In April of this year, we finally made the switch to a raw diet. I’d been reading both anecdotal and scientific articles about it (some for, some against) and waffling for more than two years. What gave me the kick in the ass I needed was the premature reappearance of Dusty’s environmental allergies. He’d been on customized allergy shots since January 2013, but when the growth of new grass in the spring had him scratching so much he kept me up at night, I gave up on the allergy shots (which we’d had to adjust numerous times because of the serum overstimulating his system) and switched all three dogs to raw.
Two or three months before, I had visited Heronview Raw and Natural in Whitby and had gotten a lot of information that gave me hope that a raw diet would improve Dusty’s allergies. I also spoke to two different people whose dogs had terrible environmental allergies (one dog had spent summers in a cone for years) that were “cured” on raw diets. What did I have to lose?
Heronview explained to me that raw has a much faster rate of digestion than kibble does, so the two couldn’t be given together, in part because of the risk for bloat, so the change had to be made instantly–not gradually as we’d been taught to do when switching a dog from one kibble to another. I worried, of course, that this switch would cause gastrointestinal issues for my dogs, particularly Dusty, who has a very sensitive stomach and had had four visits in three years to the emergency clinic because of gastro issues severe enough to dehydrate him.
Our vet contradicted what Heronview said, saying that we should make a very gradual change over two weeks because of Dusty’s sensitive stomach. Although the vets at our vet clinic aren’t exactly pro-raw, they have been very supportive of my decision since nothing else we had tried for Dusty’s allergies had helped. One of our vets is not a fan of commercial food and feeds his dogs cooked meat and veggies, which I used to do. He told me as long as we weren’t going to a highly processed food, he’d support any decision we made, but he didn’t think our dogs should chew raw bones. Cora and Hogan don’t have the best teeth, and Dusty has a weak stomach. So we decided to buy only the ground meat with ground bone. We took his advice on that, but we took Heronview’s advice on not switching gradually.
I made sure we switched midweek, when I wouldn’t have to pay the extra-high examination fee of the emergency vet just in case.
All three dogs devoured that first meal, and I’m happy to report Dusty hasn’t had ANY gastro issues since we made the switch. Better yet, he doesn’t even pass gas anymore. Oh, could that dog empty a room before!
The only negative gastro effects we’ve seen were related to the fast digestion rate. Cora was so hungry by 3 or 4 a.m. that her stomach noises were waking us up. She was desperate to get outside to eat grass because she felt so sick with hunger. This issue had happened with her on kibble, too, but we had found the magic solution to get her through the night, so it had been a while. We had to start from scratch to find the right mix of feeding time, snacks, and food quantity so we all could sleep. (One interesting observation, though, is that when she was on kibble, Cora wouldn’t eat her breakfast once her stomach got that upset—we had to give her peanut butter to “prime” her tummy before she would eat; on raw, though, she gobbled down her breakfast even with that upset belly.)
Weight Loss and Gain
One of the reasons I wanted to switch all three dogs to raw, not just Dusty, is that I’d read that most dogs lose weight on raw, and Cora and Hogan were heavier than they should be. In the four and a half months they’ve been on raw, though, Cora has gained four pounds, Hogan has gained two and a half pounds, and Dusty, who was already skinny, has lost two pounds. It doesn’t sound like much, but on small to medium-sized dogs, the difference in all three is noticeable.
Reducing Cora’s and Hogan’s food has been difficult and very gradual since we have the fast digestion rate to contend with. We’re also feeding a fair amount of veggies (a puréed mix of kale, broccoli, pumpkin, green beans, spinach, and blueberries) to fill them up some. We’ve introduced more game meats (bison, elk) in place of some fattier meats, but I’m not convinced that’s making a difference.
Skin, Teeth, and Breath
One of the most amazing things to me is that none of our dogs smell bad anymore! I used to shower them every six weeks because by that point, they smelled like dogs and needed a bath. I don’t know that they’d ever need a shower again if I stuck to that criterion now. They really don’t stink—and that’s not just a mama’s love talkin’! And that awful doggy breath—especially old-doggy breath? The stink is gone there, too! What that suggests to me is that we’ve done a good thing by switching to raw. Their guts aren’t producing whatever it is that makes doggy breath and fur smell bad.
I had high hopes that we’d get through the summer without putting Dusty on steroids (Vanectyl-P), but no such luck. A couple of weeks ago, Benadryl stopped making even a dent in the scratching. I am hopeful that, since a raw diet is supposed to strengthen the immune system, Dusty’s liver won’t be affected too much by the steroids. I also have him on supplements to support his liver through steroid season.
All in all, although it’s a little gross dealing with raw meat, tripe, and offal (I shouldn’t downplay it—it’s plenty gross doing our own mixing of it all), and although Dusty still has to be on Vanectyl-P for a month or two, I think we’ve made the right decision for our dogs’ health.
Are any of you feeding raw or considering it? I’d love to hear about your experiences with it!
