Observations from an unpleasant week…

I’m sure it will come as a surprise to no one here when I say that I don’t, as a general rule, like new things. I like the same meals I’ve been eating for decades. Every object in the household has its place and should be in it. I mostly can’t control what happens outside the doors here, but what happens inside is done with good order and discipline. I suppose it’s the kind of thing that could make a person hard to live with, but the animals don’t seem to mind, so all is well.

Over this last week we’ve been adjusting, by necessity, to the new order of things. From that, I’ve made a few observations.

The most surprising of the bunch, is just how much water Maggie was taking in every day. I was refilling their gallon bowl at least three times a day. Now I’m averaging about a quarter of that. No wonder she wanted to go outside every two hours. I knew she was a thirsty girl these last few months, but the slow upwards creep of her water intake just didn’t seem overly alarming – except in retrospect. As always, hindsight is a bitch like that.

Jorah, fierce guardian and barker at of anything that moves in the yard or on the street has become terribly fearful of the backyard at night. For most of the last week he’s had to be trussed up in full harness and nearly carried outside for his pre-bedtime bathroom break. For these last two years, I had no idea that he was relying on a security blanket the approximate size and shape of a labrador retriever to cover him while charging off to bark at and chase anything that rustled during his nightly rounds.

The cat, not surprisingly, seems to be the most adaptive of us all. Hershel was back in the warm embrace of his own daily routine inside 48 hours. A week along, I’m quite convinced he’s starting to throw the stink eye at the rest of us who are still deviating, even if only slightly.

We’re still very much in a transitional mode here, but our wild ride over the last week is starting to settle into a new and slightly different rhythm. The sooner that comes together, the better, because new sucks.

Thoughts on the day after…

Being a multi-animal household, I always have an interest in how they get along. Some simply mesh better than others – and knowing who needs to be fed separately or who’s apt to pick a fight over a certain toy can be awfully critical information to have at your fingertips. It’s not hard to sort out what’s what when you live with them day in and day out over a period of years. Getting it sorted, though, doesn’t take nearly that much time.

As for my crew, Hershel and Maggie regularly palled around, by which I mean you’d often catch them napping together in the living room. Even if occasionally he’d give her a quick bite seemingly out of nowhere, she mostly put up with it. They seemed to have their own kind of bond, but it was proof enough to me that cats and dogs can happily live together. Hershel’s the one who’s going to spend the next few days wandering around the house trying to figure things out. 

Maggie and Jorah’s relationship is a bit of a different story. They occupied the same space, interacted tangentially, and were mostly happy to do their own thing. It was a bit like observing two people who could be perfectly civil to one another without really being friends. With almost ten years between their individual stage of life, that was always easy enough to write off to the age gap. He seems to be happy enough mostly keeping to the well established routine.

Winston, gone now for the better part of three years, was always Maggie’s alter ego. They were unquestionably a pair, inseparable except in the ultimate extreme. She took losing him every bit as hard as I did.

I’m utterly unqualified to speculate on what’s beyond the veil that both Winston and Maggie have now passed through and that waits for us all. If there is something other than the end of consciousness and the return of energy to the universe, I’d hope they manage to find one another again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a church for something other than a wedding or a funeral, but I vaguely remember some debate on whether or not animals go to the Christian heaven. Something about them not having the ability to “accept salvation.” Let me just go on the record here and now by saying that if there is, in fact, some echo of consciousness that carries on after life and it resides forever somewhere posted “no dogs allowed,” I want no part of it. 

I’ll happily take my chances going wherever it is they go.

A very good girl…

I remember the day I brought Maggie home like it was yesterday. I wasn’t even looking to add another dog at that point. It was a few weeks before Christmas and I didn’t want the inevitable headache of taking a puppy on a 1600-mile round trip drive. Then a friend at the office put up a “free puppies” sign. Mama had died giving birth and the large litter was eating the family out of house and home. It was a fire sale – everything must go – before they were dropped off at the shelter. Surely there wasn’t any harm in going to take a look. As I recall, people from our office ended up taking some if not all of that litter.

