How’s your pandemic going?
Ours has been bad, epically bad. The worst thing that happened is that we lost Mia in May, but it wasn’t unexpected. We were so so lucky to have her in our lives as long as we did. I actually went to a pet loss support group in February, thinking we were close to having to make the hard decision.
When the world locked down, having Mia in our home for those first couple of months meant everything. Caring for an elderly dog is much easier when you can be home with her all the time.
In April, seemingly out of nowhere, I found out I had ovarian cancer. I had three chemotherapy infusions and then surgery in June. The chemotherapy didn’t work on the cancer, but the surgery did. I have a rare type called low-grade serous ovarian cancer, which did not respond to chemo, but at this time, I have no evidence of disease.
In September, twelve weeks to the day from my ovarian cancer surgery, I stumbled over my own stupid feet and fractured my ankle in three places. The injury is called a trimalleolar fracture, and the surgery to fix it is called an open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF). That experience was worse than having cancer. I spent a miserable night in the emergency room in Seattle, and then I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg for six weeks. However, once the cast came off, I progressed very quickly from walking with two crutches, to one crutch to no crutches.
So I had two really terrible medical experiences within a six-month period. Neither hurt as much as losing Mia.
While all this was going on, Leo started having seizures more frequently. He’s been on anti-convulsants since his second seizure a little more than a year ago. In July, he had an MRI that confirmed what I suspected: he has a brain tumor. He also has intervertebral disk disease. In August, he had three treatments of stereotactic radiation, which we hoped would give him up to a year and a half to live. He’s 10 years old now, so that sounded like a good deal.
But he had increasing mobility problems with his hind end, and continued having breakthrough seizures. A follow-up MRI in November showed that not only had the radiation not shrunk his brain tumor and his IVDD was worse, but that he ALSO has two tumors in his abdomen.
Remember in E.T. when Elliott and E.T. were so linked that they seemed to be dying at the same time? That’s me and Leo. I had three tumors. He has three tumors. In October, neither of us could walk.
Then the psychic link was broken and Elliott got better and E.T. didn’t?
My tumors were removed and my ankle got better. Leo has three inoperable tumors and can’t walk.
But he’s still here. And for that, I’m thankful.
My dogs won’t sleep in my bed. How I wish they would. Leo will jump up on the bed on his own time, especially if the heatie blanket is turned on, but if I lie down next to him and bug him too much, he gets up and leaves.
A few nights recently, he has hopped up on the bed, and stayed there as I fell asleep. The trick is, I don’t touch him at all. He is not the snuggle puppy I ordered.
The other night, I slept fitfully. Mia wakes us up every night. It’s hard to tell what she wants. Sometimes she quiets after we give her water, or move her from the couch to one of her other beds. Sometimes she just seems to need to know we’re close by. Sometimes she doesn’t stop and she squeaks and squawks for what seems like all night.
It had taken me a long time to fall asleep the first time, but when Mia woke me, it was only two, so I should have been able to get plenty more sleep. But I lay awake worrying about my dogs, and then made the mistake of looking at Twitter (breaking a very sensible rule I set for myself), so then I was lying awake worrying about America, and feeling angry at people who don’t get angry at the same things I get angry about.
I heard Leo on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He does this thing where he scratches the door just once to get me to either let him in the room or out into the backyard. I had just started listening to a guided meditation and felt my body relaxing. It was working. I waited for his scratch. Instead I heard him sit down and felt him settle against the door. It was enormously comforting. If I couldn’t snuggle against his big wolfy body, at least I knew his big wolfy body was out there bracing between me and the world.
My guided meditation was asking me to imagine a white light. I was just about to drift off now. It was happening. I heard movement outside my door. Still no scratch, but I knew if I opened the door I would find him standing there looking at me. I did, and indeed he was.
I walked to the sliding glass door and let him out to do his middle-of-the-night business. But then he didn’t want to come in. Sometimes if you reach to grab him, he’ll do a crazy play bow, then race up the hill into the yard. He didn’t do that this time. He just calmly turned and walked back up the hill.
I stepped barefoot onto the cold concrete outside and looked up. The stars were brilliant in a clear black sky.
I stood there, appreciating the moment, thanking Leo for showing me the stars. Nothing is guaranteed and there’s so much to be anxious about. But right now Leo, and Mia, and Rob are safe in our home, and for that I am very very lucky. Little else matters.
