Posts Tagged ‘dog’

Dog Woes

Spencer on the day of his devastating diagnosis.

Spencer on the day of his devastating diagnosis.


This was a tough Spring and Summer in Maine.  The bugs were out in full force and constantly biting.  As miserable as it was, it was worse for my Standard Poodle, Spencer, who was left scratching and biting and licking all the discomforts his skin suffered from bug bites. (Yes, our dog is an “indoor dog” – – except when we are outdoors, which is a lot of the time.  And yes, we use Heartguard and Frontline.  But you can’t put DEET insect repellent on a dog.)

So when Spencer started licking a bit under his tail I thought it was kind of gross, but figured he’d stop when the discomfort of a bite faded away.  He was still occasionally licking the area in September once the bugs were gone, but I couldn’t find any irritation on his tail that would indicate he’d been bitten.  So when I dropped him off to be groomed, I asked my groomer, Chris, to check and make sure he didn’t have a clogged or overly full anal sac.  Spencer had not been “scooting” on the ground which would have hinted at this problem, but I figured since Chris was going to be grooming him anyway, it was a good opportunity to check.

Her answer was alarming.  “Something is wrong,” she said.  “The sac is hard and dry, and it felt weird.  You need to go see a vet – – immediately.”

We were leaving for Maine in two days so I decided to wait until we got back to Maine before having him seen.  Within a day or two of being back, I took Spencer to the vet for an exam.  Meanwhile, ever the clown, Spencer was his exuberant, happy self; he was eating well; and still enjoyed chasing a ball and going for long walks.  I had no reason at this point to be overly concerned.  But the vet sucker-punched me.

“Bad news.  Spencer has a walnut-sized growth in his anal sac, and these types of things are almost always adenocarcinoma.”


She said he needed surgery sooner than later, but it would require a specialty surgeon, due to the delicacy of the area.  “I don’t have enough experience with soft tissue surgery of this nature.  And I’m likely to do more harm than good if I need to get aggressive.”  She recommended a specialty veterinary surgery practice in Portland ME – – but when she got an estimate from them by phone, it was $4,000!!!!

That’s when I cried.  I felt like it was only my inability (and let’s be honest, my unwillingness) to come up with such a hefty sum that was dooming my dog to a premature death.  I felt so guilty!  I called two vets back in my hometown for a second and third opinion, and they both said the same thing:  Spencer would require a surgical specialist to do the surgery.

Maybe in big cities you can find specialists, but in rural Maine it’s another story.  For one thing, out in the country many dogs are working dogs.  Many of them live outside or in a barn.  Many people in the country are of very limited financial means.  If a dog gets really sick, and they don’t have the money for a vet, they will euthanize the animal (and many will simply shoot the animal behind the barn).  That’s life in the country.  They may feel sad, but not sentimental.  Bad things happen, and that’s just part of life.  So there is very little incentive for vet specialists to set up practice in rural Maine.

None of the vets I called within an hour’s drive of my house in Maine said they had the expertise for this surgery (at least they were honest).  I called the renowned Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and Foster Hospital for Small Animals in North Grafton, Massachusetts – – and they quoted me a price that was a fraction of the $4,000 quoted earlier by the specialty vet practice in Portland.  Even though it was a 3 1/2 hour ride from our house in Maine, I made an appointment for a consult and the surgery, which would take place in a week’s time.

I couldn’t bear to euthanize him, because he was not ready to die, nor was I willing to let him go – – at least, not yet.  Spencer certainly didn’t realize he was terminally ill!  He was bouncing around jubilantly and not currently suffering in any way.  Partly I was in denial – – how could a creature so full of life be dying?

On Friday, a week before the upcoming surgery, we were playing hard outside.  It was a game of chase combined with hide and seek.  First, I would hide.  Then he’d try to find me.  Then he’d run like the wind to get away from me, encouraging me to chase and “catch” him if I could.  Of course I never could, and he loved that.  Then it was my turn to hide again and the whole scene repeated itself.  He always loves to play this game and he always sports a huge devil-dog “grin.”

