Born Labrador, raised Jack Russell, loved by all.
Ten little Labrador puppies are helping the grieving hearts of Cathy Adams and her partner Aidan from Caparra, north west of Wingham on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and their little Jack Russell terrier, Sally.
Sally is living proof that dogs have huge hearts and limitless love. She has taken on the mammoth job of mothering the orphaned puppies of her best friend and housemate, Charli the chocolate Labrador, despite being only two years old and never having been around any other dog than Charli.
Charli, only three years old herself, died two days after delivering 10 healthy puppies on the night of Thursday, June 18.
"Late Friday night I was in bed and the dogs were inside, and Charli came and woke me up," Cathy said.
"I thought she wanted to go to the toilet but when I saw her she was so swollen it was like she pregnant again, so I knew something wasn't right. I rang the vet and he said bring her straight in, so I bundled her and the pups in the car and drove her to the vet.
"As soon as he saw her he said he'd never seen a dog as bad, she was so bloated.
"He tried to save her, but she died on the table."
Charli died of GVD (gastric dilatation-volvulus), more commonly known as bloat. Her stomach was twisted.
Cathy took the long drive home armed with bottles, teats, the puppies, and Charli's body.
"When I left, I thought 'I'm going to get them to survive' - that was my goal," Cathy said.
When they arrived home Sally was distraught. She had tried to get in the car with Charli and the pups to go to the vets, but there was no Charli getting out of the car when it arrived home.
"When we got home, she went and looked at the car. Aidan took Sally to show her Charli and then bought her back in the house. And she just whimpered. All the next day she whimpered. She hid in my bedroom, in the bathroom, she just was beside herself. She could not settle for 24 hours or so. It broke my heart," Cathy said.
What followed was an exhausting schedule for Cathy and Aidan of two to three hourly bottle feeds for the 10 puppies.
And then, on the Sunday, a miracle started to occur.
In the afternoon while Cathy and a friend were feeding the puppies, Sally started to show interest in them.
"She got in the little crate, she started cleaning them and licking their bottoms like mother dogs do to help them toilet, and she lay with them. Then she started letting them suckle her. She would be very mindful - not leave them, and took on a very motherly role," Cathy said.
"Then during the week I noticed Sally's breasts were getting really sore on the teats because they were suckling - they're big pups! So I took her to the vets and said I was a bit concerned because her breasts were really sore.
Sally may be small in stature but shes big in heart.Cathy Adams
"The vet said, 'you're not going to believe this, Cathy. She's got milk. She's lactating to feed them'. And she was feeding them - that's why they were so content with her as well after I bottle fed them!"
Little Sally's teats were so badly "messed up" that Cathy taped her up in bandages and dressed her in a body suit in an attempt to get the pups to stop suckling, as she was also getting mastitis. However both Sally and the pups were determined to let it continue.
"They would still get up there through the body suit and she would still get in there and I've got pictures where she'd turn her back on me and I'd think 'what are you doing?' She'd let them suckle her, even though her teats were so red raw, the poor little thing," Cathy said.
"But anyway, we've persisted and she's persisted and the whole 10 have survived and they're now off bottles and eating solids.
Rest easy Charli, Sally is looking out for your precious babies.Cathy Adams
"They've turned into the most beautiful little dogs, so Sally has done an amazing job."
Wingham and Valley Vets veterinarian, Zac Lynch calls Sally a miracle doggy.
"While she did not have enough milk to sustain the pups and they still required supplemental feeding, the socialisation and mothering will be very important for the pups as they develop and learn doggy manners," he said.
"The feeding, toileting and caring for 10 Labrador pups is hard work and I'm sure the help is much appreciated!"
The puppies are now five weeks old. Sally weaned them, just as a mother dog would, as they have grown teeth.
There is no doubt in Cathy's mind that the puppies have helped not only herself and Aidan deal with their grief, but Sally as well.
"It still brings me to tears when I talk about it. Charli's buried here under a hazelnut tree we planted in the garden. We look and we still can't believe that she's gone. But we see all these little tiny dogs now and they are just the most beautiful little things.
"If I say 'where's Charli?' Sally will still look down the road. They always used to run around here together. Charli and Sally slept together. When it was cold Sally would sleep in Charli's middle. They'd go swimming in the creek together. They'd hunt together. They were always together.
"It was a major loss, but if anything it was a blessing that Sally took on Charli's puppies because they helped each other out and helped us out a lot as well," Cathy said.
"We miss Charli every day and wish she was still here but it wasn't meant to be. We have 10 beautiful babies to focus on and with Sally's devotion to them she has been my little offsider, helping us getting them to where they are today."
Some of the puppies already have homes promised, others are 'still looking'. Aidan would like to keep one of the five chocolate pups, a girl, just like Charli. Cathy is keen on keeping Sally's favourite pup - a golden boy Cathy has called Harry, named in reference to When Harry Met Sally. They want to keep one, at least, to keep Sally company.
What caused Sally to lactate?
Wingham and Valley Vets veterinarian, Zac Lynch, saw Sally when she was bought in for sore teats, and says while it is not particularly common and is poorly documented, it does infrequently occur.
"Basically it's a combination of perfect timing in the levels of certain reproductive hormones in Sally's body at just the right time to stimulate innate maternal instincts/mothering along with the stimulation of the pups suckling resulting in mammary gland development and lactation. This 'perfect' timing has most likely occurred due to the dogs living together and their reproductive cycles synchronising," Zac said.
"While bitches more often have pseudopregnancies where the body acts like it is pregnant, including lactation, in actual fact they are not pregnant. Sally is unusual in that she did not display any signs of a pseudo-pregnancy prior to this. It was not until the loss of the Charli that these maternal instincts kicked in.
"Female dogs will also often synchronise their heats and it has been suggested that pseudopregnancy will allow several bitches to lactate so that pups can suckle from multiple dogs. In this instance Sally living with the original mother as she came into season, fell pregnant and whelped has been key in facilitating that timing."
While Cathy knows that the 'miracle' occurred due to instinct and hormones, she likes to think Sally's adoption of Charli's puppies is an act of love.
"That's the meaning of true love, when you can take on somebody else's offspring and nurture them, and love them unconditionally. It just shows you nature is beautiful," she said.