. Within 24 hours, Maggie was eating, drinking and walking. She’d come a long way, but still, her health wasn’t good.Maggie had heartworms and intestinal worms. The resulting anemia, low protein levels and liver damage meant her blood couldn’t clot, like a hemophiliac’s. That was why there was so much blood.
When Maggie’s owners returned, I explained the dog’s medical problems. “She’ll need expensive treatment,” I told them. “But there’s no charge for her emergency care.”
They left, saying they’d come back later. They didn’t. State law requires that we send a registered letter to any owner who abandons a pet. Then the owner has 10 days to pick the pet up. We sent Maggie’s owners such a letter. Three days passed. No response. The next day, their check for the initial visit bounced. I knew we’d never see them again. What to do about Maggie?
Maggie seemed to understand we were trying to help her. She was cooperative and sweet. She licked the hands that stuck her with needles. At the same time, she was very aggressive toward strangers. She charged threateningly and snarled at any new person she saw.
Usually we try to find a home for an abandoned animal, but people don’t want to adopt a dog that might bite. After the 10-day waiting period, Maggie would have to be euthanized. It was day eight. You can’t keep every unwanted pet you come across, I told myself. But Maggie seemed special, like she was meant to be mine.
God, Maggie should have died during her operation. But you saved her when I couldn’t. Why, since we’re just going to have to put her down?
The whole staff knew we shouldn’t get too attached. “Goodbye, Maggie,” I said before leaving for home. Her tail thumped against the floor.
I lay in bed that night unable to sleep. I kept thinking about Maggie. If only she were a gentle dog, then we could find a home for her.
I dreaded going to the clinic the next morning. Dreaded seeing Maggie greet me with a wagging tail. When I got there, I noticed the benches on the front porch were missing. That’s odd. I looked around and saw that the door of the garden shed was open. The tools were gone. We’ve been robbed!
I scrambled for my keys, sure I’d find the place ransacked. We’d be ruined financially. I unlocked the door and threw it open. Everything was in order. No medication missing. No money gone. Nothing had been disturbed. We were still in business!
Thump, thump. I spun my head and saw Maggie, tail hitting the floor. In my worry, I’d forgotten about her. “Thank God you’re all right,” I said. And then I realized what had happened. Maggie was all right because the burglars never got in. They didn’t even try. Surely, Maggie snarled at them through the window, scaring them off. “You saved the clinic, didn’t you, girl?” I gave her a treat and a rub on the head. Our hero.
Now I knew for sure why Maggie had been saved on the operating table. And I knew there was no way we could put her down. Thanks to her, the clinic could go on saving animals. Not all of them, but as many as we possibly could.
Today, Maggie’s gained about 20 pounds. Her sores have healed, and her fur grew in thick and shiny. She’s a beautiful, happy, healthy dog. She’s a permanent staff member now—the best security guard we’ve ever had. And a daily reminder that animals are precious not only to me, but to someone who really can care for every single one.