Old Dogs: When the News is Bad

With a clump of snow on her adorable nose.

Ten years ago this month, when she was only two years old, the Brindle Dog developed a mast cell tumour in her neck. I remember very clearly the moment I first felt it, when she and I were playing and I was rubbing and tugging at the sides of her neck. She was wiggling and wagging, and I was laughing. Under my fingertips, I felt a lump deep in the left side of her neck and I thought that’s weird, I don’t recall that dogs are supposed to have a bump there, and at the same time I was reaching for the other side to see if it was bilateral. No, it was not. No matter how hard I poked and prodded, I could not find a corresponding lump on the right side, and my heart sank. I felt a deep fear in my belly and called the vet right away to make an appointment.

A veterinary surgical oncologist removed the malignant tumour, but due to the amount of structures in the neck, the margins were not as clean as desired. My then-partner and I were advised to send her to Saskatchewan for a month of radiation treatment during which time she would be fostered, undergo general anaesthetic every day for the radiation treatment, and require intravaenous feeding because her throat would be burned from the radiation. We elected not to do this. Our reasoning was that even if we could afford to follow this recommendation, we felt it would basically amount to torture for our good dog. How can you ever explain to a dog why they’ve been sent away from home, why every day they are drugged and groggy and nauseated, why they are being burned and cannot eat? We could not imagine it. It felt to us like a selfish thing to do, and at the same time a terribly wasteful thing to do. In a city where children lack mittens and warm boots in the killing cold, in a province where children are still living without running water, in our own lives when at that time we both earned barely more than minimum wage, we could not justify the expense.

So we waited and hoped. We fed her well, and exercised her well, and loved her well, and felt her all over—all the time—for new lumps. Seven months lump-free would mean remission, we were told. Seven months came and went. Her third birthday came and went. She continued happy and healthy, and we were relieved that we had dodged that bullet.

Best Dog Ever

Investigating the Fluffy’s Dog’s pee corner.

In the intervening time, especially in the last few years, she has developed lots of other lumps. Lipomas and skin tags and warts and ingrown hairs, and lately a particularly ugly papilloma that looks like a mini raspberry or a bright red beer nut (my bromate: “Oh god, I’ll never eat beer nuts again!”). I’ve had many of them checked out by the vet, and a couple of them have undergone fine needle aspiration for a closer look, but it has always been just fine.

But this month, ten years later, it looks like my beautiful Brindle Dog has another mast cell tumour.

I found it while we were playing. I was massaging her back and scritching the base of her tail and squeezing her muscular thighs when I felt a lump in the back of her left thigh. It was under the skin, not on it. It felt like the top half of a golf ball, with the bottom half buried in her muscle. I felt that deep fear in my belly, that sick, sinking feeling. Usually, when I find a new lump or bump, I do worry. But that anxiety is all in my head and chest, high up and tense and quivering until I get some reassurance or just calm myself down. But this deep dread was like the first time, ten years ago, the sure knowledge that this was Very Bad.

Of course, I tried to talk myself out of it. Don’t be silly, just a lump, probably just another lipoma, maybe a cyst, could be anything. But I was scared. So I made an appointment to see the wonderful Dr. Beggs. She did a fine needle aspiration and took the sample for examination. When she returned, she was not smiling. She advised that it would be best to send it off to the veterinary lab for further investigation. She did not reassure me or pretend it was going to be okay.

Best Dog Ever

Gnawing on a stick in the sun.

The cytology report came back two days later and was not encouraging. It looks very much like the Brindle Dog has a mast cell tumour. To know for sure, I would have to consent to a biopsy of the growth. And if she’s going under sedation anyway, they may as well biopsy the lymph node in her knee as well. We would do this along with an ultrasound and xrays to determine whether or not there are already other tumours. If there aren’t, then we could proceed, if necessary, to removing the tumour, followed, if necessary, by radiation—which is only available in the next province.