I stepped back inside and shook a bag of treats quietly, because I didn’t want to wake Mia.
Leo walked almost to the door, but wouldn’t come in. I reached for him, and again he calmly turned and walked up the hill.
“Fine.” I slipped my feet into my Salmon Sisters rubber deck boots and followed him up the hill. When I turned, I saw a glowing moon above our house. The white light from my guided meditation was real.
Leo stood beside me. “Thank you for showing me the moon.” He let me hug him, pressing my forehead against his to kiss his nose. He walked back inside with me, followed me into the bedroom and lay down on his bed on the floor beside mine.
*Alternate headline: When your geriatric dog has fewer health problems than your younger dog.**
**Then again, Leo is 9, so technically he is a senior dog too.
Last week, I marveled to myself that because of Mia’s mobility limitations, my “difficult dog” Leo has become the easier dog to take out into the world.
This happened with Isis, too, after years of struggling to fix her leash reactivity. Leo was not an easy puppy. He jumped up and bit our arms during walks. Tore several jacket sleeves.
I remember walking Isis one Saturday morning back in 2010, thinking how much easier she was to manage at that point than Leo.***
***Our life with Isis is the subject of this book.
Then Leo became super leash-reactive. While Mia was basically bombproof, constant vigilance was required to keep Leo from barking and lunging at everything that moved.
After coming to the conclusion that I could not cure him, I committed myself to a lifetime of management. And string cheese.
But it was the darnedest thing. All that careful management led to behavioral change!
We’re still Midnight Dog Walkers, metaphorically, anyway. I will never walk Leo peacefully midday through a crowded park full of children, scooters, bikes and joggers. (Who would want to go to such a place?) I can’t even imagine walking him down our own street midday on a Saturday like I did that time with Isis.
Most evenings will find us on a 20-30 passeggiata at dusk. We loop around a ball field where we have lots of opportunities to not bark at his triggers. It’s often the highlight of my day. Sometimes we sing whatever tune is running through my head. Sometimes Leo helps me work through the arguments in my head.
All of this is splendid progress and is what I was thinking when I composed the heading of this post: Leo has become easier to manage physically than Mia.
Then I was reminded that even though Mia is a million years old, and needs to be carried outside to do her business, she has fewer medical issues than spry Leo.
As I started dictating this post into my phone on our walk last week, I was under the impression that our biggest dog challenges always have been behavioral, rather than medical. Even when Leo had two knee surgeries, he was a model patient. The hardest part was during his first recovery when he started lashing out at Mia (I blame Trazodone), which I consider behavioral. Also, he refuses to swallow pills no matter what I hide them in, but again, that’s behavioral.
Then Leo went and had a seizure over the weekend.
You guys, it was so scary. We were watching TV and heard this sound like paws skidding on the floor, like maybe he was chasing a fly. Rob went to help him, thinking he had a leg cramp, but it was all four legs, twitching like he was trying to scratch himself with all of them. His eyes were bloodshot and rolling back into his head, and his mouth was open but not appearing to take in any breath. There was, of course, drool.
Later I read that you’re supposed to leave the dog alone until they come out of it (maybe because they’re in an unpredictable state and might bite?), but of course I held his head in my lap and patted his back, because what if he was choking on something?
After about a minute, he started to come out of it and we carried all 100 pounds of him to the car and headed to the emergency vet. I did not even take the time to change out of my Wonder Woman pajamas. (It was 3 pm on a Sunday.)
Within another minute or two, he was back to himself.
His bloodwork looked great, so now we just have to wait and see if it happens again. The vet gave us some liquid valium I can administer into his keister if he has another that lasts longer than a minute.
I’m not super concerned about what this means going forward. Seems like seizures are a thing that happens sometimes, and maybe it’s a signal of worse things to come and maybe he’ll never have another one. Either way, there’s nothing I can do about it except never take my eyes off him for the rest of our lives.
During our visit to the emergency vet, I asked if there was anything we should do or not do to best take care of Leo’s knees and hips as he continues to get older.
She gave the best medical advice I have ever heard: “Well, you want him to have fun.”
I spent a lot of time in the summer of 2018 with my dogs in the backyard, reading during the day and looking at the stars at night. I even blogged about it, so I would remember it a year from then.
It won’t always be like this, I thought. This might be the last summer. The last Christmas. Her last birthday.
