Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dog Winter

Devotion looks like this, and her name is Ada.

The picture above was taken before our recent trip to San Diego, while waiting to board our fifteen-year old dog at our vet's for the long weekend. She was calm, but curious, checking things out. She likes the vet, but as she generally likes all people, that isn't too surprising. It helps that they shower her with affection whenever she goes there, and ply her with low-cal, meat-flavored senior treats.

Two weeks before our trip, we noticed that clumps of Ada's hair had begun to fall out, and she had an infection on her skin. We got that treated with antibiotics, which she gratefully took with dollops of peanut butter each morning and evening. She stopped eating her food quite as regularly, but that wasn't a big concern, as tummy-upset can be typical with antibiotics. She seemed really well, actually, when it was time for us to leave.

The day before we returned, while visiting the San Diego Zoo, we got a call from an eager, cheerful young vet at the office.

"Hi, is this Ms. Lusignan?"

"Yes, this is."

"This is Dr. So-and-So at the vet's office. We wanted you to know that Ada is okay, but when we found her this morning, there was blood in her cage...quite a bit of blood. It looks like it is coming from her nose."

"Oh my God, is she okay?"

"Well, she has a low fever, but she was just walked, so that could just be from activity. We are going to watch and see if this resolves itself, and if it doesn't, we'd like to start a course of antibiotics. She's eating really well, and isn't lethargic. We're not too concerned, we just wanted to let you know what was going on."

I went on to babble about how we were at the zoo, so I was having trouble hearing her, but we would be flying home the next day, and could come to the office late in the evening when we landed if there was an emergency. I was pretty dazed, standing somewhere between the koala enclosure and the elephant exhibit. Blood in the cage, a lot of blood. I was surrounded by healthy, vigorous animals from all over the world, but the one animal I love the most was ill and far mind seemed unable to reconcile the dissonance.

Mike saw the look on my face, and quickly started wearing an equally anxious one when I told him the news. We decided it was going to be okay, and we were going to enjoy the rest of the day, but our concern never left the back of our minds. 

Upon our return, the news was good: Ada was doing well. They had not given her antibiotics, as she appeared to stop bleeding. She came home, and gave us her usual mix of "happy to see you" and "I'm going to be a little aloof so as to remind you never to leave me again." We crossed our fingers, and said a thank you for the reprieve.

The next day wasn't so hopeful, though. By mid-day, she was contorting her face as blood sprayed everywhere in a series of sneezes. Within twenty minutes, we were back in the vet's office. Significant fever, more antibiotics, blood drawn, recommendations for x-rays, although the chest sounded good, so the point of chest x-rays seemed unclear. By the next morning, the bloodwork told us that she was sick, although the nature and outcome of her illness remained to-be-determined, depending on her response to the medication.

We are now a day away from her last dose of peanut-butter ensconced pill taking, and we only have mixed results to report. The bleeding is gone, the sneezing is better. The appetite...well, it isn't good. She is interested in people food, but doesn't really grab much, just rouses for the smell or prospect of it. Her own food sits, barely picked, occasionally nibbled upon. She is thin, thinner than she has been in ages, allowing her to scrunch into the sleeping position she favored as a puppy. It is an odd thing to observe that and think it adorable, only to realize it is only possible because she is wasting.

And so here we are, solidly in her dog winter. For years we have been amazed that she has kept going, slow and heavy and sore, but still there, spirit in tact, climbing up the three flights of stairs to our fourth-story walk-up in heat and snow and everything in between. She hasn't run to the door to greet us when we return home for at least a few years, due to deafness and fatigue, and her tail wagging is less than ever. For a long time, we knew we were in autumn, but all of her recent infection has made it obvious that the deep chill of her dog winter has set in, and while it might warm up for a day or two, we can't turn back the calendar.

The sacred ministry of dogs, as I've heard it described by Anne Lamott, of licking your face and coming in to shower you with love, has been Ada's business for so many years, yet now we find she is steadily retiring from her life's work, and we are trying to return the devotion she placed in us back to her as much as we can. We seek her out, lie down next to her on the floor where she sleeps, rub her belly and scratch behind her ears. We keep rooms dark and cool, so she has welcoming retreats in which to sleep---while she has always been independent, she prefers to hide away to rest more and more, in lieu of staying with her family pack. Yet still, just yesterday, she heard me cough, and immediately perked up to come check on me, just as always. The mixed signals make this ending more confusing than I imagined they would be.

We will not be boarding her again, unless we have a true emergency. Everywhere we go, she must be able to visit, too. We will not be pushing her along, we'll be following her lead. We'll see how the actual winter affects her dog winter, guessing that the extreme cold that descends on Chicago will likely aggravate her stiffness and pain. We're not sure what we are watching for, exactly, but we are just hoping we'll know it when we see it, that she'll show us what we need to best care for her.

And while we watch and wait, we'll just all love each other, like we have for 14+ years, like we always will.

Ada on her first day with us, September 1999.
She has grown up with us as we grew up as adults.
No matter how old she gets, she's our girl.


  1. Oh Kori! This resonates with us. We got our dog Portia (named for the Merchant of Venice) the summer I graduated law school -1999, long before we had kids. She too is deteriorating, her hair once long and needing to be regularly shaved, now grows only in patches and clumps, and though she eats, she is skinny as a rail. Doc says she has a mass that takes up most of her abdomen, too large to operate, and not at this age. So we love her fiercely every day, not knowing whether it will be the last, but amazed at how many days we have been saying that. Wishing you many more days and winters with your Ada!

  2. "returning her devotion" what a beautiful idea.

  3. I'm so sorry Kori. This is so difficult. I went through this with my wonderful Tasha when she developed a mass in her peritenial area. I slept with her in the family room when she couldn't be left in the main part of the house anymore because of accidents so she wouldn't be alone. She had never not slept in our bedroom and therefore could not be forced to sleep alone now that her body had failed her. She was only 9 years old and we did not expect our winter to come so quickly. I still miss her. I hope Ada is able to stay with you for this winter and many more.

  4. If the winter aggrevates her joints you may want to consider a baby aspirin (now called low dose adult aspirin with flavor) a day. I thought we were going to lose Tucker this summer because he was so lame we were having to lift him to his feet. He is out chasing squirrels and rabbits daily in the back yard again. And we don't even need the peanut butter because they are flavored.

  5. Lovin' your blog. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Kori I am at a loss for what to say. I haven't seen Ada in years but have always always thought she was the sweetest puppy—much like her parents—except you're not puppies. Hugs to you all. Prayers abound.--Hillary