Optimal control…

We were back to the vet this past Friday with Maggie. She has to stick around with them for a few hours for a bit of follow-up testing for her Cushing’s. There’s no remission or recovering from it, but symptoms are treatable, so finding the best course of treatment for her is important to me.

This last test shows that we have the meds dialed in to the point of “optimal control” for her ACTH levels – meaning we’re able to hold her cortisol levels more or less where they need to be to reduce the laundry list of Cushing’s symptoms. Under the circumstances, it’s just about the best possible outcome available.

It was a long six months in getting here – with three or four visits to the regular vet for testing, schlepping across Pennsylvania for an ultrasound, and several variations on the medication of choice to get things under control. It hasn’t been an inexpensive proposition, though I refuse to do the math on either the amount of time or money expended. I know I’m incredibly fortunate that neither one of those factors drive the train when deciding what’s best for my sweet, lazy chocolate lab.

The fact is, Maggie is an old dog. She’s coming up on her 11th birthday in October. I’m under no delusions about how this ends – for her, for me, or for any of us. For now I’ll appreciate that I, through the marvel of modern veterinary medicine, was able to buy her some more quality time. Beyond that, everything else is background noise.

Something of a novelty…

After six days of waiting impatiently, I got a call back from the emergency vet Maggie visited last week. The good news is that the tests they ran confirmed the preliminary diagnosis of a urinary tract infection. After the long and growing list of canine ailments I’ve dealt with over the years, a run of the mill UTI was just about as good an outcome as I could hope to have.

Because in this household we can’t do anything entirely basic, Mag’s urine culture showed that the E. coli bacteria causing the infection wasn’t likely to be fully treated by the particular antibiotic originally given. It did, fortunately, help alleviate the worst of it. Since I’m looking for knock-down, drag-out eradication, though, I’m more than happy to spring for the second 10-day course of targeted antibiotics. It’ll be a small price to pay to get my girl to a place where she’s a) more comfortable, b) not as likely to pee all over the house in the dead of night, and c) can resume her duties as my 70 pound live action foot warmer.

A few weeks ago I laughingly posted on Facebook about a meme showing the average dog owner spends $1000 a year on care and feeding. That sounds awfully low to me, even for a bare minimum of food and medical care. As the science of human medicine marches forward, veterinary medicine marches along a few steps away… with the a corresponding increases in price for the kind of services that owners can now expect and demand.

I’m very thankful that this time around, we didn’t have to chase down anything too dramatic or crash into an aggressive treatment plan. You’ll forgive me, I hope. “Normal” illnesses are still something of novelty here.

Old dogs…

People will spend a lot of time telling you about the trials and tribulations of life with a new puppy. Poke around Google and the internet is littered with Twitter and Instagram accounts dedicated to the foibles of puppy ownership.

You’ve got to dig a little deeper to find the blogs and message boards that talk about what it’s like to live with an elderly or ailing dog. It’s not the wide-eyed adorableness and puppy breath side of having pets. It’s the astronomical vet bills, fists full of medications, and a body slowly wearing out even when the spirit is still more than willing.

Old pets are heartbreaking not just because we can sense that our time together is growing short, but also because their compressed life cycle points us inexorably towards our own fate at some point in the future. It’s one of the reasons I’m always a little bit perplexed by people who give up and give away their old pets. They have no sense of the broader context of life.

My dear sweet Maggie had a bad morning today. After years of perfect behavior, I knew she was embarrassed and upset. I could read it all over her face – and especially in her eyes. Climbing out of bed to scrub the bedroom carpet wasn’t exactly on my list of things to do today, but looking at those cloudy brown eyes I couldn’t even bring myself to scold her. Going on 11 years together she’s earned the benefit of a few hundred doubts.

Maybe this morning was a one off. Maybe it’s a warning sign of things to come. I’m trying not to let the first thoughts of my sleep addled brain read too much into it. I hope beyond measure this isn’t something that will become the new normal… but if it does, we’ll cope. Maggie is the grand dame of the family I got to pick for myself. She’s entitled to expect that level of effort in her golden years.

