Friday, February 3, 2017

Pawprints on My Heart



I'm not a big fan of "sad dog stories". You know: Movies like Old Yeller or any other flick where the pooch dies at the end.

Recently, I mused that all dog stories have sad endings, because our canine companions simply don't live as long as we do. This unhappy thought became a reality for me almost two weeks ago, when I had to say goodbye to my beloved dog, Wiley.

I could write a book about Wiley (and maybe some day I will), but here are the basics: Wiley came into my household as a two-year old. He was basically in good shape and looked and acted far younger than his age well into his senior years. So, in January of 2016, when he began losing his appetite and weight, I knew something was up.

I took him to his regular vet, who felt around his tummy and took an x-ray. He said there appeared to be a mass in Wiley's abdomen and advised me to take him to the emergency vet for an ultrasound as soon as possible.

I did, and the ultrasound revealed the rest of the story: Wiley had a tumor in his spleen. And, both the mass and the spleen had to come out.

A million scary thoughts ran through my mind.  Would my 13 year-old pup survive major surgery? What if the mass is cancerous? However, the surgeon assured me that dogs (and people) can live without a spleen. And, if the tumor was malignant, removing it along with the spleen would probably keep any cancer from spreading further.

Happily, Wiley did survive the surgery. But, when the surgeon called back a couple of weeks later with the results of the tumor biopsy, the news wasn't good: Wiley had canine lymphoma, and would need some form of secondary treatment (such as chemotherapy and/or radiation) to beat it.

More scary thoughts. Thankfully, the emergency vet service is connected to a world-class veterinary cancer center and Wiley's case was assigned to a renowned oncologist. The oncologist explained Wiley's treatment options.

Radiation was out. Wiley was too small and would literally be fried by the level of radiation required to eradicate the cancer. We decided to proceed with the "CHOP" chemotherapy protocol. This method uses several different types of chemo drugs administered on a rotating basis over several months, to help avoid drug-resistance. The oncologist explained that most dogs do very well on chemo, since they're given a lower dosage of the drugs than are given to humans and thus avoid side effects such as nausea and hair loss. However, this also means that most dogs aren't really "cured" of lymphoma; they're only put into remission by the chemo. And, hopefully the remission would last at least a year.

My little "scaredy pup"--who was afraid of thunder, fireworks, my cat, and that "this is only a test of the emergency broadcast system" siren which periodically shreiked from the TV--bravely endured six months of chemo. The vet techs nicknamed Wiley "Handsome" and, while I'm sure he wasn't always glad to see them, his oncologist assured me they loved seeing him. When Wiley completed his chemo in July, he was awarded a personalized "Cancer Fighter" bandana. He had achieved remission!

We were blessed with more good quality months filled with walks, treats, and car rides, only now I had a deeper sense of thankfulness that Wiley was still with me.

Unfortunately, the time he would remain with me was far shorter than I thought it would be. In December 2016, while Wiley was still in remission from lymphoma, he developed a limp in his left hind leg. During one of his follow-up visits to the oncologist, an orthopedic vet examined the leg. The doc said it appeared Wiley had torn a ligament. I was instructed to keep him from injuring the leg further by not letting him run and to keep him from jumping off the furniture, steps, etc. Eventually, it was hoped, the injury would resolve itself.

But, it didn't. Although I followed the vet's instructions and gave Wiley his prescribed pain meds, his limp persisted. When his leg began to swell (ominously on Friday, January 13), I rushed Wiley to his regular vet.

The x-rays the vet took of the swollen leg revealed a grim picture: Wiley appeared to have bone cancer. Further scans and tests at the vet cancer center a few days later confirmed this dreaded diagnosis, which was apparently unrelated to the lymphoma.

I couldn't understand how cancer could have thrown another cruel curveball to my dog, and why no one at the cancer center had caught it sooner. I've since learned that torn ligaments are common in older dogs, but bone cancer is relatively rare in smaller dogs such as Wiley. And, initially, both conditions display similar symptoms. It wasn't until Wiley's leg swelled that we realized something more serious was going on.

Unfortunately, osteosarcoma (bone cancer) can be very agressive, so by the time it's diagnosed, it has usually spread to other organs, such as the lungs. When that happens, treatment options are few.

Sadly, this was the case for Wiley. I was offered the option of putting him down immediately, or I could give him hospice care at home with pain meds for the remainder of his life. I chose the latter, since as his oncologist smiled with tear-filled eyes, "He's still his feisty little self for now."

But, that feisty self faded more each day. It became more difficult for Wiley to get around. He would move a short ways, and then stop to pant. He couldn't seem to get comfortable. He slept more and ate less.

Finally, on Sunday, January 22, 2017, I sensed it was "time". One last time, I drove Wiley to the emergency vet and he very peacefully crossed "the rainbow bridge" just after sunset. I cried for days (and nights) afterward.

Wiley was my first dog--I'd always had cats before. I considered him a blessing, because he was always there when I needed him. For instance, if I had a migraine, he would lie down next to me. Most of all, Wiley reminded me there was someone besides me in the world. I'd come home from work and just want to relax, but this persistent pooch would beg and whine until I took him out for a walk (or until he took me for a walk, I should say). He literally fetched me out of my comfort zone. I got exercise and fresh air instead of vegging out in front of a screen.

Today, I received a wonderful card signed by Wiley's oncologist and some of the vet techs who cared for him at the cancer center. They all wrote heartfelt notes about how much they loved my "spunky" little fellow and how much they'll miss him. I also received a card from the vet at the emergency center who helped release Wiley from his pain. This card stated that pets leave their pawprints on our hearts. Wiley certainly did. The inscription on his urn says "Devoted friend, faithful companion". Truer words were never written about a dog.

(If anyone out there is dealing with a dog's cancer diagnosis, I highly recommend the Dog Cancer Blog.)

Now, I'm not going to leave you with a sad dog story. Here's a somewhat happier doggy tale starring Jack Kelly. Following the devasting Bel-Air Fire in 1961, JK was a devoted friend and a faithful companion to some very needy dogs: