A sweet-tempered, mixed-breed mutt has become the surrogate mom for nine newborn African painted dog pups at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium whose real mother died shortly after they were born.
Honey, a black-and-white female dog from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society's North Side shelter, gave birth six weeks ago to her own litter of six pups and was brought in last week to nurse the black-and-white painted dog puppies that were born at the zoo on Oct. 25.
It's the first time a domestic surrogate has been used to mother and feed newborn wild painted dogs, which are endangered in the wilds of Africa. The pups' natural mother, 10-year-old Vega, died of a ruptured uterus last Wednesday at the zoo.
"Latching onto nipples is huge for them, much better than latching onto a bottle," said Dr. Stephanie James, the zoo's director of veterinary service. "Raising African painted dogs on a domestic dog has not been done before. We're breaking the mold."
The mortality rate for African painted dog pups, even with a healthy mother, is 50 percent in the first 30 days, in the wild or in captivity.
The death of Vega put the lives of her pups, six males and three females, in great jeopardy, said Dr. Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer.
"Our dilemma was whether to attempt to hand-raise the pups or to contact the local animal shelters to find a female dog that had just given birth and was nursing her pups," Dr. Baker said.
The search of local animal shelters quickly turned up Honey, who was the right size and coloration. Her own pups were in the process of being weaned but she was still able to nurse.
"She's just been perfect, an absolutely fabulous mom," Dr. Baker said. "All of the pups are gaining weight."
They were born weighing a little more than 12 ounces and now weigh 19 ounces. They'll be weaned after two weeks, when their diet will be changed to blended meat infused with digestive enzymes.
Dr. James said the zookeepers are doing everything they can to protect the pups from infectious diseases, including common viruses such as rabies, distemper and parvovirus, that domestic dogs are vaccinated against.
African painted dogs, so named because of their spotted tri-colored coat, cannot be vaccinated.
Dr. Baker said it's too early to say if all the painted dog pups will stay at the zoo if they survive, but the painted dog exhibit area, where the zoo formerly housed its cheetah, is large enough to accommodate them all.
"There are pack animals and in the wild are used to running in large packs," she said. "Our exhibit is big enough to handle 15 dogs."
Two male dogs, Drako and Puck, the pups' father, remain in the exhibit. After they're weaned, the new pups will be kept in a heated house at the exhibit but won't be let out until next spring, Dr. Baker said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 7, 2009) The last three paragraphs of this story as originally published Nov. 4, 2009 on African painted dogs were taken virtually verbatim and without attribution from wikipedia.org. This violates Post-Gazette and industry practices. The Post-Gazette regrets this incident and apologizes for it.
Don Hopey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1983.