I wrote most of this before seeing the bloody urine this evening that set my alarm bells clanging – and before I took off to the local emergency vet to have my girl checked over. Maybe I’m paranoid or at least a bit too cautious. I’ve also seen how fast things can go bad and when warning signs start stacking up, it’s not the moment to prioritize time or money.

Partial diagnostic credit…

After a morning road trip through some of Pennsylvania’s finest horse country and 30 minutes of abdominal scanning, it turns out that my regular vet had the diagnosis right, but gets only partial credit on the underlying cause. Still, I count that as exemplary work for a condition that presents as a shitload of things that don’t feel like they should really be logically related.

It turns out that Cushing’s is the correct diagnosis, but rather than a tumor of the adrenal glands, the glands themselves were “significantly” enlarge. In fact they’re currently 5 times bigger than they’re supposed to be and hammering out cortisol like its their full time job. Since we’ve ruled out an adrenal tumor, that basically leaves a growth on the pituitary glad as the last culprit standing.

In many ways, the adrenal tumor would have been easier to treat – open the abdomen, remove the tumor (and the accompanying gland), and the symptoms go away. It’s an invasive operation with good success if the dog survives surgery and the first week of recovery. The problem is that 30% of dogs that have this treatment don’t get past that first week. I’m a betting man, but when you’re looking at odds of one in three chambers having a live round, I’d have an awfully hard time pulling the trigger.

I’m waiting now for my regular vet to get the report and work up the treatment plan. My best estimate is that it will be to treat with daily medication to reduce the amount of cortisol being made rather than something surgical. My reading shows that surgery for pituitary-involved Cushing’s is possible, though exceedingly rare for dogs. What this really means for Maggie is she’s likely going to have to take some fairly high powered pills twice a day for the rest of her life. There’s going to be more home monitoring and increased testing at the vet to confirm that everything is working normally. Basically it’s nothing that life with a bulldog didn’t prepare me to deal with already.

There’s a catch, of course. Without dragging her back to the specialists and ordering up an MRI of her brain, there’s no absolute way to know if this tumor is benign or malignant. Research says the large majority of pituitary tumors in dogs are benign. With an average canine MRI running into several thousands of dollars, I’m inclined to let the odds dictate our response on this one. If it turns out to be something more aggressive, the options I’m willing to pursue decrease fairly dramatically anyway.

The prognosis for all of us is the same in the long run, so there’s very little advantage to be found in trying to plan against it. With all that said, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can strike on a way ahead that maintains or improves the brown dog’s quality of life in the short and may even mid-term.

Specialists…

I’m old enough to remember taking the family dog to a vet who ran his practice out of a converted shed in his back yard. Treatment for most any ailment was a shot of antibiotics and a bland diet – his weapon of choice was boiled hamburger and rice. It was the middle 1980s and the very notion, at least in the mountains of western Maryland, that there should be anything remotely like a “specialty” vet didn’t cross any of our minds. Dogs got their rabies shot every 3rd year, ate table scraps mixed with their dry food, and all lasted for somewhere between 8 and 10 years.

Flash forward 30 years…

My bulldog, being typical of his breed, assembled an impressive roster of medical professionals on his “healthcare team.” Cardiologists, allergists, orthopedic surgeons, and anesthesiologists over the course of treating his many various conditions. My labrador, now into old age herself, has already acquired a opthmologist. In the coming weeks it’s likely we’ll add a radiologist, an oncologist, and a general surgeon to her list.

Veterinary medicine as it exists today – with the ability to diagnose and treat the family dog in a remarkably similar way to how how I’d be treated if I walked through the doors at Hopkins with the same symptoms – is a marvel. It’s also a money making juggernaught, but that’s a separate discussion. The practice I’m taking Maggie to this week in hopes of working up a final diagnosis and beginning outline of a treatment plan includes easily a thousand or more years of combined experience in emergency medicine, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, radiology, neurology, oncology, and ophthalmology, in addition to maintaining six surgeons on staff. Their posted resumes are suitably impressive (yes, I’ve read them all). I’m cautiously optimistic that all this will translate into identifying what the best options look like for the road ahead.

