Hero Pet of the Year | Reader's Digest

Hero Pet of the Year

Meet five families whose pets literally saved lives.

By Joanna Powell from Reader's Digest | August 2009

A Clever Kitty

Most hours of the day, Winnie, 14, can be found curled up on a windowsill in the Keesling master bedroom, fast asleep. One March night, her favorite tradition proved to be a saving grace.

Earlier that day, the New Castle, Indiana, family borrowed a gas-powered water pump for the basement of their ranch home to suction out water after a flood. By nightfall, outside temperatures were below freezing, so every window in the house was closed except for Winnie’s.

Cathy Keesling turned off the gas pump, and by the time she went to bed, around midnight, her husband, Eric, was already asleep. The couple’s 14-year-old son, Michael, was in his bedroom down the hall. None of them could know that carbon monoxide from the pump had built up in their basement—and that when the home’s hot-air heating system switched on, it would begin pushing the toxic gas throughout the house.

The family slept on. “But Winnie jumped from her window perch right onto me, meowing like crazy and scratching at my hair and face,” says Cathy. “She’d never acted like this. I thought, There is something wrong with this cat. I tried to get out of bed, but the moment I sat up, I felt like I’d been hit with a two-by-four. Then I got dizzy.” After Cathy fell back onto the bed, the cat “started carrying on again. She would not leave me alone.”

Fighting grogginess, Cathy unsuccessfully tried to rouse Eric. Weak and nauseated, she grabbed the bedroom phone and staggered into the hallway, where she found her son sprawled on the floor, facedown.

“I don’t know how, but I dialed 911,” she says. “It seemed like just seconds later that people were pounding on the door.” Emergency workers carried her out onto the front porch and went back in for the others, not a moment too soon.

All three were hospitalized overnight for severe carbon monoxide poisoning. “One of our rescuers, a deputy sheriff, said that we could have been dead in five more minutes,” Cathy says.

Winnie was an abandoned farm kitten, only a few days old, when Cathy found her. “We fed her with an eyedropper. Now she’s a wonder cat.”

Little Champ

At 13 pounds, ChiChi might be most at home in a handbag. “He’s so tiny, I can scoop him up with one hand,” says Mary Lane of her energetic pet. “Most people see him and think he’s useless.”

But last October, the Chihuahua mix proved to be more than just a pretty face. Mary and her husband, Rick, were relaxing on the beach one afternoon while on vacation in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As usual, ChiChi was lying on his blanket in his own little beach chair.

“We had our noses buried in books,” recalls Rick, “when suddenly the dog became extremely agitated. His bark was different from anything we had heard before. And he would not let us ignore him.”

ChiChi ran back and forth in front of his chair, straining at his leash as if to run down the beach. The Lanes sat up to see two elderly women in the ocean, about 100 yards down the beach and 10 feet offshore. One was on her back, her head tipping under the waves. The other was frantically trying to keep her friend’s head above the surface.

The Lanes rushed across the sand and into the surf. Rick waded to the woman in danger of drowning, while Mary held fast to the other one and pulled her up on the beach. “Then I went back to help Rick,” Mary recounts. “The sand dropped off steeply, and a riptide was sucking the woman under. She was completely disoriented.”

Still recuperating from recent knee surgery, the woman had been unable to turn over or push herself up. “Her friend had been in danger too,” Mary says. “The waves were pushing her around. There’s no way she could have held on much longer.”

The women hadn’t called out for help. “They were struggling so hard, there was no time for screaming,” Mary recalls. But ChiChi had sensed danger nonetheless. “The dog knew. I’ve puzzled and puzzled over how.”

Duty done, ChiChi was back in his chair, asleep, by the time the two women were on dry ground and the Lanes had returned to their blankets. The women were shaken but okay, and after the Lanes delivered them to their condo, they all said they’d see one another again during the week. The Lanes never did get their names.

As for ChiChi, he’s a celebrity back home in Greensboro, North Carolina. His veterinarian has a local newspaper clipping hanging in his office about ChiChi, and the Lanes have ordered a special collar with the words “Hero Dog” embroidered on it. They hope it will bring a modicum of respect to Chihuahuas everywhere.

Also read How Animals Think