Our Luckiest Rescue: Imogen's Story

(Content Warning: descriptions of animal illness, surgery, and some non-gory post-operative photos)

It's sometimes hard for us to visit pet stores in person due to the lack of care and knowledge we witness with regards to the animals they sell -- at The Rescue Garden, we're firm believers in the "adopt, don't shop" motto. Certain stores are worse than others, with Petco being the most heartbreakingly severe offenders, and PetSmart only slightly better. Unfortunately, in many areas, these are the only options for pet supplies, unless you have access to online ordering. The issue is not necessarily the employees on the sales floors who are just trying to do their jobs. The failure occurs at the corporate level, where animals are seen as a bottom line rather than living creatures. Sales associates at these stores receive next to no training in the proper care of the animals for sale, instead being forced to follow corporate procedure that certainly does not prioritize the best interests of the animals; most of the time, they don't even realize that the little bit they were taught during orientation is inaccurate or harmful. Even store managers can fall into this trap. When I've had to visit a store in person, I've often ended up answering questions from other customers or ended up being the one to have to handle a critter because the poor employee assigned to that area is actually terrified or unsure of how to handle them. And sometimes I've witnessed situations so dire that over time, I've ended up taking home three mice, a rat, and a guinea pig, just to get them out of unhealthy conditions at the store -- always a tough decision, because none of us want to encourage them to sell more animals, but we also can't stand idly by when we see an animal in danger. A few years ago, I was living in Silicon Valley. The Rescue Garden was still just a faint glimmer of a dream in my head. Our local PetSmart usually wasn't too terrible, and I needed animal food too urgently to wait for an online order to be delivered, so I decided to pay them a visit. I always take a walk past the animals just to keep an eye on things, and on this day, I noticed a lovely little white Abyssinian poofball with pink eyes among the guinea pigs in the much-too-small, improperly bedded tank. A few weeks and another emergency supply run, she was still there, although a little less fluffy than she had been before. Yet another couple of weeks passed, and the same piggie was looking downright scrawny and shabby, her eyes duller. Three months later, she was still there, and clearly unwell. Luckily for this little guinea pig, my husband's "no more animals" decree has never been terribly convincing, and having heard the frequent updates on this little one, it turned into "...after this one." I rushed back to the store the next day and told them I wanted that guinea pig, knowing full well that she was going to require intensive care to get her healthy again. I asked them why she'd been there for so long and the sales associate replied that "nobody wants the ones with the pink eyes," something I'd heard plenty of times before about mice, rabbits, and rats. My heart went from cracked to broken. As soon as I got the listless little guinea pig home, I made an emergency appointment with the veterinarian. She was about five months old, but due to the maltreatment received at the store, she was only the size of a three month old. Her coat was thin, dull, and scratchy, and there was no light at all in her eyes. She barely reacted when picked up or held and it became quickly apparent that she was blind in addition to being severely malnourished. Her breathing was labored. She refused all kinds of fresh produce and hay that I offered her, so we went straight for organic baby food made from guinea pig-safe vegetables and Critical Care, which she thankfully at least nibbled at. I kept her in my arms all day. When my husband got home from work, he took one look at her and was smitten, even in her precarious state.

I named her Imogen. We slept on the couch together that night so I could try to feed her and give her water every couple of hours. I knew there was a very good chance she wouldn't make it, but she seemed to respond to the cuddles at least a little bit.

The next day we took her to her emergency vet appointment. The results of her physical exam were devastating. The xrays showed advanced pneumonia. The veterinarian, Dr. Greenspan, was able to confirm that she was indeed blind, and also deaf. Somehow, despite five whole months of insufficient nutrition at the pet store, she did not have scurvy -- guinea pigs, like humans, cannot make their own Vitamin C and need supplementation in their diet to compensate. But that was the only comfort we'd receive. We went home with antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory, not even sure if that would be enough to pull her through. Imogen slept in the baby doll cradle my father had built for me when I was a toddler next to the couch where I slept for her first four nights with us, continuing to feed her Critical Care and applesauce -- the only thing she was able to take in -- from what had once been my daughter's baby spoon. If she didn't have long left, I was determined to make sure she knew what it felt like to be spoiled with love.

I truly believe that love makes a difference in recovery for animals, just like it does for humans. And by the second day, our "baby" Imogen was improving.  She looked like a whole new piggie.  Her eyes were much brighter, reminding me of candy apples or boiled sweets. I minced veggies in the food processor and mixed them with the Critical Care so she could learn to eat like a real guinea pig.  Normally, baby guinea pigs learn what's good to eat by watching their mother, but since Imogen couldn't see and didn't have a mama to take care of her, all we could do was try a little bit of everything and hope something would entice her to eat. As it turns out, parsley and cucumber did the trick. Over the next few days, I started cutting the produce into slightly larger chunks and added in small bits of hay. 

It took her a full month to learn to eat hay, pellets, and vegetables. She refused lettuce leaves, but got very excited about the crunchier parts near the base of the lettuce head. To this day, she turns her nose up at "floppy" foods, and will pick through her daily salad for the smaller, crunchier leaves and stemmy bits! 