But on Saturday morning, he most uncharacteristically did not get up from his bed to do his business outside.  Instead, he lay on his dog bed, listless and apathetic.  My first thought was that the cancer must be super-aggressive, and perhaps this was the beginning of the end.  When I finally convinced him to get up and go outside, he hobbled painfully.  But upon examination I couldn’t find anything wrong with his feet or legs.  The entire day he was stiff and clearly in some kind of pain.

By evening things deteriorated dramatically.  He was hot to the touch, as if he was running a fever.  But – – and this had NEVER happened before – – he would not let me touch him at all.  His right front leg was completely lame, but I could not visually see anything wrong with it.  The pain was so intense that the muscles of his leg were involuntarily quivering.  The closest 24 hour emergency vet facility is about an hour away, but since his cancer diagnosis I knew they would want to run tests with equipment their clinic didn’t have, and they would send me on to Portland.  So I waited until the first morning’s light and set out for the Tufts Foster Animal Hospital emergency room.  Luckily I had all his vet medical records on hand.

From the time I put Spencer into the car until 3 1/2 hours later when we arrived, Spencer’s leg had meanwhile swollen to gross proportions.  He also had a tennis-ball-sized lump in his joint that was soft and mushy.  His pain was extreme.

“I think it’s bone cancer,” the intern (1st year medical resident) said.  She recommended an x-ray, but said that if the x-ray showed cancer, I’d have to have his leg amputated and even then, his prognosis would be extremely poor so it would be in his best interest to be euthanized.  Her severe hypothesis came as such a shock to me that I burst into tears. Meanwhile the lump on his leg burst and (spoiler alert: this gets gross) it started seeping pus and blood.

“Well,” she said after the x-ray, “the radiologist (yes, there are vet radiologists! And just about every other specialty too, from ophthalmologists to oncologists to orthopedists to nephrologists to neurologists to surgeons, etc.) said that there is no evidence of bone cancer.  So that’s good news.  But we need to figure out what IS happening and why.  Meanwhile I’m starting him on an antibiotic IV to see if we can control the infection.”  Cummins vet school at Tufts is a teaching hospital, but overall the vet residents are really smart people.  Statistically it’s actually harder to get into Tufts vet school than it is to Harvard medical school.  But it was interesting to see how Spencer’s cancer diagnosis prejudiced the resident giving the intake exam, and that bias made her overreach her initial assessment regarding his leg.

Spencer was then seen by an Attending (yes, veterinary medicine in the US is engineered similarly to our medical school system: after veterinary medical school vets do an internship and residency, and there is a chief resident and an attending physician on duty at the hospital for in-patient creatures big and small), who then referred him to the surgeon on duty.  Here is where we really lucked out, because Dr. Kudej (pronounced KOO-jee) is arguably the best surgeon at Tufts and a professor of veterinary medicine at the school.  Besides being a true mensch and explaining things carefully and giving me all the options for Spencer’s care, he consistently kept in touch with me in person and via cell phone throughout the entire ordeal.

As it turned out, Spencer’s infected leg was the result of a totally freak accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with his cancer.  While we were playing on Friday, he suffered a puncture from a small piece of bark or wood that was lying about.  He must have slammed into it very hard, because although it was small it traveled up into his leg five inches (!) taking with it a bunch of his hair (poodles have hair, not fur), and the two foreign bodies (hair, wood) caused massive infection.    Spencer would not only need surgery to remove the cancerous growth; he would require surgery to open up the entire length of his leg and debride it.

Spencer a few hours after his surgery, feeling pretty woozy and miserable.  I gave him a personal "cast signing party" which fell out on the 5th game of the World Series.  One of the residents was originally from Kansas City and was delighted by my "artwork."

Spencer a few hours after his surgery, feeling pretty woozy and miserable. I gave him a personal “cast signing party” which fell out on the 5th game of the World Series. One of the residents was originally from Kansas City and was delighted by my “artwork.”