Yesterday we decided to do something different, so after work, we packed up the dogs, their food, some wieners, buns, and salad, and headed down to the Ajax waterfront. After a decent walk, we unloaded the car, set up a big pen for the dogs (and us), lay out a blanket, and played a game while waiting for the Hibachi to heat up. The dogs seemed a little confused at first, but Hogan quickly settled in, and the other two eventually followed suit. It was a nice break for us from the everyday, and I think the dogs agreed!
I haven’t updated on Cora in a while, but I keep meaning to. Time slips away all too easily.
Last summer, we took our scaredy-dog off the clomipramine she was on for anxiety. We slowly lowered her dose by 10 mg every week, and since we weren’t seeing any less anxiety with each tablet less, we figured it was okay to take her right off them.
In the past six months or so, Cora has made great strides. She is so close to appearing to be a “normal” dog that some people who had never met her before have been surprised to learn of how she cowered in her crate on the day we first saw her at an adoption event at PetSmart; how until very recently she hid in her “safe spot” in our house the entire time we had guests; how it took her well over a year to approach people whom she saw in our home regularly (including my mom and friends we played cards with weekly); how her fear was so incredibly bad at times that our “eat anything” beagle girl wouldn’t even take a treat from some people….
Yeah, she’s not really that dog anymore. We’ve had Cora for three years and one month, and she has finally emerged from her shell, although somewhat tentatively. There’s no denying that she is still cautious, but in recent months, Cora has joined her brothers, Dusty and Hogan, at the door when the doorbell rings, nearly always comes out of hiding within an hour or so of guests coming in, sniffs strangers on our walks and has even let some pet her, and, most surprising, has found her voice! We’ve heard Cora bark while awake only a handful of times in three years (we can definitely count her barks on our fingers), but two weekends ago, she barked three times in normal situations in which a dog would bark. It was shocking to hear her voice (which sounds so much like Dusty’s)! She hasn’t barked since, and because the boys both bark too much, we can’t say we’re terribly disappointed she hasn’t taken up the habit. Nevertheless, I will never discourage that in her.
So it has been an eventful several months in our household. Cora is a very happy girl now. She is in her twilight years to be sure, but she still has so much life in her, and it’s been incredibly heartwarming to watch her seek it out from deep within, dust off the bad history with big sweeps of her tail, and make the most of what she has left.
And we couldn’t be happier to be the ones sharing this glorious time in her life with her!
To read more about Cora’s journey from fearful dog to normal dog, click on the “fearful dog” link below.
Yesterday we attended our first agility trial of the year. And I’m so glad we did! Dusty and Hogan both had perfect runs and Q’d (qualified), meaning both of them are now out of Starter Jumpers and moving on to Advanced Jumpers!
We drove an hour and a half each way to get to the agility trial, and between them, the boys ran a total of 59.46 seconds, but the early Sunday-morning wake-up and the long drive were well worth that minute! Dusty won the 10″ Specials class with a great time of 23.3 seconds, and Hogan came in second with a time of 36.16 seconds (45 seconds were allotted). My boys did me proud!
I’ve been taking Hogan to a different agility class, this one at Dogs on Campus in Oshawa, and I think it’s been good for both me and him. Hogan’s confidence and motivation seem to be increasing in the new class, which is great to see. I really like both of our trainers, and I’ve learned different things from each of them. I’m still not a great handler or trainer (I’m too uncoordinated, I think), but I do have fun challenging myself to learn these things.
But, more important, I think the dogs really enjoy it. And while they may not care that they earned these ribbons, I know that they are being exposed to a variety of situations and events and have richer, more full lives for it. That’s what really means the most.
The video below shows our two runs and, since I didn’t want Cora to feel left out, includes her craziness at bedtime a couple of nights ago. Under her shy, frightened exterior lives a kooky little girl. Between the three of them, we have a whole lot of laughter and joy in our home!
This is the side of pet ownership no one tells you about, the harsh reality of aging, illness, or injury, when they’re dependent on you in ways you never foresaw. My 13-year-old Westie, for example, is dependent on me to catheterize him daily. Sometimes twice.
Let’s start at the beginning. About 12 years ago, a man with whom I worked asked around the office if anyone could take a male, year-old West Highland Terrier. He had been bought as a gift for their son by the parents of an adolescent boy, a latchkey kid as we used to say. The kid, apparently, went home each day from school and ignored Angus (because it is law that every Westie be given an appropriately Scottish-sounding name), who was left in a crate for hours on end. My colleague was friends with the parents.
On a whim I, with a Scottish background and a fondness for the Westie on Hamish McBeth (whose name was Jock) and without one lick of experience as a dog owner, said I would take him. Hey, free Westie, right?
A few days later, I came home from an errand to find my boyfriend and my new dog peering out the back door at me. The latter was a foot high, was fringed in spiky white fur, and had an oversized dark nose pressed against the patio door glass. He had the biggest, pinkest ears I’d ever seen. My first thought was, “Oh, lord, what have I done?”
I had no idea what to do with a dog. I loved animals, but until then I’d stuck to cats. I didn’t even particularly like dogs. A couple of my friends had them, and they seemed like high-maintenance over-emoters with foul hygiene and questionable dietary habits.
