Yes, that’s a photo of a dog waiting to be fed from a high chair. And no, this isn’t just a cute prank to make a Michigan pup go viral.
Turns out Tink (short for Tinkervol) the Silver Labrador Retriever suffers from a rare condition called Megaesophagus. Her owner, Tom Sullivan, tells PEOPLE he’s sharing Tink’s story because he wants to get “more information about Megaesophagus out there in the public eye so that more dogs with the disease can be given the chance to live a full life.”
Last September, Sullivan created a GoFundMe campaign on Tink’s behalf when she was just a 9-week-old puppy, explaining her story to the world:
“Since we brought Tink home … she has stolen our hearts every second of the day,” writes Sullivan. “She’s also had some digestive issues and trouble keeping food down. One week after bringing her home we took her into the emergency vet when she was vomiting constantly and knew something wasn’t right. We finally got some information … that wasn’t promising and a huge vet bill for the tests and procedures. X-rays showed that Tink had an enlarged esophagus that wasn’t contracting to help push food to the stomach. She was regurgitating everything that she would eat because of it and not getting any nutrients down … which explains her being the runt of the litter.”
At that point, Tink was diagnosed with Megaesophagus (MegaE), “a condition in which the neurological connection between the brain and the muscles of the esophagus are not developed or a paralysis occurs,” Sullivan tells PEOPLE. “Without muscular function of the esophagus, food will become trapped in the esophagus and the body will reject it through regurgitation … Malnourishment and normal weight-gain and development are also problems associated with MegaE and regurgitation. Tink’s condition is referred to as Congenital Idiopathic Megaesophagus, meaning that she was born with it and there is no known reason for its occurrence.”
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Sometimes, dogs grow out of MegaE, but not always. Challenges related to the condition include the constant threat of aspiration pneumonia, regular chest X-rays to make sure breathing is normal, a special motility drug to help open her esophagus, expensive high-calorie food to keep growth on track, multiple feedings of small meals (and water) throughout the day, and, of course, the need for a custom high chair — called a “Bailey Chair” — for upright feeding and drinking sessions.
“Our mission was simple,” says Sullivan. “Keep regurgitation to a minimum and help Tink grow at a healthy rate.”
“There were days of crying, discussing what route to take, more crying, and more discussion, all while caring for a malnourished puppy who was full of life and love for us,” Sullivan tells PEOPLE. “We chose to give Tink the best life that we possibly could, accepting that the disease was out of our control, but that we could try our best regardless. We sought help from an Internal Medicine Specialist at Michigan State University who stood behind us in our mission to keep Tink growing and healthy. We left Michigan State that day with the fact that one in five dogs born with MegaE will make it to adulthood, but we pressed on. We learned an incredible amount from that visit, along with endless information from a couple of Facebook groups where thousands of MegaE dog owners have come together to form an amazing community.”
Sullivan tells the Upright Canine Brigade – Megaesophagus Awareness and Support Facebook page that the first few veterinarians Tink saw said they should consider euthanizing her. Sadly, the survival rate for this condition is low.
“So glad we didn’t listen,” writes Sullivan. “Our vet now loves working with Tink and seeing her success. At 9 weeks she was 5 lbs. and looked frail and fragile, and was losing fur everywhere. It was a very slow and steady climb, but she’s now [1 year and 4 months old] and 50 lbs. She has always had tons of energy and loves playing and loving on people. It’s been a ton of work, but that dedication is what’s kept her in the right track.”
After mealtime, Sullivan says he burps Tink (yes, just like a baby) and massages her throat to help move the food down the esophagus. But aside from this medical challenge, Tink is a normal and exceedingly lovable dog — much like a pup named Eli we wrote about last year.
“She will continue to eat out of her Bailey Chair for the remainder of her life, which we hope is as long and normal as possible for a Lab,” Sullivan tells PEOPLE. “She loves to cuddle, swim, play fetch, run, jump, and play just as much as any other dog out there. She’s 100 percent normal in every other way except for the way she eats. We could not picture life without her and we couldn’t be happier to have chosen her from the litter. People often ask if we rescued her, and our reply is that we rescued her without knowing it.”
Tom and Cori Sullivan hope Tink’s story will help spread awareness about this uncommon disease, and they reiterate that it is not a death sentence for dogs. It takes time, effort and patience from owners, but with all the resources out there and the support of online communities, other pups like Tink can live full and healthy lives.
Follow Tink on Instagram by clicking here.
Help Tink by donating to her GoFundMe page here.