How do you decide when enough is enough?
As I write this, I'm waiting for a phone call from a friend who is struggling with that very question, as her young dog fights against an illness no one can figure out, even in the teaching hospital of one of the best veterinary schools in the world, at the University of California, Davis. She is three hours from home, exhausted from the driving and the worry.
Last night, she knew she was losing the battle. We talked about her crashing on my couch, to spare her the long drive home, but she went home anyway. I think she really didn't want to be with anyone, preferring to use the time on the road to collect her thoughts, and to spend a few hours in her own home, with her other dogs, gathering courage for the decision she's having to make now, after the long drive back
Let him go, or keep fighting for his life? I wish I had the answer for her, but it's one that each person must find for herself, because the answer is often different for every one of us. Different, too, depending on the situation.
Still, I guess the years have brought me enough sad experience that I have my own set of guidelines to help me with my decisions in such times. The most important among them? I try to remain very clear in my understanding of who will benefit from the decisions I make, and I try very hard to make sure it's always my pet. In other words: everything to maintain or improve quality of life, and nothing to simply prolong it.
It was so easy with Andy, who lived to be almost 16 and died the way he lived, always graceful and always in control. His decline was steady but oh-so gradual, and his end was swift. One day he was happily demanding his short daily walk, and the next he was in heart failure, asking to be set free. In a room surrounded by those who cared about him with my hand caressing his muzzle, he left quietly with the help of his veterinarian.
Although it seemed that I made the decision, the truth is that Andy did.
For Benjamin, age 9 in a cancer-prone breed where 10 is an average lifespan and every year past that a gift, I fear the final decision will not be so easy. Ben is galumphing through his senior years in the way that he has bumbled happily through his entire life. No graceful decline for him, just one crisis after another, with periods of seemingly robust health between them. For a 9-year-old dog, he acts surprisingly like a 9-month-old puppy, as brainlessly goofy as can be.
In the last few months, he has needed no fewer than three major medical interventions. First, he pulls an economy-sized container of dried onions off the counter at my brother's house and eats them all, spending a week at the veterinary hospital with a near-fatal case of the resulting anemia caused by his peculiar tastes. Then he has one surgery then another for some questionable lumps whose positioning under his front leg were causing him to be a three-legged dog.
He has kept me worrying -- and wondering. Will he recover from the onions? (He did.) Are the tumors benign? (They were.) Will he walk and run normally again? (He does.) What next? (No one knows, but with Ben, I'm certain whatever comes next will be equally dramatic.)
How will I know when it's time? How does anyone? I close my eyes and say a prayer that Ben's time is a long time coming, and then say another for a beautiful young dog and the friend who is probably now making the decision anyone who has ever loved a pet dreads, knowing how hard it is, and how very much it hurts.
If your child was lucky enough to get a pet over the summer, be sure that the responsibilities of caring for that pet don't get lost in the shuffle of new experiences and activities that come with a new school year. Help your child find time for the humdrum but essential duties of pet care, from feeding and grooming to cleaning cages and picking up the yard.
For dogs, especially, encourage children to fit in exercise. A walk or a game of fetch is good for both child and pet. And regular activity will help pets to better deal with the stress of a schedule change and having to spend more time alone.
PETS ON THE WEB
When my friend Christie Keith, who's an editor at Pet Hobbyist (www.pethobbyist.com), decided to jokingly launch a write-in California gubernatorial campaign for her dog Skye, a lovely Scottish deerhound, I happily gave my endorsement. In return -– this is how politics works, I suppose, one hand washing the other -– she promised to make my dog Heather his running mate.
The campaign, which won't much worry the front-runners, can be found on her personal Caber Feidh Web site (www.caberfeidh.com). Not interested in California politics? Can't blame you, really, but you should still visit Keith's site for the significant collection of information on alternative and holistic care for dogs and cats.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Do you need another tip for helping pets lose weight? Our veterinarian suggested mixing rice cakes in with our dog's canned food. When I couldn't find plain rice cakes in our local supermarket, I substituted puffed rice cereal. Our vet also recommended substituting rice cakes for some of the reduced-calorie biscuits the dogs get. -– C.B., Mays Landing, N.J.
A: Yes, puffed-rice products (read the label to avoid sugar, fats and excess salt) are a great way to fill up pets with fewer calories and make a great substitute for dog treats, as do baby carrots.
I've written before about adding canned pumpkin (pure pumpkin, not pie filler) or green beans to your pet's reduced ration of pet food as another strategy.
How much should you reduce your pet's ration? Read the suggested feeding amounts on the label for the weight your pet should be (not the weight he is), and then reduce that amount by a quarter or even a third. Then increase the volume by adding the fillers –- pumpkin or green beans.
Be advised that it's a good idea to have your pet checked out by your veterinarian before starting any weight-loss program. This is especially important in obese cats, who are at risk of contracting a lethal disease if forced to reduce too quickly.
Q: We recently purchased Penny, a 2-year-old female Pomeranian, from a man who had just sold her mate and her puppies. Penny seems to like her new home and has been a sweet little pet for us. However, after three weeks, she still doesn't like other people coming to our home.
Our last dog was also a Pom and was friendly to everyone, even total strangers. Do you think Penny will always be somewhat suspicious? Is there any way we can encourage her to accept our friends and family and not bark at them? Also, I'm afraid that taking her to be spayed will further traumatize her. Should I wait? -– N.T., Fair Oaks, Calif.
A: Easy one first: As long as your dog is healthy, there's no reason to delay the spay. So call today.
Dogs, like people, vary in their personalities, although their personalities are fairly predictable by breed. You can be relatively certain that when you adopt, say, a golden retriever that you're going to get a dog who likes strangers, and that when you take in a Sheltie, you're going to end up with a pet who is devoted to family but not very friendly to visitors.
Having done rescue work with Shelties and having known many goldens, however, I can assure you that early socialization, or lack thereof, can alter these basic breed traits, producing shy goldens or helping Sheltie wallflowers become more comfortable around strangers.
Pomeranians are usually very bold dogs, especially considering their small size. But it may be that yours was never properly socialized during the formative periods of her puppyhood, or she is from lines that tend toward shyness.
Be patient in encouraging her to better tolerate guests. Teach her basic obedience to control her barking and build her confidence. Have your company help by not forcing themselves on her, and by rewarding any interest she has in them with gentle praise and treats. If in the end, however, she never much warms up to strangers, accept her as she is and be grateful for her loving demeanor toward her immediate family.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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