As far as the surgery to remove the growth, the real question is how far the cancer had metastasized.  An ultrasound revealed that his lymph nodes near the abdomen were enlarged – – a really bad sign – – and there was a tiny lesion on his spleen.  Dr. Kudej indicated that for the best outcome, he would have to remove the lymph nodes and spleen, which was a rather involved abdominal incision and surgery that would require a longer post-op recovery.  And expense:  it would be an additional $2,000.  But Dr. Kudej was not finished.  He suggested that Spencer ideally should undergo both chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  The chemo would be administered weekly by IV; and the radiation was not only a huge commitment of time, it would be an additional $5,000 – $6,000!!!!

Once again I cried.  I knew there was no way I was going to commit this kind of money to my dog’s recovery, nor was I going to put the dog through the pain and suffering of treatment which would buy him an extra year at most beyond treating the primary cancer.  The vet said that the goal was not to “cure” Spencer: since his cancer was terminal, the chemo/radiation was merely to extend his life.  I was heartbroken, but knew that we would not be treating him beyond removing the primary tumor.

It is hard, but I have to put it into perspective.  I am very sad about the cancer diagnosis, but I am also glad it is not my husband, children or grandchildren.  Spencer is such a wonderful dog.  He’s a companion for my many walks and hikes in the White Mountains.  He’s a loving dog with great tolerance and love for baby grandchildren who unintentionally clobber him or pet him a little too hard.  He loves to run around with the older grandkids and appreciates their attention and excitement, and has taught them a bit about pet ownership and responsibility that they would not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.  There is not a person or other dog that he doesn’t greet with excitement and friendliness and love.  He can be wild and crazy and fun, but is always gentle and kind.  I cannot justify spending tens of thousands of dollars on my dog, although I met many caring people while waiting in the emergency room at Tufts who were doing just that, and no, they were (mostly) not neurotic (stay tuned for more about our Tufts adventure in a future blog post).  I will not judge them for their decisions to treat their animals sparing no expense, though those decisions are different from mine; and I only ask that they not judge me.  My goal is simply to appreciate Spencer for whatever time we have left (6 months?  1 year?), and when the joy goes out of his demeanor, and he is in pain that cannot be resolved, I will know it is time for us to say a final goodbye.

Right now Spencer is full of life, and enjoying every minute of it.

If you click on this link you will see Spencer a week after his surgery, once again playing “catch me if you can.”  He is wearing an e-collar temporarily until his stitches dissolve.




I’ve been told that in rural Maine, the presence of skunks is one of the first signs of Spring.

Friday it snowed 8″.  Sunday was gorgeous – 50 degrees, clear blue skies, and lots of melting snow.

Today (April 4)  it snowed another 2″.

But the skunks are, indeed, out and about.

We found out.

The hard way.  The hard, stinky, smelly way.

The problem with skunks is that they are actually very curious, friendly creatures.  They love sniffing around, investigating new sites, sounds and smells.

Unfortunately, they tend to have panic attacks when they feel threatened.

They feel threatened very easily.

Our Mr. Skunk was sniffing around the base  of our compost pile, on the other side of our driveway across from the house.  Our compost pile hasn’t been doing much composting lately – it’s mostly a bunch of frozen vegetable peels, frozen apple cores, coffee grounds, eggshells and dead leaves.  But I guess that particular day, when temperatures finally rose above freezing, the defrosting, enticing eau du garbage was nothing short of heavenly – if you are a skunk, that is.

At the same time, my husband was giving our dog his last walk of the evening before we turned in for the night.  It was 11:50 p.m. and Spencer, our Standard Poodle, was also drawn to the compost pile before doing his business.

Alas, Spencer came nose to nose with the skunk.

Before my husband registered what was happening, our dog sniffed the skunk.

The skunk sniffed the dog.

And then Mr. Skunk had his panic attack.

He sprayed our dog!

Luckily the dog wasn’t on his leash, so my spouse didn’t get it too.

Spencer was one very unhappy dog.

