Tag Archives: dogs

Sleep, Pretty Darling, Do Not Cry

Back in late January, Barb and I took our dog Abbey to a specialist to see if they could determine what was causing the rapid deterioration of her back legs.  Initially, we thought she had developed hip dysplasia — a bane to large dog owners everywhere — but Abbey seemed to be getting more and more hobbled as the weeks went on.  She went from dragging her left leg last June, to teetering on her feet by Thanksgiving, to barely walking by Christmas.  Clearly, something else was going on.

Back in January, I promised to give you the rest of the story, once we knew what was happening.  Here’s the rest of the story.

Abbey was subjected to several X-rays and MRIs to see if, perhaps, she had a tumor on her spine that was causing paralysis.  Both the X-rays and the MRIs came back clean — no sign of any trouble — and the vet put Abbey on prednisone as a preemptive strike, just to see if the drug might have any effect on whatever was going on in her system.  But there was one other thing he wanted to check out.

Abbey was showing textbook signs of a new but relatively rare genetic disorder, a disease known as degenerative myelopathy (DM), a progressive and always fatal disease of the spinal cord.  In general, a dog can begin showing signs of the disease anywhere from eight to fifteen years old.  That put Abbey on the left end of the bell curve — she’s only barely eight — but her symptoms were shudderingly precise: dragging of the rear legs, lack of balance, and incontinence.  While the disease can only be definitively confirmed by an autopsy, the vet wanted us to submit saliva samples to the University of Missouri, where most of the leading research has been undertaken, to see if she was, indeed, genetically predisposed to the disorder.

While we waited for the results, Abbey continued to grow increasingly worse.  The prednisone had no effect, apart from making her horribly thirsty — which made her drink more and, in her condition, wet herself without realizing it — so we took her off the drug altogether.  Moving became difficult, and she was eventually confined to our living room, where its concrete floor and easy access to the backyard made it easier for us to clean up after her and help her outside.  But soon, she could only walk with the help of a sling under her back end — I would walk her outside the way a parent plays wheelbarrow with a child — holding her back legs slightly off the ground while she pulled herself with her front legs.

Despite her deteriorating physical condition, she was as spirited, social, and loving as ever.  When we sat in the living room to watch television or read, she would drag herself across the floor so she could lay in the middle of things.  When the enormous snowstorm crashed through the area, she would lay for hours in the spot we had cleared in the back yard, eating snow and watching the birds dive at the birdseed we had thrown out.  As the sun melted the snow and warmed the ground, we would look out the kitchen window and see her sleeping contentedly in the sun, sprawled out full length.

Still, she was showing signs of unhappiness.  More and more evenings, after the lights were out, she would continue her habit of softly barking until I came downstairs and slept near her on the living room couch.  She was having accidents with greater frequency, which seemed to embarrass her — she would bark until someone came to clean her up, and then would drag herself away from the mess, ears down with humiliation.

Late last week, she began to eat less and less.  It was clear she was continuing to decay — and sure enough, several days ago, we received the test results from the lab in Missouri confirming what we already knew: she has the genetic defect that causes DM on both genes.  She wasn’t just a carrier, she was doomed from the start.

On Monday night, we took Abbey to our wonderful local veterinarian who helped us lovingly and painlessly send our dog onto her next adventure.  She died peacefully as Barb and I patted and spoke to her softly.  One deep breath and she was gone, still looking as if she were sleeping.

And I cried. Oh, how I cried.


The gynormous Blizzard of 2010 has officially been clear of the region for a little less than a week — gone, but not by a long shot forgotten.  Roads are relatively clear — unless you live in the District of Columbia or an isolated cul-de-sac — grocery stores are restocked, and mail delivery has resumed (an overnight mail package I took the Post Office on Tuesday the 9th finally made it to its destination on Friday the 12th — it was stuck on the East Coast for two days while mail delivery ground to a halt).  But it’s still a mess, and temperatures in the low 30s are making sure that none of the enormous drifts will thaw until April.

