Written by African Tails Adoptions Officer Lauren van Vuuren, Janine van Vuuren and Judy Turner
Professional photography by Zoey Furtography
The mangy, emaciated black dog aimlessly wandered around the streets of Mamre searching for food and shelter from the heat. She was full of sores and all alone in the world. No one in the community even noticed her; it was like she didn’t exist. Because of her severe mange, we doubt that anyone would touch her and most likely she was chased away when she came close to anyone.
This is how we found Willow in April 2017, during Phase 1 of our Mending Mamre Mass Sterilisation Campaign. Mamre is an impoverished area outside Cape Town.
We asked our Mamre volunteers what her story was and they said that she used to belong to someone a few years ago who must have put her out on the street, and this is where she’d been ever since – for a good few years.
We slowly approached her shaking little frame. With gentle words and cautious movements, we managed to gain the terrified dog’s trust and eventually swooped her up. We took her back to our office where we made her a nice comfortable spot for the night.
She didn’t show much emotion; most of them usually don’t after such an exhausting life on the streets. It wasn’t long before she went to foster mom Janine. That was the start of her recovery, mentally and physically.
Janine van Vuuren, Willow’s foster mom, shares…
What a sight Willow was when she was rescued! After uplifting her, African Tails gave her a lovely warm bath, tasty food, and treated her for parasites, and took her to a vet. Aside from severe mange and malnutrition, the vet suggested that she could have biliary or erlichia (tick-borne diseases) but couldn’t find signs of these in her blood samples.
When Willow arrived at my house the next day, I’d already made up a comfortable bed with lots of blankets to rest her bones on, something I’m sure she’d never had before. I’d separated her from my dogs to prevent them possibly contracting mange, and she spent the first week or so sleeping; only getting up to eat and drink.
Number one was to give her the proper nutrition and rest she needed to start recovering and I put her on a raw food diet – and she absolutely loved her four small meals per day. I also made sure she got plenty of rest; the continuous biting and scratching that sarcoptic mange causes is extremely tiring.
I decided to try a natural mange treatment which had been really successful with previous mange-ridden fosters. Twice a week, I bathed her and sprayed her with the natural mange treatment and, every day, I brushed her to get rid of all the scabs. As her skin started healing, she didn’t have to exert so much energy biting and scratching continuously, and became livelier.
From strength to strength
As the weeks went by, Willow improved more and more. We went for short walks around the farm to give her something to look forward to. I also sat with her every day, talking to her, stroking her and showing her what it was like to have somebody that cared for her.
The mange was almost completely gone, she had more energy, she began to bark when she saw me and interacted with me; she was putting on weight and so I introduced her to my three dogs. She integrated with them very well and soon did everything they did.
Things took a drastic turn for the worse
During the first weeks with her, I’d noticed her stomach appeared swollen despite her being severely emaciated. What’s more, it had actually increased in size. I knew something was very wrong. I contacted African Tails that weekend and said she needed to go back to the vet for a check-up.
When Monday morning came, something happened that was deeply worrying: I was watching the dogs play outside when I saw Willow walk straight into a wall. When I checked on her, it seemed to me that she couldn’t see. The very next day, we were off to the vet.
After examining her, the vet confirmed that she appeared to be blind and then proceeded to do a blood smear. Again, there were no signs of biliary or erlichia, even though it was suspected. The vet then felt her stomach and said that her spleen seemed to be enlarged; due to her state of health, she concluded that our girl may have cancer of the spleen. I was completely shocked as that is not what we were expecting at all. I left the vet in tears and immediately phoned my sister at African Tails. We decided to get a second opinion.
What the blood test showed was shocking
We made an appointment with another vet the next day. She listened carefully to our story and proceeded to do a blood smear, even though she’d been tested the previous day. This time, the vet saw that Willow DID in fact have erlichiosis*!
This meant that Willow had been living with it for weeks without treatment and that it had led to her blindness, overnight. We were heartbroken. The vet told us that, given Willow’s history, she didn’t know how she was still alive. She said that Willow clearly had a fighting spirit and did not want to die. She wanted to give her a chance at a good life.
For the next few weeks, we drove up and down to get Willow treatment and went to an eye specialist who concluded that it was probably the erlichiosis that had led to her losing her eyesight. We treated Willow but, sadly, it seems that she’ll probably never see again.
A forever home for Willow
In the meantime, Willow had blossomed: her skin was soft, her coat was glossy, and she was at a perfect weight. The most miraculous thing of all was the way she mapped out our house and entire farm 100%; she barely bumped into anything. She trotted up and down stairs perfectly and happily played with my dogs. The way she adapted to being blind was simply amazing. Best of all: her blood tests came back with great results – the erlichia was gone and she was a healthy dog!
After three months of rehabilitation, Willow was ready for a forever home.
But who would take on a dog like this? We put her up for adoption and that’s when the amazing Judy decided that she wanted to give Willow a forever home. When Judy came to meet her, she knew she definitely wanted to adopt her. The introduction process took a long time as we wanted Willow to get to know Judy and her home and other dogs before she stayed there permanently. Over the next few weeks, she visited Judy and her dogs, getting the “lay of the land” and making new friends.
In the interim, we decided to get Willow spayed. During the operation, we finally found the cause of her swollen belly: Willow had a hydrometra (fluid in the uterus). This fairly uncommon disorder is often misdiagnosed; although the cause isn’t entirely understood, we do know that the prognosis, with the removal of the uterus, is excellent.
Over the course of Willow’s visits, she grew to love Judy dearly and became best buds with Max, one of Judy’s dogs. Willow was finally ready to move in with Judy permanently. The rest, as they say, is history!
Judy Turner, Willow’s new owner, shares…
I have three rescue dogs and had no intention of getting any more fur kids. That was until I saw the video clip of Willow on African Tails’ Facebook page...
There were thousands of comments, Likes, and Shares on Willow’s post – 17K to be exact. Everyone said things like: “how wonderful”, “hope she finds a home”, etc. But what struck me most that was that, out of all those comments posted, no one actually came forward to offer her a loving home. I realised that, being a black dog (always less popular) with the added “disadvantage” of being blind, her chances of finding a home were minimal. My heart went out to her.
I mailed Lauren of African Tails and we set up a meeting with Willow and her foster mom, Janine. After a slow introduction process, she has settled in really well; she knows my house, garden and even the swimming pool. And she’s discovered my bed and the couch and has no problem making herself comfortable. She’s the sweetest, most loving and gentle dog imaginable.
I must thank Janine for the wonderful job she did caring for Willow from the time she was rescued to me adopting her; the transformation is remarkable.
Watch the inspiring video of Willow’s incredible transformation here:
*What is erlichia and erlichiosis?
Erlichiosis is the disease caused by erlichia, usually Erlichia canis, a rickettsial organism (biologically somewhere between a virus and a bacteria) transmitted by ticks. It’s notoriously difficult to diagnose and tests often show false negatives.
The disease has three phases – the first is an acute phase during which the dog’s body hasn’t made antibodies to the infection – this is what causes false negatives on the tests. Blood count tests show changes that can also occur due to malnourishment, plus outward signs are similar to other illnesses – sometimes the dog just has a fever and is off its food.
The next phase is a subclinical one where the dog has no outward signs; some dogs get rid of the organism during this phase. Those that don’t, live with the organism for life, usually without problems. Although some dogs have no further problems, some go into the third – and most serious – phase. By the time this occurs, it’s often too late to save them. Their blood cell counts drop dramatically, they may get secondary infections as their bone marrow is affected and their immune systems weaken, and they can become lame or go blind (as in Willow’s case), or develop bleeding disorders and bruising.