By the time Milo arrived at the Tompkins County SPCA in the summer of 2016, the senior terrier mix was almost bald. A local couple out for a walk in Caroline, New York, came across the lonely wanderer curled up at the foot of a tree. The SPCA consulted with its veterinary partners in the Maddie’s Â® Shelter Medicine program at Cornell, who discovered that Milo’s skin problems were just the beginning of his medical problems. Months of treatment and a loving home ultimately inspired a children’s book celebrating her resilience.
âWhen Milo first arrived here, he suffered from a diffuse skin condition that left him mostly bald, as well as dental disease and a heart murmur,â said Elizabeth Berliner, DVM ’03, Janet L. Swanson director of Shelter Medicine. âThe skin disease made him very irritated and he was depressed at the shelter – he sat on his bed and didn’t do much. “
Vets estimated Milo to be around 10 years old. They diagnosed her with aggravating skin conditions: two different types of scabies and a secondary skin infection. Once a skin infection sets in, without treatment, the scratching will only make it worse. Outdoor dogs like Milo may encounter sarcoptic mange, also known as mange, in rural areas where foxes are present.
âScabies is very itchy, so there is a loss of fur, and then a secondary bacterial and fungal infection will set in without active treatment,â Berliner said. And, although Milo’s heart murmur did not require treatment, it did require extensive dental treatment, including the extraction of six teeth.
At this point, no owner had come to claim Milo, which left the SPCA and their vets in a complicated position. In Tompkins County, senior pets are often adopted, but Milo would need several months to heal and achieve a reasonable quality of life to allow for adoption.
“Sarcoptic mange is treatable, periodontal disease is treatable, but none are treated quickly, easily, or cheaply,” noted Berliner. Veterinarians also take into account the quality of life of an animal that might linger in the shelter. âDespite our best intentions and our work to keep their refuge humane and comfortable, it is still a concern. All of this, and you need to have a community ready to adopt a dog over 10 years old and maintain ongoing treatments and assessments.
In the end, it took two months of treatment for Milo to be in an adoptable condition. After regular dental procedures and skin treatments, he was in much better shape. By September of that year, nearly 80% of her fur had returned, and members of the SPCA team continued to focus on enriching her life at the shelter to improve her depressed mood.
Although Milo was ready to be adopted, it took a while for any individual to show interest – until a volunteer at the shelter met him and instantly fell in love.
âI started volunteering with the Tompkins County SPCA at a difficult time in my life and wanted to do something meaningful,â said Susan Engelmore. An animal lover, Engelmore had volunteered at shelters in the past to give back to her community, but had no plans to adopt a dog at the time. “I can’t fully explain it, but I looked in her room and this beautiful little creature looked at me with big brown eyes, and I immediately fell in love. That’s really all it took.
Knowing that Milo would have lingering health issues didn’t deter her. What cemented his decision was to enter the shelter one day and find him upstairs “at work”. Milo greeted the new wanderers; because he was calm and friendly with other animals, the SPCA often used him to see if the new intakes were suitable for dogs. âAnd I knew then he was everything I thought he was,â Engelmore said.
In the years that followed, the two bonded deeply. Engelmore’s constant and constant care has given this aged dog an additional five years of healthy life.
âDespite what he went through, he still had such a good attitude. I could see he was grateful for everyday life. He loved everyone, âshe said. Engelmore notes how contagious his joy was and that the strangers they met on walks always stopped to greet him. As well as enriching his life, Milo was also a great comfort to his father, who suffered from severe dementia. “He might not remember my name sometimes, but he always remembered Milo’s,” Engelmore said.
A year after his adoption, he developed severe osteoarthritis in one leg, which limited some of his favorite pastimes, including going for a run “with sheer joy on your face,” Engelmore said. “You could tell he was determined to run, even though it was only 30 seconds.”
At the start of the pandemic, Engelmore wanted to use lockdown time productively. Milo was with her the entire time, and she wanted to share her inspiring story of resilience and grace with the world. She decided to do it by fulfilling her lifelong dream of writing a children’s book. âHis sweetness touched so many people and I wanted to pay tribute to him,â Engelmore said.
The book, Milo’s Gift: A True Story, published in June 2021 by Gatekeeper Press. It follows Milo’s journey – from his loss, alone and ill in the woods, to his adoption and his life in a loving home. âHe was such an inspiration to me,â Engelmore said. âI wanted the kids to see that you can be sad and go through tough times, just like Milo, and survive and be resilient and love life. He did it for me, and he can do it for others.
When Milo passed away in November 2021, Engelmore said the decision was painful but she knew it was her time. âEveryone at their local vet, all the techs and staff, everyone loved her, and we were all crying,â she said.
Berliner arranged for copies of Milo’s gift to be given to the shelter staff who had supported Milo during his stay with them. Engelmore credits them with giving Milo a second chance at life and appreciates them deeply. It was a gesture, Berliner said, that meant a lot to everyone who had treated him so many years ago. âFor vets to hear positive feedback, to know that they’ve made a difference not only in a pet’s life, but an owner’s as well, it means so much. It’s so important, especially now, âsaid Berliner. “Being able to bring in Milo so that someone like Susan can give him another five years of high quality life is just amazing.”
Reactions to the book have been equally positive elsewhere. Engelmore received personal thanks and reactions on all levels to Milo’s gift.
âI wanted to pay him up front,â she said. âThey say I saved Milo, but he really saved me. It means a lot to me that her story touched so many people. “
Melanie Greaver Cordova is Assistant Director of Communications at the College of Veterinary Medicine.