It’s hard on the heart, watching a pet grow old, but it’s not like I haven’t been here before.
When I was a kid growing up across the span of the late 50’s-70’s, we lived in a rural area where the general consensus was to let one’s pets roam free. I understand now how irresponsible that is, but back then it was everyone did. I don’t remember any of our pets coming home with injuries from fights, but someone shot my first dog, Yogi, a reality I didn’t discover until a misplaced remark from my sister decades later.
Mostly our animals died under car tires. We didn’t live in a densely vehicular area, so it’s always been a bit of a wonder to me that so many perished that way. On one occasion, my best friend at the time (the same David I wrote about the other day) confided to me that my cat had been sitting on the side of the road and he’d seen the driver purposely swerve to hit it. If that’s true (and I have no reason to disbelieve David), I hope that person had a truly shitty life. (Let’s face it; anyone who would do that was probably already having a shitty life.)
In later years, I learned to keep my pets indoors, even the cats. That’s worked well to extend their longevity, but it’s meant we get to watch the slow creep of years steal bits of them away, like watching one’s parents age.
It’s not fun.
Our dog Holly is an 11 1/2 year old Australian shepherd, truly one of the world’s best dogs. (Yeah, I know. We all say that, and it’s true every time.) Shortly before her ninth birthday, she began having seizures and was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. Those first few seizures took more out of Ed and I–emotionally speaking–than they did her, I think. They’re not fun to watch, not even after we understood that she had no idea it was happening. We’ve learned the routine of those spells–the pedaling gyration of her limbs, the gaping mouth and barred teeth, the arched back. Jesus, it looks painful, although I’ve been assured by several vets that it’s not. We’ve learned to dispense rectal Valium if the episode exceeds two minutes. We sit by her until she lurches out of it, on her feet, pacingpacingpacing, falling down, running into walls. We do what we can to keep her from hurting herself. Get her outside to defecate (she’ll pee while in seizure, but so far has never voided). Because she’s ravenous afterward, we give her something to eat to replace all those calories burned by the seizure. (Note: Never feed by hand. She can’t differentiate between food and flesh, and those snapping, frenzied gulps hurt.) It takes about an hour before she settles down and sleeps.
Each episode steals away bits of her. She forgets commands. Her sense of hearing goes wonky, and she’ll look away from us when we call, seeking us in the opposite direction even though we’re usually within eyesight.
Her vision is poor to begin with. She lost the use of her left eye when she was eight months old (an ill-considered golf shot by her previous owner coupled with a ball fixated puppy. Don’t curse him; he still feels guilty). Her right eye has cataracts. Her hearing wavers, sometimes good, other times not. Her sleep is often scarily deep (something a vet tech mentioned after an overnight stay for pancreatitis, another gift age has bestowed on her). She snores; the only cute part in any of this.
And now she’s taken to wandering in the night, a disturbing echo of my mother’s dementia-induced meanderings when she lived with us. Not every night, but often enough, I wake repeatedly to the click-click of toenails on the wood floor. Sometimes, she just needs to go out. (Another gift of age: the tiny bladder needing to be relieved in the middle of the night.)
She drinks a lot, and is always hungry. This could be side-effects of the many medications she’s on (phenobarbital and potassium bromide for epilepsy; gabapentin and metacam for arthritis pain; ursodiol and an over-the-counter antacid for pancreatitis; another one, whose name I can’t recall, to keep her from leaking urine), but could also be indicative of a larger issue. She’s losing more hair than usual (no bald spots, but I groom her nearly every day and come away with a pile of hair). She’s tired, not surprising in an 11 year old dog. She pants a lot. Could it be liver or kidney disease, maybe Cushing’s? A trip to the vet is likely in order.
And in the end, of course, it’ll make little difference. We’ll do what we can for her–that’s the bargain we struck when she came to live with us, that we would take the best care of her that we’re able–but in the end time will take her. Then we’ll shoulder the larger responsibility of sharing our lives with her, and let her go, what our friend Jenny (who I still think of as our vet although distance (and Holly’s issues) have made it necessary to find another) calls letting her rest.
And, oh, won’t that be hard?