As our animals age, we frequently become complacent about the changes we expect to see. Less activity, not as intelligent, eating more or less, we seem to expect a downhill slide. Recently I learned first hand how these expectations are most of the time totally in OUR minds and have nothing to do with the reality of what our pets are living.
Clyde is my "firstborn". When we got him he was five weeks old and looked more like a beagle than the walker coonhound that he was supposed to be. I spent the first three weeks with him expecting him to die of parasites, parvo, you name it. He not only lived but proved himself to be an exceptional student becoming housebroken at 8 weeks. I had had leg surgery at the time and could not work full-time for 12 weeks, during which Clyde and I developed a strong bond. Nine years later, he still looks at me when my husband tells him to do something. I nod or say "go ahead" and he does it. He's definitely my boy.
About a year ago Clyde started to have intermittent bouts of wretching and vomiting of bile. No rhyme or reason to it. He also seemed to be less active, not as involved in the day to day goings-on. I did routine bloodwork and everything came back normal. I did radiographs of his abdomen and everything looked fine there too. His diet was the same it had always been. He never gets table scraps and only gets treats once in a blue moon. But then I stopped the treats too, just in case. I gave him some medicine to ease his intestinal tract, calm it down a bit. It seemed to work. Work got hectic and even though there were occasional bouts of bile vomit, he seemed fine so I ignored it. Finally, in June I realized I couldn't ignore it anymore. My dog was "old" and as I always tell my clients, OLD AGE IS NOT A DISEASE.
I began an exhaustive search for whatever could be the cause of this. I repeated the bloodwork and again, everything was normal. I did more extensive blood tests to rule out liver dysfunction. I had his abdomen ultrasounded to look for things that would not show up on the radiographs. And that is where the first significant thing was found. There was a small nodule in his spleen. No way to tell if it was benign or malignant and somehow I just couldn't relate that to the vomiting but it was there nonetheless.
I wanted to make sure that there was nothing else so I also did whole body x-rays looking for anything else. At the end of one X-Ray was an abnormality almost out of focus on one of his backbones. We reshot the view with that area more in the middle of the picture and hard to believe, one of the bones of his backbone had a fairly large bony tumor that was undoubtedly cancer. I knew it was cancer but since I was emotionally attached, I could not rely on my own gut feelings for this. I sent the x-ray to a specialist who confirmed that the thing that I saw on the x-ray was indeed a cancer and it was his opinion that the spleen problem and the bone problem were probably related, meaning that it was a cancer that had already spread. A very bad thing.
I spent about 1/2 an hour feeling totally sorry for myself. My dog had cancer. What was I going to do? Not just my dog, my puppy, the only pet who looked at me with total adoration and trust for nine years. It was hard looking into those eyes and not be able to explain to Clyde what the problem was and why the solution would be so painful.
I just had to do something. The only problem was that I personally could not do this. I was too emotionally attached. I perform surgery everyday and there are times when I do similar surgeries on the pets of my clients but my brain and my mental faculties are totally engrossed in what I have to do. There is pressure, no doubt; but I knew that if the going got tough with my boy, I wouldn't be able to handle it. I called Dr. Rob Roy, a surgeon in West Palm and explained the situation to him. He told me to bring Clyde down the very next day. I had to go to the clinic so Mike drove Clyde down for his surgery. I do understand how clients feel when they leave their pets with me for surgery. I cried as I said good-bye because I knew the surgery would be long and that there could be complications and if tumors were everywhere when Dr. Roy opened him up, I would not see him again. The plan was for Dr. Roy to go in and evaluate the spleen. If he felt it should be removed, to remove it then remove the cancerous bone in his vertebral column.
The surgery would last for four hours. Clyde came home the next day, half his body shaved and sluggish because of the pain medicine. We waited for seven anxious days for the biopsy reports to come back. I fed Clyde canned food (never in his life did he get canned food, but I couldn't resist). The results finally came back: the spleen tumor was a benign growth, no cancer. The bone that was removed from his back was cancer but it is not very aggressive and does not spread very rapidly. We thought about radiation therapy but Dr. Roy was confident that he had removed it all but to be sure we would take more radiographs in 6 months.
People always ask me, is it worth it? Clients come in with an "old dog/cat" with a major problem and 90% of the time the first question they ask me is "Is it worth it, you know he/she is SO old?" Well this taught me again that OLD AGE is NOT a disease. I have done surgery in 19 year old cats and 20 year old dogs and they survived to live their natural lifespan. What an animals natural life span will be I can't say. No one can. What I can tell you is this...three months after Clyde, my nine year old dog underwent a four hour long surgery, he is now more mischievous than he has been in at least two years. He is playing with the other dogs again. He actually initiates the play episodes now. We are joking that removing his spleen seemed to increase his intelligence as
well; he has learned how to use the doggie door that we have had for three years now and never even tried to use before. I really believe that the bony cancer caused him enough pain that he acted less playful and energetic because of it.
I look at Clyde every day and am thrilled that I gave him this chance. And I feel guilt that I did not diagnose his disease earlier. What I really want people to understand is that age itself is not a factor. Take age out of the decision making process totally. Other diseases can complicate the decision to perform surgery or treat an illness. Your own personal situation can affect your decision to go ahead with treatment, such as your own health or financial situation. When a client tells me that they cannot proceed with an expensive procedure because of cost, I am saddened but that is a reality that I can understand. When a client tells me that they will not "put their pet through a procedure, because of age or because of the pain involved, I always wonder what the real underlying truth is. I may get hit by a car tomorrow or I may live to be 75. But if I live to be 75, I don't want my doctor refusing to perform surgery on me because of my age. And I find it hard to believe that most people would really prefer to die than to have a life-threatening condition fixed, if it is fixable.
Our pets cannot voice their own opinions. The struggle to survive, however, is the strongest instinct they have. And if given the chance, that's exactly what our pets will do. And live out their natural lives looking up at us with adoring eyes making our lives all the better for it.