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Special needs dog rescue seeks specialized care

By Devin Rokyta, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine

Cristene Justus knows the two-hour drive south from her ranch in Hauser, Idaho, to Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital by heart. 

It is a path she’s traversed countless times since establishing the Double J Dog Ranch sanctuary and rehoming center for dogs with special needs 14 years ago. WSU provides specialized veterinary care to many of the sanctuary’s dozen or so permanent residents — all with disabilities ranging from neurological and orthopedic disorders to blindness and deafness – and for the roughly 100 special needs dogs that find their way to the ranch every year before being adopted into loving homes.

“We have become frequent flyers at WSU,” Justus said. “These dogs are born with these disabilities, so they don’t know they’re any different, and most of them can have a fabulous quality of life. But they need special care, and knowing WSU is there gives us peace of mind.”

Dr. Ana Rebelo, right, an oncology resident veterinarian at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, talks with Theda Parker, left, a fourth-year veterinary medicine student, as they examine Bean, a dog who is deaf and partially blind, on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Pullman. Bean is owned by Cristene Justus, who owns the Double J Dog Ranch, a sanctuary and rehoming center for dogs with special needs in Hauser, Idaho near Post Falls. (College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren)

While the animals can receive much of their routine care closer to home, many need specialized services not always available at a traditional clinic. For eye-related care, Justus takes the ranch’s dogs to Dr. Kevin Kaiser, an ophthalmologist at the Animal Eye Care Clinic in Spokane who earned his veterinary degree from WSU in 2000, but the ranch relies on WSU for other services, including emergency care, neurology, orthopedics, and oncology. 

Justus noted many of the ranch’s permanent residents are aging, which brings a host of health complications, including cancer. One of those residents, 13-year-old Bean, was recently seen for a rare tumor that was found in his mouth, and his prognosis appears optimistic. A second, Eldon, recently had a carcinoma removed from his liver by Dr. Rachel Dickson, a resident veterinarian in the teaching hospital’s small animal surgery service. 

“Fortunately, Eldon is doing remarkably well – he’s eating well, and he has gained all his weight back,” Justus said. “We’re very thankful for the services WSU offers because it might not be the same case had he not been able to have surgery there.”

Justus has also been making the drive south with a pair of the ranch’s newer residents, blind siblings Maybelle and Josephine, who are being seen by the hospital’s neurology service for severe neurological issues. 

“I don’t always go to WSU thinking these things can be fixed, but it can help to find out what is causing the issues and if there is anything we can do to help manage the condition and give them a better quality of life,” Justus said.

Justus said the 4-year-old great Pyrenees siblings are unlikely to be adopted due to the severity of their conditions. The pair spent most of their lives in poor living conditions, but those days are in the past. 

“Nobody lives in crates and pens and dog runs at the ranch. They live in a community,” Justus said. “I love being their mom and having them at the ranch every day. They get to learn what living in the home is like.” 

While Maybelle and Josephine will likely live out their days at the ranch, Justus’ goal is to find loving homes for the dogs that come to the sanctuary.

“Special needs dogs are perfect in every way that matters,” Justus said. “Sometimes it takes quite a while for these dogs to get adopted because people aren’t familiar with having a blind or deaf dog, but we have so many double, triple and quad adopters. That speaks volumes for how wonderful these animals are.”

Justus also leads an educational outreach program in which she, volunteers and dogs visit schools and other groups to show how great pets with special needs are and to educate people about unethical breeding practices and the importance of spaying and neutering.