I never thought I’d have to make this decision. I thought nature would run its course as nature is apt to do. When you get a puppy at 22, you don’t think about how it will die. Or at least I didn’t.
Eight years ago, I drove to a breeder’s house in Bradenton. I giggled under my breath when I stepped into her living room and saw that every nook and cranny of this crammed spaced was occupied by pug decor – pug figurines, pug Beanie Babies, pug signs, pug needlepoint pillows, pug illustrations, pug calendars …
She wore pug earrings and a pug T-shirt. Even her husband looked like a pug.
Her name was Paula and I saved her phone number in my cell as Paula the Crazy Pug Lady. The grunting coming from her kitchen would later become the soundtrack to my life.
I would become a crazy pug lady too.
She unlatched a baby gate and six puppies rolled into the living room in joyful pursuit of whatever it is puppies desire. Food? Play time? Endless affection?
I knew immediately which puppy I wanted. He was the biggest and shiest of the litter. Even at six weeks old, his chest was wide and his face was full. He looked like a bear cub, I said.
I scooped him up. He snorted like a newborn pig.
“That one loves to be held,” Paula said. “He’s my mellow boy.”
He licked my face. In his dark round eyes I knew I’d found the one thing all people look for when they pick a dog: a kind and loyal friend.
Two of the puppies had been spoken for. The bear cub had not.
“I’ll take this one,” I said, as if I were picking out a sweater at the Gap.
“Come back in a few weeks,” she said. “And he’s all yours.”
For weeks I mulled over his name – Winston, as in Churchill. Walter, as in Matthau. Hitchcock, as in Alfred – but all of them seemed too … forced.
I had wanted to give him a clever name, a dignified and humorous name with cultural significance. His parents had clever and dignified names. His mother was Moneypenny, a Bond girl, and his father was Elvis, the king of all pugs.
Yet I always came back to Cub. It was an obvious name from the start. On the day I took him home I stopped at a pet store to make a dog tag at one of those instant engraving kiosks. I picked out a red aluminum heart and selected these words for the front: Cub is loved, followed by my phone number.
At the time I didn’t realize that naming my dog Cub meant I would forever be his mama bear.
As his mama bear I would be tasked with an inordinate number of responsibilities, including feeding, walking, grooming, nurturing, disciplining, socializing and treating any ailments that should befall him throughout the course of his life.
It’s what I signed up for the day I took him home. Furthermore, it is what you do when you love something.
It is important to note that these responsibilities, though not nearly as immense as the responsibilities of HUMAN parenting, shaped me as a caregiver.
Make Cubbie happy. Take him on adventures. Feed him well. Play with him often. Keep him safe. Keep him healthy. And now this: know when it’s time to let him go.
But when do you know it’s time? When does your dog’s suffering become too great to endure for you and for him? How do you quantify quality of life? How do you make peace with the fact that you did all you could do, even if that meant you couldn’t afford the one test that would absolutely confirm the culprit?
The culprit is most likely a brain tumor – fatal and inoperable. The test is a $2,200 MRI.
So here’s where I stand:
Cubbie’s current quality of life, if measured on a scale of Sucks to Wonderful, is at about SUCKS BIG TIME.
He averages about one seizure and three-to-five pee accidents a day. When he’s not sleeping (as he is now), he’s usually wandering in circles around the house, confused, blind and stuck in a corner waiting for me to pick him up and turn him around.
His mornings are much better than his nights, but that’s because his mornings are spent sleeping off his nights. Joe and I take turns crashing on the couch because when he does finally settle down in our (queen) bed, we don’t want to move him to make space for ourselves. Waking him at night can provoke seizures or further restlessness.
Because he’s blind and seizing, we JOLT awake with every move and sound he makes. We’re sleeping like we’ve got a newborn in the house again, except the newborn is 32 pounds and breathing like a diesel engine.
He’s on Phenobarbital for seizures, Prednisone for swelling, Gabapentin for pain and as of Monday, Cipro (Ciprofloxacin) for a bacterial infection.
