Puppy with medical condition helps kids


Frank walks to the Richmond Animal League's clinic with owner Lee Metz. Not many people wanted to adopt Frank because he has a medical condition that requires extra care. (Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch via Associated Press)
March 11

Frank is a small puppy with a big head and an even bigger spirit.

It took four months for the Chihuahua-dachshund mix to be adopted; his five littermates were snatched up much more quickly.

At 8 weeks old — prime adopting age — Frank had a seizure. (That’s a short episode where the brain doesn’t work properly.) It was caused by a buildup of fluid in his brain, called hydrocephalus (pronounced hy-dro-CEFF-a-lus). That buildup is the reason for his unusually large head.

Frank — who loves cameras and eating leaves while on walks — was in danger of being put to sleep because of his medical condition. So the Richmond Animal League put him in a foster home, awaiting a family willing to take responsibility for a special-needs pet.

Stacey Metz saw Frank’s potential.

In her job at the Department of Neurosurgery of Virginia Commonwealth University, Metz often works with children and adults who have the same condition as Frank.

“They think they’re the only ones. It didn’t happen to any of their friends,” Metz said of patients. “It’s always nice to know they can relate.”

What made Frank undesirable became his selling point for a family that saw his illness as a way to comfort children with hydrocephalus and remind them that they aren’t alone.

“Frank probably wouldn’t have made it at another shelter,” said Richmond Animal League executive director Amy D. McCracken.

Hydrocephalus occurs when fluid builds up in the brain, often because of overproduction or blockages. As many as one in 500 children have hydrocephalus, according to Harvard Medical School.

The disease is rarer in dogs and is found mostly in smaller breeds. Both dogs and humans can have a medical procedure to allow fluid to drain from the brain.

Frank’s small stature and large head will not keep him from training to become a therapy dog.

“It’s really about the dog’s personality. The dog needs a combination of being calm and not flappable while also being very affectionate,” said Robin Starr, head of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The lovely thing about smaller dogs is that they can be on someone’s bed and someone’s lap. It makes it a little bit more comfortable to have more direct physical contact.”

Frank, now 9 months old, started training soon after he was adopted and still has about a year before he is certified.

His “foster mother,” Toni Mark, said he will make a good therapy dog because he’s not easily startled and is playful. If he had headaches or was bothered by common symptoms of hydrocephalus, “he never showed it. I can’t ask him, but he went with the flow all the time,” she said, laughing.

For now, Frank visits the homes of patients or meets them at the Richmond Animal League.

Recently, he got to meet Dylan Lipton-Lesser, a 2-year-old boy with hydrocephalus. As Dylan’s family compared notes with Frank’s family on medications, treatments and symptoms, they found several similarities.

“As these two get older, it will be really neat for Dylan to realize, ‘Hey, he has what I have,’ ” said his mother, India Lipton.

Shirley Lesser said that when Dylan went to the hospital for six surgeries in two years, a dog would have been great to help pass the time.

“It cheers them up,” she said. “It’s hard to have a kid in the hospital with nothing to do.”

They also are likely to relate to the questions Frank’s owners get.

“They are faced with the same response that we had: ‘What’s wrong with him?’ ” Mark said.

The opportunity to share that connection makes Frank’s placement with the Mark family an excellent fit. That’s a big accomplishment for the Animal League. Frank and other special-needs pets are the ones most in need of rescue and careful matching, McCracken said.

“It’s amazing who takes them in,” she said.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

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