In about two seconds, you’re going to be thinking, “Another dog post?” I know, I know. I need to get a bigger life. But until that happens, I have to go with whatever I’m most concerned about. Right now, the growing instability in Iraq and the welfare of child immigrants in U.S. detention centers occupy second and third positions on my worry list. The number one slot is occupied by an elderly dog.
Lily is a 14-year old Whippet who has been with us since we found her in the desert when she was a few months old. She has outlived one other dog and all the cats. If we were keeping score, she would represent my personal best in canine longevity. But as with people, old age leads to changes in dogs that are often unwelcome and hard to cope with. Unlike with people, this sometimes means that there is a decision to be made.
I do not have a lot of experience with doggy decline. All my childhood dogs died young, mostly because they ran loose where they could encounter speeding cars or other, meaner dogs. Lily is my first truly geriatric canine.
For the past few years, I’ve been proud of how well she was holding up. People would stop me on the street to ask about her as she pranced along on her walk, and they couldn’t believe she wasn’t still a puppy. Being prone to smugness, I would congratulate myself for taking such good care of her that she still had that much energy. She gets high quality food, regular vet checkups, daily exercise, and — despite her objections— toothbrushing. I am (Michelle says, reaching around to pat herself on the back) a conscientious pet owner.
But nothing I did could prevent Lily’s disc degeneration. The first symptom was an occasional shaking in her back legs that began a couple of years ago. Later she developed a tiny hunchback, like old folks sometimes do. Our regular vet said it was arthritis and prescribed Tramadol, which didn’t do much to alleviate her increasing discomfort.
By this time, she’d lost some of her sure-footedness and wasn’t hiking with us anymore, but she still enjoyed her daily walks. Then, about six months ago, she started having accidents in the house. Solid ones, if you get my drift. At first, it happened once a week or so. It was gross but infrequent, and we were willing to put up with it. By April, it was a daily occurrence, and I had had it. We took Lily to a rehab vet to see if there might be some hope of slowing or reversing this unpleasant trend.
Insert the ka-ching of an imaginary cash register here. Specialty vets have beautiful offices and state-of-the-art technology, all of which costs money. Mike & I were clear that we didn’t want to go nuts trying to turn back the tide of Lily’s aging, but we did want an accurate diagnosis so we could make a better decision about what to do next. Several weeks and several hundred dollars later, we have tried supplements, acupuncture, and two different medications. It got better for a week, then worse, then better for awhile, then worse again. We’ve done everything we can reasonably do, and Lily is currently having bowel and bladder incontinence at least once a day.
Now she sleeps corralled next to the dog door at night, rather than in our room. She hates it, but not as much as we hate waking up at 3 a.m. to the smell of dog poop because she’s had an accident in her sleep. I have replaced the squishy dog beds with towels from Goodwill because towels are easier to wash. All three of the dogs hate that. We go through Nature’s Miracle like we owned stock in the company; and every morning, one of us humans starts our day by cleaning up after her. Several people have suggested doggy diapers, but that seems even grosser than what we’re doing now. I would rather clean the floor than bathe the dog every day after taking off a diaper. Honestly, who would have imagined that I could put up with any of this? Maybe I’m like the frog that doesn’t notice that the pot of water she’s swimming in is heating up, until it’s too late.
I have no qualms about euthanizing a suffering animal. I think about The Shot every day, wondering if we are crazy for letting this situation go on, but it doesn’t seem like the right time to put her down yet. Here’s the dilemma: she’s not suffering. Thanks to the new pain medication she’s on, Lily is still an active and happy dog. She interacts with people, her appetite is good, and she loves her walks, even though she takes them at about half speed now. If one day she lost her mobility, her quality of life would be diminished and the decision would be clear. As it is, she’s still in the gray area: not completely well, not quite ready to go yet either.
Last week, I was walking alone and saw a dog in the park that looked exactly like Lily, which was a first. From ears to tail (except for the hunchback), they could’ve been twins. The dog’s owner said he’d picked her up as a stray 17 years ago. Seventeen. Not too long ago, I’d have found the prospect of that many more years encouraging. Right now, I just don’t know.