On June 25, I got a WeChat message from my roommate. Jonny and his friend Jan had found a puppy all curled up in a paper bag hung from Jan’s bike handlebars. The person who left him there had written in Chinese on the bag: "For a good-hearted person to take in." Jonny and Jan brought the puppy to our house, toweled him off, and made sure he was warm. The dog was dirty, exhausted, and smelled faintly of urine, but above all tiny.
We speculated about the puppy’s age and what we should feed him. Jonny asked his mom over Skype while Andrea (our other roommate) and I "ooh" and "aah"ed over our new charge. He peed on us a few times, but we were too enamored to care. Jonny and Jan nicknamed him "Baxter Wang Hund" to reflect his British/Chinese/German surroundings.
We knew couldn’t keep him. Not only were we too busy with work, but Andrea was mildly allergic to dogs. We posted about Baxter on Facebook and asked if anyone could take him in. The response was swift. One friend wrote "Send to Canada!" and another "I’m literally dying here … AAHHHHH I want a puppsie wuppsie!" One person came over to see him that very night. Clearly, Baxter wouldn’t have trouble finding a good home.
Mary Peng, the co-founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services, also saw our message on Facebook. She offered to give Baxter a free physical exam; as a rescued dog, he also qualified for ICVS’ discounted vaccination program. The latter gives 60 percent off on all the shots needed during a dog’s first year of life.
A few days later, Jonny and Jan took Baxter to ICVS. Jonny called at some point; there seemed to be some confusion about the price of the physical exam. He passed me to the Chinese-speaking receptionist, but the details were too technical to understand. I hung up and called Mary. She was caught up in a meeting, but would help us find out what was going on as soon she got out.
When she called back, it was with bad news. "I’m so sorry, Sijia," said Mary. "This puppy is very, very sick." I was shocked; after all, we were just trying to confirm whether the physical was free. Turns out it was, but the vets had found something terribly wrong with Baxter; the receptionist was just trying to tell us that further treatment would cost more.
Baxter was diagnosed with canine distemper, a viral disease that initially infects the respiratory system but can move on to the digestive system, nerves, and brain. The canine distemper virus (CDV) spreads through the air from coughing and sneezing and through contact with infected bodily fluids like discharge from eye and nose discharge, feces, and urine.
There is no known cure and puppies are especially vulnerable. According to the ICVS website, fatality rates are "as high as 70 percent among puppies and dogs with weak immune systems or a poor history of vaccinations."
Yet, the diagnosis itself wasn’t the most heartbreaking part. The general consensus is that puppies should only be separated from their mothers at eight weeks of age or older. Baxter was only three weeks old. In addition, marks on his skin suggested that he’d received treatment before ICVS.
The most likely story is that Baxter was taken from his mother too soon, kept in a crowded environment that was a perfect breeding ground for disease, and peddled to an unsuspecting customer. His new owners soon realized there was something wrong with him, took him to an animal hospital, and abandoned him when they learned how futile and expensive treatment would be. "This is an all-too-common story in Beijing," said Mary.
Since there is no cure for CDV, the only thing that ICVS can do if a dog is diagnosed with distemper is to support the animal’s immune system as much as possible. Antibiotics may be administered if there’s a secondary infection, but the veterinarian will focus on helping the immune system fight off the disease on its own. Combined with early diagnosis, many dogs survive CDV but end up with lifelong health conditions. The most serious include “degeneration of the nervous system” and “progressive deterioration of mental abilities and motor skills” (Wikipedia).
A more conservative person might say that the chances of survival for a 3-week-old puppy were very low. In effect, they were next to nothing. I called Jonny to relay everything I’d found out. I told him that the decision should be his and Jan’s, since (a) they found Baxter and (b) were at ICVS with him.
Eventually, they made the difficult decision to put him down. To say that we were heartbroken was an understatement. Andrea had taken care of Baxter day in and day out at home, while Jonny and Jan had been attached to him from day one. Perhaps because of his impossibly small size, we’d all felt extra protective of Baxter.
There was anger too. Anger at the thought of a puppy being taken from its mother so young, anger at people for supporting this industry (however inadvertently), and anger that Baxter would never get to play fetch, chew on a shoe, or become someone’s best friend.
We’re constantly told by animal shelters and hospitals to adopt, but that never really sank in until we found a dog, loved him, and lost him to a cruel disease. We have no illusions about the fact that stories like Baxter’s will continue to happen again and again in this city, but you can help bring down those numbers:
- Adopt, don’t buy. Beijing has a huge overpopulation problem with both dogs and cats. With so many animals in need of a home, it’s frankly cruel – not to mention irresponsible – to support the repulsive pet industry. Click here for our March 2012 feature on where to adopt.
- Spread the word. Did your friends just buy a tiny, adorably puppy from a box on the street? First, find a polite way to tell them that that was a dumb move. Then (because dogs are forever), refer them to the next and final point.
- Vaccinate your puppy. Puppies should get their first distemper vaccination between six and eight weeks of age, then continue getting the booster shot every two to four weeks until they’re 16 weeks old. They will not be protected against CDV unless they complete the series. This is crucial; owner irresponsibility is a major contributor to CDV outbreaks.
To find out more about canine distemper and other diseases, visit the ICVS website. Mary and her staff will be happy to answer all your questions.
Photos by Andrea Caballé Pais