I came back after lunch that day with a sleepy chocolate lab snuggled down inside my coat. For the next almost 14 years, she was my shadow. Through the successes and failures of life, tens of thousands of road miles, changes of jobs, changes of houses, there she was with a wagging tail and a smile on her face. Maggie was one of the most consistently happy dogs I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

For the last few years, though, Maggie was also a very sick dog. Sometimes it felt like we were keeping her together with bubblegum and bailing twine, but she was always game for another trip to the vet and eager to greet everyone there. As long as she was up for pressing on, there wasn’t a test or procedure I was unwilling to try or a specialist I wasn’t willing to meet. Over the last week, despite some new meds, I watched that old spark slowly fade away. 

There’s more we could have done. The vet would have pumped her full of more meds if I’d have asked for them. It would have been so easy to go down the road of calling for extraordinary measures, but she deserved better. She deserved to meet the end walking in under her own power and while she still had some of the old nobility about her.

I couldn’t ask her to suffer so I didn’t have to – not after so long together, not when she’s done everything I’ve ever asked of her and so much more. 

From start to finish Maggie was a very good girl – a once in a lifetime dog. 

My life was incalculably better because she was part of it and is now the darker for her absence. I’m going to miss her terribly.

Another vetting…

Yesterday Maggie and I swung by the vet so they could pull another urine sample. I’m expecting the culture to tell us one of two things: 1) Maggie’s UTI has cleared and the infection wasn’t what has been causing her wildly increased drinking and peeing or 2) Six weeks of progressively more aggressive antibiotics have failed to overcome the infection.

If it’s the former, the consulting internal medicine doc we saw last month has already proposed a preliminary course of action based on treatment to roll back a worsening of Cushing’s symptoms that isn’t indicated by the basic test of cortisol levels. I expect at least another trip to Malvern if that’s the result. If it’s the latter, well, we’ll have to see what’s left in the options box if this particular infection is truly uncontrollable with antibiotics.

I’m in the rather odd position of actively hoping that her Cushing’s has gotten worse. It’s at least the enemy I know – one that we’ve had good success wrestling into an uneasy truce if not submission over the last couple of years. It’s at least a fighting chance for some improvement. The same doesn’t seem to be true if we’re dealing with an unchecked infection.

There’s not much to do now until we see what we’re dealing with. It’s one of those rare times when I wish I was just a little more low strung and zen.

Because common treatments just won’t do…

Good news: After almost three months of flailing around trying to sort out why a certain elderly chocolate lab is drinking approximately 87 gallons of water a day, we have a preliminary diagnosis and presumed way ahead. Her most recent culture came back from the boffins and they confirmed that she was dealing with a bladder infection (although that diagnosis doesn’t completely rule out needing to eventually reevaluate how we’re treating her for Cushing’s). 

Bad news: According to the vet, the strain of bacteria we’re after is “extremely resistant” to almost all antibiotics. 

So, in the finest tradition of every dog I’ve ever had, we’re tipping into the more exotic options because the common treatments just won’t do. The antibiotic the doc thinks she’ll respond to is no longer on the market – or at least not produced in quantity for human consumption. Apparently when used in humans it has a bit of an unfortunate side effect of screwing with our bone marrow. The vet encouragingly warned that I should “definitely wear rubber gloves when handling that stuff.” That’s comforting.

Since the drug we need isn’t mass produced, Maggie’s vet very helpfully called the prescription into a local compounding pharmacy so they can whip up the 84 pill, two-week course of treatment. As troubled a medical history as I saw living with a bulldog, this is the first time I’ve ever needed to hire our own pharmacy. You’ll forgive me if I still question the reason of people who like having new experiences. Like this, they often feel like opportunities I’d be perfectly happy to avoid. 

