Club, community support help service dog get cancer treatment

Jennifer Tozzo with Zoe and Dr. Garlitz
Jennifer Tozzo with Zoe and Dr. Garlitz, in costume representing the Hawthorne Lion’s Club.(Photo by Sarah Carey)

Zoe Tozzo knows American Sign Language, English and Spanish. She’s participated in many community events, including parades and community clean-ups, has done reading programs in schools, even the Special Olympics. But this outstanding citizen is not human; she is a dually certified service and therapy dog and a beloved companion to her owner, Jennifer Tozzo, of Hawthorne.

Just three months ago, Tozzo, who has a hearing disability and relies on Zoe for assistance, found a lump, soon diagnosed as cancerous, in her dog’s mouth. She feared she might lose her best friend. But thanks to a little-known program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, financial support from the Hawthorne Lions Club and a vaccine developed by a UF veterinary oncologist, Zoe received the treatment she needed and is on the road to recovery.

For several years, Zoe has received veterinary services through a student club known as Pets are Wonderful Support, or PAWS, which provides basic veterinary services to the pets of people with disabilities or terminal illnesses at no charge.

“We biopsied the mass and discovered it was a melanoma,” said Sharon Villabona, a senior veterinary student and co-vice president of PAWS. “She was devastated and wanted to do everything she could for Zoe.”

The club offered to pay for Zoe’s basic blood work and X-rays to make sure the tumor hadn’t spread to her chest. In addition, PAWS offered to pay for half of Zoe’s melanoma vaccine treatment if Tozzo could pay for surgery to remove the mass and the remaining half of the vaccine.

“Ms. Tozzo and Zoe do a lot of volunteer work in the Hawthorne community and Zoe had met a lot of people whose lives she had touched over the years,” Villabona said. “When Ms. Tozzo told us she would begin fundraising to pay for all Zoe’s expenses, we had no idea her community would contribute so much to Zoe’s cause.”

Ultimately, enough money was raised to pay for the melanoma vaccine entirely — and Tozzo even made a donation to PAWS with leftover funds, said Villabona, who along with fellow club member, senior veterinary student Claire Vaiden, has worked closely with Tozzo and Zoe over the years.

Amy Stone, D.V.M, the club’s adviser and chief of the UF Small Animal Hospital’s primary care and dentistry service, performed the surgery and successfully removed the mass on Zoe’s lip. The next step was entering Zoe into the melanoma vaccine clinical trial, which is run by Rowan Milner, B.V.Sc., the UF veterinary oncologist who developed the vaccine.

“She’s getting the cancer vaccine now and seems to be doing really well with it,” Tozzo said.

Jay Garlitz, D.D.S., secretary-treasurer of the Hawthorne Lions Club, called Tozzo and Zoe “very active community members.”

”Zoe was very important to Jen as a service dog, a hearing dog and a visitor at our club meetings,” Garlitz said. “Our Lions Club already had Jen as a cherished member at the time Zoe was diagnosed with melanoma. We did not have to think twice about helping a Lion in need, and neither did other Lions clubs in our district.”

Many donations were made by the Hawthorne club and other district Lion members “to make sure there were enough funds to assist Tozzo now, and to have a reserve for future needs. Of course, without the generosity of the UF veterinary school, none of this would have been possible,” Garlitz said.