Crazy about pets: Greyhound’s best friend
An acclaimed Ohio State vet spares the lives of these unique dogs once their racing days are over.
Dr. Guillermo Couto works on a patient at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Steve Wartenberg.
As one of the top greyhounds at the Wheeling Island racetrack in West Virginia, Amhurst could flat-out fly. “He finished in the money, in the top three, in 40 to 50 percent of his races,” says his trainer, Debbie Schweizer.
All this success came to a crashing halt on June 13, when Amhurst, a 75-pound, 4-year-old male, went down in a swirl of dirt and pain during a training run. “He didn’t get up,” Schweizer says.
Back in the old days, before Dr. Guillermo Couto fell in love with greyhounds and made their welfare his life’s mission, this accident would have meant certain death for Amhurst. “It’s a money thing,” Couto says. “When greyhounds are injured and can’t race anymore and it costs too much to fix them . . . they’re euthanized.”
The day after his injury, his right rear leg wrapped in white tape speckled with blood, Amhurst was in an examining room at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Couto is one of the world’s leading experts on greyhounds and runs the Greyhound Health and Wellness Program, an unofficial program of the college that he calls “my hobby.” Greyhound owners from across Ohio and even as far as Canada bring their dogs to see Couto.
“He’s the most wonderful and kindest man I’ve ever met,” says Linda Perko, director of Greyhound Adoption of Ohio. “And when you combine this with his intellect and love of greyhounds, well, greyhounds really hit the mother lode when he became interested in them.”
Perko estimates 25,000 to 30,000 greyhounds are born every year in this country and that about half of these eventually will find adoptive homes when their racing days end due to injury or age.
The other half?
“They’re destroyed,” she says, adding the work of Couto and rescue groups around the country has increased greatly the number of greyhounds who find homes.
"This is the most dangerous tail I’ve ever seen,” jokes Couto, who has seen his share of furiously wagging greyhound tails. Amhurst’s is indeed spinning like the blade of a helicopter, round and round, nonstop. It’s not actually dangerous, but it’s wise to avoid this rotating whip.
“You’re a beauty,” Couto tells Amhurst in a soothing voice, as he pets the large, gentle greyhound and begins his examination, along with Eric Allie, a fourth-year veterinary student. The doctor believes Amhurst has a torn ligament and orders a set of X-rays.
“We will fix his leg and find him a home and, if he’s suitable, get him into our blood donor program,” Couto tells Schweizer. And it won’t cost her a penny, as the veterinary college will pay for the operation from funds Couto has helped raise for just such an emergency.
“He’s definitely a teacher who wants you to learn,” Allie says later. “He makes it challenging and he makes it fun. You can tell Dr. Couto was a greyhound in a past life.”
While Couto’s past lives are a bit of a mystery, his current one began in Argentina, where he was born, raised and attended veterinary school. In the early 1980s, he came to the United States to study veterinary oncology at the University of California-Davis. He then was hired by Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he is a professor, runs the school’s blood bank and also sees patients—lots and lots of small-animal patients. (Couto, 58, and his wife have two children, both of whom are in veterinary school.)
He fell in love with greyhounds soon after he moved to Columbus. “We had a German shorthaired pointer, named Flix, who died the day after we got to Columbus from liver failure and I never figured out what caused it,” Couto says, still upset he couldn’t save his dog.
At the time, the greyhounds that were part of the veterinary school’s Gift of Life Animal Blood Bank lived at the school. This is how Couto met Clyde. It was love at first sight.
“He smiled at me,” Couto says of the greyhound. “It was the same smile Flix had and I said, ‘I’ll be damned, he needs a home,’ and we took him home.” He calls greyhounds “the gentlest couch potatoes in the world.”
Through Clyde and the other greyhounds in the blood bank program, Couto began to learn about the unusual anatomy of this unique breed of dog genetically engineered for high speeds over short distances. “The breed is 5,000 or 6,000 years old and somewhere along the line greyhounds turned right and every other dog kept going straight,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re not really dogs.”
