Fifi’s Story: The Emotional Support Animal Becomes an Empathy Animal

The Jefferson family has been spending a lot of time during quarantine enjoying “Below Deck” and letting our hair grow out.  Fifi, our fluffy Shih Tzu, that prior to the pandemic,  greeted patients and guide dogs at the office, has been doing much of the same.

Every morning she runs to the front door because she thinks she is going to work, and every morning I have to tell her, “No, Fifi, I don’t want you to spread germs.”  She gets so disappointed every time. Fifi’s inability to go to work has affected her perky spirit and she has looked a little mopey as of late.

Discovering and Treating an Eye Injury

Fifi’s hair has also grown a little shaggier than usual. My husband told me one day that he noticed she hadn’t been eating. I thought she must be a little depressed, but then I pulled back her shaggy hair and noticed a large corneal ulcer on her right eye! It turns out she wasn’t depressed, but at some point injured her eye and was in tremendous pain. We took her to the vet the next day where Dr. King confirmed the diagnosis.

We had to put her in a “cone of shame,” administer eye drops hourly, and give her antibiotics.  Fifi hated the cone of shame and wouldn’t eat or drink with it on. Nevertheless, we had her wear it until she completed her treatment and no longer tried to scratch her eye.

Fifi started looking like her old self in a week or so. Her eye was opening up, and her latest vet visit went well. After about two weeks, we let her go without the cone, and it was like we had our old dog back. She even started keeping our golden retriever in line again. I brought Ffi with me to visit family so she could have more social interaction outside of her herd.

Surgery for Fifi

It was only a few days later that I noticed she was squinting her right eye. The next day she looked even worse and was moving slowly again. We took her to the vet the following morning.  I noticed her eye was leaking watery brown fluid. Dr. King told me she now had a corneal perforation, and she was already blind in that eye! She said the cornea was still healing and was weak; even the slightest scratch could have done it.  We felt terrible and were faced with a choice: continue to administer drops to a blind eye that will eventually develop painful glaucoma, or……enucleate.

Dr. King assured me that this sort of thing is extremely common in Shih Tzus because of their large, shallow-set eyes, but we still felt guilty. I told the vet that this is so ironic as she is an emotional support animal to my patients who have experienced eye loss as well.

We discussed placing an orbital implant, and then the doctor said we could have her fitted for a prosthetic eye, but we would probably have to go to California to have it done. I could not help but laugh. Even if I wanted to make her an eye, I know Fifi, and she is not going to have it!  She will get annoyed and scratch it out every chance she could. So, I decided to do what was best for Fifi and not me. We decided to forgo the orbital implant and had her lids sewn shut. After her surgery, Dr. King called to tell me the perforation was right next to her drain and she was definitely going to have had glaucoma from the onset so enucleation was wise. I was relieved, but also glad to have a solid reason for when my patients asked about her.

When we got home, she was very loopy still. I told her about how my patients have shown me that eye loss is a hurdle, not a handicap, so she must carry on like always once she felt better.  She received visitors and flowers and was back to normal by the next day.

Bringing Fifi Back to the Office Safely

I decided to ask Dr. King about COVID-19 in animals.  She said there has never been a case in a dog so she’s not going to be contagious.  She said if there was any slim chance at all for her to spread it, it’s by an infected person kissing her and then Fifi snuggling other people.  But she said that was a long shot.

I’ve decided that Fifi can come back to work, but she cannot be picked up by patients for now.  She likes to get in people’s laps, so we will have to be mindful of that and keep her somewhat separate. She will still be allowed to visit, but she will have to learn to keep to herself a bit more.

During quarantine, a family member of one of our patients painted a beautiful portrait of Fifi.  She has both her eyes in the painting. This will be hanging in our lobby, but it will be Fifi 2.0 that will be greeting people. This 2.0 means new and improved, and we think Fifi just has so much more to offer now that she’s a survivor herself.

We look forward to working with our patients in the coming year which will surely be unusual, but if I’ve learned anything it is this;  When we are challenged, we grow, and I believe good things will come of this.