I’m living with two ailing senior dogs for whom special care is routine. I cook bland, grain-free poultry dishes for Frenchie, whose deteriorating spinal malformation required serious weight loss — under his vet’s orders, I had to take him from 23 pounds to 19 (at last weigh in he was under that). His disorder has caused paresis, rendering him unable to walk without his rear legs sliding out from under him. The slightest stress causes frequent urinary and occasional fecal incontinence. He has always been my little sidekick, following me from room to room, and now I sometimes forget that he can’t, so when I leave the room for more than a minute, he breaks into wild howls and yodels, what Frenchie people know as “the French bulldog scream.” He has slept next to me for the ten years I have lived with him. Once a week or so I am awakened by a mess in the bed….a very unsavory mess with omission-worthy details. From the waist up he’s joyful, hungry, alert, and appreciative, so grateful that I can actually feel his heart swell when I sit on the couch with my arm around him, his head lowered, pressing into my side. On the days his legs can’t hold him up, on the days they crisscross behind him and he falls onto his side when hewalks, on the days he leaves three rivers of urine on the floor within 10 minutes, I think about bringing him to his vet and gently saying goodbye. Dignity is the determinant, people say.
My deaf and silent schnauzer, who will be 15 in May, has descended deeper into the abyss of dementia. Her vet’s office displays a brochure advertising a medication that eases the progression of “doggie Alzheimer’s disease,” which asks: does your dog pace back and forth regularly? does your dog wander in the house or spend hours staring into space? does your dog seek isolation rather than your company? If so, …. We answered yes to all of the above with the added behavior of engaging in imaginary room-to-room missions, anxiously seeking an elusive something. But because Gracie has been happy in her loopy wonderland, I decided not to medicate her. She’s on enough medication for petit mal seizures, kidney-related blood pressure problems, incontinence, and thyroid malfunction. There are days she still hops like a rabbit through the yard, which was always her yard– she patrolled it, she killed unfortunate feathered invaders in it, cleared two feet of bushes along the fence to chat with the neighbor’s Cairn terrier, remained the last of the dogs to return to the house because she simply loved being there, watching the water, the trees, the sky. One day after circling the palm trees she greeted me, ecstatically crunching on something marble-like, rolling it against her teeth, her little stumpy tail wagging and her head held high and back, but she quickly twisted her neck, looked sideways and clenched her jaw when I tried to pry her mouth open. It was the skull of a baby bird who had fallen from its nest, its retrieval a measure of Gracie’s prowess and dignity. My vet and I said, “Ewwww.”
She survived cancer twice, and whenever I bring her to the vet to examine some new growth or behavioral peculiarity, I ask is it time? I lose my objectivity with my own dogs. Once, using a needle to extract fluid from a tumor for lab testing, Gracie turned and bit Dr. Kuhn, whom she’s adored for ten years. “Not yet,” Dr. Kuhn assured me. ” This girl has enough piss and vinegar to go on for years.” That was a year ago, before her recent malignancy, before she slowed down. She doesn’t remember direction. She forgets how to walk through the open door. She stands immoblized in the dining room, not recognizing the walls. She reacted poorly to the narcotic the doctor administred during the tumor removal a few months ago and cried through the surgery, then screamed in the house for eight hours following — wandered from room to room crying and howling and screaming. Finally at 9:00 p.m. I gave her 3/4 of a Xanax the vet recommended I get from a friend (thank God I have friend with anxiety). She settled down at midnight and slept next to my bed, which in senile isolation mode, she has avoided for the past three years. I thought we’d say farewell in the morning.She woke up at seven without so much as a whimper and bounced back from the surgery like a two year-old.
I heard two stories about dignity from dog people I greatly respect. Deborah, an Irish Water Spaniel breeder in Georgia, described her moment of recognition. Her dog also lived in LaLaLand, happily, until one afternoon, running in the yard on one of her imaginary missions, the dog stopped and froze and as Deborah described it, “a look of absolute terror overcame her.” She said at that moment, seeing her dog so fearful because she couldn’t recognize her surroundings, it was time to let her go.Dr. Kuhn shared a similar story. Her “cognitively impaired” dog engaged in unexplainable night missions much like Gracie. In the morning she found furniture in odd places. One morning she discovered her dog stuck in a furniture configuration of her own making with that same fearful look that asked, “Where am I and how did I get here?” She euthanized her later that day. “They have to go with some dignity,” she said.
Old dogs sleep deeply. Gracie hasn’t responded to calls in years but lately sleeps longer than the rest of us and requires vigorous shaking to awaken. I bend into her pen, checking for breathing and visualize her ending in such sleep, draped over her pawprint soiled pink “princess” bed, by her own calendar and consent, sparing me the anguish of watching her dignityevaporate before she does.