The Cipro is our only hope. There’s a SLIM chance that a very bad, very stubborn, very LONG TERM ear infection spread to his brain and that THIS (not a tumor) is the cause of his neurological decline.
Last weekend we almost had him euthanized.
On Saturday we drove him to the park for one last picnic. We gave him an obscene amount of treats and let him mosey in the grass off his leash. We called our vet, a compassionate, open-minded and pragmatic man who agreed that we were doing the right thing given Cubbie’s likely prognosis. Then I called my dad for advice because that’s what I do in weighty situations.
“I knew this phone call was coming,” he said. “You wouldn’t be asking me if it wasn’t bad.”
That evening my sisters came over for pizza and beer. We all said our sad goodbyes.
By Monday he’d be gone, or so that was the heartbreaking plan.
Then Monday came and I wussed out. I took him to an animal neurologist instead. I needed to know I did all that I could do. I needed to pick the brain of a BRAIN specialist. That’s what specialists are for, right? As a reporter, if I were writing a piece on canine brain tumors, I’d certainly seek the opinion of a neurologist before publishing the story.
It was an expensive but valuable visit. After a lengthy examination she offered us three possible diagnoses: brain tumor (most likely fatal, strikes older dogs), Pug Dog Encephalitis (most likely fatal, strikes younger dogs) and a brain stem infection (treatable with high doses of antibiotics).
In June, I had Cubbie tested for an inner-ear infection. He’d been battling chronic infections for YEARS, like well before Henry arrived. Despite our vigilance, none of the antibiotic drops we’d been prescribed seemed to help the problem.
The test results of his ear cytology were not great. He had both Pseudomonas and Staph in his ears, notoriously stubborn strains of bacteria. He was prescribed Cipro to treat the infection, but after three doses we stopped the pill because it seemed to trigger more (and worse) convulsions. (This was before he was on anti-seizure meds.)
We were told the infection was likely unrelated to the seizures, so we decided to focus our efforts on the bigger problem instead: managing the seizures.
By August he was blind, another tell-tale sign of a tumor.
An ear infection that spreads to the brain is incredibly rare, but not impossible. The neurologist we saw on Monday has seen it happen before, specifically to a pug with strains of Pseudomonas and Staph in his ears. That dog arrived at her clinic on death’s door in the middle of a grand mal seizure. That dog had an MRI, which showed that he had an infection in his brain, not a tumor. After massive doses of antibiotics the dog eventually recovered.
Freak incident? Yes. Worth overlooking? No.
“It’s possible the same thing is happening to Cubbie,” she said. “An MRI will let us know.”
She left the room so Joe and I could pow-wow about what to do next. We came to the conclusion that an MRI, though helpful, would cost us a fortune and likely reveal that Cubbie’s condition was fatal and nothing more could be done. We decided to pass on the test, treat the treatable and hope for the best.
Thus, we’re now giving him high doses of Cipro, a common and inexpensive antibiotic, in addition to his usual cocktail of Phenobarb, Prednisone and Gabapentin. We started this antibiotic on Monday and in three days we’re noticing subtle improvements. Last night Cub got his best sleep in MONTHS. There was no panting, no restlessness and more importantly, no seizures.
I know his chances are still slim. I know it’s overly optimistic of me to think something so simple as Cipro will save him, but I’ve got nothing to lose but hope.
I know this isn’t my typical Lance post. I’ve probably bored half my readers with the bleak realities of dog ownership. Nonetheless, I think it’s is an important story to share on the internet. Where do we immediately turn for guidance when shit gets scary? The internet. I’ve read dozens of dog stories – some with happy endings, some with sad endings – in an effort to get to the bottom of Cub’s story.
I know his story doesn’t have an ending yet, but as his mama bear it’s my responsibility to make it as happy as possible for as long as possible. No matter when or how it ends, I’ll know without a doubt that I did my absolute best.
Full disclosure: Cubbie had two seizures today – one while I was writing this post.