Monday, October 25, 2010

We Can Rebuild Her...

When we were looking for our first house in the Cape, our top priority was a fenced yard so we could become dog owners.  It ranked above a garage or walk-in closets.  My husband and I both grew up with dogs in our homes and knew we wanted to start out our married life with our own just as soon as possible.   We already had a cat, and we loved them as well, but cats and dogs are apples and oranges.  Having one does not take the place of the other.

For the 17 years that we have been married and lived in the Cape, our breed of choice has been Great Danes.  Our current Dane, Maggie, is a six-year old harlequin who we've had since she was eight weeks old.  She was preceded by Schuyler (pronounced Shuler) who was two-years old when we found her through Great Dane rescue - also a harl who lived to be nine (a respectable lifespan for a Dane).  Her predecessor was Gwynevere (Gwynie), an angel of a black Dane who we lost at three years of age to lymphoma.

It's not easy, or even advisable, to be so invested in a particular breed.  With pure breeds comes the battery of health conditions that plagues each one uniquely.  With Great Danes, the list includes bloat, wobbler's, cancer, hip dysplasia, just to name a few.  After 17 years and three Great Danes, we've seen several of these.  The gene pools for pure breeds are just a whole lot smaller than for your average pound mutt, and small gene pools are not good for the survival of any species.  Add to that the poor breeding practices of people out to make a buck, or even well intentioned people who love the dogs but don't know what they're doing, and the breeds really start to suffer with a host of defects.

Knowing all this, we have still been drawn time and again to Great Danes.  Every breed has a common set of traits that make it uniquely different from any other.  With Great Danes, it's the gentle, adoring spirit residing in that massive body that has us hooked.  While all of our Danes have had distinct personalities, each one has filled the house with the same presence - leaned on us and sat on our laps in the same way.  Every Dane we meet is instantly recognizable to us from our experiences with our own.  We laughed hysterically through  Marmaduke - a movie probably funny only to Great Dane owners.

I don't think anyone can argue that getting a dog from the pound is the more responsible thing to do.  We always struggle a little with this, and it's part of the reason we went through Great Dane rescue for our second dog.  Everyone has to decide what's best for them.  I would just encourage people who choose a pure breed to do their homework when it comes to breeders and avoid the pet store when it comes to buying a purebred puppy at all cost.

So on to the real topic of this post.  Over the winter, we decided to take the next big leap in dog ownership and get a second dog.  Even we were not crazy enough to take on a second Great Dane without adding a stable to our house.  We were thinking more along the lines of a dog that would be better suited for Cape life/boating - generally more of a dog and less of a couch potato - and presumably lower maintenance with respect to health.

Enter our new breed of choice, the Australian Shepherd.  We were introduced to these dogs by both a family member and a friend who we recently visited.  We fell in love with the happy, smiling disposition and smart mind.  After some searching for a breeder, we brought home a ball of fur on Memorial Day this year and named her Laika, after the first dog astronaut (actually, cosmonaut) in space.

Laika at 8 weeks.
Laika is no Great Dane.  She is more akin to Tigger of Winnie the Pooh fame, bouncing around as if on springs, defying gravity.  While lounging is the predominant activity bred into Great Danes, Australian Shepherds were bred to herd, and all of our clothes show evidence of her attempts to herd us around the yard with a nip for encouragement.  Where Maggie hates the water, Laika can't stay out of it.  She loves the baby pool we bought her, and heads down to the dock to wade in the creek at every opportunity.  She even likes to sit out in the rain.  Maggie avoids going out in the rain with every ounce of her 145 pounds.  Laika is all dog, where Maggie is certain she is at least half human.

Laika Lounging at the Dock
Maggie and Laika
We have loved this ball of energetic fur from day one, and now at seven months, that love is being put to its first test.  Well, not our love, because there's no question that we adore her and are committed to her wellbeing.  It's another tricky question we've been presented that many dog owners are faced with at some point or another.  Just how much are we obligated to provide in the way of health care for our pets, and how much is even appropriate?

As early on as three or four months, we noticed that Laika would limp on one or the other of her hind legs after running hard.  We didn't think much about it since it always resolved in a day or less, but through months four and five, we started to notice her getting up slowly and having occasional difficulty with stairs.  When she played with Maggie, she would frequently yelp in pain if her legs slid out from under her awkwardly, and her back legs were turning out to the side instead of facing forward.