He sneezed a short succession of tiny, desperate sneezes.  Frantic, he rolled around in the snow.  He pawed at his ears and eyes with great agitation.

“Dear,” my husband called to me from outside, “I think you need to come out here.”

“I’m in my pajamas!” I replied, blissfully unaware of what perils lurked beyond our front door.

“You. Need. To. Come.  NOW!” my husband said, in the same desperate hushed tones you use when telling someone Really. Bad. News.

Alarmed, I stuck my head outside the door, still in my pajamas.  One whiff and I knew what had occurred.

“DO SOMETHING!” my husband yelled.

“Okay, give me a sec!” and running back inside, I dashed . . . to the computer.  I did a quick Google search.  I typed furiously:  HOW TO REMOVE SKUNK ODOR

Bless you, Google.  I sat down, put on my glasses, and started reading.

“WHERE ARE YOU?” my husband yelled.

“I’m  reading!” I yelled back.

Incredulous, my husband started to open the front door.

“Wait!  I’m not done!” I screamed, panicked.  “I’m just getting to the good part!”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with the dog?  I can’t leave him out here!” my husband hissed.

“The first thing is, if you are near the dog, or you try to clean him up, it says that your clothes will absorb skunk odor.  So,” I instructed, “you need to take off all your clothes before you start taking care of the dog.”

“It’s 26 degrees outside!” he yelled.

“Fine. Just drop your clothes at the door and come in.  Let me open the windows and then you can bring the dog into the bathtub.”

“Then what?” my husband said, shivering in his skivvies.

“I don’t know!  I’m still reading and I’m not up to that part yet!  You keep interrupting me!” I retorted.

The Internet gave a few suggestions, including commercially bottled skunk deodorizer, which I didn’t happen to have in the house.  The problem was that it was now midnight.  The closest store was 40 minutes away one way, and here in rural Maine, nothing is open past 6 or 7 p.m.  Plus, I really couldn’t see leaving the poor dog outside for 2 hours until I, still in my pajamas, would get dressed and drive to the closest late-closing Wal Mart nearly an hour away.  You’ve probably heard the one about tomato juice.  But I didn’t have tomato juice on hand, either.  So I tore through my kitchen cabinets, bringing forth anything derived from tomatoes, can opener in hand.

Diced tomatoes!  Heinz ketchup!  Don Pepino’s pizza sauce (I really hated to open that one, since I brought it all the way from my home town and ration it carefully)!

I told my husband, “Just start pouring it over the dog!”

I ran back to the computer.

Until now I thought we were managing real well as a team.  I was the research person, he was the implementor.  I guess my husband had other ideas.

“I need help with this,” he called.

Fine.”  I pouted, realizing that my pajamas would smell like skunk.  Now it was the two of us in just our underwear, pouring cans of  diced tomatoes and the ketchup bottle over the dog.  It was not a pretty sight.

“Oh – – I forgot to mention,” I added, “it says you have to leave in the tomato stuff for 20 minutes!”

“How am I supposed to get the dog to cooperate for twenty whole minutes?” my husband groaned.  Indeed, the dog was looking about wildly, trying to find an avenue of escape from the confines of the bathtub.

“Rub in the tomato stuff real good!” I suggested.  “That way it will go beyond his fur and go close to the skin!”

I have to say this:  we work well together, my husband and I.   The smell was starting to go away, and the minutes were flying by.

“Okay, let’s start rinsing him off,” I suggested.  It was now well after midnight and I just really, really wanted to get to bed.

I now realize why the experts suggest tomato juice and not diced tomatoes.  Diced tomatoes do not come out of dog hair.  They cling with a ferocity that evades the most vigorous massage.  So now I had one dripping wet dog, with clumps of  diced tomatoes stuck to him from head to toe.

Spencer did the only thing a dog could do.

He shook.

You know how dogs shake those rolling, tsunami-like shakes, and water goes flying everywhere?