Greyhounds have much larger hearts and thicker blood than other dogs. “And their kidneys and skin and ligaments are all different and all their lab work is different,” Couto says. This allows them to run fast, but also makes it difficult for veterinarians without much greyhound experience to accurately diagnose their health issues. Many detect heart murmurs and prescribe medication, but what they’re really hearing as they listen through their stethoscopes are large quantities of thick blood being pushed out of a large heart and through a narrow ventricle, according to Couto. Strokes are common in greyhounds, but most recover in a few weeks.
“We see more greyhounds than any other veterinary school in the country,” Couto says, adding there were about 2,500 greyhound visits in 2010.
Greyhounds make excellent blood donors for dogs of all breeds and 70 of the 75 dogs in the Ohio State program are greyhounds.
“This saves the lives of hundreds of dogs every year,” Couto says of the blood his program sends to veterinary hospitals around the country.
“He is the head and I am the hands,” says Dr. Maria Cristina Iazbik, who oversees the daily operations of the blood bank. “We make decisions together and I implement them. . . . Greyhounds have the best veins in the world and the most universal blood type, and we can save a lot of dogs from death.”
One of the first things Couto did when he took over the blood bank program was to find homes for the dogs. “He called us in 1995 or 1996 and said he wanted to change the program and if we could help them find homes for these greyhounds,” Perko says. “Then, they could have homes and come in and donate blood.” Perko says Greyhound Adoption of Ohio finds homes for about 200 greyhounds a year.
“I just don’t like dogs living in cages,” Couto says.
About 60 percent of the racing greyhounds in this country who aren’t destroyed die from cancer, Couto says. This is what killed his greyhound, Clyde. Couto and his staff have developed effective chemotherapy treatments that save lives, and they’re also conducting a large-scale study to look at the genetic and environmental factors that cause so much cancer in greyhounds.
Couto raises money to offset the cost of the chemotherapy treatment and to repair the busted-up legs of racing greyhounds. “To fix a broken leg would cost $2,500 to $5,000 and if the bill is over $500, the owners will usually have them euthanized,” he says.
He also is involved as a volunteer for a greyhound shelter in Spain and travels there three or four times a year. Spanish greyhounds are called galgos and racing is quite popular. Old or injured galgos are discarded like worn-out socks, some hung from trees until they die a painful death.
“This is what happened to Bengy,” Couto says of another of his own greyhounds. “He was found by someone, barely alive, hanging from a tree. He had all sorts of health issues.” Couto brought Bengy home with him in 2003; he died in 2007.
Greyhound racing has been on the decline in the United States in recent years, due to the poor economy and pressure from animal rights groups. Couto says he doesn’t like the idea of greyhound racing, but adds there are good—as well as bad—owners and trainers. “At some tracks, they are kept in cages 20 hours a day and only let out once a day,” he says.
Amhurst’s X-rays are back. As Couto predicted, he has a torn ligament and a fracture of the hock, the joint where the damaged ligament is connected. He confers with Jonathan Dyce, a surgeon, who will operate on Amhurst the next day. The plan is to insert a plate and several screws, and Amhurst should be as good as new in a few months.
“I like to say they come out of the factory with three legs and a spare,” Couto says. He’s joking, but it’s humor based on truth. “Even when a greyhound loses a leg, they can still run.”
Patricia Freeze has traveled from near Toronto, Canada, for Couto to look at Mayhem, her rescue greyhound. In October 2009, she found a mass on her dog’s spine and her veterinarian determined it was cancerous—and the dog would be dead in six weeks.
“I guess no one told him he was supposed to die,” Freeze says, adding she’s thrilled Mayhem is still alive, but questions whether he really is sick.
“It makes no sense to keep him on the meds my vet prescribed if he doesn’t need them,” she says. “We just want to know what’s wrong with him so we can make the appropriate decision.”
Couto was immediately skeptical about the cancer diagnosis. “If it was a spinal tumor, he would have been dead in a matter of weeks,” he tells Freeze, adding he can schedule Mayhem for a scan later that day. “Are you comfortable with this?” he asks her, and Freeze says she is. They soon learn the results: The scan shows no sign of a cancerous tumor. “I wish I had come here sooner,” Freeze says.