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IS DOG BITES SEA URCHIN ODDER THAN BRA INSERT?

To vote for the most unusual pet insurance claim, visit www.vpihamboneaward.com. Voting ends Monday.

This is why Judi Dunn buys pet insurance.

In January, she and her Labrador, Marley, went for a weekend stroll along a sandbar near Anclote Island. Dunn, 50, noticed live sea urchins in the seaweed lining the shore. Not wanting her 10-month-old pup to step on them, Dunn carefully tossed the spiny creatures back into the water.

Marley thought she was playing fetch.

Man's best friend dived into the water to retrieve the critters for her owner, and the next day she was miserable from the experience.

"When I came home from work, her paws were swollen to twice their size," said Dunn, a Holiday Realtor. "In between every paw it was bright red."

She rushed Marley to the veterinarian, who prescribed antibiotics and antihistamines to treat the dog's reaction.

As she explained the details of her sea urchin claim to the Veterinary Pet Insurance company, to which she had paid almost $500 for a year of premium coverage, the representative had an idea: Dunn should enter the company's new contest for most unusual claim.

Marley's story nabbed the monthly honor and was entered into the contest for the VPI Hambone Award, honoring the most unusual claim of the year.

Online voting in the contest continues through Monday. Even if she wins, however, Marley won't get to enjoy the first-place gift basket of pet products and the trophy.

She died a couple of months ago.

In April, Dunn and Marley were in the front yard when the dog darted across the road. Dunn called her back. Marley was hit by a car as she returned home.

The puppy who slept with Dunn and her husband, Keith, died within minutes of being struck.

"I feel like I failed," Dunn told the Times Wednesday. "I should have looked to see if a car was coming."

Her "dog buddies" at Key Vista Nature Park, where she used to bring Marley, say Dunn is beating herself up over the loss.

"She feels guilty," said Dale Slive, 56, of New Port Richey.

Slive swears Marley eased her pup Cookie's fear of puddles when she grabbed Cookie's leash and led her into the water. Cookie previously wouldn't let her owner touch her with wet hands. Now, she dives off boats.

Slive said the award may help Dunn feel better about her loss.

"It would be an acknowledgement of their short time together," Slive said.

Marley is competing with 11 other pets for the most unusual claim award.

One dog ate toxic gel inserts for a bra. Another required surgery after eating 15 pacifiers. A third broke the fall of a cow that had been toppled by a cattle-herding effort gone awry.

The officials at VPI won't give any clues as to which pet is ahead in the online polls.

"I haven't seen the most recent tally of the votes," said Grant Biniasz, spokesman for VPI. "But I know that we've received a lot of positive feedback on Marley's story."

The winner will be announced on the Rachael Ray Show in late September or early October.

Dunn doesn't think any of the stories compare with Marley's. Who uses a sea urchin as a chew toy?

And winning the award, she said, would ease some of the pain of Marley's untimely death.

"It would make it a little easier," Dunn said. "It would be an honor to remember her."

She has since acquired a new puppy, another Labrador named Shayna.

Yes, Shayna's insured.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

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To vote for the most unusual pet insurance claim, visit www.vpihamboneaward.com. Voting ends Monday.

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