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By Helen-Anne Travis

It was a face only a pet parent could love.

When Emoji was found wandering the streets of Brooklyn, NY, the nearly 10-year old pug was in bad shape. Severely underweight and riddled with infection, the dog’s eyes were so inflamed he could barely open them. His ears were swollen and crusty. Every single tooth had to be removed.

But when she saw his picture on Facebook, New York City resident Maryloyise Atwater-Kellman couldn’t resist.

“It was love at first sight,” she says. “I thought: he’s coming with me.”

Atwater-Kellman comes from a long line of dog rescuers. Growing up, her family always adopted the “hot messes that needed a lot of attention,” she says.

But her newest hot mess needed even more attention than she realized. Soon after she adopted Emoji, a small growth was found in the pug’s mouth.

Emoji had melanoma.

Treating Emoji’s Cancer

“My heart broke for him,” says Dr. Tracy Akner of Manhattan’s “You could see there was a great dog under there, but he had so many problems.”

Together with Emoji’s primary veterinarian and a team of oncology specialists, Akner and Atwater-Kellman spent the majority of 2015 trying to nurse Emoji back to health. Fortunately, the growth in his mouth was found early and doctors were able to treat—and beat—the cancer.

While Atwater-Kellman is quick to credit all of Emoji’s doctors, she believes the inclusion of acupuncture and food therapies helped him maintain his wellness throughout the cancer treatment, and are now adding quality years to the dog’s life.

Acupuncture for Dogs: How it Helped Emoji

According to the University of California, San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine, acupuncture has been shown to help treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to hypertension. By inserting small sterile needles into the skin at specific spots called “acupoints,” acupuncturists are able to stimulate the body’s energy flow and boost its natural self-healing process. The practice is a 3,000-year-old component of traditional Chinese medicine.

“Chinese medicine is more holistic,” says Akner. “It addresses relationships between different parts of the body.”

In Emoji’s case, Akner helped boost his body’s ability to eradicate cancer cells by stimulating Large Intestine 11, a powerful acupoint located near the elbow. She also activated points that addressed the myriad of other issues the pug was facing.

Atwater-Kellman asks herself every day how anyone could have mistreated a pup as sweet as Emoji. She fears he spent most of his life before her in a cage. When she found him, his spine was humped, he had bad back pain, and he wouldn’t raise his head. The pup was skittish in new settings; his legs locked up and he would just freeze in place.

Over the course of several sessions, Akner was able to stimulate acupoints along Emoji’s vertebra that released a blockage in his lower back. The result: a more flexible spine, noticeable improvement in leg mobility, and increased blood flow up to the pup’s head, where emotions like anxiety are regulated.

The treatments also gave him more control of his bladder and bowels and helped minimize his recurring ear infections.

“It’s done wonders,” says Atwater-Kellman.

Food Therapy: An Additional Aid

Food therapy is also a strong component of Chinese medicine, says Akner. A high protein diet gives a dog’s body the strength it needs to fight infections and maintain energy levels.

Fortunately for Emoji, the pup feasts on mostly organic dishes Atwater-Kellman makes from fresh chicken (turkey when it’s a special occasion), veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots, and bone broth.

Everything has to be pureed. Remember, Emoji has no teeth.

Emoji’s New Life

As the year went on and Emoji regained his strength, his personality blossomed. What’s the broken, blind, deaf dog wandering the streets of Brooklyn like now?

“He is a diva,” said Atwater-Kellman. “He’s like the cranky old man at the nursing home who does anything he wants and everyone thinks it’s funny.”

The dog who once wouldn’t raise his head now loves meeting new people, sitting in laps and snuggling.

He knocks over his food bowl when it’s empty. He hides when it’s time to take medicine. He spits out pills and buries them in his bed when Atwater-Kellman isn’t looking.  

Basically, he’s a normal dog.

“He has so much personality,” says Akner, who still treats Emoji. “He just needed to heal and be loved for it to come out.”

To keep her family and the group that rescued Emoji updated on the pug’s progress Atwater-Kellman started an Instagram feed called @apugnamedemoji.

Today, more than 16,000 people are following Emoji’s journey.

“Just when I think I know his personality, a new aspect comes out,” says Atwater-Kellman. “It’s why I love seniors. Once they're comfortable, happy, and healthy, they become a completely different dog. You take a risk but there are so many more rewards.”

All photos courtesy of Maryloyise Atwater-Kellman

Learn more about holistic and dietary care for dogs undergoing cancer treatment with our own Dr. Patrick Mahaney at The Daily Vet

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