Friday, May 09, 2008

No Country for Old Dogs

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - A few weeks ago, I told you all about Dusty's uncontrollable-bladder problem that my parents seemingly preferred to sweep under a rug, assuming right from the start that the problem was just a matter of old age and that there was nothing that could be done about it. Well, not only has this problem gotten worse since then, but another, more serious, problem has developed: readers, Dusty is becoming blind.

Over the past week or so, members of my family have noticed a white spot in his eyes growing bigger day by day. Now it has come to the point where he can't even go down our two front steps without a lot of effort; because he can't see the steps, he has to keep sniffing around in order to get an idea of where he is. And whenever we walk him outside, sometime he freezes up on us, as if he's afraid to keep on walking. You'd be afraid, too, if you couldn't see what was right in front of you.

In short, Dusty, if I didn't realize weeks before, is getting older, and he may well be in his last throes, at least with this family. And not only am I not really handling this all that well up to this point, but I look at the way the rest of my family reacts to these developments, and I feel deeply frustrated, both at them and at myself.

As ever, however, my feelings on this particular instance of rapid aging and---dare I say it---impending death are complicated and difficult to pin down in one word or sentence. So, if you will, allow me to deconstruct these feeling swirling around in my head. At the very least, I feel the need to work something out of my system---something potentially destructive if not let out in something of a constructive way, such as on this blog.


The first thing that I feel when I see Dusty as he is right now is, of course, pity. Poor thing, he can't even see well anymore, can't help it when he pisses around the house, etc. I have to think that this is a standard human emotion when any feeling person sees any pet or human being in the state that Dusty is in, so I don't think I have to elaborate much further on what I mean by "pity."

Second thing is acceptance that Dusty is, simply put, getting really old. I wasn't willing to say this weeks ago, but I think I'm more willing to agree with it now: what else could it be? The dog was already pretty old when we adopted him a couple of years ago---we were told he was 8, but a vet examined him and concluded that he was probably older than that. So, unless a vet tells me otherwise, I can only conclude that these symptoms are merely the ravages of old age. And to look on the bright side: other than pissing and walking into the occasional wall, he does act fairly normally; he still claws and scratches at us for table scraps in a cute manner.

Third thing is the overwhelming sensation of experiencing a life aging so rapidly in front of my eyes. In the space of weeks, Dusty seems to have aged two or three years. Well okay, I'm probably exaggerating there, but that's what it certainly seems like.

But the most overpowering emotion I feel about this situation is a mixture of frustration, resentment and regret---most of it directed at my parents, but some of it directed at myself. This I will need to explain in more detail.

When I complained on this blog weeks ago about my mother's---to my mind, crazy---refusal to consult with a veterinarian about Dusty's possible bladder problem, a couple of people---including one mysteriously anonymous reader of this blog---suggested that I should just go ahead and take him to a vet myself. Moment of truth, then: I didn't follow that suggestion. I guess I was just too afraid of going behind my parents' back to summon up the courage to "bite the bullet."

Now look what has happened to him.

It's easy to play the blame game, so obviously I point my finger squarely at my parents, who had their chance weeks ago to try to do something to ameliorate the situation, but arrogantly and selfishly decided that it wasn't worth their time and money to do anything, and that they were somehow okay with just cleaning up after his messes. (In recent weeks, they had started blocking off carpeted areas---including the stairs going up to the second floor---just to prevent him from soaking a part of a carpet with his urine; that's how ridiculous it got.) Only now that he's going blind and pissing more often indoors does my mother finally decide to get pet insurance and talk about taking him to a veterinarian---although of course she is going to wait until the end of next week, when the insurance actually kicks in, before she makes any appointments. And only a few nights ago did my dad finally decide to speak up and echo exactly what I had told my mother weeks ago---that he needed to see a doctor and that all of this wasn't just old age. Jeez, Dad, it would have been nice if you had supported me a few weeks ago when I got into heated arguments with Mom about this same exact subject! (My mother, of course, responded to Dad's frustrated suggestion by keeping her facial expression fixed and looking straight at her computer screen, looking as smug and stoic as ever.)

Hold on, however: who am I calling arrogant and selfish? Because wasn't selfishness at play on my part when I decided I was too afraid to go behind my mother's back and take him to a vet myself? Is it possible that, subconsciously, I was almost hoping that Dusty would get worse just so I could somehow prove a point to my parents, or at least to myself regarding my parents? To think I was the sane one in all of this...

So now I'm feeling regret for not doing something earlier, and I'm feeling resentment toward my parents for allowing things to get this bad without a single consultation with an animal doctor. Who knows how much less serious this may or may not be right now if my mother, especially, had been more proactive and less up her own self-absorbed ass?

But all right, let me put aside the whatifs and angry vulgarity for now and focus on how we all move forward. And unfortunately, what I'm expecting as we move forward and try to deal with the situation has its own frustrations as well---chief among them being the fact that my mother says that she will absolutely not operate on Dusty's eyes even if a vet strongly recommends that she do so. "We'll do something about the pissing," she told me last night, "but I'm not willing to spend $5,000, $6,000 on eye surgery."

I balked at this in front of her, but then I started reflecting on this decision a bit more and realized that, if I was in this same exact situation with a dog of mine, I quite possibly would make the same decision. A dog may be man's best friend, but in the end, let's face it: I'm just as self-absorbed as my mother is. (If I wasn't, I probably wouldn't be devoting a whole epic-length entry to examining these feelings.) I got more important things to worry about in my own life right now. An animal's an animal; what are you going to do? Maybe there's just a time when one has to say goodbye.

And yet here's the rub: I find that I'm treating Dusty as if he were a human being---indeed, empathizing with him, especially in these current tough times for him health-wise. Whenever, for example, he has always whined and barked about being tied to his leash and left alone, I have always freed him from his leash; I'm still doing this now, even if I realize that eventually he will simply wet the floor and leave a big smelly mess. (Not that he wouldn't do this if he was tied down, anyway, I figure.) I talk to him as if he actually cares or understands what I'm saying to him. And now that he has these health problems, I can't help but feel for him as if he was a human being, albeit one that probably couldn't even begin to comprehend what's happening to him.

No surprise, then, that I seem to be feeling this situation more deeply and intensely than anyone else in my family---and I'm wondering if this sadness I feel is even appropriate. Again, it's not like an animal can really understand what's happening to him the way humans can. Is an animal like him even worth any empathy in the first place? Or am I just really sick in the head?

Maybe it's just that I'm just doing a crappy job handling what may very well be my first up-close-and-personal encounter with the possibility of death. One of the few other times I've experienced a death that has affected me in some deep way is with a violin teacher I had years ago, who died one day from pancreatic cancer without warning. And he wasn't even a flesh-and-blood relative. If this is the way I'm reacting to an animal's sickness---taking out my frustrations on Dusty, muttering bitter comments under my breath and voicing my simmering anger when no one else is around---imagine how I'd be reacting if, say, my mother herself became incontinent and blind. I don't think I can even imagine that right now.

All of this is swirling around in my head at a time when my Wall Street Journal job is in some kind of flux and as I contemplate my next move even as I try to live in the moment and take pleasure in the moments of leisure I try to give myself every day after work. I really don't need to feel the weight of a dog's mortality on my mind right now. Maybe the best thing for all of us is to just return him back to the animal shelter where we adopted him in the first place.


At this point, I feel like the only way I can feel somewhat better about all of this is if I go up to my mother and demand an apology from her, acknowledging that she was wrong to fight with me weeks ago, and she should have taken Dusty to a vet as I---and everyone else I talked to---suggested then. I wish she would tell me that she feels a sense of shame about her inaction.

But sincerity and shame are probably two emotions that are beyond my mother's ken. And what would be the point of it, ultimately? Just to boost my own ego? That may satisfy me in the moment, but it wouldn't change a damn thing in the long run.

No, probably the best thing to do at this point is to accept the mistakes that were made, and above all to accept the situation that we are all in now, and go from there. That's exactly what human beings do when faced with the death of another, cherished human being, right? I guess I'm really just dealing with this for the first time ever.

I can't stop what's coming.


Anonymous said...

Well, its me again--the mysterously anonymous reader,LOL. Anyway, I have been through several pets (cats actually) that have aged and had to be put to sleep. It does not sound as if your dog is at that stage yet. Is he losing weight? Not eating? In pain or distress? The eyes probably are cataracts and No I would not pay $5,000 either to operate on them. As for the pissing, that might be a behavior that can be changed by controlling his liquids or taking him outside more. A visit to a vet is in order and yes you should have done it; but its no biggie. He did not get worse because you did not take him to the vet. Just take him now or whenever the insurance kicks in. Animals age faster than we do and it gives us the chance to experience death often. Think of the good times you had with the dog and the nice life you gave him. Focus on the positive. He might have a ways to go yet. One thing for sure, do NOT bring him back to the animal shelter as I guarantee what they will do--immediately put him to sleep. Also, its normal to worry and obsess about animals; when my last cat died I grieved as if he was a family member (well, that might be an exageration but you get the idea). Animals are an important part of our lives; Just keep in mind to savor the good times and the fact that you did the good deed of taking an animal from the shelter and making a life for him. That's something, isn't it?

Kenji Fujishima said...

One thing for sure, do NOT bring him back to the animal shelter as I guarantee what they will do--immediately put him to sleep.

Well...if a vet tells us that very little, or nothing, can be done about the incontinence problem, especially, at this point---I love Dusty, sure, but I'm not sure I want to deal with him and his problems anymore if that turns out to be the case. He's trying my patience as it is. So I wonder if maybe, in that case, sending him back to the shelter isn't the best thing to do...whatever the shelter decides to do when they receive him again. And if that means they put him to sleep---well, maybe this sounds cruel on my part, but maybe that's just the way it's gotta be.

Anonymous said...

If the vet tells you that Dusty has no quality of life, he will offer to put him to sleep himself. The shelter is not going to assess the quality of life factor. They will automatically put him to sleep because at this point he is not adoptable. If you bring him to a vet you are going to have to pay anyway, so just let him do the whole job and save yourself the trip (and trauma) of going to the shelter.

Anonymous said...

It's possible, though I don't know how likely, that the dog's eye problems aren't as bad as you think. My older brother had a dog that was cloudy-eyed and blind for several years; the assumption was that he had cataracts or something along those lines, and fixing them would be prohibitively expensive. When he was finally brought to a vet for an unrelated problem, he was given a eyedrop prescription that cleared up the cloudiness and had him seeing normally within a few weeks. Years spent in a blur and all he needed was eyedrops! (Since he wasn't my dog, I never found out what exactly had been causing his blindness, and I didn't think to ask.)

I don't mean to get your hopes up only to have them potentially dashed again; I'm just saying that, in my own experience, a lot of people who should know better seem to give themselves a ridiculous amount of credit for knowing what's treatable and untreatable with their own pets, how much pain they're in, etc. A case of indigestion could send them to the ER thinking they're having a heart attack, but with a mute animal suddenly they're medical experts!

So prepare for the worst, but don't jump to conclusions until the dog's been examined by a professional. Even incontinence is sometimes treatable - this article is worth a look:

Good luck to Dusty; I hope he gets whatever help he needs.

Kenji Fujishima said...

futurefree: my own experience, a lot of people who should know better seem to give themselves a ridiculous amount of credit for knowing what's treatable and untreatable with their own pets, how much pain they're in, etc. A case of indigestion could send them to the ER thinking they're having a heart attack, but with a mute animal suddenly they're medical experts!

Well, if you're my mother and are bent on saving time and money at all costs---and if, in addition to that, you're also as distrustful of most doctors in general as my mother seems to be---then that explains why she suddenly believes she knows better than a veterinarian what is wrong with a dog. (I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though; she's always thought she was better than doctors, even though, when it comes to herself or other family members, she's perfectly willing to see one for what she considers "serious" problems.) So I definitely know what you're talking about, futurefree!

And, believe it or not, even after receiving a harsh reality check with recent developments in Dusty's health, my mother is still trying to cut corners: pet insurance is supposed to kick in on May 15; meanwhile, Dusty has now started to throw up, and he barely seems to be moving at all anymore. Who knows if the poor thing has or doesn't have some kind of stomach virus? Either way, my mother says she isn't taking him to a vet until sometime after May 15, even though both my father and I keep telling her she should do so, pet insurance or no pet insurance.

Weeks ago, when I argued with my mother about her refusal to get Dusty's incontinence problem checked out by a doctor, she claimed that Dusty was just fine and that he otherwise seemed just as active as ever---still begging for table scraps from us with as much as vigor as usual, for instance. Now Dusty's showing real signs of sickness---and what's my mother's attitude? "We can wait a few more days, because animals and human beings are different."

If somehow our dog up and dies before May 15 because of her sheer arrogance, I'm not sure if I'll be willing to so easily forgive her for it.

Anyway, thanks, futurefree. I really hope our dog gets the help he needs, too.

Anonymous said...

If Dusty's condition is getting really bad, it makes no sense at all to wait until May 15 because then you might have insurance but no dog left. My suggestion is for you to just take the dog yourself to a vet, foot the bill and then the speculation will end as to the severity of the problem. One visit to a good vet will give you the diagnosis along with the prognosis including treatment options and then you will have the information on how to proceed. You can use the insurance for the followup visits. This might be a life threatening condition or not and speculating is not helping nor is waiting--particularly if the dog is suffering. Your mother is not acting rationally and this would be a good time for you to take the lead and act, instead of being sorry you didn't should the dog not make it, and then reacting in anger.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Too late.