Well, I don’t know why I felt compelled to write about Hunter when I did, but it seems prescient now, three days after his final ride.
In my opinion, it’s hard to manage a better outcome. He survived more than four years after cancer first arrived. A big round of thanks to Dr. Parshley… She has been excellent, and we are fortunate to have her in town. I know that she has gone well out of her way to help and provide support when we needed it. That’s not the rarest trait among people who devote their lives to animals, but it’s rare enough in general that we should acknowledge it when it comes along.
Hunter began to show real signs of decline last fall. We had some major work done on our A/C system here at the house. They brought in one of those massive vacuum systems to do the final duct cleaning, which is not far from parking a jet airplane in your house. Heck, that might have been the day Hunter went deaf just to keep from losing his poor doggie mind. Several hours later, he had a seizure.
That was a solo event, as far as we know. Apparently, enough stress can cause them, so we chalked it up to parking the jet in the the house combined with old age. The regrowth of the tumor on his leg was quite large by that point, and there was always the chance that it was some tendril of cancer working its way into his nervous system. Nothing to do but watch him, keep up the drug therapy, and ramp up “Operation Spoil the Dog” to new levels.
A couple of months later, he started coughing and hacking here and there, mostly at night. We quickly discovered that he was having heart trouble, arrhythmia, and an ultrasound revealed a mass near his heart. Drugs were added to help control the heart issues, and he continued to thrive under Sharon’s expert blend of care and attention. By that time, I couldn’t even keep up with the drug regimen. I focused on my specialty, which was to look the dog in the eye and measure his attitude about life. As far as he was concerned, Hunter was perfectly fine.
A progression was occurring. I’m sure the subtle signs of decline could be measured on a graph of incidents over time, and it would have revealed a trend that anyone could read. More, and more severe, coughing. Less energy. The pack instinct of other dogs showing aggression to the weak member. Slow changes in behavior that added up as the days went by. Any conscientious dog owner would see these things, even if denial was a better option.
The bend in the graph was about a month ago. That’s when he began to decline activities. The walks got shorter. Food was left behind in the bowl. Naps got more frequent and longer. Things he would have done without thinking became difficult decisions expressed in casting eyes and a return of his furrowed brow. The coughing and hacking became an all night ordeal.
Last Sunday, he ate most of his breakfast, slumped to the floor in the hallway and couldn’t get back up. By this time, he was bloated and his breathing was very labored, like high speed bellows fighting to keep the fire hot. Congestive heart failure seemed likely. I dropped to the floor to look him straight in the eye and pet him. While the fire was no longer hot, it wasn’t out yet either.
Our options for emergency vet clinics are not great, and our long ordeals with animal health have made us fairly picky about who gets to treat our critters. We decided to see if he could hang on long enough to see his usual vet on Monday morning. Sharon settled in on the floor to keep him company while I finished the mandatory chores. Eventually, I carried him into our bedroom because that was his usual place and so that Sharon could be more comfortable. We kept him supplied with ice cubes and clean towels as his breathing bellowed on.
By Monday morning, he made it clear that he was done. He was ready. At one point, he summoned the energy to put on his charming face, to struggle to a sitting position by my knee. I got the strong sense that he was asking me, as pack leader, to deliver the coup de grace. When I tried to comfort him instead, he slumped back to the floor and regarded me with a disgruntled eye. I told him we would take care of it.
Picking up a completely inert, 60-pound body is not the easiest thing. We took it carefully and got him into the car. His expression changed to one of anticipation. He was always a sucker for a ride in the car. Rides led to walks and cheeseburgers. When we showed up at the vets office instead, his normal response would have been anxiety. His response this time was complete calm. I carried him in, Sharon handling the doors. The tech asked us if if would be possible to get a weight. I said, “He can’t stand.” The young fellow took the hint and led us to the special room with the couch and the carpet on the floor. The bad news room.
Sharon and I had discussed it at length, of course. As a rule, I’m in the “Don’t let them suffer” camp. She’s in the heroic measures school of thought. Those are just philosophical leanings. The reality for any given pet is somewhere in the vast gray area in the middle. We had agreed that we were not going for any option that was a short term band-aide. He had already survived more than most dogs. We both knew a longer term fix was very unlikely.
Maggie the vet came in, checked all the records, examined Hunter, and went into problem solving mode. She actually gave us a gift by pointing out another problem we had both missed. We had noticed the muscle atrophy around his head, but neither of us had picked up on the fact that it was asymmetrical, that he had a pronounced head tilt, which was a good sign that the cancer had made it to his brain. Maggie presented the treatment options and followed them with a very quiet, “Or, we could go the other way. I’d support that too.” Her voice and body language said that she was used to aggressive responses to the suggestion of euthanasia, which I suppose I can understand. Denial and fear are powerful forces.
I said, “We’ve talked it over, checked with Hunter, and we think we’ll go the other way.” She seemed relieved.
The rest of the experience is personal, as I’m sure almost all of you know. There was no fear from our boy. He seemed to understand what was happening, and yes, I am aware that all of my observations of his state of mind could be an elaborate tactic to feel okay with our decision. I have reason to believe otherwise. His actual departure was a curious mix of deep sadness and a strange, profound joy. I don’t know where that originates, but I like to believe it comes from Hunter himself as he is relieved of his burden of suffering and the hollow prospect of living past his dutiful, devoted time among us.
Here I am, three days later, missing him again and again as I go through my usual rituals of dog interaction. My dog petting hands miss him in the lineup, as if they keep their own count, and force me to realize once again that Hunter is gone. Rest in golden fields, my friend.