Finally, she surprised everyone by getting a clean bill of health from the vet, and we tried her with our existing herd -- Blossom, Juneau, and Gemmie. They were fine with playdates outside the cage, but unfortunately would not accept having her in their house. Now we had another problem. I gave Imogen (now shortened to Immi) a pet-safe stuffed elephant to keep her company while she lived alone and I figured out what to do. My daughter, Eva, had adopted Gemmie from us and a companion piggie for her from the Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue named Iota, but was in the middle of moving house, so we were babysitting both at the time. We all agreed to try Immi with Gemmie and Iota, and that if things went well, she'd take the trio.

The bonding seemed to be going well until sweet little Immi tried to say hello to Iota the only way she knew how -- ear nibbles and nuzzles. Being blind and deaf, we have to communicate with Imogen through physical means, either by humming and talking to her while holding her so she can feel the vibrations in our chests, or by little smooches we give her on her ears. Ear smooches, however, are highly improper guinea pig etiquette, so Iota took great offense, and that was the end of that bonding, leaving Imogen still with us and all by herself, except for "Ellie" the stuffed elephant and her humans.

A few weeks later, we drove two hours to the Ratical Rodent Rescue in Vallejo, hoping we could find Immi a friend. Jenn, the founder, put six female guinea pigs into a playpen with Imogen to see who would take to her best. All of the girls were very sweet to the new kid, but one named Maisy was the first one to her side and stayed there for the rest of their playdate. We knew Maisy was the right choice. Then we saw Dottie. At the time, she was just called "Smoosh-Face" because of her short, rounded snout. Nobody wanted her because of her different appearance, which was due to a guinea pig version of dwarfism, making her stockier and "smooshier" -- to us, she was absolutely adorable! Good Guy Husband surprised us all in the best possible way by announcing we'd be taking her home with us, too. Now we had this wonderful trio, an existing pair of our own, and our visiting "grandkids" Gemmie and Iota, and everyone was happy!

Five weeks later, we ended up with a quintet when, after daily floor time and picnic dinner, Blossom and Juneau decided that these new kids weren't so bad after all. By now, we'd had Imogen for four months.

Over time, we learned that Imogen had some sensitivity to high frequency sound in her left ear. Tapping a spoon on a glass would elicit a small "burr burr burr" response. Small birds with higher-pitched tweets in our yard would also prick her ear. After trying numerous sound frequencies, I found a music box that she could "hear." What she actually hears, we have no way of knowing -- if only guinea pigs could talk! -- but some structure in her left ear functions enough to pick up sounds in the A7 to C7 range. Dr. Greenspan performed extensive testing of Immi's eyes and neurological status and found an extremely minor reaction to light in her left eye, but still none at all in the right. Her right ear is completely floppy, but her left ear sticks up normally. Whether this is coincidence or evidence of something like a stroke or congenital nerve impairment, no one can say for sure.

The vet warned us that Immi would likely be susceptible to respiratory issues throughout her life because of the severity of the malnutrition and pneumonia she had already experienced at such an early stage of development. We kept (and still keep) close watch on her breathing, and sure enough, that following March, we saw the signs again. Although we had now settled in Los Angeles, Dr. Greenspan had referred us to a trusted colleague in our area at a facility with 24/7 emergency care and every other pet resource you could need available on-site. The wonderful Dr. Gleeson diagnosed a new bout of pneumonia. Illness in small animals hits hard and fast, so despite having caught the issue much earlier this time, Immi was already very sick. She had to stay in the animal hospital to be on oxygen. 

We brought Ellie to her the next day, and visited daily. Although they brought her to us in an oxygen tent, we were able to hold her for at least few minutes each time we came to say hello. We even took Maisy to visit a few times, too, once we were told it was safe to do so. I fed Immi and gave her meds myself if I was there at the right time to do so. She was in the hospital for a staggering 3 weeks. When I couldn't be there due to work-related travel, my husband filled in, so that she'd know she hadn't been abandoned. 

When we finally got her home, she was on meds and nebulizer treatments twice a day. A few weeks later, the pneumonia had cleared up, but her eye was starting to look a little odd. Likely as a result of the respiratory infection, an abscess had developed behind her right eye, pushing it outwards. Guinea pig immune systems make extreme attempts to contain infection by encapsulating offending cells with thick pus and membrane, which is good because it's usually easier to remove this way -- but because they can grow so quickly, they can put pressure on nearby structures, including eyes. That May, Dr. Gleeson, Dr. Schacterle, and the ophthalmology specialist Dr. Fahrer had no choice but to remove the eye along with the abscess. Immi was in the hospital for a few days (with her Ellie, of course) and we started a whole new course of medications and wound care.  

Since Immi was already completely blind in her right eye, aside from some occasional annoying tearing of the empty eye-space where part of the tear duct remains, she is not affected in the slightest by its removal. Even before her surgery, she was the fastest, hardest guinea pig to catch up with! Her spatial awareness is incredible. We call her Magical Moji because sometimes she disappears from the free-ranging herd in the animal room and reappears in the living room or kitchen -- how she finds her way out is a mystery to us! She zooms around her habitat as confidently as any sighted piggie. During her many explorations, she is mapping out her route, like a furry little robo-vacuum, and then zips around once she knows exactly where everything (and everyone) is. Whenever another guinea pig steps in front of her, she skids to a stop and changes her path to go around them without incident. We often forget she can't see or hear!

So that is the story of lucky, magical, fluffy, pixie-nosed, blind, deaf, one-eyed Himalayan Abyssinian guinea pig -- all hail Imogen Maxmiliana Smith, Guinea Pig Queen of Bavaria, as is her full and proper name!