***Read Mason's essay about his relationship with Flynn***

When Mason was a young boy, he would draw pictures of dogs and cats and keep them with him.

“He has always had an attachment to animals,” said his mom Gabrielle. “He would carry those pictures with him all the time. With his autism, he always had to have something in his hands.”

Another item Mason loved to carry around was a stuffed black cat. When Mason was 7, his parents wanted to get him a real black cat in hopes of him developing a strong bond with it. Gabrielle and her husband Gary went to the local shelter to find a black cat for their son. They came home with Orlando, but unfortunately, Orlando bonded with their oldest son Mikel.

Not wanting to give up, they later adopted another cat named Marley, but he bonded with Gabrielle and their youngest son AJ.

“Well that’s not a black cat anyway, so I don’t really care,” Mason wryly quipped about Marley.

Years would pass and the family considered a dog instead, but their rental situation would only allow cats. Finally, just a few years ago, they were able to purchase a house and get Mason a dog.

The family chose a yellow Labrador puppy named Flynn.

“When we brought Flynn home, he and Mason had an instant bond, which is what we wanted for almost a decade,” Gabrielle said. “Mason, without hesitation, will do anything for Flynn.”

Regardless of whether Mason has a good or bad day, Flynn’s daily greetings at the door after Mason returns from school always make things brighter.

Since getting Flynn, Mason has become more communicative, according to his mom. He will share feelings and experiences that he was hesitant to before. He more happily and readily talks about his interests, and is more confident in his schoolwork (recently becoming nearly a straight-A student and taking advanced courses). His mom describes him as a forthcoming, open, and happy young man.

About six months ago, though, Flynn started to become sick. When he started eating less than normal, the family took him to their veterinarian who discovered a plastic straw in his stomach. In surgery to remove the straw, Flynn’s veterinarians discovered that his liver was about a quarter of the size it should be. His veterinarians informed the family that, without care, Flynn would probably die within a few months.

“The thought of telling that to my son was devastating,” said Gabrielle. “When we did, he was heartbroken.”

There was hope for Flynn, however. His veterinarians knew that surgeons at UC Davis had experience with and success in correcting abnormal liver blood vessel conditions, and referred Flynn to Dr. Bill Culp at UC Davis. Flynn was definitively diagnosed with a rare condition; he had both an intrahepatic portosystemic shunt and an arteriovenous malformation, which is an abnormality where his arterial system connects to his venous system. These conditions cause blood to bypass the liver, and it, therefore, is unable to filter the blood; toxins subsequently accumulate in the body. The liver is also unable to get enough blood to nourish itself adequately, and the liver cells do not grow appropriately, thus diminishing liver function

Flynn’s vascular abnormalities could be treated with a minimally invasive procedure using interventional radiology techniques. This procedure is a major and complicated process with the potential for serious consequences. Dogs that do well in the immediate period following surgery, though, often have a good long-term prognosis.

Having recently completed renovations on their new home, the family’s financial reserves had dwindled, and the cost of the surgery was beyond reach. Knowing how much Flynn meant to Mason, the non-profit groups Wine Country Animal Lovers and Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch spread the news through social media. Along with money from a UC Davis compassionate care fund (created by donations from grateful hospital clients), the payment for the procedure was raised within a week, and Flynn was on his way to UC Davis.

“When Flynn started to get sick, Mason wanted to do everything he could for Flynn because he knew Flynn would do everything for him,” Gabrielle said. “We’re so grateful this money was raised so quickly.”

Flynn is now recovering from his successful procedure, and getting more active every day. Additionally, his family feels that his appetite has completely normalized. The family is also celebrating another addition – a new cat named Alice. After Orlando died recently, the family adopted the kitten because AJ felt the house just wasn’t right with only one cat.

Gabrielle reports that Mason, now 16, continues to show improved social skills since getting Flynn, which is not unusual for autistic children with pets. Dogs sometimes place their owners into situations that they normally would never have been in before, such as meeting other owners at the dog park or socializing with neighbors on walks – both activities in which Mason now participates with Flynn.

The academic world continues to study the human-animal bond, especially the benefits of owning pets. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing reported that 94 percent of autistic children who owned pets bonded strongly with them. Other research shows that autistic children with pets tend to have greater social skills. Even autistic children from homes without pets have social behaviors that greatly improve after just a short time with an animal, as opposed to a toy.

There are also many proven health benefits to owning pets. Studies have shown that pet owners have decreased stress in their lives, lower blood pressure, and less anxiety. There is even proof that dog owners statistically on average have lower cholesterol levels than people without dogs – most likely due to a healthier lifestyle provided by taking dogs on daily walks.

It is clear that Mason is better off having Flynn in his life, and vice versa.

“No matter what happens, he’s always got a friend,” said Gabrielle. “He’s always got Flynn. It seems like such a simple thing to say and yet to see my son…” and her voice starts to crack like only a mom’s voice can when she talks about her children. “He just loves that dog. It's something he’s wanted his whole life. Mason and Flynn were meant to be together.”

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