Marking Words and Treats

We’re in the midst of puppy camp right now with Sophie, the Westie puppy who joined us in January. We spend an hour a week learning the basics of civilized behavior—sit, stay, down, and how to control yourself when approached by another creature. The class consists of fifteen dogs of various breeds and sizes, and the head instructor has the demeanor of a high school coach working with a team of new recruits. She keeps both the over-stimulated puppies and anxious owners well in line.

 “Ok, people, show me your poop clean-up bags. Hold ‘em high. There is no such thing as the poop fairy around here.”

One of the first things we learn is to use a marking word when our dog exhibits an appropriate and desired behavior. The word is “Yes!” spoken in a firm and exuberant manner. We practice saying it in unison as the instructor tosses a string cheese stick (highly prized treat) in the air and we all shout “Yes!” at the exact moment it hits the floor. Precise timing of the marking word is essential in teaching the puppy a new behavior. As each new command is taught, a correct response from the dog is followed immediately by “Yes!” and a food treat. The idea is for the owners to establish themselves as the leader of the pack but always through positive and encouraging praise, not by angry and punitive words.

I couldn’t help but think how we have all had to learn new commands in the last year. Stay home, mask up, quarantine, social distance, lock down. Behaviors for which we previously had no more understanding or context than a three-month old puppy being told to sit and stay. Maybe we needed a marking word to get us to do what we were supposed to or maybe we needed more high value treats to reward us when we complied, although the reward of not getting sick or dying is pretty high value. It seems like many of us were easily distracted—barking at others, pulling on our leashes, and trying to establish dominance in the pack.

At the end of the six-week session, dogs and their owners must demonstrate a number of basic skills in order for the dog to be designated an “American Kennel Club Star Puppy.” It requires cooperation and practice and working together as a team. Learning to be good human and canine citizens involves constant repetition of the marking word and lots of treats and lots of hugs. We could all take a lesson from the dog trainers.

Circle of Life

I bury my nose in the top of the cat’s head and smell a faint odor of the peanut butter I’ve been using to try to get pills into him. He’s thinner and his coat is losing its luster. He’s spent the last few days snuggled in the back of my closet, hiding. Not a good sign in a senior cat. We know it’s probably time to make that call to the vet, but I keep putting it off, hoping for a miracle.

The puppy yelps as she and the older dog slam into each other in one of their frequent rounds of horseplay. They go at it hard, rolling around on the floor, heads in each other’s mouths, tails wagging the whole time  She is growing before our eyes, like one of those time-lapse videos in a nature documentary. We had to loosen her collar again, and she races to her food bowl with such excitement that sometimes she tips the whole thing over.

A month ago, the cat had most of his teeth removed due to a painful condition called resorptive tooth disease. “He’ll be fine,” they told us. “Cats adapt easily to no teeth.” Not this one. He’s been on a hunger strike every since. And then what was diagnosed as a mild heart murmur turned into post-operative congestive heart failure requiring a two night stay at an emergency veterinary clinic. He was traumatized. He now needs frequent medication which he refuses to take in pill pockets. The cat and I are both crying at pill time and my hands are covered with tiny pinpricks from his claws. We know we can’t keep doing this. All the online quality of life assessments point in one direction.

Life is pure joy for the puppy. The snow! The laundry! The toys! Her bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm  are a balm to our pandemic-weary souls.  She charmed everyone in the vet’s office at her check-up and then promptly fell asleep on the exam table after getting her shots. The puppy looks at each new challenge—stair-climbing, ball-chasing, pooping in snow—and says, “Hold my beer.”

We move slowly, gently, with the cat, trying to soothe his stress. There is no physiological reason for his not eating—no tumors or systemic issues and the medication, when we can get it into him, controls his heart condition. One of the vets said, “I’m not ready to pull the plug on a cat who just ripped the hell out of my hands when I tried to examine his mouth. I think he’s all up in his head. Maybe a little Prozac?” But then that could increase his heart rate. Just like in a person with complicated health issues, there are no easy answers.

Downstairs, dog toys and bones lay scattered everywhere. A roll of paper towels and bottle of cleaner stand at the ready for any indiscretions. Coats hang over chairs for quick trips outside and all shoes are placed out of reach. Upstairs, in cat hospice, a bathroom counter holds pill bottles, gloves for applying a transdermal appetite stimulant, bowls of partially eaten food, and syringes for popping the pills into his mouth. (Do not believe any YouTube videos showing how easy it is to do that. Those cats all had to have been sedated.)

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I heard the cat digging on his scratching board and he was not curled up in the closet. He’s eating a disgusting gruel of watered down canned food along with people tuna directly out of the can. I think he misses his teeth, painful as they may have been.

The puppy isn’t big enough to jump on the couch, and we have to give her a boost. She makes this little rumbly noise to let us know she’s frustrated because she can’t yet do it herself.  She now heads to the back door (most of the time) when she needs to go outside.

Our pets depend on us, but much can be learned from watching these animals at the opposite ends of life navigate their world.

My Cat Has a Cardiologist

My cat has a cardiologist. Neither of us does, at least not yet, but our twelve-year-old SPCA cat is officially under the care of a veterinary cardiologist and will begin taking Plavix this week. Seriously.

Baxter has always been the low-maintenance creature in our household. We have had a progression of beloved but high-maintenance pets over the years. The most recent, Vinnie, a rescue Westie who crossed the Rainbow Bridge in June, suffered from chronic liver disease which required multiple daily medications and frequent trips to an internal medicine specialist. For five years. Our other Westie has Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder managed with monthly shots, daily Prednisone, and careful monitoring. Baxter’s cardiologist is associated with the same practice as Vinnie’s specialist and when I called to schedule an appointment, they said, “Oh, hi, Anne. Welcome back.” Dear God.

