Viva la Viv!

In the litter of seven (German shorthairs), one puppy was noticeably smaller than the rest and within a few hours, noticeably failing. I called my veterinarian and he advised bottle feeding her.

The next weeks became a blur as I moved a mattress downstairs and fed the puppy every three hours. In between feedings, she slept on a heating pad in a shoe box. One of my friends, Sandy Weingart, spelled me from time to time on the bottle feeding, and early on, Sandy brought me a pink fleece baby blanket with the embroidered words “I love my mommy.”

“Sandy,” I said, when I saw the blanket, “this is the kind of thing that could really make me cry if she doesn’t make it.”

Sandy assured me that she could tell that the puppy was going to live. She started to call her Viva, for life, which we later shortened to Viv.

When Viv was 3 weeks old she weighed just under a pound. I was concerned because I didn’t think she’d been able to nurse from her mother and could be susceptible to various dog illnesses. I made an appointment with my vet for an exam and whatever inoculations she could be given.

My vet (Dr. Ron Bernard, Ringtown Valley Vet Hospital, Ringtown, Pa.) assessed the tiny pup with a glance and immediately opened her mouth. “Here’s your problem,” he said. “There’s a hole in her soft palate.”

He showed me the hole in the soft palate (the soft tissue in the back of the roof of the mouth), and how the bony ridges of the hard palate (the front of the roof of the mouth) inside her mouth didn’t line up from side-to-side. She’d been unable to nurse from her mother or the bottle (I had to squeeze the bottle to squirt the milk substitute into her) because the hole meant she couldn’t form a vacuum. By sheer luck I hadn’t squirted any fluid into the hole, which would have gone right into her lungs.

With Viv on the table between us, my vet said words I know were hard for him. “It’s up to you, and you’ve made a valiant effort,” he said. “But this is not a healthy puppy and she’s far from out of the woods.”

He suggested euthanizing her, but I said I couldn’t do it. Her will to live was just too strong. But I had to continue the bottle feeding for about another week, and then start her on a special canned puppy food. I fed that to her by scooping a small dollop onto my pinky, and placing it in her throat, past the hole.

Viv on point. It was obvious early in her life that she loved to hunt, and wanted to be out in the field looking for birds.

Her littermates, in the meantime, had begun the weaning process and were moving around on sturdy legs, their eyes open. Viv’s eyes didn’t open until she was nearly 5 weeks old, and I remember the moment. She was in a bigger box by then, and I’d spoken to her when I came into the room. She’d started moving her head in an odd way, thrusting it forward and back. Suddenly I realized that her eyes had opened and she was trying to focus.

I picked her up and she continued the head movements until she found a spot where she could see me. “Well, hi there,” I said and her little tail wagged like crazy.

When she was 8 weeks old, I took her to two different veterinary specialists who’d been recommended by my vet. At the first clinic, the veterinarian seemed to chastise me for keeping the puppy alive and admittedly, she was still ridiculously small and weak. The veterinarian said that nothing could be done until she was full grown, “if she lived that long” I was to bring her back.

The next specialist suggested two possibly fixes. One repair would be to remove skin from inside her cheek and sew it over the hole. The second option was to sew a piece of plastic over the hole. But the recovery from each operation would be challenged by two things, the great possibility of infection, and the possibility that her condition could become worse if the operation failed. Both clinics said that nothing could be done until she was fully-grown.

In the meantime, Viv was learning to compensate for her disability. She ate her kibble a piece or two at a time, chewing it thoroughly and tilting her muzzle up to swallow. She drank from a dish with equal care, taking a few laps and then tilting up her muzzle.

Despite her physical handicap, Viv was able to complete the Senior Hunter level of the American Kennel Club hunt test program.

When her littermates left home, she was still half their size, but as the weeks and months flew by and some of the littermates visited, I could see that Viv was catching up. Also, she showed a real eagerness for bird work, but I hesitated.

What if she picked up a bird, and sucked feathers into that hole? But she seemed to like pointing birds so much that I resolved to train her, but not allow her to retrieve. She sailed through Junior Hunter with no problems.

As may be the case with most bird dog training, Viv’s work in the field did not go perfectly. One day she broke from her point and grabbed the bird. She started to bring it to me, but dropped it, looking at me in surprise. Her mouth seemed filled with feathers. She spit the feathers out and again picked up the bird, this time rolling it around on the ground first with her paw and grasping it mainly by the head.

I realized that Viv would compensate for whatever issues her disability created. I’m proud of the senior hunter title she earned last year, but the bond we have means more to me than any title she could earn. She’s a terrific friend and I feel lucky to share her life. 

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