I did talk to the pharmacy yesterday afternoon. They wisely wanted payment before they start mixing up whatever witches brew they’re working on. I suspect their business is one people appreciate up front, but blanch at patronizing when the bill comes due. Better for everyone this way.

I begrudge these animals nothing, but there are many days when I can’t help but consider how lucky we are in this household that there are no college funds to raise, daughters who will eventually want to get married, or anyone buying designer clothes.

Breaking up… sort of…

I did it. I told our current vet that although I’ve been happy with their service, I’m leaving to pursue less expensive basic medical care for two of the three furry little hooligans who share my house. Maggie will be staying put for the time being. With her thickening medical record and established relationship with the primary doc and specialists, I don’t want to rock that particular boat by reading someone new into the project at this late stage. George, of course, gets his own once a year trip to the local exotic vet practice.

Jorah is due for his annual checkup and vaccinations in a few weeks, so there wasn’t much room to put off decisions any longer. Thanks to the internet, I think I have our new vet (or vets, plural, since they’re a multi-person practice) picked out. It’s still a twenty-five-minute drive (but what isn’t when you decide to live in the middle of nowhere). Their online reviews seem impressive enough. They have on-site hydrotherapy, which is nice if I ever need to go that route again. They also have offer self-contained boarding, day care and grooming. I’m not altogether a fan of boarding, and it’s been a rare enough event that I’ve ever had to leave a critter behind, but I appreciate having the option bolted on to the medical facility.

If I’m 100% honest, I’m not sure this place will be much cheaper than where we’re leaving. They’ve got a whole lot of infrastructure that needs to be paid for and kept up. It’s definitely not the old-fashioned country vet I thought I wanted for them. What it does have, beyond the obvious, is the virtue of being open for 12 hours on weekdays and 10 hours on both Saturday and Sunday.  That’s the kind of thing that could save a guy at least a couple of emergency vet visits over the course of an average pet lifetime. I’m probably willing to pay a little bit of a premium for that… so we’re going to give this outfit a test run starting in July and see how it goes.

Schlepping across Pennsylvania…

Almost two months ago I noticed that Maggie had started drinking approximately an Olympic sized swimming pool’s volume of water every day. I assumed it was a return of some of the symptoms that led us to her Cushing’s diagnosis. Several rounds of testing more or less proved that wasn’t the case. Her Cushing’s remains controlled, but there was bacterial growth in her urine sample – diagnosis: urinary tract or kidney infection.

After the first week of antibiotics there wasn’t much improvement, so they changed up the prescription to something a little more powerful. Two weeks of that showed some vague signs of at least getting her seemingly endless thirst under control. We’re almost through the second two-week round of antibiotics – for a total of five weeks under treatment.

Overall, she seems far better than she was two months ago. She’s not draining off a gallon of water every time I refill the bowl. She’s not struggling to get her feet under her to stand up and her back legs aren’t apt to fall out from under her every time she tries making a turn on an even remotely slick floor.

When we were in the worst of it, I scheduled an appointment with an internal medicine specialist – basically what I expected was a hail Mary play to find out if there was anything that the rest of us had missed and provide a fresh set of eyes to look over an increasingly thick medical record.

Having a dog that drinks non-stop in and of itself isn’t a huge deal when I’m mostly working from home. All that water has to end up somewhere, but it’s not hard to open the door every hour or two or even to get up in the middle of the night for a trip outside. Starting back to work in the office on a more regular basis created a bit of an issue. As much of a dog lover as I am, living with a critter that can’t help but pee all over the house or whatever room you’ve tried to waterproof isn’t a realistic option… and have you even looked at what getting a dog walked two or three times a day would cost?

I kept the appointment with internal medicine – knowing that if I cancelled and there was any backsliding, it would take a month or longer to get another appointment. I still want a set of fresh eyes to give her the once over and either confirm that we’re getting after the right problem or find out if there’s anything that can reasonably be done to coax a little more quality of life out of the situation. Maybe it’s overkill for a 13-year-old lab, but it’s why I went schlepping across Pennsylvania today.

