PEOPLE | PETS | COMMUNITY

Cooper the Santa Dog

Cooper was a very special patient at Olympia Veterinary Specialists — and he became Olympia’s very own Santa Dog. 

By Lisa Parshley, DVM, PHD, DACVIM

Have you ever heard of an IV of love? Does it sound implausible to have an IV delivering love? Six years ago, I would have scoffed at the very idea. Then I was introduced to an extraordinary dog who inspired his friends and neighbors through acts of unconditional love to make the very first IV bag full of love. In the spirit of the season, I want to share the story of Cooper, Olympia’s very own Santa dog.

The first time I met Cooper, he was wiggling with happiness and carrying around a three-foot long stuffed bone. He ran up to greet everyone in the lobby while furiously wagging his tail. It was clear he didn’t know or care about his recent diagnosis of cancer: a high-grade mast cell tumor.

Mast cell tumors are a cancer of the immune system, specifically the white blood cells that cause allergies. They are the most common cancer of the skin for dogs. Symptoms of this cancer range from itchy lumps that grow and shrink to signs of severe allergies (including sores, hives, trouble breathing, upset stomachs, ulcerations in the stomach, to worse). They can metastasize or spread to lymph nodes, liver, spleen, and the bone marrow. Certain breeds are more prone to this cancer than others, such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, Pit Bulls, Boxers, and Labradors. Once a dog makes one mast cell tumor, they tend to make more tumors over their lifetime.

Cooper’s tumor was high-grade, thus despite it being removed surgically, he was going to need medical therapy to hope for long-term control of his cancer. His mom and dad decided to treat him with a combination of medical therapies. Cooper would start a mixture of oral therapies at home and he would receive eight doses of injectable chemotherapy over 12 weeks.

On the day of his first dose of chemotherapy, Cooper arrived carrying his overstuffed bone. His mom was carrying the very first bag of IV love: a fluid bag that had been filled with cut-out hearts and glitter. When Cooper’s neighbors, especially the children, found out he had cancer and was going receive chemotherapy, they made this unique therapy of love. It included instructions: Make sure Cooper had it with him as we administered the chemotherapy and make sure it was hung on his kennel all day. Cooper came to the clinic that first day and every day after, carrying a community’s love to help him fight cancer.

Cooper’s IV of love may have had something special in it, because he beat his cancer, surviving another four holiday seasons. Some might argue it was this infusion of love more than our therapies that treated his cancer. Personally, I would not argue that point.

Being curious as to the origin of his IV bag of love, I asked mom and dad about it one day. The story I heard made me realize I was treating a very special dog. The story has stayed with me for years.

Cooper was a dog who had the spirit of Santa Claus. Every year during the holidays, he would dress up in a Santa outfit, hat and all. Wearing this outfit and carrying his overstuffed bone, he would deliver gifts for all the animals in his neighborhood. At each door, he would hand out a wreath covered with dog and cat treats – an animal version of edible wreaths.

Over the years, he became a holiday fixture in his neighborhood. Children came to love and look forward to seeing this furry four-pawed Santa delivering treats to all the neighborhood dogs and cats. To these children, seeing a cute black Lab wearing a red suit and hat meant it was the holiday season.

During Cooper’s first holiday season after being diagnosed with cancer, he brought wreaths to the cancer center for his fellow cancer survivors. My staff were to give these wreaths out to other families with animals who had cancer. Santa Cooper once again continued to provide joy to other families during the holiday season. Only that year, in the spirit of the holidays, he lightened the darkness of cancer for many families.

In the years to come, Cooper’s wreaths would turn into a whole Christmas tree covered in dog and cat toys and treats. Cooper’s acts of kindness inspired another family to help play Santa in honor of Huey, their very special kitty. Huey’s mom would hand-sew and hand-stitch toys and ornaments, including catnip toys.

The goal of this tree was to have all the treats and toys given out to families visiting our clinic by the end of the holidays. As staff and employees who work every day with cancer, to be able to walk a family and pet up to this tree, no matter their religion, for their pet to select a toy or treat, helps ease the staff’s emotional load.

Two words describe Cooper: joy and love. No one was a stranger to Cooper. Everyone was a friend he had to meet.

Now, every holiday season when Cooper’s and Homer’s moms show up to decorate our tree, I hear paddy paws running all over our lobby and I see the ghost of Cooper the Santa dog carrying a big over-stuffed bone. And I smile.

Happy Holidays from the staff of Olympia Veterinary Specialists. May we all follow the example of Olympia’s very own Santa dog. No one is a stranger. We are all friends.