The combination of symptoms concerned us enough that we had X-rays done when she went in for her spay surgery.  The pictures indicated what we already suspected, a moderate level of hip dysplasia, although her symptoms argued for a more serious case.   Hip dysplasia is not terribly well understood - bad looking hips can last a lifetime with no symptoms while less dysplastic (loose) hips can present with severe pain.  Laika was in the second category, and her level of discomfort did not bode well for her future.  I notified her breeder for their records.  Our contract stated that we could exchange our puppy for a new one if hip dysplasia was diagnosed within the first two years.  That was simply inconceivable to us.  We were Laika's and she was ours, come what may.

So we were presented with two options by the vet.  Medicate her with pain killers and anti-inflamatories as needed to manage the discomfort until such time that the hips became riddled with arthritis, at which point the choices would be a total hip replacement or euthanasia, probably sooner than later.  Or, go with a more aggressive approach involving surgery on both sides of her pelvis to try and correct the poor hip configuration.  This particular procedure can only be done in a very narrow window - between 4 and 8 months (maybe up to 12 months) - before any damage has started to occur to the joint.  The prognosis is fairly good, but it's a very invasive and expensive procedure (not as invasive or expensive as total hip replacement, but no picnic).

There is no right or easy choice here.  It comes down to weighing all the information and doing what is best for you and your pet.  For some, the expense is a show stopper, and that is a legitimate call.  No matter how much we love our pets, we can't bankrupt ourselves in the pursuit of their care or compromise the wellbeing of our human family.  Even if we can afford it, I'm not sure it makes sense to put our pets and ourselves through such complicated medical procedures.  We never even entertained the notion of chemotherapy for our two Danes who had cancer.  The outcome was not much improved for the amount of discomfort it would have required, not to mention the expense.

This was a little different situation, however.   Laika was a young, healthy dog in every other way, the prognosis for her recovery was good, the alternative was bad, and while the cost was not chump change, we were able to afford the procedure with a little shifting of priorities and a commitment from the kids to do their part.  This was going to be a family decision with an understanding of what each of us would sacrifice to make it happen.

"Gentlemen, we can rebuild her...".

I guess you can see where I'm headed with this.  We did decide to go ahead with the surgeries (one on each side of the pelvis, two to four weeks apart).  I just brought Laika home today after weathering the first round very well.  She is not a happy camper with her elizabethan collar and frankenstein looking right hip/leg, but she's bearing some weight and has a good appetite.  A narcotic patch is providing her with a constant source of pain relief, and with luck and rest, she will be through the worst of it in a couple of weeks - just in time to do the other side.  When all is said and done, we will have a bionic dog with stainless steel plates holding together her new and improved pelvis.  It wasn't quite six million dollars, but enough to make us catch our breath and downsize Christmas.

This is how you show you LOVE me?
Little Miss Muffet.
We won't know for some time, and may never really know, whether this was the best route to take.  Like all the tough decisions in life, we gather all the information at our disposal, weigh the pros and cons for our given situation, and forge ahead trying not to second guess ourselves.  I guess I'm thankful to have had a choice, but sometimes technology and advances in medicine muddy the picture.  We have to work hard to sift through it all and make the best call for all parties involved.

So exactly what do we owe our pets?  Here is what I believe to be the very minimum.  Number one, love and affection tempered with constructive discipline and boundaries.  Dogs aren't happy or healthy when we don't give them positive structure and routine.  Next is food and water - one or two good meals a day - followed by some sort of shelter.  Not all dogs are created equally, and shelter can mean different things to different dogs.  For our Great Dane to survive the elements for any period of time without a soft, dry, warm, bed would seem cruel and unusual punishment to her, but a dog like Laika is clearly equipped to withstand, and even enjoy, the outdoors, with the exception of extreme weather.  I think we owe them spay/neuter surgery, yearly veterinary checkups, standard vaccines, and heartworm, tick, and flea protection.  When we can, we owe them treatment of the things that ail them within reason, and comfort from their infirmities.  And when the time comes, we owe them a peaceful and dignified farewell.

OK, frankly that list pretty much applies to all the ones we love and care for.   While our pets are not humans, they are certainly members of many of our families, and we are rewarded for our investment of time and money many times over in the form of loving companions who bring us joy, happiness, and loyalty.  I realize not everyone shares that view, but this family's life is much richer for sharing it with our animals.

Well, technically, we would be richer without them.  Six million dollars richer...


Unknown said...

I am with you Christy! Our lives are certainly richer because of Dudley. We wish Laika a speedy recovery and I promise not to send Dudley over for any romps anytime soon!

Loves, Cin

Christy said...

Thanks Cindi! She actually looks better than I expected. The challenge will be keeping her quiet. She already wants to romp in the yard with Maggie and chase Dinky. We do not want to have to go in for repair work, so she will be spending some time in her crate if it becomes a problem. We moved her crate into the family room.