Posted by: Kristin Bloink
The news of Brit’s collapse traveled very quickly through our small military veterinary clinic. I had been in the role of veterinary medical officer for only about nine months at a Navy base in the United States, Pacific Northwest. Brit was one of 24 military working dogs (MWDs) that I had the honor to provide care to. I had the necessary training - veterinary school and the US Army Veterinary Corps had taught me how to provide the utmost of care to these highly trained, force-multiplying working dogs. We had the right team in place - our network of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, dog handlers and kennel masters worked very well together. The guidelines were followed – we kept very detailed schedules of husbandry activities, kennel cleanings and inspections, we did biannual physical exams with routine blood tests and radiographs, dental cleanings, and we followed preventative care program of vaccines and parasite control where a dose was not missed. We loved these dogs; they were fellow service members, and we respected their bond and dedication to protecting us.
How could it be that Brit had collapsed? He was nine, getting up there a bit, but looked like he was three and was a good two years shy of the average working career of a US MWD.
The handler and his training partner raced into our clinic carrying Brit. Our clinical staff swarmed them. We quickly attempted all resuscitation techniques we knew, but Brit was already gone. Tears flowed from everyone’s eyes and immediately the entire team began second guessing their actions. The handler questioned the length of their training session, how often he had offered water and worried he had missed a physical sign foreshadowing this terrible event. The clinical staff reviewed the last physical exam – did we miss a clue on bloodwork, was there something we failed to see on a radiograph, is it possible our negative heartworm test was a false negative and his preventative was not working for some reason?
We were devastated. As we tend to do when someone passes away that wrenches our soul, we reflected on his life. Brit was selected specifically as an adolescent dog for MWD training by the US Department of Defense and passed the high expectation of having two military occupational skills – patrol and explosive detection. He had completed several tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan, likely protecting thousands of military members and civilians from enemies and explosives on and off bases. He may have even helped protect the President or a foreign dignitary at some point, as we recall a quick Secret Service request that required us to do an unscheduled exam, making sure he was ready to go on a short US assignment. He always adapted easily to the several dog handlers who became his partners over the years and already had a list of military members ready to adopt him upon his retirement.
As we wiped tears, we embarked on the several hour, very detailed task of a MWD full necropsy. Everyone stayed to help. Each of us needed to know why he died and if there was something we could have done differently. We methodically examined each part of his body and collected samples for further analysis. I had the same emotions as the team - what had I missed in the care of this precious dog?
There it was - a golf-ball-sized vascular tumor had caused the rupture of the right upper chamber of Brit’s heart. The tumor likely had been growing quietly, without any signs, for months and he died almost instantly when it ruptured. It was a moment I will never forget, as we pivoted from upset handlers and clinicians, to recognizing it was Brit’s day to leave us and there was nothing we could have done about it. The histopathology report later confirmed the tumor was a hemangiosarcoma, an all-too-common cause of death in our beloved canines.
As I celebrate K9 Veterans Day, I reflect on Brit, and the many MWD service members past and present, taking amazing care of humans and exemplifying the magic of the human-animal bond.