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Beloved dog beats deadly disease

It was not out of the norm for Rachel Faulkner’s 10-year-old Labrador mix, Zephyr, to get an upset stomach and pass on a meal – but a look in the dog’s eyes said this time was different.

“She gave me this look like something was wrong and she wanted me to help her,” Rachel said. “That is when it hit me that there was something really, really wrong,”

In the coming week, Rachel and her husband, Travis, would learn at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital the full severity of Zephyr’s condition – she had a form of immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, called IMHA, that was causing her body’s immune system to destroy its own red blood cells.

More than half of dogs diagnosed with the disease do not survive.

“IMHA is a disease we see sadly quite often in our canine patients,” said Dr. Jillian Haines, a small animal internal medicine veterinarian at WSU who helped with Zephyr’s care. “With this disease, the body develops an immune response against its own red blood cells. It begins rapidly destroying the cells causing acute and severe anemia.”

Haines said the disease can be triggered by an underlying condition or it can be a primary disorder with no underlying cause. In Zephyr’s case, there was no underlying cause that could be identified.

“Depending on the research study you look at, we can see a mortality rate of more than 50 to 75%,” Haines said. “We often say that 50% of dogs with IMHA will survive to leave the hospital and of those, only half will ultimately live.”

Rachel and Travis were willing to do anything that would improve Zephyr’s chances of survival – she was, after all, family.

More than a decade ago the couple welcomed Zephyr into their home after Travis persuaded Rachel to go over to a friend’s house and “look” at some puppies waiting to be adopted.

This was a big step for Rachel. She was the kid who would cry when dogs approached, and even as an adult, the sight of a dog incited fear.

“We go down to the basement and all these puppies were bouncing around. Zephyr just calmly came up and put her paw on us,” Rachel said. “She chose us.”

By the time the couple made it home with their new puppy, they were in love.

A decade later, Rachel and Travis were not sure how many more days they would have with Zephyr.

It was touch and go for the dog, who would need a blood transfusion, made possible thanks to the teaching hospital’s blood donor program; a three-day stay at the veterinary hospital; and weeks of daily trips to WSU for treatment and blood checks. But she steadily improved, and nearly two months later, Zephyr began the long process of weaning off her medications. The trips to WSU became less frequent, and Rachel and Travis finally began to feel optimistic.

“It was still scary because we knew once they started taking her off her medications that it could come right back,” Travis said.

Zephyr has been off her medications since April 29, and her appetite and energy have returned.

For her care team at WSU, Zephyr is a big success story.

“She has been a trooper about her frequent hospital visits and blood draws and is always just happy for some love and some cookies while she is here,” Haines said. “We will miss seeing her so often but for her sake, we hope to not see her very much more in the future.”

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