Last Friday I had to say goodbye to my best friend. Those of you who have read my blog know him as Muttboy, but his real name was Seamus. He was the best dog I have ever known. He was charming, loving, and sweet, and everyone who met him loved him. I used to joke that people who did not really care for dogs made an exception for Seamus; people who liked dogs loved him; people who loved dogs wanted him to be their dog. It wasn’t really a joke, though: he was truly an exceptional creature.
Last year when I started writing on this blog again, I had hoped to get back into the rhythm of writing and keep the posts flowing. Soon, though, I noticed that something was wrong with Seamus, and the worry from this overshadowed any minor plans I had.
It actually started a little earlier, when we visited some friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving. It had snowed shortly before our visit, and Seamus was reluctant to wade through the drifts. He seemed more wary and careful than I was used to seeing him. At first I thought it was just age starting to catch up with him, but then he recovered by Christmas and I thought I had been imagining things. In January, I noticed again that he seemed not quite right. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was sick. Part of me thought it was just my paranoia–when it came to Seamus’s health, I tended to be a little hyper-vigilant. Then, one night, he was clearly in distress. He spent the night panting and couldn’t seem to settle down. He even let out a whimper or two.
The next day I took him to the vet and we did a few tests. His regular doctor noticed that the muscles on the top of his head looked as if they had atrophied slightly–the little point at the back of his skull was very slightly more prominent. She worried that this might be a sign of cancer, so we focused on that. Initial blood tests were ambiguous, so we tested again. The second tests were normal. We decided to take an x-ray of his chest and abdomen to see if there were any problems. The films were also ambiguous. It was possible that his intestines looked slightly askew, which could mean something else was in there taking up space. After a few more weeks of tests and second-guessing, we decided to take Seamus to the big veterinary clinic down in Norwalk for a surgical consult.
The big vet is housed in an impressive building, and there are many doctors working there. The staff is large and friendly, with vet techs, surgical liaisons, and specialists. Our first step was to have an ultrasound done of his belly. After shaving the hair off his belly, the doctors scanned him and found that he did, as we suspected, have a tumor on his spleen. The doctor examining the images said she thought it looked like the less serious (that is, not cancer) form of tumor, partly because it was still relatively small. After talking to the surgeon, we decided to operate.
Seamus came through the surgery very well, and he managed, despite being doped up, to charm everyone working at the clinic. “He is the best dog,” said one. “Everyone loves him,” the surgical liaison told me.
His surgeon, who is exactly the type of person you want to have cutting into you or someone you love–exuding a perfectly capable and confident air–said the tumor was about the size of a tennis ball. Since splenic tumors are usually not discovered until they are really big–more like the size of a volleyball–this one was small. He also said that there was no visible metastasis, another good sign.
Then, at the end of the week, we got the call from the lab. The tumor was a hemangiosarcoma.
The hemangiosarcoma is the worst type of splenic tumor, and, as I knew all too well from my Google searches, the prognosis was not good. Most dogs don’t live longer than three months after this diagnosis. A few live six months. Almost none make it a year.
I put a good face on it, though, and decided that I would enjoy my time with my dog and see that he lived the best life he could. We started walking in the woods again even before the doctors had cleared him. He was too happy and eager to walk for us to stay in the house, and the winter and spring of 2012 was unusually warm and free of snow. The woods were calling.
At the end of April, Seamus seemed great until one day he was limping, holding his head down, and whimpering in pain. We sped down to the vet to see what was wrong. I was sure this was the end. It wasn’t, though. The day before, we had run into a big dog in the park where we walk and Seamus had forgotten his age and romped. His old shoulders were not up to that kind of roughousing, and he had hurt himself. Some painkillers and advice to take it a little easier seemed like a good ending.
In her examination of Seamus, though, the doctor had discovered that he had the beginning of a tumor in his anal gland. These tumors are slow-growing, the doctor assured us, so we could decide later if we wanted to have another surgery. Because of his dire prognosis, we decided against surgery.
Spring passed and summer came. Seamus spent hours walking in the woods with me, and he always grumbled when I took the trails that would get us back to the car sooner. He wanted to walk longer. He wanted to spend hours bushwhacking and exploring all the interesting scents. He trotted happily for miles.
We hit the six month mark. No sign of slowing down.