I know these things. I know the biopsy is crucial to determining what kind of tumour we’re dealing with, and I know that early removal and follow-up treatment is crucial for the long-term prognosis.

But here’s the thing. My good Brindle Dog doesn’t even know she’s sick yet. She is a twelve-year-old Dutch Shepherd who is aging well. Despite her cataracts and her gradual hearing loss and her general slowing-down, she still believes she is in the prime of her life. She hasn’t noticed the tumour. Sure, she needs a boost to get into the car and sometimes she stumbles on stairs or in the dark, but she takes it in stride and just keeps trying. She is always willing to chase a stick and bark at a squirrel and fling herself onto the floor for a belly rub. Sure, the flinging is a little more careful, and she gets tired more quickly during the stick-chasing, but the point is that she wants to and is able to play. Her tail still wags a mile a minute. She is HAPPY.

But if I decide to take her in for the biopsies, then basically her life starts ending now. Now would be when the pain starts, and the fear, and the abandonment at the vet clinic. The stress and anxiety. Stitches and recovery and drains and the Cone of Shame. If it is indeed a mast cell tumour (which seems quite likely from the cytology report), then we are going to have to remove this lump from her thigh. The part I can feel is not quite as big as half a golf ball. But who knows what’s underneath? Is it a neat round ball? Or is it tentacled? How much thigh will she have left once the minimum 2cm—preferably 3cm—margin of tissue around the perimeter of the lump is removed?

How, then, will she chase a stick?

The Brindle Dog is twelve years old. She is happy. She doesn’t know yet that she is sick. Her tail is usually wagging. She is fully engaged with her own life, with me and the Fluffy Dog and the cats and the other people who live in this house, and our guests, and the neighbourhood. She has her habits and routines and preferences.

She is getting old. Her dwindling eyesight and hearing mean that she gets more easily anxious. She has always wanted to be close to her humans, but now she is more nervous about being away from me. She needs more reassurance after loud noises or unexpected events. She now has to depend on the Fluffy Dog to alert her about distant noises, which means her role is changing. It’s my job to take care of her and help her navigate these changes.

I don’t want her to live as long as possible. I want her to live as well as possible.

So after discussing it with my ex (who was always, everything else aside, a good and loving papa to the animals), and after consulting with my own heart and instincts, I have decided not to do any invasive interventions. Not to do any interventions at all, actually.

Right now, she is happy. And when she starts getting sick, there is a lot we can do for her. My vet is on board with the plan to simply provide the absolute best palliative care. As soon as the Brindle Dog becomes symptomatic, we will jump in and address them. And meanwhile, I am trying to get in to see Dr. Linda Hamilton for some advice on supporting my old girl’s health starting right now. Because I have declined to do a more thorough investigation into the nature and extent of the problem, I don’t know how much time the Brindle Dog has left. It could be six weeks, but it could also be a couple of years. But because she is still doing so well, I am hopeful.

Best Dog Ever

Hoping for treats.

I’m a mess, of course. Sometimes I just start crying out of the blue, and most of the time I am distracted and kind of absent. I try hard not to cry around the Brindle Dog, because it upsets her, so that’s a little tricky. But I am no longer second-guessing myself. I know right down in my cells that this is the right course of action for her. To paraphrase Trooper, she’s here for a good time now, not a long time.

Right now, she’s happy. She’s having a good time. And I’m going to do my best to keep it that way until the day I hold her close while she is helped gently into the kind darkness that waits for all of us.

 

Best Dog Ever

Having stolen Mama’s corner of the couch, the Brindle Dog tries unsuccessfully to fake being asleep.

 


(Edited 01 March 2016 to fix a couple of typos and straighten out some crooked wording.)

 

 

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40 thoughts on “Old Dogs: When the News is Bad

    1. zoeonthetrail

      What a beautiful, loving, and caring dog mama you are. Warm and strong thoughts to you and Brindle Dog. You’re doing the right thing for your dog. If it ever comes to that I hope that I can have the same strength and selflessness.

