What I Have Learned from Having My Old Dog in Hospice Care
Doggie was losing weight for a long time, maybe a year. I thought it was most likely a decline in how much nutrients she could absorb from her food, or a decline in appetite. As a border collie, she has never been a big eater, in contrast to my Golden Retriever who ate early and often. I began by supplementing her kibbled diet with canned dog food, actual chuncks of meat. She liked this, and put on a little weight at first. Old dog slept more and laid down when we were standing in one place for awhile, but still, she wanted to go places, walk and sniff. Even chase a toy once or twice.
Her decline continued. When I doubled her dose of Carprofen, the dog version of ibuprofen, the vet wanted to see her. Taking Doggie in was a series of shocks. First, she really, really didn't want to go in the building. This was new, and I still don't understand it. Then, when I weighed her while we were waiting, I learned she was 45 pounds. She had gone from 55 pounds to 50 in one year, but now had lost another 10 percent of her body weight. With a shock, I realized that her very sharp red collar was no longer borderline too tight, and needed to be fastened a few notches tighter.
The vet, who is very compassionate with old dogs and their owners, did a thorough exam and took a blood sample just to make sure we weren't doing harm to the liver or kidneys by increasing the medication dosage. Old Dog sought safety between the base of the exam table and the wall, something she had never done before.
The vet very gently told me that the cause of the weight loss was an abdominal tumor, most likely in her spleen. The vet knew my feelings about extraordinary measures and chemotherapy for animals, and didn't propose either. She said, "You know, you have a one-hundred-year-old dog. Each day is a gift." We talked about how Old Dog's life would end, would we choose to end it compassionately and when that might be. The vet talked about quality of life, feeding her a high protein diet and about who needed to see her to say good-bye. She warned me it could be a roller coaster of good days and bad days. All the while, I wept. When she finished talking, I reached into my bag and handed her and the vet assistant an Arbor Hospice pen. They looked at the pens, realized what they were and seemed to recall what they know about my work. The vet looked at me and said, "So, how did I do with my hospice talk?"
She did great, and I told her so. She told me how wonderful hospice had been for her dad.
I think I wept almost constantly the following week. Every memory, every glance at Old Dog brought tears. I called my kids. My dog has terminal cancer, probably won't live a week, definitely not beyond the summer. I watch with vigilance for any sign or for that expression all dog owners fear that says, "What is happening, and why don't you make it stop?"
I keep thinking of the novel "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," with its cast of deep canine characters and tragic end. That was a tough week.
Then, something happened. In that week of grieving, I came to accept what path we were on and made up my mind to dwell in the present, to pet and hug Old Dog, cook her scrambled eggs, dish out cottage cheese and take her to interesting and beautiful places for daily walks. I knew the theory, now I was challenged to live it.
So now we go on, not knowing what each morning will bring. I awaken and listen for doggie's shuffling gait as she approaches my bed, tail wagging, grinning as she greets a new day. "I'm still here!" she seems to say.
The heat is very hard for her. I can't walk her. She goes out to do her business and needs an hour to recover. But, so far I see no pain. Her coat is glossy and gorgeous from all those eggs. Her tail wags and she has resumed her border collie barking when any being crosses the "border" into our yard.
What I have learned is that there is a period of intense grief when faced with the certainty of loss, but one can travel through it and come out again into present joy.
There will be an end to this path that we are traveling. I don't know when. I know it will bring grieving again, but today, that is not where we dwell.
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