Here’s a quick look at the storm as it moved through our region the week of February 8.  First, here’s a look out our back door as the blizzard really started to kick into overdrive (you can juuuust see the Jeep poking up behind a drift in the center of the photo).  We deliberately left the storm door open so the drifts wouldn’t pile up against it and make it impossible to open:

Here’s the same view a day or so later, after we spent the better part of the morning shovelling our way out to the Jeep:

While we got the Jeep uncovered, it wasn’t going anywhere fast.  It took us another day to get our long sloping driveway cleared. High winds and drifts as high as eight feet made it difficult to dig into.  We eventually settled on a system where Madi climbed the drifts and knocked them down with a shovel while I ran a snowblower right behind her.

Here’s the driveway now — and it’s hard to get a grasp of scale here.  The side drifts run from about two to six feet high as you move down toward the street.  Steering down our driveway is like making a Death Star trench run in an X-wing fighter:

Here’s a look back the other way, toward the rear of the house, glittering with icicles.  Sliding snow and heavy icicles actually tore the gutters right off of one part of the house.  Right after we took this, Madi and I spent some time slinging snowballs at the icicles on the upper level, trying to break them off.  We mostly just left snowy splatters on the windows and walls:

Finally, I’ve gotta run an Abbey photo (yeah, she’s still hobbling around, but loves the snow).  Here she is poking happily around in the dog run we keep digging out just off the back patio:

I love the snow, but even I’m a bit snow-weary.

Dog Day Afternoon (and Evening)

Around noon yesterday, Barb and I took our dog Abbey to an animal hospital.  If you’re a regular reader here, you know our eight-year-old dog has been hobbled for nearly a year by weak back legs, which our vet initially diagnosed as hip dysplasia.  That seemed to make sense — Abbey’s a big dog, and she’s got a lot of German Shepherd in her, a breed prone to developing dysplasia. 

But what concerned us was how quickly her condition deteriorated.  At first, she would swing her rear left leg in this funny, wide cowboy swagger as she walked.  Then she stopped being able to walk up and downstairs.  Next, she started having difficulty getting to her feet or walking on tile, prompting us to throw rugs down on our tile and wood floors so she could walk from room to room. Eventually she settled into living in  one room in the house — but she’s such a social dog that being by herself for too long was more than she could handle.  Once the lights went out at night, she started barking from her bed –just one or two loud, clipped barks every few minutes — until someone came back downstairs to sleep on the couch nearby.  Now she can barely use her back legs — she hobbles around gamely for a while, then falls to her haunches as her rear legs buckle. It’s heartbreaking.

Our vet, then, referred us to a neurologist. So yesterday, Barb and I spent the better part of the day at an impressive animal hospital that occupies an abandoned and revamped CompUSA building.  We walked Abbey into a back room — using an old towel as a sling to support her rear end as she walked — where the doctor crawled around on the floor with her, poking, prodding, listening and looking.  He then ordered that she be taken in for x-rays and an MRI, which would likely take several hours.

We spent the next few hours getting to know the other pets and pet owners in the waiting area, listening to each other tell stories and sharing that unique bond that pet owners — especially pet owners in duress — seem to have.  There were some happy moments — an injured black lab named Bo sulked in, tail down, humiliated in a muzzle and Victorian collar, and emerged thirty minutes later, stitched and happy. There was Ollie, the biggest black cat I’ve ever seen, mrowing happily from his crate as a nurse waggled her fingers at him as she sent him home.

There were plenty of nervous patients, too.  There was the white dog who cowered beneath my legs when the doctor came out to retrieve him (“That man doesn’t know you, so don’t look for help there,” his owner said, wagging a finger at the wide-eyed dog) and the terrier who nervously left a trail of poop behind him as he walked from the front door to the reception desk.  There was the old pug with a cataract who wandered the waiting area, looking intently under every chair for . . . something.

