Nebraska-born scientist, Peru State alum names virus in memory of wheelchair-bound dog

Nebraska-born scientist, Peru State alum names virus in memory of wheelchair-bound dog
Taylor Litz and Joseph Fauver with Renna, left, who suffered from canine degenerative myelopathy, and their other dog Granpa Chook.

A scientist with Peru State College roots is doing something special to honor his wheelchair-using dog, who died last summer.

As a graduate student at Colorado State University, Springfield native Joseph Fauver helped discover seven new kinds of mosquito viruses while researching the Zika virus in Mexico in 2016. When he and his girlfriend put their dog Renna to sleep last summer, the 28-year-old Washington University research scientist named one of those viruses in her honor.

“It’s the best scientific achievement I have,” Fauver said.

Renna entered their lives in 2015 when they lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. Fauver and his girlfriend, Papillion native Taylor Litz, adopted her.

“She really came into her own,” Fauver said. “You got the impression she was a dog that never really had a family and she was just thankful she had a family to be with, which made us love her even more.”

About a year later, Fauver and Litz noticed a limp developing in Renna’s back left leg.

Veterinarians diagnosed her with the canine equivalent of Lou Gehrig’s disease, called canine degenerative myelopathy. She would gradually lose function in her legs, then the lower portion of her body, then finally her organs. A veterinarian gave her six months to a year to live.

“It was devastating,” Fauver said.

To keep Renna as healthy as long as possible, they took her on walks three or four times a day. Litz drove her to a canine rehab center in Denver for physical therapy, but over time, the dog lost function in her back legs.

They were faced with a choice: put Renna down or put her in a wheelchair. They chose the chair.

“She took to the wheelchair like a duck to water,” Fauver said. “The first time I saw her, she came at me at a full sprint.”

Renna spent a year and a half using the wheelchair, just as happy as ever, they said, only with limited mobility. She always was a fairly lazy dog, preferring to chill on the couch or dog bed, they said, so her quality of life didn’t diminish all that much at first.

During Renna’s life with the couple, Fauver traveled to Liberia in the fallout of the Ebola outbreak, then to Mexico to study mosquitoes and the Zika virus. The family moved from Colorado to St. Louis, and Fauver’s research led to the development of a new technique for isolating genetic information and the discovery of seven new types of viruses.

He was wrapping up work on the years-long research when Renna’s condition worsened.

She had lost control of her bowels and was losing function in her front legs. An eye infection was the last straw.

“It was just kind of that cloud (hanging over),” Litz said. “It was that decision we didn’t want to make but had to.”

On a rainy Sunday in July, they took Renna to the park one last time.

Losing Renna weighed heavily on Litz and Fauver that summer. While in the lab, struggling to brainstorm names for the new viruses, Fauver asked his research partner, James Weger, if he could name one of the viruses after Renna. Then he asked his girlfriend.

“I was really excited when he proposed the idea,” Litz said. “I couldn’t think of a better way.”

The name is officially on the books. It was published in the most recent issue of the journal Virology.

You probably won’t hear from the Renna virus again. According to Fauver, it can’t be transmitted to humans and it most likely doesn’t harm mosquitoes.

As far as he can tell, the Renna virus just hangs out and goes along for the ride, just like Renna did.