Lark Ascending: Caring for our senior pets
We have an old dog and an old cat.
My dog Luke, now going on 11, has been with me since he was an 8-week-old baby Labrador running into glass doors because the reflection he kept seeing looked just like another puppy to play with — a friend! His personality has not changed much, though he is smarter about doors.
Through divorce, financial catastrophe, road trips across the country and finally my marriage to Alan, Luke has been my constant companion. He has dragged me out for walks when I was too glum to feel like moving, woken up beside me on the bed thumping his tail when I had trouble sleeping, and in recent years, competed enthusiastically with me for Alan’s attention.
And then there is Mittens the cat. Of undetermined (but certainly very old) age, Mittens was a shelter cat adopted by my mother in Florida. He lay hunkered down, loyally by her side during her illness and her death. Now he has started a new life with us in Colorado.
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This winter, Luke and Mittens have been showing their age. One January morning, I discovered Mittens lost and disoriented in the basement. I had a feeling he’d been down there all night. Our vet at Farmers Korner asked me to leave Mittens with him for the day. When I came to pick the cat up in the evening, the vet gently gave me the bad news: Mittens is blind.
Meanwhile, Luke was having trouble breathing. Three years ago, we noticed a soft, squishy lump on his neck. It was determined not to be cancerous and nothing to be especially concerned about. But it grew. Then a CT scan last February revealed that the lump was so seriously embedded in the dog’s neck and throat that we could no longer do anything about it without potentially life-threatening consequences. So we waited and worried.
This January, we were confronted with an ancient, disoriented cat who couldn’t see and a struggling old dog who shortly would suffocate to death.
Alan and I spent many bleak days trying to decide what to do next, particularly where Luke was concerned. Would a risky operation save him? Or doom him to suffering and then dying in pain? It is a heart-breaking dilemma faced by all of us with pets: We may feel we want to do everything for them, and yet we cannot bear the idea of them suffering needlessly with no comprehension of why.
“It’s different with people,” Alan said. “A human being might choose to extend their life, even if it means suffering, in order to have time to reconcile with those they love. To make amends. Dogs don’t need to do that. Because dogs are just good.”
In the end, we bear the heavy responsibility of making that life-or-death choice.
When it came to the moment of deciding whether to put Luke down or go ahead with the operation to remove the lump from his neck, we chose to operate. Our surgeon — Dr. Preston Stubbs, who travels to Summit to work with local veterinary clinics — was optimistic. And amazingly, Luke survived the delicate extraction from in between his larynx, carotid artery and jugular vein of a 5-pound lipoma.
In the next several weeks while Luke was recovering from surgery, we rearranged the furniture and repositioned the litter box so Mittens wouldn’t have to navigate more than one floor. At our vet’s suggestion, we started him on an experimental regimen of steroids to shrink swelling that might be impacting his sight. The treatment is helping, and Mitty is able to make his way around the house with only the occasional wrong turn or moment of spiraling befuddlement.
On a recent walk outside in his dapper new sweater, which our neighbor Angela made to protect his long incision, Luke now bounds down the road like a puppy. As Luke excitedly greets his dog friends I can’t help thinking his recovery seems like a miracle. Inside, Mittens is quite possibly meowing at the top of his lungs to be picked up and taken to where he wants to go, prompting Alan to drop what he’s doing and transport Mittens — a tiny, 10-pound orange-and-white Pasha — to his food bowl and then his favorite spot on the couch.
One of these days, I know it will be time to say goodbye to these best friends.
But not yet.
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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