I need to stop thinking like that, because Mia is still here!
It’s now been more than a year since she’s put any weight on her back legs. For several months, she continued to scoot her way around the house. We’d come home and find her under Rob’s desk, or sprawled in the kitchen waiting for us. Her front legs were so strong. She really motored in her little wheelchair.
Gradually, she slowed down more. It got harder for her to hold herself up on her front legs in her Best Friend Mobility wheels. We’re still moving her around the house by lifting up her hind legs while she steers with her front. Sometimes Rob gets the hind end and I take the front and we fly her like an eagle to the car, where we drive her to the park, where Rob wheels her in the wagon to a spot where she barks at other dogs and watches Leo play.
I get tired of people asking how old she is, and people actually say horrible things to us like “It’s so sad when dogs get old.” Lately, people have been saying it’s nice of us to take such good care of her. As if we wouldn’t. I always say, “She’s been very good to us, so we’re returning the favor.”
Aside from not being able to walk, her worst medical issue was an open pressure sore in December that I really thought wouldn’t heal, but I put MediHoney on it, and gave her two rounds of antibiotics, and sat beside her and watched Hallmark Christmas movies, and then all three seasons of The Leftovers, and it healed.
And she’s still here.
It’s stress-inducing for me to take her to the vet, because I have an irrational fear they’re going to say, “Oh no, this dog is too old.” But they never do. As it happens, one of the doctors is partial to old dogs. She gets it. A lot of her own dogs have had “mobility issues.” So clearly, this is the only vet we should be making appointments with from now on.
For our last appointment, Rob wheeled Mia in, lifted her out of the wagon and set her down on the floor. When the vet came in, I pointed out, like, 57 different things that were wrong. The stinky ear, this bald patch here, this sticky belly here. A few minutes later, I remembered to point out a goopy eye.
Our vet’s response: “She looks great. You’re doing a fantastic job.”
Really, it hasn’t been that hard. You hear things about knowing it’s time when the bad days outnumber the good days. Mia doesn’t have bad days. She’s alert, she’s happy, she’s still extremely interested in food. She pees and poops. Unfortunately, she does both of these things in the house, but most of the time, the poop is easy to pick up, and I’d say 75 percent of the time, we successfully get her outside and hold her up while she pees.
Except today. I got peed on three times today. That’s the only hard part. Managing her “business.”
It’s a very small price.
Leo recovered from his November 2017 TPLO surgery like a champ. At his eight-week X-rays, we learned that his fibula had broken during his recovery, but had already been healing for a few weeks, so there was nothing to be done, except feel completely devastated about my failure as a nurse. But he didn’t care. He was fine. Except for the part where the drugs made him start a couple of scary fights with Mia, and redirected a bite on my upper thigh that bruised and took longer to heal than Leo’s fibula, and the fact that I could not trick him into taking his medicine, so several times a day I had to force his maw open and shove a pill down his throat and hold his mouth closed until he swallowed… Those parts were trying.
But big picture, the surgery was a success and there were few complications. He enjoyed six adorable sessions on the underwater treadmill.
Unfortunately, it’s very common for a dog who tears a cruciate ligament on one knee to wind up tearing the other. And it appears, that’s where we are.
In late November 2018, more than a year since the surgery on his right leg, Leo’s regular vet did a thorough physical exam on his left leg and found nothing at all to be concerned about. A week later, after a brisk run-around at the dog park, Leo started toe-tapping with his left leg.
It comes and goes, and when we went back to the surgeon, they couldn’t tell for sure, but he probably has a partial tear on the left knee. Some people treat this with what’s called Conservative Management where you crate rest the dog, maybe get them a brace… but with a 100-pound dog, it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t bear to watch him limp around the house, even occasionally, if I knew there was a surgery that could fix it.
So, he’s scheduled for surgery January 11, where they will X-ray and scope, and assuming his cruciate is torn, he will have TPLO number 2.
I went into the surgery consultation thinking this is the preferable outcome, because it’s something we can treat. But it’s also a major surgery with an eight- to twelve-week (at least) recovery period. Add to that Mia’s continuing care needs, and it’s a lot.
Which makes me all the more grateful for all the adventures we had this year.
Here’s us on Christmas Day:
And here’s us on New Year’s Eve:
I thought I was keeping it pretty simple at the beginning of this year by setting the goal of having two ambulatory dogs.
