By Catherine Angle, DVM, MPH
Staff Veterinarian at Pet Poison Helpline
One of the first patients I ever had as a veterinarian was diagnosed with cancer in October. At the time of diagnosis, the tumor was inoperable. Since then, Walter’s owners have been treating him with every dietary change, supplement and medical option to slow tumor growth (and loving the snot out of the big guy). All of this has bought them time, but the inevitable is approaching. A couple weeks ago, one of Walter’s owners and I sat on the phone and talked about what comes next. Walter is no longer my patient (he moved to Milwaukee), but his owners are my friends so we keep in touch. When I hung up the phone I couldn’t help but feel immeasurably sad that a dog who taught me so much and got into SOOOO much trouble (occasionally taking me down the rabbit hole with him) was saying good bye. It is sad that every veterinarian won’t be able to learn these pearls of wisdom from the source, but I will write them down here in an attempt to approximate the wisdom of one of the smartest dumb dogs I have every met.
- Pet Sitting isn’t easy. The second time I pet-sat for Walter, I watched him learn to open a door by turning a circular door knob with his mouth and paws. It took him no more then 10 minutes. I was sitting on the couch studying and I didn’t trust him not to get into something so I enclosed him in the same room as me. The reason I didn’t trust is because the first time I pet sat for Walter he managed to eat a crock pot full of wild rice soup. I can’t remember how he got it but I thought, “oh good, nothing toxic in there to cause him any problems.” Walter’s digestive tract did not agree and their carpet was never the same again despite hours of clean up.
- When an owner says my pet will need to be sedated – they aren’t exaggerating. Walter was neutered as an adult. His owner decided to do this when he was going out of town because he knew he would never succeed in keeping Walter confined (he had already broken out of MANY enclosures). Walter was boarded at my vet clinic for the first two days after surgery. Despite multiple doses of potent sedative, frequent walks, bribes and every other trick I could think Walter barked himself hoarse while staying with us. He then kept barking causing permanent damage to his vocal cords and causing him to forever have a squeaky bark despite being a huge dog. I feel guilty every time I hear him bark but to this day I’m not sure what I could have done outside of full anesthesia.
- Doxycycline for salivary mucocels and other treatments that don’t make sense. After I had been practicing medicine for about a year Walter came in for a swelling under his chin. Based on the description, I was worried about a tumor or a swollen salivary gland. I wasn’t at the clinic that day, but I had them go in and warned them that diagnostics may be needed and an extensive surgery may be recommended. My colleague diagnosed the inflamed, swollen salivary gland. Much to my surprise he then sent them home with Doxycycline and antibiotic. I couldn’t find a reference to using this medication for this condition in any reference book. Every book I looked in recommended other meds and, if no improvement, surgery. Despite having no scientific basis, it worked. I now have a much more open mind for therapeutic options that shouldn’t work but do. Just because I can’t explain it that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it just means it might not be true and I don’t know enough yet.
- Sometimes we blame it on the dog – other times it is the dog. On a visit to Walter’s owner’s home, I tried to open the fridge door and couldn’t. When I looked closer I saw the door was being held shut by Velcro straps. When asked, they explained, “we thought the other spouse was eating all the yogurt and cheese but turns out Walter figured out how to open the fridge, pull out what he wanted, and shut the door.” They would find the containers or wrappers on the floor (sometimes) but assumed the other spouse had eaten the food and left the wrapper/container on the counter where Walter had then taken it. After all what kind of dog shuts the refrigerator door?
- Eating cupboards is not always a behavior problem – some times it is a pest detection system. When Walter’s owner decided to adopt a new dog I was really excited for them. They picked out a sweet mixed breed named Willow. Shortly after the adoption Walter started to chew at their kitchen cupboards, a behavior he had not previously displayed. After some serious discussions about stress reduction, behavior modification, increased exercise and confinement options, Walter’s owners said they would call me back when they decided what to do. The interesting thing was that Walter only chewed on one cabinet. In one week, Walter’s owner called me back – they found a mouse living in that cabinet. As soon as the mouse was gone, so was Walter’s preoccupation with eating cabinetry. Good boy Walter, who needs cats anyway?
- Quality of Life means something different to everybody. Now that Walter’s tumor is getting bigger, his owners have had to start thinking about when it is time to let him go. Although Euthanasia is one of the most important things a veterinarian does, it is also one of the hardest to talk to an owner about. Here is a secret – I don’t know when the right time is. Neither do you. That’s OK. I talk to clients about euthanasia regularly but talking about euthanizing Walter was especially hard. I passed on to them the same recommendation that I was given years ago. Sit down and talk about what defines Walter’s quality of life. Choose 5 things that he would say make his day if he could. Now decide how many of those things have to disappear from his life before his quality of life is poor. Use this as a guide, not a hard and fast rule of when it is the right time. Here is a picture of the list they made for Walter. I don’t know what half of that stuff means but looking at it made me smile. I hope making the list made them smile too.
Looking back, I suspect the thing Walter has been teaching me all along is that I can’t know everything and I can’t control what is going to happen, but if I roll with the punches, and focus on what matters, I should get a lot of laughs in exchange for a few good exasperated groans.