Sleeping arrangements…

Maggie slept on my bed at night for most of her adult life until fairly recently. Usually over the course of the night she’d find her way to the floor and sometimes fine her way bac to the bed sometime in the early hours of the morning. A few times I’ve had to lift her up since her days of making the jump on her own seem to be over. In the last couple of months, she’s opted to stay put at floor level. I suspect getting herself back down for a late-night patrol was getting to be as hard on her joints as jumping up to the bed was. 

I’ve offered up steps and ramps, but even when lured with treats she doesn’t seem to have an interest. I’m not going to force the issue, so I suppose this is just the new normal night time arrangement. 

As much as I don’t miss the nightly barrage of dog breath and farting, there’s definitely part of me that misses the convoluted positions I’d need to get myself into so she could sprawl. I miss the regular head butts requesting a few more ear scratches before sleep came on.

Everyone trips over themselves to post cute puppy pictures and talk about the challenges housebreaking and training. Not many talk about the unique and often more trying experiences of making home comfortable for an aging dog. I guess those posts don’t translate as well to social media. They certainly don’t garner as many awws and likes. I have to think if more people did have those discussions, it would help an awful lot of people be better prepared for some of the harder moments of pet ownership. 

Nobody expects…

Maggie’s test results were not what either her doctor or I were expecting. We were both more or less convinced that her Cushing’s had advanced a bit and her meds would need to be dialed in a bit to correct for that. What two days worth of testing showed, though, was that her Cushing’s is well controlled and those numbers are almost exactly where they were a year ago.

Her tests did reveal a higher than expected number of white blood cells in her urine sample. The cause, ultimately, is unknown… but we’re treating it as a persistent, low grade urinary tract infection since that’s the most likely suspect. Maybe we’re on to something, because she has perked up a bit since we started her on mountains of antibiotics twice a day. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, I suppose.

My poor old girl is still drinking copious amounts of water – maybe slightly less than a week ago – but she’s getting a round a bit better so for now I’m willing to call this at least a temporary win. We’ll see how things look in two weeks when the last of the pills runs out and we’re back to her normal maintenance meds.

This is definitely one of those times where I’m exceedingly happy I never had an interest in having kids… their basic care and feeding, wanting to go to college, or getting married would have eaten into my “Medical Care, Veterinary” annual budget line to an unacceptable degree.

Sickly or otherwise…

I dropped my dear, sweet, elderly chocolate lab off for her next round of tests this morning. A series of x-rays shows that the swelling in her front leg is almost certainly a very large and somewhat inexplicable hygroma – basically her leg holding a whole lot of fluid. It seems to be disappearing as quickly as it came on. It’s looking far better this morning than it did on Friday afternoon.

The other test for today, the ACHT stimulation test, should optimally confirm what we suspect – that her body has built up a tolerance to the current dosage of Vetoryl that’s been holding the symptoms of Cushing’s at bay for the last year or so. If that’s the case, we should be able to adjust the dosage upwards and buy her some more time. That’s what passes for a best-case result with her these days.

At almost 13, fighting this kind of rear-guard action is probably as much as we can hope for. How it ends, of course, is inevitable for all of us, but as long as she’s in control of her mental and physical capacities – and not in pain – I’ll clear the decks to give her the quality life that she’s earned from our long years together.

Maggie is the kind of happy go lucky dog that will follow anyone anywhere. Hand over her leash and off she’ll go. Normally she goes without so much as a second look. This morning, while the tech was leading her back the hall to her room for the morning, my girl gave me a look over her shoulder, making sure I was still there. My breath caught and in that brief moment, I had “all the feels” watching her disappear into the back room.

I haven’t always been that maudlin. I suspect the endless flow of years continues to give me an enhanced perspective on just how quickly things can change regardless of how much time, money, or expertise you pour out. 

We should have results from the stim test tomorrow. For now, sickly or otherwise, I’m just awfully happy to have her home.