Fate Intervenes to Find the Perfect Home for Dog with a Complex Medical Condition

April 5, 2024


When we asked Elise C. if she could foster a three-year-old Yorkshire Terrier-mix named Theodore, or Theo, she was initially hesitant.

Theo, who has an esophageal condition, must be fed in an upright position in a special chair and stay in that position for up to 15 minutes after eating.

“I’d never fostered a dog in this situation,” says Elise, who decided to give Theo a try, making him her fifteenth foster pet.

“By the time he came to me, he was well-trained,” says Elise. “I got used to feeding him in the chair, too.”

A ‘Scary’ Illness

Theo arrived at the ASPCA on January 7, 2023, after an individual watching him on behalf of his owner saw that he was very ill. Emaciated, and with multiple magnets in his esophagus and gastrointestinal tract, he was close to hypoglycemic shock, with chronic diarrhea and vomiting.

“Theo was incredibly sick because he had consumed magnets,” explains Dr. Karla Kovach, Medical Supervisor of the ASPCA Animal Recovery Center (ARC) and part of Theo’s medical team. “The magnets were sitting in a clump in his esophagus leading to erosion and dying of tissue. It was a life-threatening situation with long-term implications.”

Magnets and magnet fragments were removed from Theo’s esophagus and stomach. The magnets, extremely strong and hard to separate, were coated with black, crusted debris indicating that they had been in the gastrointestinal tract for some time.

We transferred Theo to the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group (VERG), a clinic partner in Brooklyn, where board-certified critical care veterinarians scoped out the magnets and diagnosed him with an esophageal diverticulum — the outpouching of the lining of the esophagus.

“Thankfully, his esophagus was not perforated,” says Dr. Kovach. “But due to his condition, Theo has dysphagia, which is difficulty in swallowing. Dysphagia can lead to regurgitation of food and water, putting him at risk of aspirating food or water into his lungs.”

1) At left is a drawing of a normal esophagus. 2) In Theo’s case, two magnets each created outpouchings—diverticula—in his esophagus. The magnets adhered to one another. 3) This constant pressure caused the tissue between the magnets to become necrotic; the lines represent dead tissue. 4) As a result, Theo now has an esophagus with an additional detour that shouldn't exist. If not managed carefully by feeding Theo in a vertical position, food can get trapped in this esophageal detour, or outpouch, leading to infection and weakening of the esophageal wall.

VERG medical staff carefully monitored Theo’s electrolytes, slowly correcting his sodium deficiency, which was potentially life-threatening.

Theo upon his arrival at the ASPCA.

Theo’s prior owner was arrested and faces felony animal abuse charges for allegedly feeding magnets to Theo. ASPCA attorneys successfully petitioned the criminal court to order the prior owner to post a bond for costs related to Theo’s care or surrender ownership of Theo to the ASPCA. The prior owner failed to pay the bond and lost his ownership rights. The criminal case is ongoing.

A Chair for Feeding

ARC veterinarians consulted with Dr. Sylvia Lesnikowski, the ASPCA Animal Hospital’s Director of Internal Medicine and Clinical Research, to determine the safest way to feed Theo. Although he did not have megaesophagus, another disorder in which the esophagus dilates and loses its ability to move food into the stomach, Dr. Lesnikowski recommended feeding him in the same upright position to allow gravity to aid in moving food through his esophagus and into his stomach. Theo’s diverticula puts him at high risk of getting food stuck in this portion of his esophagus which could result in an esophageal infection or perforation, either of which could be fatal.

Theo now eats and drinks while sitting in a Bailey Chair, a highchair-like apparatus named after a dog who had megaesophagus. Bailey Chairs 4 Dogs donated the chair after Dr. Aubrey Crowley, also a Medical Supervisor in the ARC, shared Theo’s case history. Theo will need to use the Bailey Chair for the rest of his life.

Theo eats his meals in a Bailey Chair that keeps him vertical.

Staff members who fed Theo received special training on how to feed him with the Bailey Chair. The protocol included forming canned food into small meatballs and feeding him several small meals throughout the day.

“We instructed staff that if he ever ate anything outside of the chair, like out on a walk, they should immediately pick him up and hold him vertically so whatever he ate would move through to his stomach,” says Dr. Crowley.

Training Theo to use the chair required thinking outside of the box.

“Feeding him regular treats as a reward was impossible, as it would require him to be held upright for 10 minutes after each treat,” says Dr. Crowley. “But the ARC team found yogurt drops meant for infants that are designed to melt in the mouth. Since they dissolve before hitting his esophagus, Theo could receive these treats without as many restrictions.”

Jonathan Aguero, Behavior Specialist in the ASPCA Canine Annex for Recovery and Enrichment (CARE), helped train Theo. Within two weeks, Theo was running to his chair, eager to eat.

Theo at the ASPCA.

“He is very food-motivated, and he soon associated the chair with food,” says Jonathan. “By the time he went into foster care, he was on autopilot.”

Theo enjoyed playgroups with other dogs and socializing with people.

“We all put in a lot of time with Theo,” says Jonathan. “He was a staff favorite. He’s a resilient, amazing dog.”


A New Routine

Elise began fostering Theo in May 2023.

“I foster because I grew up with rescued dogs,” says Elise, a recent graduate of Parsons School of Design. “Dogs keep me in the cycle of every day.”

Elise reinforced Theo’s mealtime behavior with lots of petting.

Theo was in foster care for 10 months.

“He was already used to the chair; all I had to do was give him a sit command,” Elise says. “He’d bark before meals, then jump into his chair. After eating, he’d bark for a snack. Ten minutes later he would bark again to be let out of the chair.”

Elise, who lives in Manhattan, says Theo didn’t mind her noisy neighborhood.

“He’s more of a New Yorker than I am,” says Elise. “He might walk for half a block, but then he likes to be picked up. He loves attention and will lick people and bark until he’s petted. He’s a happy little man.”

Meant to Be

Ten months ago, Elise had no idea how long she’d be caring for Theo.

“It will be heartbreaking, but I’ll have to let him go,” she said at the time. “But I get updates from adopters, and they never disappoint.”


As the ASPCA Centralized Placement team started promoting Theo to rescue partners for placement, fate stepped in.

Elise and Theo visited a dog-friendly café owned by a woman and her aunt, Michele S., who co-directs Beastly Rescue, a foster-based small animal rescue group that works with the ASPCA. Coincidentally, Michele also has a Yorkie who eats from a Bailey chair, so she and her niece, Theo’s adopter, are familiar with the process.

“Elise sat next to a customer I know, with him [Theo] in a tote bag, his ears sticking up,” says Theo’s eventual adopter. “My heart stopped when I heard she was fostering him. I just knew right away he was perfect.”

On March 12, she adopted Theo, whom she says is the love of her life.

A Smooth Transition

On a recent visit to the café, Elise watched Theo for a few minutes, and when his adopter returned, he was looking for her.

“It’s important to me that he likes me,” Theo’s adopter says. “We can choose, but dogs can’t.”


She praises Elise for her work with Theo.

“He barks when it’s feeding time and gets excited when he sees the grocery bags. He knows how to shake, where to potty, and sleeps through the night. And he gets along well with Scout, my other dog. I’m grateful.”

She adds that Theo has a sweet side but can be stubborn.


“If I want to go right and he wants to go left, he sits down until he gets what he wants. But I like that he communicates when he wants something.”

The night before sending Theo to his new home, Elise says she cried and gave him a pep talk.

“Knowing where he is and how much he likes having another dog around makes me feel good,” she says. “I’m excited for his new life.”