Baxter has always cast a supercilious glance at the dogs constantly being hauled out for their frequent vet appointments. He sits at the top of the stairs, paws crossed and regal in his bearing, probably thinking to himself—“See what you get when you buy purebred animals? Nothing but a genetic shit-show requiring a separate bank account for their medical bills. But, hey, look at me, straight off the streets and healthy as an ox. You don’t always get what you pay for.”

Until this fall, when I noticed a bloody spot at the base of one of Baxter’s teeth. He didn’t seem to be in any major distress, but I figured this warranted a vet visit. The vet looked up at me and said, “I think this might be resorptive tooth disease where the animal’s body actually starts reabsorbing the teeth. It can be very painful, but we won’t know for sure until we can get in there and take X-rays.” Procedure number one—dental cleaning and radiographs under anesthesia and when the vet asked me to make a separate trip to look at the images with her, I knew we were in trouble.

Apparently Baxter’s teeth were severely affected by this disease and in some places, he had two fully formed teeth growing out of the same socket. Makes me cringe just thinking about it. The only treatment is tooth extraction by a veterinary dentist. So, several weeks later, we fasted Baxter overnight and stuffed him into his carrier for a 7 AM appointment. We were told they would examine him and then do the procedure the same day. Of course, it was a contactless appointment, so we sat in the car for what seemed like an eternity until the dentist, a young woman who looked about sixteen, came out and cheerfully informed us that Baxter had a “significant” heart murmur, and they were recommending a cardiac evaluation before putting him under anesthesia. “There’s a group in Lancaster…” Yes, we know it well.

Six weeks later we get to the cardiologist for procedure number two. This involves  an “echocardiogram full and ECG single lead” whatever that means and the pleasant British voice of that vet telling us that Baxter was a “lovely boy” but that there was damage to the heart, possibly as a result of his hyper-thyroidism, and surgery would not necessarily be “dangerous,” but would involve “increased risk.”

Long story short, this week Baxter had all of his teeth behind the canines on both jaws removed. When the vet called she exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anything like those double teeth. It was just insane,” like it was the highlight of her day. Baxter came through the surgery well, and as I write this, is gradually descending from the high he has been enjoying from the pain med they shot him up with. “He’s going to be loopy, for a while,” the nurse told us. ”Don’t be surprised if he sees things that aren’t there.”  Um, how exactly would we know that? Meanwhile, we must watch him for any signs of post-op congestive heart failure that could occur as late as three weeks following surgery,  (“Make sure you know where the closest emergency vet is.”) I mean, I know it’s all about CYA for liability but give me a break.

Ever the gluttons for punishment, in the midst of all this, we recently brought home a new Westie puppy. We’re getting pet insurance for this one.

Not Today

Sometimes “not today” are the most comforting words you can hear. When you’re dealing with a situation that eventually is going to end in heartbreak, just knowing that it won’t be today is good enough. Having a little more time to keep on keeping on is all you can ask for.

We are pet parents and have somehow always found ourselves blessed with wonderful animals who have serious medical conditions. Currently we have two dogs, one of whom is younger with a metabolic disorder diagnosed when she was a puppy. Stella will require a lifetime of monthly injections and daily pills, but if we do that, she’s fine. Living the good life and a delightful pet.

Our other dog, Vinnie, is a rescue who came to us a little over four years ago with a pristine bill of health. He now has an incurable liver condition that requires a great deal of medication and frequent trips to a veterinary specialist. His body, for some unknown reason, is intent on destroying his liver and is well on its way to succeeding, despite our best efforts. Today, after some bloodwork came back with concerning numbers, he was at the vet’s for another ultrasound and additional testing. News isn’t good, but it’s slightly more positive than negative. We’ll take it, because today he’s eating and playing and chasing squirrels and driving us crazy with his barking. He doesn’t know his liver is dying. Something to be said for that.

Is not today just an island in the sea of denial? Probably. But sometimes I think we need those islands. We need to haul ourselves up on the sand, catch our breath, and tamp down the constant anticipation of the worst, which right now for us, is that final trip to the vet’s which we have experienced all too often in recent years. We need frequent stops on those not today islands to build up our stamina, to lay in supplies for rough seas ahead. And for those of us anxiety-driven souls, who are always thinking about the next wave, not today allows us to stop, have a cocktail, and enjoy the beautiful beach in front of us right now.

We know that someday we’re going to lose our parent or spouse or partner or best friend but in the meantime, we go to work and then out for dinner and a movie. It’s when the tidal wave starts to shimmer on the horizon, surging ever closer to us, when the ground begins to quiver under our feet, when the birds and animals head for the hills—that’s when not todays become our shelters. They become warm blankets on a comfortable bed where we can curl up and hold that person or creature we love so much as tightly as we can for as long as we can.

I remember not todays in the last months of my dad’s life, when bedridden became the new normal for him. There were still jokes with the nurses and watching the Food Network in the evenings and occasionally even enjoying a milkshake from the drugstore around the corner. (Yes, it was one that still had a lunch counter.) Not today meant reading prayers together at bedtime and planning for the logistics of selling a family home and his treasured collection of railroad memorabilia and not today meant he was still coherent enough to help me with that. Not todays are a precious gift to those of us in long-term battles we know we’re going to lose.

We’re at the beach right now with our dogs. The vet called again with depressing results from yet another test. We start a new medication when we get home that may have some unpleasant side effects. I gather it’s our last hope in managing this condition. Meanwhile, I watch Vinnie gobble his food and beg for more, play with his Kong toy and snuggle with those he loves. God, I hope I do the same when my liver is failing. I know that probably sooner than later, we’re going to lose this dog. But not today.