      Liked by 2 people

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      1. nissetje Post author

        Thank you so much. This is so good to hear. I feel so fortunate to be so supported by people both online and off. It helps a lot!

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  1. sonofabeach96

    You’re breaking my heart this morning. We went through similar issues with a lab. She had cancer. We decided against invasive surgeries and treatments. We had her for two more years. And when it was time, she didn’t suffer needlessly. I feel for you, but I agree with your call on this. She’s happy. She’s already 12. She’d suffer for no legit reason. Just enjoy your remaining time with her. You’ll know when it’s time. 😔

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you. I agree. She’s had a good, long, happy life, and I’d like to see her go out with a wag, not dying from a bad reaction to anaesthetic during her third surgery or whatever. Every day is a gift, now—but then, every day with her always has been a gift.

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    2. nissetje Post author

      I selfishly didn’t even tell you how sorry I am you went through this with your lab. I hope I also have two more years. It makes me like you even more to know that you find the loss of a dear dog heartbreaking.

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      1. sonofabeach96

        The day we did it is still one of the saddest days of my life. It was hard, but necessary. I doubt I’ll ever forget that feeling. For your sake, I hope it happens years from now…and naturally. Still sad, but not gut wrenching.

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        1. nissetje Post author

          Thank you. Yeah, it’s awful. I’ve lost two dogs and one cat now, and every time it feels unbearable. Because I’ve trained as a vet tech, I know that it is pretty rare for a “natural” to be peaceful, so I really don’t mind taking them in to be euthanised. It’s awful, of course it is, but there are worse alternatives.

          But yes, I hope I still have years. Her dad died when he was eleven, and my last Dutch Shepherd died at 13 (ish), so who knows? I’m just enjoying every day and trying not to let the dread obscure the present moments that I still have.

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  2. princessbutter

    She is 12. She is happy. I think you are taking the right decision to let her be. If and when she gets sicker, we shall address that. But for now, we will let her move around freely and happily. My mom also said, we try and do the best for the dogs in terms of treatments but leaving them unhappy and confused isn’t justified too.

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you. I agree with your mom. I will do blood tests and give her medications and massages and adjust her diet, all of those treatments to help her. But nothing painful or scary. May she wag and grin every day.

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  3. spearfruit

    I am glad she is happy – those old dogs, they never show what is really going on – they continue to show happiness. I believe you are making the right choices and I wish you and the Brindle Dog all the best.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you so much. You’re right; it is hard to tell sometimes, especially with this tough old girl, whether or not there’s any pain. But I think (hope) I am very attentive to her, so I hope I will notice as soon as there is any pain.

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  4. Woman walking Max

    I think you brave and dog- centred and doing the right thing for Brindle Dog. She knows you are there beside her and love her, so she’ll be happy for as long as she can. My heart goes out to you.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Lula Harp

    That’s a beautiful honorarium for her. Brindle dog knows she is loved and is loving her life with you. My girl is 14 and doesn’t know she is 14. Extra hugs and scratches for our older ladies and the happy lives they lead

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  6. Inese Poga Art plus Life

    This is so incredibly tough. My sister was fighting for life of her dog, and it ended not that well one time. It means so much pain.

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you. I am very much hoping we will be able to prevent her from having too much pain. I am sorry for your sister and her dog.

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  7. honestme363

    You are doing the right thing you know. It’s quality, not quantity. And I also have complete faith in you in knowing when it will be the right time for her. You are a good mama Nissetje, caring and strong. *hugs* to you and a gentle caress for the brindle dog from me please

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you so much, Kelly. I really appreciate this. It’s getting close to bedtime now, so I’ll go give my old girl some ear scritches from you as she settles in the bedroom. It’s the nicest thing. 🙂

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        1. nissetje Post author

          You’re the best. Thank you for your kindness. She doesn’t seem too affected by it yet so I’m just enjoying each day and keeping an eye on her. The ear scritches made her wag. 🙂

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  8. Pingback: The Brindle Dog Smiles for the Camera | Barking Back

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