I’m walking into this week with just enough knowledge based on internet deep diving and journal article reading to hopefully ask reasonably informed questions. I’ll be counting on this bunch to know the line between what science can do and what science should do. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m thankful that the state of the art has grown beyond crate rest along with boiled hamburger and rice, but there’s more than a little bit of me that misses simple, country diagnostics and treatment – and its inherent acceptance that the power of medical science to extend life has, and should have, logical limitations.


Diagnosis…

After several rounds of testing, we have a preliminary diagnosis for Maggie of adrenal-based Cushing’s disease. Not being a vet, but being one hell of a good researcher, I won’t attempt to explain exactly what Cushing’s is beyond the fact that it’s a disorder likely being caused by a small tumor located on the adrenal gland that’s making her cortisol levels to go wonky and producing a host of potential symptoms.

In Maggie’s case, the symptoms include excessive thirst / drinking and the accompanying excessive urination, hair loss, and general weakness. At this stage, the disease doesn’t make her feel bad or cause any pain. Based on my observation she’s giving absolutely no indication that she even knows she’s sick. The primary treatment, should it prove to be adrenal-based, seems to be surgical removal, although there are some non-invasive options based on my cursory reading.

I won’t dwell on details at this point, frankly because I don’t have many real details to dwell on yet regarding Maggie’s particular diagnosis. Next week, we’ll be taking a bit of a road trip to a specialty vet who will do an ultrasound to visualize the suspect area and, hopefully, confirm a diagnosis so we can identify the appropriate course of treatment.

I’m already racking up a list of research I need to do between now and then – the success rates of the surgery in question, post surgical life expectancy, impacts on quality of life, and so on. I’ll also have to take a long hard look at my personal ethics with regard to invasive surgery for a dog that by any standard definition has already reached into the “old age” range. Believe me when I tell you it’s times like this when I hate being an analyst by professional and disposition. It’s one of the rare moments when being dumb and happy would appear to be a blessing.

The research and worry is all for a bit later though. Right now it’s Friday evening and I have a happy and contented, if not exactly healthy, dog sitting next to me wanting undivided attention. Tending to that feels like it’ll probably be the most productive and cathartic thing I’ve done all day.

Vetting or: The tale of a sick labrador…

Over the years I’d grown so accustomed to having one sick dog and one well that last month I even noted my budget had gone wonky from the unusual lack of vet bills. You’d think by now I’d know better than to open my electronic mouth and temp drawing the wrath of whatever from high atop the thing. If you thought that, of course, you would be wrong. My mouth has been, is, and seems likely to continue to be my worst enemy.

After a few incidents and observations over the last week or two, what I seem to have now is just one sick dog. Not falling over, edge of the mortal coil sick, but sufficiently sick that we’ve already run two diagnostic panels in as many days and scheduled the next – which promises to be an all day affair for my sweet brown dog later this week.

It’s one of those times when I’m ill served by having a professional and personal bent towards research and analysis – particularly as there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the situation until we strike on a test that does something more than confirm some of the possibilities. Just now we’re tracking it as potentially a kidney issue or a liver issue or the wildcard diagnosis of Cushings disease.

I’m told by those in a position to know such things that all of these are treatable – at least in the sense that it’s often possible to slow down the degenerative processes involved. Time, however, is a remorseless bitch and treatable does not mean “curative.” That at some point everything that’s alive will eventually be not alive is pretty much just one of the rules of nature. Even the best care simply prolongs the inevitable for all of us.

Maggie isn’t in pain. She’s her normal, happy labrador self. That’s something. Personally I’ll feel better when we have an enemy I can fight on her behalf, but for now I’m trying to be calm and contented in giving her endless chin rubs and maximum attention.