18 February, 2010

The Truth About Dogs

I’ve received the news I didn’t want to hear only hours ago.  The emotion is raw and painful but holding it all in is impossible and stupid.

Peanut was a rescued dog, at the end of his puppy-hood.  He was scheduled to be euthanised literally the day after he came into my life.  He needed so much love and attention and affection, being emotionally damaged from abuse and neglect.  My first concern was how long would it take for him to become a normal dog?  He was scared of people, of toys, of contact.  It took months of intense emotional investment to get him to enjoy chasing a ball, being confident with other dogs despite his toy Jack Russell size: his head as an adult was no bigger than my outstretched hand.  He weighed about 5 kilograms.

Three weeks ago, something wasn’t right.  He lost his appetite, and even when he did eat would vomit within hours.  And continue on vomiting.  I wasn’t unduly concerned as long as he was drinking water.  He then stopped even that and I forced him to drink.  I stayed with him for two nights fitfully sleeping either on the floor or on the couch, acutely aware on the second night that he could die at any moment.

The next day a vet checked him and concluded that it was nothing serious.  Perhaps a canine influenza or minor stomach complaint.

Slowly, over the week he was getting better.  Much better.  Eating properly again.  I felt relieved that the worst of whatever he had was over, even if he preferred to lie in his basket or on my lap.  Even so, his belly was slowly becoming distended, and his favourite toy, an old orange ball, would only be chased down once, without much enthusiasm.

Last Saturday (13/02/2010), while he lay on my lap, I noticed how laboured his breathing had become.  Prior I had arranged to meet up with acquaintances at a Northbridge bar, and so took him for his much loved “walkies”.  His ears pricked up, his eyes lit up, but his body wasn’t so keen until his lead was on.

It was a slower than normal, even tentative, walk, but he was more than happy to be out and and about.  At the bar, in the courtyard, he was a chick magnet, which was hilarious ironic!  And despite not being totally comfortable, he wasn’t in pain, and was more than happy to lay at my feet off the lead or on my lap as I sat and chat and drank.

The next day – Sunday – we spent a few hours in a shady, grassy park.  He trotted around, sniffed here and there, an would lie down in some cool shade to catch his breath, before chasing down his favourite orange ball, then resting again.  I knew then what ever it was, it was serious, despite Peanut being his happy little self.

Later that day, my ex, who was Peanut’s other “parent”,  came to collect him for his “turn at custody”.  I was always Peanut’s “daddy”: I was the one who taught him all the basic obedience that all dogs should have, I was the one who took him for walks, I was the one who played with him to give him his confidence back with strangers and other dogs, I was the one that imposed the discipline of regimented meal times.  It all sounds “me, me, me” but honestly I was the leader of our pack, my ex just didn’t have the experience, patience or discipline that I had.  So whenever there was a game of “who does Peanut love most”, I would always win.  Of course I didn’t have a monopoly on loving him, nor did he only bond with me.  But the inevitable conclusion is I was, and still am, the one with the greater emotional burden despite this not being a contest.

I gave my ex a list of verbal instructions about Peanut’s care.  Importantly that if he was still without appetite and his distended belly grew even by a small amount then he would need to see a vet again.  I was hoping it was only a case of constipation due to an obstruction, but also knew that a tumour was highly likely.

On Monday it was decided that Peanut should see a vet again.  An ultrasound was taken and a mass was pressing up against his diaphragm.  Again, I was hopeful that it would be a benign tumour or a cyst, but it would have to be surgically removed.  As soon as I heard the news, I dropped everything to be with Peanut on what would turn out to be his last night.  My ex and I had discussed at length what we both wanted to do and what was best for Peanut.  We agreed on all points.  If the tumour was malignant, or couldn’t be safely removed, then euthanasia was the only humane option.  The issue was never about money, rather making sure that Peanut didn’t needlessly suffer.

That Tuesday night., he wanted to lay in my lap, and later he wanted to sleep on me as I went to bed on a make do mattress on the floor.  He only wanted to be with what sounded and smelt familiar.  It’s a dog thing and for him it did mean being less stressed than had I not been there.

Wednesday morning, the vet surgeon removed the mass, and was hopeful of a recovery, despite the mass being nearly 1 kg, or 20% of his weight.  After fifteen minutes, things looked good enough to continue.  45 minutes later the story was different, with the mass being attached to his gall bladder.  But it was worth continuing.

