I have made plans to put my dog down tomorrow. I realize that while this is painful, it’s also fortunate as a lot times, our pets leave in a flurry of panic, injury or sudden illness and we’re not afforded the luxury of deciding when, exactly, they’re going to die. Granted, the timing is not entirely up to me.
In 2013, I brought my nine-year-old chihuahua, Max, in for his yearly exam. The vet always remarked how well-behaved and friendly he was, especially for his breed, but this time remarked that we was exceptionally healthy. His heart, reflexes, organs and everything were in perfect working order. Looking at Max’s teeth, the vet said “He has teeth of a dog half his age!”
I brought Max home and bragged on Facebook about the vitality of my little furball. “I’m beginning to suspect Max is a superhero...” I wrote.
Unfortunately, my suspicions were wrong.
In the early spring of 2014, I noticed Max was limping a little. Chihuahuas are prone to luxating patellas, which means their knee caps tend not to want to stay in place. I shrugged it off as a normal sign of aging, he had just turned ten after all. I bought him some supplements for dogs with joint issues and started giving them to him every day.
But Max didn’t stop limping. It got worse, and he stopped jumping up on the couch and bed. A dog that normally rushed up and down the stairs began to hesitate, and then refuse to traverse them at all.
I assumed he had arthritis or a more serious joint issue, so I brought him to the vet. I braced myself for an expensive surgery ahead. The vet examined him, and initially thought my amateur diagnosis was correct. But then he lifted Max up and brushed his back legs against the exam table. Instead of trying to gain traction, as a dog normally would, his paws simply folded under like a paintbrush. This is called “knuckling.” The vet explained to me that it indicated that the problem could be neurological, but this was not definitive and we’d check for other problems first. My neck felt hot. Anxiety started pounding my chest and head.
We took x-rays, which showed a perfectly healthy skeleton. We ran bloodwork, which showed his organs and hormones were all where they should be. The vet sat me down and ran through the different types of neurological disorders dogs can have. Suffice to say, none of them were a good diagnosis. I began to wish a knee surgery was all I had to worry about.
Then, Max went blind. Dogs actually can get around as well as normal using just hearing and smell, so we only noticed when he was reluctant to go outside. We called the vet, who then referred us to a neurologist.
Now, when you’re about to bring your dog to the kind of specialty care office that isn’t available to humans in the poorer parts of the world, you begin to feel a little ridiculous. Explaining the process to friends and family feels silly, but of course people are simply just understanding and happy, yet surprised that we’re able to offer that kind of care to an animal that feels the same way about eating steak as it does eating cat shit.
The first neurologist examined Max, reviewed his records and x-rays, and told us that it would cost $5,000 to find out what’s wrong with him, then more to treat it. And that he was most likely just going to die from it anyways. She left the room to let us discuss our options. I fell apart.
My husband and I got Max from a puppy store when we were in our early 20s and not even living together. Neither of us had ever owned a dog before. What should have been the most illogical and impulsive decision of my life quickly became one of the best. That dog and I became inseparable. We went everywhere together. My co-workers eagerly babysat him when he was still a puppy. Max has been camping all over New England and has traveled by plane, boat and scooter. In spite of being a member of a breed notorious for disliking strangers and other dogs, Max greeted every person and animal he encountered with the same kind of enthusiasm that a teenager would greet a member of One Direction. He would wriggle his entire body with furious joy, licking the air and entirely unable to control himself until this other living being touched him. yet, he never jumped all over people or licked their faces. Max was probably the most polite dog I’ve ever known. Once, a neighbor stopped me and asked me if I was a dog walker. I said “No, this is my dog.” And their eyes widened. “I never hear him barking. I thought he lived somewhere else.” Max hated being wet, or dirty, which hurt his ability to make friends at the dog park, but endeared him to friends and relatives we went to visit. “No dogs!” My aunt would say, opening the door and shoo-ing all canines out of the kitchen. Max would look lovingly up at her, “I guess you don’t count,” she’d laugh as he followed her back. It was his job to clean the floor of any pesky bits of dropped food. Max is a good dog. Maybe one of the best. And he had been my best friend for a decade. Following my commands and footsteps, cuddling me when I needed it, always listening.
I decided that I wanted to wait a few months since Max was not in any pain and still able to walk around. The holidays are stressful enough, no reason to add a barrage of animal hospital trips to the season. I assumed his health would continue to slip and that we’d just end up putting him to sleep. That was October. Then January rolled around, and while Max still was not any better, he hadn’t gotten any worse. Boston had the most extreme winter we’d ever seen, all in the space of January and February. Once the blizzards stopped, I called another animal neurologist and made an appointment. I wanted a second opinion.
