Six weeks to live, that’s what the vet told us. He was in one room and we were in another, having a surgical consult for our 10-year-old dog. After absorbing all the information and asking a lot of questions, we wept on each other and then declined treatment.
A year later, he’s still here.
There are few emotional moments as difficult as saying goodbye to a beloved pet. Our love for them is uncomplicated and pure in a way that it rarely or never is for the humans in our lives. This is why sitting in a veterinary office can lead us to make decisions that can ultimately be bad for the animal and bad for us as well. It helps when we can set ourselves some guidelines in advance.
It sucks, but animals have lifespans. Most of them are shorter than ours. We love them, and then they get old and die on us. It’s desperately unfair. Why can’t a dog live as long as a horse? Why can’t a cat live as long as a parrot? Our parrot helped raise this dog, Spike, from a 10-week-old puppy. Now she’s still swinging upside down by two toes and singing to Lady Gaga while he’s a stiff old elderly dog. She’s 21 and she could probably outlive five consecutive dogs during her natural lifespan.
It isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair, and yet that’s part of my attraction to parrots. Long life and few health problems.
Comparing one phylum to another isn’t useful in this context, though. What I am going to offer is a comparison between two dog-loving families faced with similar veterinary issues, what they decided, and how it turned out.
First I’ll offer the test case, and then I’ll offer details about Spike’s situation.
I met a woman at a party. She had a lot on her mind. Her household was broke, she was unemployed, and she couldn’t afford the special high-end groceries she needed for her diet. I used to work in social services, so when I hear “can’t afford groceries” I get into “feed this family” mode and start offering options. Then I found that the family was broke partly because they had recently spent over $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog.
I didn’t meet the dog in question, and we’re not in touch, so I have no idea how this looks a year down the road. The story was that the treatments worked and the dog was cancer-free a year later. The woman at the party didn’t seem to have made the connection between struggling with grocery money and paying the extra vet bills.
This stuck in my mind because only a couple of weeks later, we found out that our own dog had a liver tumor.
Here’s the backstory. Our dog was diagnosed with Addison’s disease when he was two years old. He hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and he lay in his bed, shaking. I got down on the floor with him and held him all night, certain this pup was going to die. Took him to the vet and found out he has this genetic endocrine disorder which is so serious that most people choose to euthanize rather than try to treat it.
We decided to give him the pills and keep him around. A few years later, that medication quit working on him and we thought he was going to die again, but he responded to a different drug. Now he goes in every month for a shot, and the few days at the end of the cycle, he tends to be shaky and ill. Tough life for a little dog.
Then there was the time he hurt his neck from shaking his toys so much. The vet advised a spinal tap and a long list of other treatments to find out what was wrong. He didn’t do well on the pain medication and quit eating again, and once again we were sure our expensive little dog wasn’t going to make it. We took him off the pain meds and I was able to coax him back into eating solid food by pretending I couldn’t stop dropping bits of my lunch on the floor.
By the time we made it to the Liver Tumor point on the timeline, we had been through a lot as a mixed-species family. Spike had been on countless prescriptions and was on a first-name basis with literally every single employee at no fewer than four clinics. He was a canine celebrity, The Addisonian Dog Who Lived. “Personality plus,” they call him, a great dog with a loving home... and poor health.
It’s like this. 20% of the time, he’s happy and hilarious. He jumps three feet straight off the ground, chases his tail, and does a dozen circus tricks.
20% of the time, he’s curled up in a ball feeling sick and refusing food.
The middle 60%, he’s like any other dog, hanging around sleeping or scratching his ear or following us from room to room.
We’ve known for a long time that Spike probably wasn’t going to get the advanced life span of some dogs. We’ve known for most of his life that his genetic condition would eventually progress to the point that it was untreatable. We had to make the decision early on that when he started suffering more and life was no longer fun for him, we would do the right thing.
Then my mother-in-law died of cancer, her fifth recurrence.
When we decided to decline treatment for Spike’s liver tumor, this was why. My husband couldn’t put his dog through cancer treatment because he saw what it did to his mom. She was a human who could communicate and sign her own forms. Our dog could never possibly understand what was happening to him, what we were doing to him. We knew he might die during the exploratory surgery, much less during radiation and chemo. All that just to buy him another year, a year of constant pain and fear and confusion?
And then what? The same choices again, only with an older dog?
When we declined treatment, the $9100 bill for the exploratory surgery was a factor, sure. It should be for most families. We have an adult child. What if *she* needed help with that kind of money but we had already spent it on our pet?
What if one of *us* got cancer?
Wouldn’t it be nice if veterinary care came free of charge, no matter the animal. Wouldn’t it be nice if they lived forever. Sure, that would be great, but we don’t expect anyone else to work for free, so why veterinarians? The “cost” isn’t a financial cost, though, as much as it is a cost of pain and confusion and dread for the animal. They hate it there, we know that, and when we bring them in it’s often more about postponing our own pain than theirs.
What happened with our dog’s liver tumor, a year after declining treatment? Fair question. It got larger and he developed a second tumor, in his lung this time. He’s still here, though.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that treating our dog for the liver tumor/possible cancer would not have been a good idea. He got this second tumor anyway, and the treatment for the first tumor could not have prevented it. We would easily have spent twenty thousand dollars treating our dog, who is now eleven and a half, and for what?
In the year that we didn’t have to buy him, the bonus year, he’s had a lot of terrible days. He’s also had some great days, where he was so happy and energetic that we just looked at each other with our mouths hanging open. This dog! His vets (he knows the whole team) have no explanation for why he is still alive. We know his day must be coming any time now, and we have the number to call to help his crossing over the rainbow bridge. We’ll do the right thing for him, no question, but why rush when he still wants to jump and play and do tricks?
Did that other family do the right thing by spending $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog, at the expense of their own grocery budget? They seemed happy about it, and it isn’t for me to judge. Did my husband and I do the right thing by declining treatment for our own dog, partly because we knew it would cost $20,000? Not everyone would agree, and it probably isn’t fair to include the results, because if he had only lived for a month we might have seemed callous and cruel.
We made the choice we did because we felt that it was too much to ask of our dog to tolerate a year of cancer treatments. We also made this choice because spending that kind of money on a ten-year-old dog did not make sense in a broader moral context. If we were going to spend $20,000, why not put it toward a human’s cancer treatment instead?
We’ll say goodbye to our dog sometime soon. We won’t wait for the obvious last day. We’ll make it a party, so his friends can say goodbye too. He can have party foods, even the naughty stuff if he wants it, like fried chicken and chocolate and grapes. We’ll let him go, and it will crush us. But we knew, even when we first held him and he would fit in one hand, we knew he would. We knew that we would love him and he would break our hearts, because we are immortals compared to his kind. We choose this love because it burns so hot, an enormous love for a short life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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