After an hour, a drain was inserted, an IV put in, and he was closed up, wrapped up and put in a warm crib for recovery with the words “hopeful” the best prognosis.  Everything is a risk: anaesthetic is a risk – it depresses the central nervous system so that the cardiopulmonary systems fails, i.e. heart failure and or breathing stops – surgery itself is a risk, even recovery is a risk just as it is in humans.  The alternative was not palatable as the tumour would slowly suffocate him as well as compress his stomach to the point he couldn’t eat or drink, like having a gastric band fitted by the dodgiest of quacks that shut off the stomach completely.
Peanut was looking the worse for wear, as one would expect and had a low core temperature but recovery meant being externally warmed, and a transfusion and constantly being checked by staff.

Sadly, at 9:15pm Wednesday night, Peanut had enough.

Writing about this event is cathartic.  Yes, I feel better for writing the time-line as I remember it, and for writing about Peanut’s circumstances that lead to his death.  And yes, I feel terrible about it for many reasons, not least publicly expressing what could be seen as as emotionless nonsense to justify my actions or inactions.  There are many truths that are not yet written.  Foremost is that ever since I left the surgery I’ve felt both numb and void and yet without a moment’s relief of thinking about him without tears welling up in my eyes.

The simplest truths I can share is that I have lost a big part of my happiness.  Yet there was nothing that could have been done differently that would have arrived to a different outcome.  Although only six or seven years old, Peanut has had at least five years more than he would otherwise have had, and not just a half decade of quantity, but of quality.  From being a terrified pup rescued from a horrible start in life to being earmarked for euthanasia because a suitable home couldn’t be found to having a very good life of being constantly loved, cared for and rehabilitated.  There is nothing I would have done any differently.

But that truth isn’t a one-way street.  It certainly was never a case of me giving of myself in some sort of selfless act.  He contributed to my life much more than I to his.  Peanut selflessly gave this partial paraplegia and chronic pain disabled man many things; a reason to get up in the morning, the ability to take the focus of my needs, and joy I needed when I needed it most.
Now is the time to grieve.  To acknowledge his death appropriately.  To feel sorry for him.  To feel sorry for myself.  Ultimately to never forget Peanut.  It’s difficult at the moment not to think about about how good it felt every time I pet him, or the look of bliss on his face when I scratched between his ears or under his chin.  How he would gently put out his front right paw and gently touch me when he wanted a little attention, how his tail would furiously whip side to side when he saw his favourite orange ball in my hand.  When he knew I was in awful pain how he would very, very gently lie on me, resting his head in the crook of an arm that made me feel better.

I shall miss Peanut, the little bugger, the funny little Jack Russell who died at the midpoint of what Jack Russells would normally live.  Same as I miss Sam, the wonderful faithful companion Blue Healer I had for many years, and before him, Defa, the “bitsa” that just loved nothing more than going bush with me.

There are a few litres of tears to flow when thinking of Peanut yet.  Death isn’t something we ‘just get over’, it’s something we come to terms with.  Later today when I collect his collar, I’m sure I’ll hear the tinkling of his tags as he trots (he only had two speeds: trot and flat out running).

The worst is yet to come, and it’s a selfish thing.  The worst is the void created.  That I’ll forget he’s gone and call for him, or I’ll see a toy of his and his absence makes his life that more real and the loss that much greater.

The truth about cats and dogs isn’t that they die.  It’s that given a chance they enrich our lives in ways people can’t.


  1. OH toby, what can I say? NOTHING
    I have a JR too - who was also resuced. You showed your ratbag peanuts that there is another life that doesn't involve misery and unhappiness.
    You tried your hardest, the vets also
    I am so sorry for your loss - I've said before and I'll say again - I'm not sure I could manage without my little boy - who is very demanding - sometimes worse than a child, but that is part of their charm
    **hugs** thinking of you
    WOuld you consider another, not as a replacement, but as another dog to help fill the void?
    There are plenty out there that need another mum/dad to show them life is not as bad as it seems.
    Thinking of you.

  2. Thank you. Yes, they are demanding but I’m not the sort of person that wants a robot as a pet.
    Like all dogs I’ve had, Peanut was absolutely unique and irreplaceable. However I’m sure at some stage in the not too distant future, I’ll be ready to take in another naughty but loveable so-and-so. It’s something about my DNA: my mum always says “This is the last one, I’m getting too old,” and before you know it she adopts another one.
    Thank you for your comments on Twitter. They are very much appreciated.