Search and rescue dog is Pet of the Year

Tom Pletcher said he once read a book that described golden retrievers as "the dog at the party with the lampshade on its head."

His dog Molly, a certified search and rescue dog who died last fall, "was kind of like that," said Pletcher, who last week accepted the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association's 2010 Pet of the Year Award on behalf of Molly.

Molly was "such a fun-loving dog," Pletcher said. "As with any golden retriever, she never met a stranger. Whoever she would see, it was always, 'Oh, you are my new best friend.' "

Andover veterinarian David Whetstone nominated Molly for the award because of her devotion to search and rescue work, her loyal companionship to her owners, Tom and Jill Pletcher of Wichita, and her "ever-present energy."

The award, Whetstone said, "recognizes what amazing roles animals play in our lives."

Whetstone also wanted to call attention to the disease that took Molly's life: leptospirosis.

Leptosporosis, "lepto" for short, is a bacterial disease that can be contracted by most animals, wild or domestic. The bacteria are passed through urine to water sources, and "dogs aren't very discriminating about the water they drink," Whetstone said.

Lepto is not a new disease, but Whetstone said he has seen more cases in the past few years.

Ten years ago, lepto was included in the combination of core vaccines given to all dogs, Whetstone said. But because some dogs — particularly small ones — had reactions to the vaccine, many vets stopped giving it.

In the past year, Whetstone has started giving the vaccine again, which he said has been improved and is causing fewer reactions.

"We're recommending it for all of our patients," said Whetstone, who practices at Countryside Pet Clinic.

People used to think that lepto was a disease that only affected "farm dogs, or dogs that hunt or roam a lot," said veterinarian Kenneth Harkin, a professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

But even "backyard dogs" in the Wichita area have contracted it, he said.

The disease is not a concern for cats, who seem to be resistant to it, Harkin said.

Pletcher isn't sure how Molly contracted lepto, but he suspects it was during one of their training missions with the Sedgwick County Emergency Management K9 Team.

As a human-remains detection dog for five years, Molly was involved in many searches, including the aftermath of the May 2007 tornado in Greensburg and the February 2009 search of a trailer park near Towanda for a missing person.

Whetstone said dogs that contract lepto may display "flu-like symptoms": fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea or lethargy.

"There's nothing specific to that disease," he said.

Harkin, of K-State, said symptoms can also include muscle pain and drinking and urinating more than usual.

"For dogs, the most common manifestation is acute kidney failure," and the mortality rate is about 20 percent, Harkin said. With early diagnosis and treatment, most dogs can be saved, he said.

In Molly's case, her owners noticed that she had stopped eating and wasn't her usual energetic self.

They took her to the veterinarian for tests, but about four days after she was diagnosed, she died of kidney failure. She was 6 years old.

With Molly's death, Pletcher lost a partner as well as a friend, he said.

Working in search and rescue, "you do develop a very strong bond with the dog because you are spending so much time with them in the training and responses," he said. "You get to know each other very well."

They also worked together with a positive sense of purpose, Pletcher said.

"It was not just fetch. You're actually doing something in terms of service to your community."

Molly loved her job and was very good at it, showing "excitement and eagerness" in her effort to "find Fred," the term used for human remains, Pletcher said.

"She had a very detailed nose. She wanted to take inventory of everything."

Although Molly never had any "finds" of human remains, being able to tell a family that "there was no indication of that can be just as valuable," Pletcher said.

"People are really looking for closure."

The Pletchers have two other golden retrievers — 4-year-old Tanner and 7-month-old Sienna — but aren't sure either is suited for search and rescue work.

Tanner doesn't have Molly's energy level and is more of a "couch potato," Pletcher said.

As for Sienna, Pletcher thinks she's bright enough but said, "We'll have to see just how her drive develops."

Search and rescue, he said, "is not something for every dog."

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