UC Davis vets have tough job treating snoutless dog

10/17/2012 12:00 AM

05/21/2014 11:50 PM

UC Davis veterinarians have treated their share of celebrity patients.

They have performed kidney transplants on the dogs of wealthy people from the United Arab Emirates. They have cared for the feline pets of Hollywood stars. Doris Day has taken her pup to the school's renowned veterinary teaching hospital.

But the hospital's staff cannot recall having had a case quite like that of Kabang, the snoutless mutt from the Philippines credited with saving the lives of two young girls last year.

"I have not encountered a case like this one before," Dr. Jane Sykes, director of the institution's small-animal clinic, acknowledged Tuesday with a smile.

Kabang's story has tweaked heartstrings across two nations, and also raised questions about the extraordinary effort and cost going toward treating a single animal when so many are put to death in shelters or die because their owners cannot afford treatment.

Sykes acknowledged those concerns Tuesday.

"It's an interesting phenomenon that has occurred with this dog," she said. "The story has touched so many people. It's fascinating that it has attracted so much attention when, yes, there are lots of dogs in shelters and that is a huge issue."

In the end, she said, "I believe that Kabang is a great ambassador for dogs and what they can do for people. I think we owe her a service in return."

Kabang's story went global after news media in the Philippines reported that she lost her snout after bolting in front of a motorcycle headed toward two young sisters who were the dog's companions. After disappearing for a few weeks, the shepherd mix returned to her family's home with a gaping hole where the top of her muzzle used to be.

The dog's owner, Rudy Bunggal, who lives in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the Philippines, took her to a veterinarian. Soon media outlets jumped on the story, and thousands of dollars began pouring into a fund for Kabang's care.

The Animal Welfare Coalition of the Philippines, Global Animal Transport, Philippine Airlines and individual donors pitched in, according to a New York-based website created on the dog's behalf, www.careforkabang.com.

Last week, the pup and her Filipino vet made the trip to Northern California and UC Davis, which boasts the most comprehensive dental and oral surgery service of any veterinary teaching hospital in the world.

The Kabang website, launched by a critical care nurse in New York, estimates the cost of six to eight weeks of treatment at UC Davis at about $20,000. That bill likely will grow far higher, as veterinarians announced that Kabang has unrelated problems that will delay surgery for her facial wounds.

More than two dozen members of the media gathered Tuesday at UC Davis for an update on Kabang's status. Sykes said that tests show the dog is suffering from heartworm disease, as well as a potentially aggressive tumor.

Treatment of those conditions could take six months, Sykes said. If it proves successful, Kabang would undergo major dental surgery followed by an operation to close the wound on her face.

Sykes declined to estimate the total cost of treatment, but said the bill will be covered by Kabang's supporters.

The injury essentially robbed Kabang of her upper jaw and teeth. Because of the wound, she is at grave risk for infection and has to be creative in her efforts to eat and drink, Sykes said. Given soft food, she laps it onto her tongue and tosses it back toward her throat, the veterinarian explained.

"She's just a very, very sweet, affectionate dog who loves people," Sykes said. "She's a pleasure to work with."

A small army of top veterinarians is working on Kabang's case. Besides Sykes, they include Boaz Arzi, a specialist in facial reconstruction; Frank Verstraete, whose expertise is in oral pathology, surgery and diagnostic imaging; David Wilson, director of the veterinary hospital; and Anton Lim, who escorted the dog from the Philippines.

Even animal advocates are conflicted, they said, about so much time, effort and money being spent on a single case of an animal whose story goes viral.

"I struggled with the same concept after Hurricane Katrina," when outsized efforts were aimed at rescuing stray, sickly animals that found themselves in desperate straits during the disaster, said Jennifer Fearing, California state director of the Humane Society.

"It's a phenomenon that kicks in when animals that are simply part of an event somehow become celebrities," Fearing said. "Everyone wants to help. To me, the life of the pit bull picked up in Oak Park is just as valuable as the animal at the center of the big story."

Even so, Fearing said, she has no problem with the outpouring for Kabang.

"We should never stand in the way of people's interest in doing right by animals," she said.

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento SPCA, said the Kabang case illustrates "the personal choices that people make every day, with animals and with life in general.

"Do you spend a lot of money on a procedure to help one person, or do you use it to help a whole bunch of people in Bangladesh? Either way, it's hard to criticize people trying to do something positive in this world."

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