Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Loving old dogs

Thanks for all your kind thoughts about my dog. Max is elderly and not eating well. He is down to 78 pounds from 93, but this is easier on his joints. He seems to have fleas and a bit of mange, which are creating hot spots. In the last year he has developed a heart murmur. But a little care and attention over the weekend seemd to help a lot. Both Max and Toby hate baths, but cold water on those itchy spots seemed like a fair trade for the horror of wet feet.

I have switched vets, or maybe just added one, but I am happier with the care Max is getting. The other one does a lot of large animals in their practice, and I felt they were not really paying attention but maybe that is a function of this busy spring season. The new one put Max back on antibiotics and explained that the murmur is likely to lead eventually to congestive heart failure and that it is not treatable with medication. It is the kind of thing that requires surgery, but they don't do that, nor do they really recommend it for older dogs. Nor would I consider it. Heart surgery for an 11-year-old dog is not the same decision as hip surgery for a bouncing 5-year-old.

Max is an old dog, but I could have him with me for some time yet. I haven't asked for a prediction of how long, and I don't really want to know if an end point is near. I just want to feed him cookies and scratch his chest and take him for walks. I want to listen to him lecture me about how there are never enough cookies for such a good dog. I want to sleep with him in the room as long as possible so that I can hear snuffly German Shepherd breathing. These days, my best measures of how he is doing are his general mood and whether he can make it upstairs at night. More and more often, he prefers to sleep next to the stove in the living room on the bed I made for him as joints got creaky and old bones needed cushioning from hard floors. And one day, I want to come downstairs to find that he has gone to sleep there for the last time. I want Max to have a good life, but I want him to have a good and peaceful death, too.

I love my dogs. There is a special joy in living with and loving old dogs. I have a friend who adopted one of the puppies we fostered over Christmas. A couple of times a week she has new stories of the horrors that Sweet Pea has wrought in her house: peacock feathers, yarn, candles, all lost! No item is safe now that Sweet Pea can reach the tops of the counters. But every story of treasures lost is overbalanced by the puppy's charm, the sheer life that she has brought into the household. Even their old dog steps a little more smartly in the company of this bright young thing.

Old dogs, when we pay attention, still have that same sprightly appeal in layers deepened over our years with them. Max is still drawn to men, he still can lift them off the ground if I don't pay attention, and he still lectures me in that deep baritone. What a talky dog! There is a depth, a richness, a pentimento of the puppies we once knew still there, but old dogs don't yank us around on walks, they don't destroy household items, and they can generally tolerate more schedule unpredictability. But this time of their lives--and ours--when the occasional bathroom incident occurs, we can just look at each other and shrug.

When the puppies were with us over Christmas, it was notable that they never overshadowed the big dogs. The puppies were fun, but they had small personalities and no depth of character. The big dogs oversaw the whole distressing array gravely, and they let me know that I was testing the limits of their patience, but that they would tolerate it, for me. Sometime in the next few months I may be ready for a puppy, but not yet. This is not the time for tiny, new, rambunctious personalities. This is a time for being with Max and Toby. This is a time for caring for and appreciating especially Max, who has good days and bad days. It is a different stage of life, and once we are more accustomed to it--all of us--then we will be able to welcome a puppy with open hearts. Breathe in now, so that we can breathe out. Thanks for listening.


Lorianne said...

Oh, yes! I've never lived with a puppy: Reggie's my first dog, and he was an adult when I adopted him. He's around 9 or 10 now, although I don't know for sure since his history's a mystery. But he's starting to get a little creaky, and *I* notice that he runs slower & lies down more clumsily. To everyone else's eye, though, he still acts like a pup, which is what he *thinks* he is, I'm sure!

Robert said...

Ah, the fleeting pleasures of old dogs. I hope Max does OK to the end.

The first dog I had after moving away from home was named Max. It broke my heart when we had to put him to sleep.

You know what? I suddenly feel the need to spend time with Kane.

Anonymous said...

My dog Mr Bryn and I creak along together, he is now 13 or 14 and he's travelled with me for most of those years. I too measure how he's doing by his mood, the strength of wagging tail and following eyes. My hope like yours is that he has a gentle peace filled death at home on his favourite bed but I fear otherwise as the tumour in his brain is already upsetting his sense of what is and is not in the room with him and the tumour in his chest makes for heart skips and lung coughs but he is still very much a bundle of love and care up for sniffing the air, diving into the undergrowth and life with the same fervourso we contnue on.
I am fortunate to have brilliant vetinary care available and together our aim is to keep him as comfortable as possible but knowing days are numbered though not underlined with a finish date just circled with love till the end.
May Max sleep gently and wake renewed till he lets go into the long forever sleep and may you find much joy in accompanying a faithful friend and tutor on this journey to goodbye.