This is a post I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to write for at least another ten years.
But life doesn’t always go the way one plans. Death doesn’t, either.
This week, I had to say goodbye to my Collie, Scotty. The normal lifespan for a Collie is between 12 and 14 years. Scotty was only 3.
We’re not entirely sure what happened. He was a happy, healthy dog who came down with a bad case of pancreatitis out of the blue over the summer, from which he seemed to recuperate fully thanks to a redesigned diet that eliminated almost all fat and most of the treats like milk, cheese and the occasional sweet that he couldn’t seem to resist. But in the months after that seemed to disappear, he started displaying odd symptoms: he was less able to tolerate the long walks he loved without pausing to take an occasional break. He was quicker to sit down, quicker to observe other dogs than engage them in play as he always had before. Ultimately, he became so exercise-intolerant — a veterinary term that describes me quite well, too — that he seemed to need a break with the simplest of walks.
My regular vet started talking about referring him to an internist.
That, in case you aren’t aware, is a fancy way of saying, “Things are about to get really expensive really quickly.”
The internist saw some odd symptoms and called in an orthopedic surgeon. The orthopedic surgeon saw strange symptoms and suggested a neurologist.
Without a firm diagnosis, they suggested several tests that would be necessary, from an MRI to an ultrasound, among others. Likely to be followed, they said, by some kind of surgery. The bill was quickly approaching $6,000.
I’m a dog lover. I always have been, thanks to my first dog, another Collie my parents bought as a puppy when I was about a year old. There’s something special about Collies, and if you ever have the chance to own one of these majestic creatures, I hope you’ll consider it. Just be warned: aside from shedding more than the average dog owner might prefer, they will quickly wrap themselves around your heart faster than you can say “Puppy love.”
As a dog lover, I hate the prospect of putting a dollar figure on your dog’s life. It sucks. It’s something dog owners have to do every day, but it sucks. And it hurts.
But things continued getting worse. There was talk of a possible inflammation of his small intestine. Medicine.
An ultrasound was suggested. Then there was something about the thyroid. More medicine.
Ultimately, he was getting more and more exhausted. And he stopped eating even the boiled chicken I was cooking for him. Not eating meant not getting medicine. The veterinary hospital suggested that they could hospitalize him for a few days to try to get him stable enough to start eating so that I could get the medicine in him so they could then begin all those diagnostic tests they’d talked about. The first day of hospitalization, along with IV drugs and antibiotics, was going to run about $1,000. The next few days, I was assured, wouldn’t cost quite that much.
What I saw was a dog who was feeling worse and worse, getting more and more tired, that was going to rack up a $10,000 vet bill without even the clear guarantee that after that money was spent, they’d be any closer to figuring out exactly what was wrong.
Tuesday night was a rough night for him. I got him onto his mattress, an oversized doggie bed that he loved, made a palette of blankets on the floor, and spent the night next to him there, rubbing him and talking to him, trying to calm his breathing, hoping to coax him to relax a bit. I honestly expected him to go in his sleep that night; needless to say, I didn’t sleep that well, expecting to wake up and find out he’d passed away in his sleep.
He hung on a little longer, though. But it was clear he wasn’t much better. Another trip to the vet hospital and the suggestion of x-rays to make sure he wasn’t developing pneumonia. When the x-rays revealed no signs of that potentially fatal condition, the doctors consulted and agreed with me that putting him out of his suffering was the right thing to do. That $10,000 bill I’d have never been able to pay was no longer the primary consideration: his suffering was.
And so, on Wednesday, as I sat on the floor next to him, rubbing him, telling him how much I loved him, he was dispatched to the “Rainbow Bridge” where all dogs go to wait for their masters to join them in the afterlife. The attending veterinarian mentioned that there are certain neurological conditions — one in particular that I don’t remember the name of — that could affect organs and nerves simultaneously; pancreatitis may not have been an illness that started a chain of others, but rather the first in a series of symptoms of something bigger that would have been incurable, anyway.
As I think of those final moments, how peaceful they were, and how relaxed Scotty was (for the first time, I realized, in several weeks) as he drifted away, I’m reminded of that famous quote by Will Rogers about dogs:
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
Rogers was a smart man. And I know how he feels.
I’ve never had a dog as “in tune” with me as Scotty. There were subtle things he’d pick up on that showed me he understood my routine. He was my buddy. He was the kind of companion that only a great dog could be; no human can give you quite that degree of love. And if we ever needed an indication of how much God Himself thinks of His children, we need only look as far as the loving eyes of our dog.
There will be another dog in my life. Probably sooner rather than later. One of the worst parts of losing a beloved pet is the feeling of guilt that in moving too quickly to get another pet to fill that horrible void, one is trivializing the pet he lost, as if the time between the loss of one and the addition of another is somehow a statement about how much you loved the one you lost.
If that were true, I’d never have another dog for the rest of my life.
But I just can’t bear such a thought. And I’m sure, as he runs and plays with other four-legged friends at that Rainbow Bridge, Scotty can’t bear the thought of me being that unhappy, either.