The problem was, it wasn’t just water.  There were diced tomatoes on the walls.  Diced tomatoes on the floor.  Diced tomatoes all over the bare-skinned bodies of my husband and Yours Truly.  And there were still plenty of diced tomatoes embedded in Spencer’s fur.

“Now what?” my husband said.

“I’m going back to the computer!” I cried. “You stay with the dog and don’t let him out of the bathtub!”  Grabbing a towel, I wrapped it around my body so I wouldn’t leave a trail of diced tomatoes throughout the house as I ran back to the computer.  I only hoped the towel wouldn’t smell like skunk now, too.

Tomatoes, the Internet said, will neutralize but not remove the smell.

Darn! Why wasn’t that the first entry on page 1 of Google?  If we rinsed off the tomatoes, the skunk smell would return!

The Internet suggested  a mix of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and a few drops of dishwashing liquid.  Yes!  Luckily I had all of those things!  Triumphant, I ran back to the bathroom, mix in hand.

My husband was not faring well with the dog, who looked pathetic.

Spencer (click to enlarge)

I poured the mix on the dog, and it did seem to work.  The smell was pretty much gone after repeated scrubbing, washing and rinsing.  My dog began to relax.  Then he started thumping his tail, downright bright-eyed.  He felt better!

We toweled him off (praying that any residual odor would come out of the towels).  Happy with his tail wagging, Spencer jumped out of the bathtub.

We then started cleaning up the bathroom walls, tub, and floor from those obnoxious chunks of diced tomatoes.  The tomato pieces were small enough to cling and resist grabbing, but too big to go down the drain so they simply clogged the bathtub.  It was not fun, especially at 12:45 a.m.

Finally we showered off.  I used Irish Spring bath gel, whose overpowering fragrance seemed to do the trick.  I stuck the towels and our underwear in the washing machine, hoping the “hot water, heavy soil” load would be enough to kill any remaining odor.

We went to bed at 1 a.m., exhausted but relieved, realizing that any future dog-walking would be fraught with peril.

You would think that Spencer would have been sufficiently traumatized to avoid anything skunk-related.  That he would have learned his lesson.  But no.  The very next day, he made a beeline for the area of the compost pile.

Spencer was out for revenge, but I knew that it would not end well.  Stupid, stupid dog!

Fortunately the skunk was not there.

A few hours later, Spencer started barking frantically at the window.  Looking up at us, directly in the eye, was Mr. Skunk.  I could almost hear him saying, “na-na-nyah-na.”

Looking at one another through the window . . . (click to enlarge)

Then the most awful thought occurred to me:  what if it wasn’t a Mr. Skunk at all?  What if it was a Mrs. Skunk?  And she was going to give us lots of little baby skunks?

The next day, I went to town and bought skunk deodorizer.  I also replenished my supply of diced tomatoes and ketchup, just in case.  And I bought two boxes of mothballs, to sprinkle around the compost pile.  Skunks, according to the Internet,  hate mothballs.

But I noticed a slight skunk odor in the car.  “That’s funny,” I thought, “the skunk didn’t spray near the car, and the dog wasn’t anywhere near the car.”  On the way back from the store, I realized that smell was coming from . . . me!  Horrified, I was so embarrassed!  The lady obviously thought I was buying the the skunk deodorizer for myself.  “Yeah, right,” she was probably thinking disgustedly, “that’s what they all say – – that the deodorizer is for their dogs! Sheesh!”

When I got home, I took another shower, using plenty of Irish Spring bath gel.  I used a bit of hydrogen peroxide with baking soda, for good measure.

All was well until bedtime.  I decided a cup of tea would be in order, so I trudged into the kitchen to put the kettle on the stove.

What was that scratching noise I was hearing?

“Dear, I need you to come in here,” I called to my husband in the same desperate, hushed tones he had used two days before.

Mice!  Behind the refrigerator!

The next day I returned to the store.  I filled up on D-Con granules, mouse bait bricks, and spray-foam insulation sealant.

Because I used to be a Girl Scout.

And that means I’m prepared.  For whatever Spring will bring.