Eight months. He still seemed to be perfectly happy and healthy. We took him to his local vet to talk about his anal gland tumor. By this point it had grown large enough that it was starting to cause him some discomfort, and he was having trouble relieving himself. His doctor was not sure surgery was an option: the tumor might have grown too much. Nevertheless, we scheduled a consult.
The surgeon, in his cocky/confident way, assured us that surgery was possible. “I could do it in my sleep,” he told us. However, he wouldn’t want to operate until he knew there was no metastasis. First an x-ray to rule out metastasis from the original cancer. This came back clean, and the surgeon just shook his head. “I guess there are always exceptions,” he said. Next up: another ultrasound to make sure the new cancer had not metastasized. This also came back clean. Seamus was cleared for another surgery.
He came through this very well and within two days he was like a new dog. His appetite was great. He was energetic. He was happy. Most importantly, he was comfortable again. We went back to the woods for more long hikes. We celebrated Christmas with a long walk and extra treats. In January we welcomed his new little human brother into the world.
In April he started to have trouble relieving himself again. Remembering what the doctor had said almost a year earlier about how slowly this kind of tumor grows, I thought we had some time. This time, however, the tumor was seriously vicious. By early May he was starting to get very uncomfortable, and the tumor was visibly larger than I had expected it to be.
In the middle of the month, he started drinking a lot more. He went through four or five bowls of water a day and was peeing almost non-stop on our walks. A quick Google search revealed that kidney disease was the most likely culprit. Two weeks ago I took him back to his doctor to talk about his condition. I knew he did not have a lot of time left, but I wanted to make whatever time he did have more comfortable. His doctor agreed with my diagnosis: his kidneys were going. She prescribed palliative painkillers and some high fiber food to help make things easier.
Last week the tumor had grown so much it had almost completely closed off his colon. He would strain but couldn’t produce anything. He had stopped eating unless I made the most tempting thing imaginable.
On Thursday I called his doctor. It’s time, I told her. I knew he was not going to get better, and I couldn’t bear to see him suffer any more. He lived more than a year longer than he was supposed to, and I was very grateful for that time with him, but I knew it was over.
On Friday morning I got up early and cooked Seamus breakfast. I made him scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese. He looked at the dish with surprise but could not manage to eat more than a bite or two, and very small bites at that. I grabbed his leash and led him to the car. We were going to make one last hike in his beloved woods.
I parked in the lower parking lot, near the trails on the north side of the park. These trails were more rugged, less traveled, and most interesting for a dog. We started walking and Seamus trotted happily along in front of me, his tail held high and waving. I wondered if I had made the wrong decision–he looked so good. Then, after about half a mile, he slowed down. He still looked happy to be walking, but he was not going to run and leap around like a puppy.
We came to a fork in the trail. Seamus always wanted to go left, where the trail looped into even more wild territory. This day was no exception and I followed his bushy tail to the left. After the trail starts to loop back to the main trail, we often used to go off the trail and bushwhack into the woods, following game trails or no trail at all. Seamus wanted to do this, so once again I followed him. We wandered through the woods, up and down, over rocks and downed trees. He sniffed everything and walked slowly but happily. Every so often he would look back at me with his lovely, sweet doggy grin, just to check in and make sure I was there and everything was okay. When he needed to stop at a brook and get a drink, I waited patiently for him. I talked to him, told him he was a good dog, scratched his ears.
After almost two hours, we made it back to the car. It was a long walk but it was too short. We drove home and waited for it to be time to go to the vet. I laid on the floor with him and held him. Seamus pressed himself back into me, snuggling closer. Every so often I could feel him tense up in pain. He never cried or let out any other sign of distress, but I could tell he was not feeling well. I rubbed his ears, scratched his belly. I kissed him on his forehead the way he liked it and dug my hands into the thick fur around his neck. He licked me on the face and gazed at me.
Finally it was time. A friend had agreed to watch the baby while we took Seamus away. The vet’s office was ready for us. I signed some papers and paid. Then it was time to go into the room.
His doctor came in with a vet tech. She explained the procedure and said we did not have to stay. She said that as if she knew what my response would be. I had to be there for my boy. It was not right to leave him then. It was my responsibility as his best friend, as someone who has loved him immensely for almost twelve years, to stay with him and comfort him on his way.
Watching him die was the hardest thing I have ever done. I will always love that silly, smart, lovely dog. I will always miss him.