And there were some heartbreaking moments as well.  A young woman rushed in with a wheezing Boston terrier, flailing with a seizure.  A nurse ran over, scooped him up and disappeared into the back, leaving the woman sobbing in a chair.  Later, we watched as a middle-aged couple staggered out of a back room, the woman stone-faced and her husband — an enormous mountain of a man — red-eyed and tight-lipped, choking back tears. “I’m so sorry,” a young nurse told them as they paid their bill.

Our story doesn’t have an ending yet.  Abbey’s home, and we’re waiting for test results.  I’m hoping to write a happy ending.  Stay tuned.

Dear Abbey

abbeyAbbey came to us as a stray puppy back in March of 2001. From what we could tell, she had been running with a pack of stray dogs — which probably included her mother — and after one of those famously impressive Phoenix monsoons that come rolling in on Spring evenings, she had somehow gotten separated from her pack.  A group of neighborhood kids found her and brought her to us, having heard that Barb’s Golden Retriever had died several months before.  At 30 pounds, the dog looked like a puffy German Shepherd, and a neighbor told us he guessed she was about 6 or 7 months old.

Wrong.  We took her to the vet who took one look in her mouth, saw all baby teeth and pronounced her only a little more than three months old.  She was going to be a big dog.  To this day, I tell people that had you asked me if I wanted a dog that was a cross between a Doberman Pincher and German Shepherd and that was going to weigh more than a hundred pounds, I’d have thrown you off the porch.

Yet, she’s turned out the be the best dog I’ve ever had.  You can tell me you’ve got the smartest dog there is, and I’d smile and nod, but you’d be wrong — because I’ve never seen a dog as sharp as Abbey (we named her Abbey not only as a nod to Abigail Adams, but also to the Beatles album Abbey Road).  It’s more than just, “Go get your dolly!” or “Find the leash!”  She really does understand complex sentences.  If you tell her, “Go downstairs and eat your breakfast, then wait in the front parlor for me to come down,” she’ll do exactly that.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

Even though we live along a state highway, Abbey knows enough to stay away from the road.  When I go out to get the newspaper with her, she’ll walk only two-thirds of the way down the driveway and will wait for me to come back from the street with the rolled up paper — at which point I hand it to her so she can sprint back into the house with it.

And she owns the neighborhood.  The four houses in our immediate vicinity are all accustomed to regular visits from her, and most keep dog treats to feed her, even though none of them have dogs of their own. Some mornings I’ll go looking for her, only to find her laying on our next door neighbors’ kitchen floor, swishing her tail happily while they read the paper over coffee.

When I’m writing, she’ll come quietly in and lay down on the rug I keep on the floor of my office (that’s her laying in her spot in the pic above), thunking her tail when I look up at her. Every once in a while she’ll beg for one of the Milk Bones I keep in a ceramic jar on my bookshelf, giving her head one of those irresistible doggy tilts.

Quite simply, she’s the best canine family member, friend, and companion any of us have ever had.  That makes it all the more heartbreaking for us to struggle with the reality that, at eight years old, she’s starting to get old. Like many big dogs, Abbey’s starting to develop problems with her hips, her legs sliding awkwardly out from under her as she tries to climb stairs or climb out of her bed.  The other morning, she took a tumble down the stairs; this morning, we helped her down, then — to her great disappointment — blocked her from coming back up.  As I finished dressing this morning, she laid at the foot of the steps, looking up wistfully, and once or twice giving a low boof! to hurry me up.

It’s not the end of the world, of course — Abbey likely has a number of years left in her — but we’re going to have to change some of the habits we’ve all long grown used to.  It’s also a reminder to continue to enjoy and treasure every moment we’ve been allowed the pleasure of having with this incredibly loving and special dog, who somehow found us all those years ago.

Here’s to you, dear Abbey — every moment we have you in our lives is a special one.