I should have set the bar lower, because all I really needed was to have two dogs. Doesn’t matter how well they walk!
Turns out, neither of them are walking well right now.
But who cares, because they’re both here!! And I feel so lucky for that to be the case.
Every day with Mia is a gift. I’ve thought that since the moment we met her, seven and a half years ago, when she was seven(ish) years old. Which makes her 14(ish) years old now! She’s been on a slow decline for the past year or so, which I noted with my “training goal” for the year. She started having trouble keeping up with Leo on walks, making it hard for me to walk them together. One night, when Rob and I were walking them together, she sort of sagged into her back legs, as though she couldn’t walk on them. After a brief rest, she recovered, but that signaled the beginning of the end of her unassisted leash-walking career.
We appropriated the Help ‘Em Up harness that I bought for Leo’s TPLO recovery, and it was extremely beneficial for getting her up into the car, and to and from her acupuncture appointments. She gradually went from looking a little wobbly with her back legs to not using them at all.
Her front legs still worked, though, so she’d use those to scoot herself across the house. As recently as a few weeks ago, I’d come home from work to find her not on the couch where I left her, but under Rob’s desk all the way across the house.
We’d also find her stuck under chairs sometimes too, which was a little traumatizing. Up until a few months ago, she was still able to use her front legs to haul herself up onto the couch.
All this time, she has remained very much Mia. Completely devoted to Rob so that if he got up and left the room, she would either crawl her way across the house to be near him, or squeak, whistle, and squawk until one of us helped her.
Her regular vet visits and blood and urine tests have shown that everything still works. Except for her walking parts. We believe the muscle weakness is a normal result of aging. Something in the spine and lower back, and not, as everyone who sees a limping German shepherd assumes, hip dysplasia.
I dragged my feet about getting her a wheelchair, because I wrongly assumed it would cost hundreds of dollars, and it wouldn’t solve our biggest challenge, which is getting her in and out of the house to do her business.
First, we got her a wagon, which was great fun, and adorable, although she did bark incessantly while Rob toted her along. This has always been a standard Mia trait: an announcement that “I’m here!”
Once I finally looked into the matter, I learned that Best Friend Mobility sells used wheelchairs for half price. We got this one for $125! Why did I wait so long?
We’d been helping her get around for a while by lifting her up by her back legs like she’s a wheelbarrow, so she adjusted to the wheels very quickly. She powers ahead, her little back legs twitching, as though moving that fast is triggering muscle memory.
I think you can see a lot of her personality in that last video. So while it’s hard to see her slowing down, it fills me with a lot of joy to have her with us for another Christmas.
Next week, in Part 2, I’ll update you about Leo!
I found a handwritten (I know, right?) journal entry from Jan. 17, 2012, about six months after we got Mia:
There’s something very special about Mia. She knows her role in my heart. She stays by my side and doesn’t cause any trouble. She’s my constant companion so I’m never alone.
But what happens when she’s gone?
She has few demands, just “don’t ever leave me.”
Her muzzle is darker than Isis’s, with a half-moon of silver frosting on her upper lip. It’s what made me think she wasn’t right for us. I almost turned her down.
How could I love this old dog?
How could anyone give her away?
Over the last couple of years, Mia’s decided to be Rob’s constant companion. And yeah, I’m jealous. She follows him around the house and hops up on the couch beside him.
We used to have a morning ritual after he left for work where she’d get up onto Rob’s pillow and cuddle with me, but she doesn’t climb up on the bed anymore. And if I sit down next to her on the couch, or on the floor, I have to be very careful not to fawn over her too much, because she’ll get up and move.
Leo doesn’t even get up on the bed with me anymore. I understand now what parents go through when their children get too big to sit on their laps. I think they call that Baby Fever.
I like to read outside, and love it when Leo comes and lies down right next to my chair. Even that doesn’t last as long as it used to, and frequently, he’ll run back into the house, and I’m out there by myself.
So we have a new ritual. Mia can’t keep up on walks anymore, so every day when we get home from work, we put her Help ’em Up harness on her, and assist her up the hill in the backyard. I lay out a blanket and lie down with my book. Somehow, this is more inviting to Leo than when I’m sitting in the chair. Or else he thinks I’m more vulnerable and in need of protecting. Either way, it’s the only time I can get both dogs to lie down beside me.
I just wanted to post this here so I’ll remember it next summer . . .