Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Way Each Day Ends

Algonquin ParkLife’s truths don’t get much more basic than this: no matter how my day is going, I always know it will end with my hands on the dog’s dick.

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.

Laddie

Laddie

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.

Laddie loves the snow!

Laddie loves the snow!

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.

My Laddie

My Laddie

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.”

Laddie and me at Algonquin Park

Laddie and me at Algonquin Park

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.