Little dog is living large

Person holding a smiling Java the Chihuahua dog in a lap
Java has spina bifida and had difficulty walking when she came to Best Friends, but today the Chihuahua has found her stride.
By Nicole Hamilton

Java is proof that it’s never too late to start over. These days, it’s hard to tell which she likes more: playing in the snow or curling up on the couch with her adopter. Judging by the way her tail is always wagging, it’s safe to say she’s a happy dog. As for the wiggle in her backside, that’s just part of her signature style.

At 7 years young, Java the Chihuahua is living large, and she’s come a long way from when she arrived at Best Friends in Salt Lake City last summer with a long list of medical issues and difficulty walking. It took some time to help Java feel better again and uncover the reasons for her unsteady gait. But sometimes the hardest challenges yield the sweetest rewards.

One determined veterinary team

Dr. Megan McCarthy, Best Friends veterinarian, examined Java when she arrived at Best Friends and discovered she had severe dental disease and a bad urinary tract infection. As for the reason behind Java’s wobbly walk, the veterinary team determined that she had patellar luxation, a condition where the kneecaps slide out of place, in both legs.

But something told Dr. Megan that there was more to Java’s mobility issues. “It seemed like there was a neurologic component as well,” says Dr. Megan. “She hobbled around in almost a sitting position.” And although Java could urinate on her own, she sometimes had difficulty emptying her bladder all the way. So staff helped her by holding her, gently placing a hand on her abdomen, and carefully squeezing, or expressing, her bladder several times a day.

[Once-paralyzed dog finds her footing with family’s help]

Java’s infections were treated with antibiotics. Then, she saw an orthopedic specialist for surgery to repair her patellar luxation. Although Java healed quickly from surgery and seemed to feel more comfortable, she still hobbled when she walked.

Determined to get to the source of Java’s mobility issues and to address the bladder issue, the team brought Java to a neurologist for a CT scan. The results were telling. Java, it turns out, has spina bifida, a birth defect where the vertebral bones fail to develop and fully surround the spinal cord. “This causes the spinal cord to protrude and leads to varying degrees of neurologic dysfunction, such as being unable to walk or urinate on one’s own,” says Dr. Megan.

Finally, the team had the reason why Java hadn’t been able to walk or fully empty her bladder on her own. And while there is no cure for spinal bifida, it was entirely possible for Java to live a happy life with a little help.

A couch potato and cuddle bug

Best Friends foster volunteers played an integral part in helping Java from when she first came to Best Friends until she was adopted. In a foster home, Java could rest between doctor’s appointments. She also got plenty of room to roam and practice walking, and she received plenty of TLC, too.

Caitlin Bennett first met Java when she attended an adoption event at the lifesaving center with her partner, who was looking for a cat to adopt. When she saw Java at the event and learned she needed a foster home, Caitlin offered up hers. “I wanted to provide her with a calm, safe place until she was adopted,” says Caitlin. “And I’m so glad I did.”

[Blind miniature poodle pup blossoms in foster home]

Because Java has difficulty walking on hard surfaces, Caitlin took her outside often, where Java could walk on grass and soil for a little more traction. After a few minutes outside, however, Java was usually ready to retreat to the couch or rest on blankets near Caitlin’s desk. “Java was the sweetest little potato, my nickname for her,” she says. “She is the definition of a snuggle bug and really wanted to remain close to her people.”

One of Caitlin’s favorite memories is of Java realizing that she could watch her work from the corner of the couch. “She would wedge her face in between the arm and back of the couch and sleep there all day, just so she could watch me when she wanted,” says Caitlin.

As for expressing Java’s bladder several times a day, Caitlin admits that, at first, she was worried she wouldn’t get the hang of it. “Once we got into a routine, expressing became just a regular part of our day,” she says. “Java was so good during these sessions and wouldn't wiggle away or resist at all. It was a best-case scenario.”

Grown-up dog, puppy spirit

About a month after Caitlin began fostering Java, she took part in a virtual meet and greet with Donna Thomas, who had been looking for a Chihuahua to adopt. Donna says talking to Caitlin gave her valuable insight and confidence that she could make Java’s transition to her new home as smooth as possible.

Today, Java is all settled in at home with Donna, who says it helped that her senior Chihuahua, Sasha, was there to show her the ropes. Recently, Donna discovered that Java loves the snow. “It’s like she’s never seen snow before,” says Donna. “She likes to lay on the ice and slide, just like a kid.”

As for expressing Java’s bladder, Donna says it’s been easy. In fact, the hardest part some days is getting Java off the couch when it’s potty time. “She loves cuddling with me,” says Donna. “And just laying on a pile of blankets.”

Hearing that Java is doing so well in her new home doesn’t just make Caitlin happy; it also reinforces why she fosters animals in the first place. “It is such a rewarding  experience,” she says. And she encourages others to foster animals, too. “We are all capable in making a difference in animals' lives.”

Help a pet on their way to a home

Fostering pets like Java can help prepare them for a new home. Plus, you get a fluffy friend out of it. It’s a win-win!

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