Tag Archives: pet health

The Joy Between Naps: facing mortality.

When you walk beside someone daily, you don’t always see the subtle changes in their bodies and faces as they age. Perhaps, now and then, you take a step back and look critically and realize they’ve put on ten pounds or they’ve developed lines around their eyes or their hands are age-spotted. But you don’t typically pay attention to these details day to day when you love someone. It’s a human trait, this blissful blindness to the truth about aging. We are all young in the Garden forever—until we aren’t.

It’s no different with our pets; we might see them slowing down, sleeping a little more, playing a little less if we really stopped and thought about it. But most of the time we still see the young dog we’ve seen since we got it past the “destroy everything in the house” stage or the playful cat we have cuddled since we convinced the rescue kitten that humans weren’t all bad.

I have watched our Big Dog (BD) age and been aware of the little things: the scars from this scrape or that, the increasing number of skin tags, the thinning fur. His muzzle has been graying since he was five. He has lost muscle mass both due to age and due to decreased mobility caused by his heart condition, but I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. Then some months ago as we drove down the interstate and the old boy slept soundly in the back seat, my husband said, “He’s looking old.”

I hadn’t noticed up to that point. More accurately, I had chosen not to notice.

I take pictures of Big Dog several times a week, desperately trying to capture him in these waning months, and I had not registered any significant difference in appearance in the BD of that day versus the BD of pre-heart disease. Slower, yes. More confused, definitely. But “looking old”? No. He was still my puppy. He would always be my puppy—the boy we brought home at nine months, healthy, happy, playful.

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Almost two and “helping” Daddy plant a new flower bed. (Spring 2007)

A few days later, I screwed up the courage to look at him with the eyes not of a person in love but a person who admits that pet dogs don’t usually outlive fifty-four-year-old owners.

I saw the sunken temporal area above his eyes, the crown of his skull turned pointed and prominent, the spreading gray, (endearingly, even on his hindquarters). There is less and less muscle on tired old bones. His coat has become rough and wool-like in spots rather than the smooth, soft fur that it once was. I also found a lump on his left cheek (we later learned this is a tumor that can’t be removed and continues to grow into his neck and ear).

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Big Dog at just under thirteen years old. (Summer 2018)

What I didn’t see that is common in large old dogs were callouses on elbows or knees. The boy has had a pretty cushy life. Or should I say, “cushiony”?  He’s always had at least one good bed wherever we lived, yet usually sleeps on the couch. We have loved and spoiled and medically cared for our dog with as much compassion (and dollars) as we would any child. Some might argue, more so.

About thirteen months ago we almost lost Big Dog to congestive heart failure. The kinds of heart medicines that have been developed by researchers (like those I used to work with developing medicine for humans) saved him and have kept him not only alive but happy. Then as now, we don’t know how much time we have with him.

This time with loved ones is always an unknown and this year that has been made excrutiatingly clear to me with the death of a beloved human sister. Now, perhaps because that loss remains so raw in my heart, I’ve begun to see, every day, these incremental changes in Big Dog as he walks into furniture, stares at walls for long moments as if they contain answers, and follows our voices in the wrong direction.

He is not ready to leave yet. He bounces and woofs when he wants a treat and gets excited about his nightly apple bites from Daddy. He still enjoys exploring the edges of the dunes and the street in front of our house and he delights in sunbathing on the deck on a warm day. There is still joy between long naps.

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I am happy to see him enjoying such seemingly small things without the anticipation of his own mortality.

I am sad for us and our keen awareness of it.

The fruit of the tree of knowledge, were I a believer in such a thing, surely held that we are all finite creatures and our “downfall” was that we would forever struggle against that limitation, unlike our pets that simply love and live.

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Still beautiful to us, Old Man. We love you.

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It began as slower walks around the block and clumsier hops onto the couch. When the crisis occurred, we had no idea what we were dealing with and I was completely off the mark.

Some history: Blind from birth, our Shar Pei cross has hip dysplasia and at 83 pounds fighting weight, has always been a lumbering boy rather than an athlete. When he was about eighteen months old, he tore his cranial cruciate ligament (similar to a human athlete’s ACL tear). Because of his blindness, he learns lessons only once and what he learned from the sudden pivot that tore his ligament was that he would not do that again (outside, but inside was okay). From the pain of walking on the injured knee, he learned that he would simply not put full weight on it. So, despite high quality surgery, the result was a flimsy right hip muscle and an overused left hip joint and increasingly dysplastic hips over what he might have had due to genetics alone.

So, when he began to slow down at just shy of twelve years old this late summer, we put the lumber-now-more-of-a-shuffle off to the hip pain.

Likewise, when he put on about four pounds, we blamed the reduced exercise. He struggled more to get on the couch and opted to lie on the tile more often instead. At our beach house, some days he cruised up the steps, others he took them carefully and allowed us to help him.