Unfortunately, the last few months of illness had not revealed the causes of Max’s illness, so the $5,000 price tag on the mystery still stood. I had virtually no credit card debt, so we decided that it was worth it just to know if we could help. There was an ultrasound to check his organs, then an MRI and spinal tap to check his brain and spine. When we dropped Max off for his three-day stay at Camp Needles and Big Scary Machines, the vet was confident our dog had “atypical Cushing’s Disease.” The next time the vet called us, he was sure it was a slipped disc in Max’s spine. We then had another call to report that his discs looked good, so it must be spinal cancer. I brought Max home. I cried a lot. I resolved to enjoy the time we had left.
Then the vet called again the next day. The spinal tap results had come back, and as opposed to them having cancer cells or indications of cancer, his spinal fluid was chock-full of white blood cells. It was meningoencephalitis, an extremely rare disease which is not hereditary. Max had no infections or parasites that could have caused it. And the kind he had did not resemble any case known to our neurologist. Usually the onset of meningoencephalitis is days or weeks, not months and months. There was treatment, and it had undesirable side effects. We were basically putting Max on chemo. “The chances of success are 50/50.” the vet said. “What does success look like?” I asked. “Full recovery.” was the answer. So, we went for it.
It was hard. Max’s hunger and thirst surged. The peeing seemed to be almost constant. At first, the response was remarkable. He was walking strongly again, even pulling himself up on his hind legs. We were thrilled. I thought we’d saved him. I was going to get all those years I so badly wanted with him.
But then I came home one day and Max was shivering and obviously feeling ill. A trip to the ER revealed that he had no fever and his heart rate seemed normal. We did a round of bloodwork, which revealed his liver HATED the drugs. It wasn’t damaged, but it wasn’t happy. We dialed back the dose. Max never walked normally again after that. Once his mobility reverted due to muscle waiting and he was back to where he was before starting treatment, I called the vet and made a schedule to take him off the medicines. They weren’t helping and I wasn’t going to force him to be a peeing and liver-killing machine if it didn’t help him to get around. I knew we’d probably have to put him down soon.
I bought Max a mobility cart. He took to it almost right away. He was his old self again. Tagging along wherever I went (except stairs). Slow, but steady and happy. For a solid two months, he got stronger. Early last week he walked across our tile floor all on his own four legs. No cart needed. I was shocked. I began to hope Max’s disease had been stopped by the drugs and that perhaps he was healing. I began to hope he’d be here a few more months.
I got home Wednesday night last week and followed my same routine. I brought Max outside immediately, where he pissed to his heart’s content in the little spot we take him in the alley. He stumbled a little, but I wasn’t too concerned as sometimes he was more wobbly after a full day of lying down. We went back inside, I put on the little rubber dog boots we had that helped Max get around on smooth surfaces, then encouraged him to come into the living room. He stumbled and fell, trying a few times, but with the same result. I put on his mobility cart, assuring him that he was probably just tired. But then he couldn’t keep his balance in the cart either. I started to panic. I took him out, stood him on the rug, and watched him try to walk very erratically and then fall. He was visibly frustrated and confused. I checked his eyes and the tilt of his head to make sure it wasn’t a stroke or loss of balance. My husband came home and helped me observe him. By the next day, we’d determined that it was possible he could have hurt one of his front legs by walking on his own volition in the previous two days. On Friday, it was clear that he was either seriously hurt, or that our time was running out. A call to my friend who’s a vet tech determined that we should wait a couple more days before rushing him to the vet since he was stable, eating and not crying out.
Having been to the vet dozens of times by this point, Max is unfazed by the visits. He usually roams the exams room, never bumping into anything, in spite of not being able to see. He usually wags his tail for the vet and eagerly sniffs anything offered to him. Not this time. Max just looked afraid and confused. For the first time ever, a vet asked us about euthanasia in a “maybe right now” way as opposed to the usual “that’s an okay option if you want it soon” way. I sobbed the whole way home. The vet charitably gave us some pain meds for Max on the off chance that it was just a muscle sprain or bad bruise. I gave him the medicine and prayed harder than I have in my entire, agnostic-bordering-on-atheist life. I bargained with invisible powers. I cried more.
“Dog days” is a term used for days that pass by, languishing and lazy. Ironic, given that dogs have a life span about one-sixth of the average human’s. A day with your dog passes quickly. I think of all the Saturdays I left Max at home to go shopping. The nights I went out drinking with friends, begrudgingly bringing my dog on a short, drunken walk late in the night afterwards. I think of the vacations I took with him. I think of the vacations I took without him. I wonder if I would have done anything differently if I’d known 2013 would be his last year of running, jumping, seeing, and doing a lot of standard dog things. I wonder how I’ll get through the next few days. And weeks. I wonder how I’m supposed to hold him and comfort him while someone lethally injects him. I know it’s what’s best. I know it’s what’s right. I know it will save him a lot of suffering and upset. But Max doesn’t know that. I hope it won’t hurt.
But tomorrow, I will not wonder. I will savor every moment. I will experience the world as a dog does. No past. No future. Just right now. Tomorrow will be a dog day. I hope it lasts forever.