ANDERSON, S.C. -- Anderson Animal Control Officer Michelle Smith climbed down a steep embankment this week to rescue a yelping dog.
When she reached the bottom, she saw a black-and-white Shih Tzu- mix curled in a tangle of bushes and briars. She blinked and looked again. A kitten was nestled next to the tiny dog suckling milk from her.
In her 17 years of working with animals, that was a first for Smith.
"I didn't know what to think," she said. "I was shocked and surprised and then of course, awww."
The dog and kitten received the same reaction when Smith took them to the animal shelter. Volunteers marveled at the way the dog, which is at least 5 years old, looks out for the 5-week-old kitten.
Jessica Cwynar, director of the shelter, says such behavior is natural for mammals.
"It would be like one of us seeing a neglected or abandoned child and taking it under our wing," she said.
Neither the dog nor the kitten has a known name, so shelter volunteers call them "Girl." Though they are far from being related, from a few feet away they match with a mix of black, white and gray fur between them.
On Tuesday afternoon, the kitten's barely audible mews sounded like whispers. The dog and the kitten nap together and eat together, and when they are bored with that they stare at each other.
When the kitten walks too close to the edge of their opened cage, her surrogate mother picks her up by the nape of her neck and carries her back to the safety of their small bed. They have the equivalent of a private suite, with no other animals in their small room.
Cwynar said the dog likely experienced a surge of hormones that induced milk production. "She's producing some, but not all that (the kitten) will need nutrition-wise," Cwynar said.
Volunteers are feeding the kitten tiny bottles of milk, a meal her canine mother likes as well. After lunch on Tuesday, the dog licked her kitten's mouth clean and scooted her around with her nose. When they settled down, the kitten climbed atop the dog's back to sleep.
The dog's striped collar and clean fur mean that someone is likely missing her.
"She is someone's pet because she has been groomed and has been well taken care of," Cwynar said.
There is already a long line of would-be foster and adoption candidates for the pair, but Cwynar hopes that the dog's owner comes forward and is willing to adopt a kitten. If that happens, the animal shelter will verify the dog's ownership through veterinary or grooming records.
She said that a rabies tag on the collar would have traced the dog back to her veterinarian, but that the only near certain way to identify pets is by implanting a microchip between their shoulders. The animal shelter and most vet offices do the procedure for low costs, she added.
Until this week, Cwynar has seen a dog nursing a cat only on TV or at the zoo, where it is not uncommon to see a dog nursing lion cubs. While it is not uncommon for a dog and cat to get along if they are raised together, Cwynar said, she has never heard of a cat nursing a puppy.
The enmity between cats and dogs is often overblown, she added.
"We have dogs that get turned in with cats, and a lot of us have dogs and cats that live together," Cwynar said.
Smith prefers dogs to cats -- she has two at home, Mattie and Little Man -- but said seeing both of them reminded her of why she loves her job.
"Good things happen all the time, but great happens seldom," Smith said. "This is enough to keep me going the next six or eight months."