Laddie, as he soon became, turned out to be the easiest dog a person could own. He was perfectly housebroken, came when called, and was completely nonchalant with dogs of all sizes and temperaments. He didn’t chew up much besides a shoe or two, didn’t dig in the yard, and was, frankly, hilarious. I watched more than once as he cannily tricked other, much larger dogs out of their choicest bones, and then ran away hell for leather, stubby legs pumping, pink ears flapping, the spoils of his escapades gripped tightly in his pointy little teeth. We took him to the dog park, the bookstore, the beach, outdoor cafés, and on a road trip to Nova Scotia. He slept on our bed, right up at the top near our heads, between us. He didn’t even shed. He was a perfect companion.
God, how I fell in love with Laddie.
Then one day maybe eight or so years later, we woke up to find a turd on the pillow. He had trouble getting up on the big, high bed himself, but he’d never had trouble getting down. He had until then spent every night of his life with us happily snoring in the middle of the king-size bed and had never had even the minorest of accidents. But, hey, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun, shit happens, and we didn’t think much of it. Until it happened again. He was none too happy when he had to start sleeping on the floor.
Another day, we noticed he was having trouble getting up the stairs. His nails had always grown, as my mom would say, higgledy-piggledy, shooting off in strange directions, brittle of texture and prone to breaking, and he did suffer from the traditional Westie dry skin at times, but he’d otherwise been perfectly healthy.
Our vet told us that he had some sort of spinal problem, some numbness or other and that, eventually, he would no longer be able to pee, become toxic, and die. We got a new vet.
It was another year or so before he started peeing inside. I didn’t make the connection until I took him to the new, kinder, more empathetic vet, who told me that he wasn’t peeing exactly; rather, the dreaded time had come. He could no longer use the muscle we all use to expel urine. His bladder was full to bursting, stretched beyond its normal size, and urine was leaking out because it had nowhere to go.
I stood in that office and sobbed as the kindly Dr. Dave offered one weird ray of hope. I could catheterize him, he said, but I’d have to do it every day. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing was possible, and I left in tears with Laddie by my side, completely at a loss as to what to do. I had to make a decision, though, and fast. The good doc had drained his bladder, but he’d need it done again in a day.
By this time, Laddie’s mobility was compromised significantly, but he was still the plucky Westie he’d always been. He would still barrel out into the backyard at the first sign of a squirrel, although now his back legs sometimes failed to share his enthusiasm and gave out on him halfway to the fence. The daily walks he once pestered us for unmercifully were no longer a possibility, but he gave them up with much greater grace than he’d shown when we kicked him out of bed. He was still my Laddie, and I couldn’t imagine not having him around.
I wasn’t even at the car before I turned around and went back into the clinic.
“Okay,” I said to Dr. Dave, wiping my streaming eyes on one sleeve and hitching a breath. “You may as well show me how.”
So he put Laddie on his exam table and showed me how to unsheathe the little guy’s penis and insert a long, slender catheter as far as it would go. “You can’t screw it up,” he said, but I had my doubts. Every time—every single time—anyone has ever said to me, “You can’t miss it,” I’ve missed it. But okay, I’d try. Dr. Dave had sealed my resolve with a few simple words: “There’s no medical reason to put him down.”
So that was it—he was still the same Laddie, I was still responsible for his quality of life, and there was no medical reason to put him down. The decision was made.
I took Laddie home. The first few days, it was a two-person job, but we managed. We even managed the odd time when poor Laddie would poop while we were at it, much to our disgust and his embarrassment.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that it’s actually an easy one-person job once you get the hang of it. Left hand for unsheathing, right hand for insertion, a few pulls on the plunger of a syringe that I then empty into the second sink. Then I rinse Laddie’s feet, hoist him onto a towel on the floor, coil up the catheter, and turn my disposable rubber gloves inside out, and then chuck it all in the garbage. Then I pour bleach down the sink, and get out the Mr. Clean. I scrub the sink with that, and then spray Lysol everywhere, and then I give Laddie his treat. Every day, sometimes twice. It’s a delicate balance between making sure he’s never uncomfortably full of pee and trying to keep from introducing infection. We’ve had our fair share of those, but he still responds well to antibiotics, and they clear up quickly. For the most part, the whole process hasn’t seemed to bother him much. When “our time” approaches, he comes over to me and turns around, offering me his back to be picked up and hoisted into the sink.
The catheters plus the tube of topical anesthetic/lube cost me about $130 a month. His occasional antibiotic prescriptions and accompanying vet visits cost anywhere from $75 to $200, maybe every four to six months. That’s in addition to the usual heartworm meds and shots. My “free” dog is no longer cheap. Dr. Dave says I could send him for an MRI that would cost more than $5,000, but he doesn’t think it would bring us a solution, and he’s doubtful it would even bring a diagnosis. I haven’t done it, and I don’t plan to. Sometimes things just are what they are.
“Am I cruel to keep doing this?” I asked Dr. Dave at one appointment.
“It’s only cruel not to,” he said.
Laddie’s not in pain; of that I am certain. He’s still a great friend. He still wants treats, still chases squirrels, and is still the smartest dog I’ve ever met. We just do what we gotta do.
I can think of far worse ways for my days to end.