Then, about two weeks prior to turning twelve, he started dragging his hind feet. He also began to cough occasionally and pant heavily after minor effort such as getting excited when one of us came home after having been out for some time. He snored louder. He grumbled louder as he curled up at bedtime. He fell off his hind legs a couple of times. His walks were now glacially slow. All these things we put off to aging and the dysplasia/arthritis.

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A tired old dog on November 14, 2017.

A few days after he turned twelve, he began to cough and wretch several times a day. Now something new was in the mix, but what? A friend suggested perhaps the hacking cough, the wretching, the failing back limbs, were all in line with “GOLPP”or Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis Polyneuropathy. It was true he had many of the symptoms. I even compared his bark of November to his bark earlier in the year and he clearly was straining and had a higher pitch.

However, I didn’t bring up GOLPP with his vet when I took him in. I did show her the video of him hacking and wretching. On that day, November 15th, 2017, he had gained still several more pounds since she had last seen him in late September. Again, we knew he’d been inactive, so while we noted the weight gain, that was the extent of it. As had always been the case, his bloodwork was “unremarkable” and the doctor had always presumed relative health because of his record of utterly normal bloodwork all of his twelve years.

X-rays showed nothing remarkable. His heart was perhaps slightly enlarged but not greatly. He is a large, geriatric dog, so it isn’t unusual for him to have some slight enlargement. His lungs were clear. There were no obvious spots in his belly. His bowels, etc. looked normal. While he looked a bit heavier than normal, he still had a waist. He didn’t look unhealthy, just fatigued, and clearly he was struggling to breathe comfortably. There was some possibility he had a “dense” area on his trachea that might have indicated infection or abnormal cell growth. The doctor prescribed antibiotics to see if this would calm down the cough. If after a few days he had no relief, we would go from there. Ming was cleared for travel to Dallas, approx. 250 miles away, for a 24-hr. stay.

When we left Saturday morning, Ming was reluctant to get into our truck. There have been times when he has hesitated in the past. This was different. He just sat on the driveway and refused. This should have been a giant red flag waving, but again, we assumed his hips were hurting. We lifted him in and I gave him his pain meds. He had a coughing fit halfway to Dallas, but calmed down after a short time.

We had only been in Dallas about seven hours when I saw something odd about Ming. His stomach looked unusually swollen and when he stood, he arched his back slightly.

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Potbelly caused by ascites.

He continued to pant heavily with activity. I panicked and thought, “Bloat!” We helped him into a family member’s sedan and rushed him to a nearby 24-hour emergency vet where he was taken back immediately for x-rays.

 

Thankfully, he was not suffering from bloat. Unfortunately, we had only a vague understanding of what was happening. His heart rate was elevated and the distension of his stomach was caused by ascites, or fluid in his abdomen. (We can only guess the fluid “hid” in his tissues for some weeks before filling his abdomen). Once again, x-ray showed that his heart was slightly enlarged but not excessively. X-ray also showed the same slightly dense area of the trachea and some dense areas in the abdomen. More tests would have to be run to determine what was happening in those areas and what was causing the elevated heart rate.

Fast forward through some major worry and heavy decision making to Monday and a trip to first his regular vet where 850 ccs of fluid were drained from his abdomen (leaving still many behind) while we gave him oxygen and got him an appointment with an internist in Houston. The internist did the necessary tests to discover that Ming has a bad mitral valve and atrial fibrillation. It remains true that his heart is not grossly enlarged but only slightly. It also remains true that we are uncertain as to what, if anything, the dense area on his trachea means, if the fluid in his abdomen is solely caused by the heart disease, and how well medication will control his problem.

He hasn’t coughed since he came home Tuesday. He breathes normally for the most part. He is back to sleeping and snoring normally and, while still somewhat weak, is trying more often to get on the couch and is more stable on his feet. He is nine pounds lighter than he was on Sunday. We have a somewhat guarded prognosis at the moment and he sees the cardiologist in a few days.

There are a few suggestions we want to pass on from this experience:

  1. Don’t make assumptions about your pet’s (or a family member’s) health based on given/expected circumstances. I based all my initial decisions regarding Ming’s health on my belief that his behaviors were in response to his hip problems and his age and did not consider he might be otherwise ill until it was almost too late.
  2. Pay attention to their emotional and behavioral changes. Ming was behaving differently in sometimes subtle ways that I saw as quirky when in fact they were signs of distress.
  3. Pay close attention to physical changes even if they seem harmless. When they suddenly gain weight, lose hair, or start breathing/barking/snoring/walking differently, consider that it might be something worth checking into. I could have saved Ming at least two weeks of discomfort, and possibly more, had I realized these things were not “just aging.” I am, however, thankful that I saw the expanding belly when I did.

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    Comparison photos of Ming’s tummy.

  4. My Momma once told me, when I was going through a particularly horrid time in my life, “Make the most you can of the time you have with the ones you love.” Needless to say, we are holding our little, old man close. We are thankful we have him for a little while longer.

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate the holiday.