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If Only I Could Change This Ending
A week ago, our dog seemed fine, but now he's blind and terminally ill
I’m sharing a personal update in part to explain why I plan to cancel our monthly paid-subscriber Zoom scheduled this Wednesday, November 16. It’ll be the first time since launching this newsletter I haven’t hosted an online meetup during the month, but I doubt on Wednesday I’ll feel up for it.
On that day, my husband and I may have to decide whether to put our dog to sleep before we leave on a big trip Thursday, or whether to leave him in palliative care with my brother, who’s taking care of our animals as we travel.
Our beloved Beso, a Portuguese Water Dog about to turn 9, became seriously ill last Tuesday. It’s likely he had simmering symptoms and enlarged lymph nodes for weeks, but we didn’t notice it until Tuesday night when he started yipping upstairs in our loft, as if he was stuck or something was wrong. I called out for him to come, and I watched him stagger down the stairs—legs splayed in front, belly close to the ground, bumping into the railing—as if intoxicated.
I thought, perhaps he found and ate some weed during our afternoon walk by the river? Maybe he’ll sleep it off? But Wednesday, he was still stumbling around and bumping into things, confused and fearful. Petting him to comfort him, I could feel his spine from weight loss, whereas only recently he had a fat layer on his back. And, most troubling, his lymph nodes behind his jaw felt almost as big and hard as golf balls. His belly was bloated, which the vet later said was due to an enlarged spleen and possibly liver also. Watching him bump into furniture and walls, we reached the terrible conclusion that he became totally blind.
The sudden blindness has been the saddest thing, along with witnessing the sorrow and worry that our 2-year-old dog Dakota expresses as she hovers around him, trying to cheer him up.
The vet told us Thursday that Beso has developed uveitis, an extreme inflammation and bloodiness of the uvea (the vascular layer of the eye), which can fully cloud and block vision. It’s triggered when the immune system is fighting an extreme infection. But the vet didn’t think Beso had an infection (though he tested for tick-bite infection). He suspected lymphoma, which in rare and advanced cases is linked to blindness. He aspirated cells from Beso’s swollen lymph nodes, and we got the confirmation late Friday: he has large-cell lymphoma, at a very advanced stage (4 or 5) given the organ involvement.
I cannot believe our happy dog declined this rapidly in five days. As recently as last weekend, he was trotting and running around, getting excited at the arrival of the UPS truck, and making pillow nests on our window seat. Now he doesn’t want to move around, he won’t jump up to the sofa or window seat where he normally likes to sleep (because he’s scared from loss of vision and/or his abdomen hurts), and he goes through bouts of rapid breathing and whimpering when lying on the floor.
When we got the diagnosis, I thought, “We’ll cancel and reschedule our trip” because we have trip insurance. I have been planning our trip to trek and explore around Peru for months, and we’ve spent several thousands on it for airlines, lodging, and guiding services.
Then I looked at our insurance and felt a wave of “oh, shit”: We did not pay for the “cancel for any reason” coverage, which would have cost significantly more. We only got coverage for a medical emergency for us, so it would not cover a veterinarian emergency.
We’re in a lose-lose situation, and I don’t know what to do except take it day by day and monitor Beso’s condition, making him as comfortable as possible and assess how much he’s suffering.
We ultimately decided we’ll go forward with our trip, because I know we’d be miserable if we canceled and lost all the money spent on it and then sat around feeling sad, waiting for Beso to reach the point of suffering that we feel it’s time to euthanize. Thankfully we have my brother and another pet sitter to provide care, and they are wonderful. But this is a huge burden to leave to them, dealing with Beso’s extra needs and deciding whether to euthanize in our absence if he’s suffering excessively. I’m feeling a lot of guilt along with sadness about leaving.
We also decided not to pursue chemo for Beso, because of the advanced cancer stage, the side effects, and the inevitable outcome. We started him on prednisone steroids Friday night, which seems to have stabilized him but so far has not restored his vision (we’re administering steroid eyedrops too, in the hope it’ll clear up his eyes).
He still has an appetite. He still wags his tail occasionally and perks up his ears when we say “cookie.” He clearly enjoyed the fresh butcher bone we gave him yesterday. But he’s listless and confused. He mostly ignores Dakota when she runs around him and nudges him to play, as if he wants to be left alone.
If he declined this much in a week, how will he be one week from now? The vet estimates his life expectancy at about a month.
Today, however, he seemed slightly better, or at least not worse. When my brother visited with his two dogs, Beso moved outdoors with them with better energy, clearly happy to be with his pack. Since this afternoon, I’ve become cautiously optimistic that the steroid meds are working and will give him several more weeks of relative contentment in the company of Dakota and his “cousins” (my brother’s dogs).
Dogs can have lymphoma for months and act normal, the only sign being enlarged lymph nodes, which is probably what happened to Beso. We could have checked his lymph nodes earlier, but we didn’t know or notice. This article explains how to check a dog’s lymph nodes and what can cause swelling.
A dog’s innocence and unconditional love make seeing him become ill and depressed gut-wrenching, on par with seeing a child suffer. As an empty-nester, these dogs and our horses are my “children” to a great degree now. I devote myself to loving and caring for them. I feel heartbroken and helpless when they experience pain and look at me as if questioning, why?
We’ll take him to the vet Tuesday to reassess his condition and lifespan. If he continues to do as well as he did today, I will feel better leaving him in my brother’s care and going on our trip. But if the vet concludes that he’s hurting and going downhill, we may face the hard decision. Either way, I know that leaving on the trip Thursday, I’ll have to say a big goodbye.
Sorry for such a downer post, but I wanted to explain why I’m canceling the Wednesday online meetup, and also share what’s going on. I’ll have a special mountain-related post on Wednesday.
Sometimes stories don’t have happy endings and can’t be sugarcoated. I keep thinking back to when we got Beso as a puppy, following our prior dog’s too-early death from illness, and someone wryly said, “You know, you’re signing a contract with grief.” It’s true, the joy dogs bring us and that we give them inevitably is linked to grief and goodbye. But just shy of 9 years old, this feels too damn soon for Beso.
I recently started a chat thread on Substack’s app, and I really appreciate the back-and-forth comments taking place there. You can read this earlier post about how it works, and use the link below to join.
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