I’ve always kind of snickered at people who refer to their pets as their “children.” I mean, come on – they have four legs and a tail? Who are they kidding? I have inherited my father’s allergies and antipathy to felines. Dogs, though – no home is complete without one. But that doesn’t make them one of my children.
Dogs have a way of worming themselves into our lives. Before you know it, they’ve got those big hairy paws on your lap, that hard head resting on your knee, those soulful eyes watching your every move intently. Soon, that big butt’s on the sofa, stretched out, taking up far more room than you’d think a 70-pound mutt should take, snoring contentedly.
By the time they wake up, they’ve wrapped themselves so tightly around your heart that removing them means removing a big part of yourself well.
Having them adds a burden on our lives and gives us responsibilities no one ever prepares us for. A pet is a commitment for life – and that life can be 10 or more years. Like children, they need us to give them food, water, shelter, love. And when the time comes, we have to decide how their lives should end.
Our 14-year-old chow dog Shiba was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. The vet was grim about her life expectancy at the time, saying at her age, she didn’t have the strength to fight it. Besides, he said, we’d already beaten the odds – chows usually only live to be about 13.
Shiba (“brushwood” in Japanese) was 5 weeks old when my 2-year-old convinced her daddy the handful of orange fur with sparkling black eyes was desperately needed at home. Never mind that Cori had a 6-month-old sister – a puppy would be way more fun.
What no one bothered to mention is — chows have issues.
Number one: they don’t like people. Or kids. Or cats. Or other dogs. Chows are genetically alphas – at the top of the hierarchy. Shiba attached herself to my husband, because she knew a softy when she saw one. She tolerated me, because I fed her. She tolerated the older girl, because Cori spoiled her and used her orange fur as a pillow. Shiba didn’t like the baby, but mostly because the baby kept trying to eat her food.
And under no circumstances could we let her stay around when other kids came over. She’s so soft and furry little kids couldn’t resist, but Shiba had a tendency to snap when annoyed.
She chewed – everything.
And she shed – mounds of orange fur everywhere, no matter how often she was groomed and I vacuumed.
It took seven years for her to outgrow the chewing stage – typical with chows, I’m told. She’s over hating kids, too, although she still doesn’t like anyone messing with her face or feet. She still hates other dogs, loves to chew on cats in the yard, but tolerates the half-Siamese black cat that torments her hourly. The third child (she came along two years after Shiba so is seen as an annoying puppy that won’t grow up) treats her with respect, so Shiba tolerates her.
Shiba is still trouble, though. She’s allergic to wheat, so for years we’ve had to buy expensive “designer” dog food. She won’t tolerate baths, so we have to take her to a groomer monthly to keep the fleas and fur at bay. When we want to go away for a few days, she’s the one we have to make arrangements for.
The cat is fine if we leave out lots of food and an open window. Dogs are more high maintenance. And given a chow dog’s anti-social temperament, we can’t just send her over to a friend’s house for a sleepover, like we do with the kids. Chows have no friends. We used to be able to give a neighbor kid five bucks to come in twice a day to care for her, but not anymore. Shiba takes her guard dog duties highly seriously. And now, she’s so deaf and blind she assumes anyone who sneaks up on her is an enemy. And we’re all sneaking up on her, she thinks. So there’s the added expense of a kennel.
Now, we’re facing some high vet bills. Maybe it’s easier just not to have a dog.
But when we told the kids about her cancer, they were devastated. Kind of surprising, in view of their benign neglect. In light of our concerns about high vet bills, hygiene and potty issues, and others problems with an old sick dog, they advocated patience.
The youngest reminded us she’s never known not having the dog.
Cori reminded us of the years of loyalty and devotion, no matter how much the kids tortured her.
And the middle girl reminded us they have been smelly and noisy and messy and expensive, but we kept them.
And we’ve all had days when we felt we had no friends and life sucked, only to have the 55-pound lap dog look at us and remind us we are loved, no matter what.
Never mind that thunder sends her into a frenzy – it has the same effect on the 14-year old.
Never mind that she takes up half the couch – so does the 12-year-old.
Never mind that she uses her deafness as an excuse to ignore me – at least she has an excuse, while the oldest just ignores me.
So, like my biological children, my four-legged “daughter” with a tail has spent her life with us, sharing moves and new babies and fears and concerns. She’s become so much a part of the family that, like my two-legged kids, I cannot imagine coming into the house and not have her sitting there. While they usually greet me with grunts, Shiba’s ears perk up and her tail wags so hard half her body goes along with it.
So I guess I can’t snicker anymore. I have to accept the fact that I have four children, not three – a blonde, a brunette, one with hair that defies color definition, and an orange-furred, black-tongued, blind and deaf canine who still chases her tail and thinks she’s a lap dog.
Six months later …..
She gave it her best, but age, gravity, and a lifetime of loyal service finally got the best of her. Though she tried hard to convince us – and herself – she was the same grumpy, strong protector she’d always been, it became increasingly obvious Shiba was losing the fight we all lose.
It’s not an easy thing to decide to take a life. When I made the appointment with the vet, I was looking at an animal barely breathing, whose eyes were filled with pleading. She had had some really bad nights, and putting her out of her misery seemed the only humane thing to do.
No matter what euphemism one uses – euthanasia, putting to sleep, putting down – it really means killing. You walk into the vet’s office with a living, breathing, four-legged animal, and you leave with an empty collar and dangling leash. It’s important to keep that in mind.
Years ago, I was at the vet for one of Shiba’s regular checkups. I watched a woman bring a dog into the office. The animal was old, but seemed spry enough. A few minutes later, she came back without the dog, just a leash. I didn’t think anything about it until I looked out the window and saw her in her car, her head down on the steering wheel, her shoulders heaving. It was the most poignant, heartbreaking sight I have ever witnessed.
Well, last week, that was me. When it was time to get into the car and go, suddenly that old dog was up, her tail wagging joyfully. Her ears perked up and she began her “Let’s get going” dance, the one she’d always done when it was walk time. This was not a dog who was suffering; I began to wonder if maybe I had acted a little hastily. But she couldn’t hop into the Jeep – I had to lift her. And she seemed more carsick and dizzy than usual – she was never much for riding in the car.
Being a normal day, I had teenagers to pick up on the way – they filled the car with noise, and Shiba seemed happy to be a part of it, even though she’s never been a “people dog.” Once at the office, I asked the vet if maybe I’d been wrong – Shiba seemed fine, interested in the fascinating odors, trying desperately to find the cat she smelled but couldn’t see (she’d been blind for months). Dr. Shuff, who’d known Shiba for years, looked at her and said many dogs pull a final burst of energy out of their reserve. He didn’t know if it was because they know we need them to, or what, but it wasn’t unusual.
He took her into the room, and we did what had to be done. I had the choice of staying or going, and I chose to stay. No one should die alone, especially not an animal who gave her entire life to protect my babies.
Watching her relax, knowing she was finally at peace and not feeling the pain of arthritis or cancer, did not make it any easier. I had still made the decision to end a life, and it’s always been my contention I do not have that right.
And there was that seriously painful empty spot in my heart – you know, the one I swore I didn’t have (the heart, I mean). Now I understand the pain that other woman felt, and I’m not sure how to fill that hole.
This is not something I’m going to be able to make a joke about and move on. There’s no clever ending, no phrase to get me out of it easily. It’s a part of life we all have to deal with, and it never, ever gets easier.
Due to the imminent birth of grandbaby #6, postings and reviews will be on hiatus for two weeks. Check Facebook for baby news and thanks for your understanding.