When our late cockapoo was 10 years old, he was diagnosed with diabetes and very shortly after went blind. This meant two shots of insulin a day for the rest of his life, and our choice of a blind dog or a $3,200 cataract operation that would restore his sight. After several months of watching him getting increasingly more depressed about his blindness (and suffering our own depression from it), we sprung for the cataract surgery. Without doubt, it was the best $3,200 we ever spent. The look on his face the day after the surgery, when we took him out for the first time, was priceless. Like a puppy! The psychic relief that it gave my wife and me, and our two daughters, was priceless.
And despite the inconvenience of dealing with a diabetic dog (injecting him with insulin twice a day, other geriatric illnesses and conditions that flow from diabetes, urinary incontinence that got worse over time, inability to board him for vacations, and so forth), he lived five more years, all but the last six months or so of it with a very high quality of life. We put him to sleep at 15 1/2, when we knew he was giving up and would be gone within a few weeks, and it was still the toughest day of our collective lives.
I mention this because, when I tell this story to friends who are from rural areas, they laugh and tell me what a bunch of softies we are, that they would never spend $3,200 on an operation for a dog, that dogs will adapt to blindness. They see spending $3,200 on cataract surgery for a dog as nothing short of preposterous. But I can’t imagine living with him being blind, knowing we could do something about it.
A reader shares a resource for those facing life-or-death decisions for their pets:
Since I don’t have children, I sense that I would likely go overboard to care for my border collie. When I came across this quality-of-life scale for pets a few years ago, I bookmarked it so I could be more objective when the time comes. I hope other Dishheads may find it helpful.
Another raises an eyebrow:
I’m surprised your reader thinks that giving a dog chemotherapy will make it “very sick” and is “like torture.” Actually, at least with the kind given to my dog – which gave us another 15 months of very high quality life with her – it is very rare that an animal will get sick, or indeed suffer any side effects whatsoever. Mine had none. I’m sure a vet or two will weigh on the subject, but I just wanted to make this point.
Another nods, with many other readers sharing their stories and photos:
A reader pointed out that “chemo is awful” when discussing why he or she would not subject her family cat to it. I would suggest that she talk with her veterinarian about it before assuming that human chemotherapy treatment and pet chemotherapy treatments are perfectly analogous. In general, the side effects of pet chemotherapy are much, much less severe. My dog lost his leg to cancer about 20 years ago, and we put him on chemotherapy at the time. Of course we can never truly know what was going on in his head, but externally he was as happy, goofy, and active as ever during his treatment, and he loved going to the treatment center. And he ended up living three more years (his pre-chemo prognosis was three to six months).
Another updates us on his dog’s chemo experience, chronicled in “The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets”:
Last summer I wrote to you about my dog Jack, who had recently completed chemo. At the time of treatment, we were told that our investment would likely get us a year, give or take, with the dog. A year came and went this past October, and Jack continues to be the happy, goofy, if old dog we had hoped he’d become. You may remember him from the photo that ran last summer [seen to the right].
Since then – and this is where we tie into the current thread – we’ve had to euthanize both cats in the house. The first cat became very ill, very quickly. The vet recommended tests, surgery, and ultimately a feeding tube. All of this was done with the understanding the cat would recover and live for several more years. Instead, we subjected the cat to incredible suffering for the better part of a week before we had to call it quits. My wife and I vowed that we would not repeat this.
When the other cat began his downhill slide, we discussed with the vet that our focus was on quality of life, not quantity of treatment. She was completely on board with this, and the cat had a glorious last week. One of the things we did was let him out in the yard to hunt, under supervision, and let his inner warrior get a one long, wonderful taste of life. When it was time to end things with this pet, we knew the suffering had been minimized, and therefore the experience was much, much easier. We have no regrets, and have planned a similar sendoff for the dog.
Several weeks ago, our beloved nine-year-old dog was diagnosed with a melanoma tumor in her mouth. As you know, this is one of the most aggressive cancers. We live on one of the Neighbor Islands in Hawaii, and our vet told us we would have to fly her to Honolulu for specialty treatment as there were no facilities for the required surgery where we live. Within two days we were on a plane to Honolulu with Gwendolyn to meet with the doggie oncologist at the specialty hospital.
Following examination, including a cat scan, the doctors determined that it was in the early stages and gave us the option of surgical removal of part of the bone and teeth in her upper jaw. The surgery was performed and she was back home and feeling fine two days later. She is also receiving a very promising new melanoma vaccine that is used for both canines and humans. So far her prognosis is excellent. Other than a slight dent in the side of her face, you would never know she had had such a procedure. She has fully recovered.
So far the treatment, including travel, has cost in excess of $13,000. We are very fortunate that we can afford it and consider the cost about the equivalent to a really nice vacation. We will enjoy whatever time we have with Gwennie far more than that. We are realistic enough to know that if the cancer recurs we will most likely not pursue this course further, but we felt we had to give her the chance for more life. As a life-long animal lover, I know that there can be no greater pain for some of us than losing a well-loved pet. I also wish that we humans were treated with the same compassion when our time comes as we extend to our furry family members.
An equally loving pet owner chose the opposite approach:
I have two 13-year-old dogs who are as dear to me as any family member (more so than a few). A recent trip to the vet with revealed congestive heart failure in one and possible Cushing’s disease in the other. The dog with congestive heart failure also has bad teeth that if treated would cost between $700 and $800. Both diagnosing and treating Cushing’s disease would require multiple trips to the vet. I am lucky to have a vet who understood completely why I declined treatment for both dogs.
I have been down this road before, once spending $700 on an ill and elderly rabbit who died on the operating table. I also spent $1,300 on a guinea pig’s teeth until realizing I would be shelling out $500 every six months. The guinea pig was euthanized.
I love my pets and cherish the way they have enhanced my life. But the sad truth is that they are approaching an age from which they will surely die of something. I doubt it will be either tooth decay or Cushing’s disease. I am not poor and could probably afford the treatments for my dogs with some economizing. But they are comfortable, they are treated for pain twice a day, and I will do all I can to make the last years of their lives comfortable. For me, declining treatment is an act of love and acceptance.
Another takes issue with the reader who wrote, “I understand that there is a sentimental component to the decision to forego a $5,000 operation for your pet, but from a moral standpoint I have no hesitation. Given that there is an oversupply of dogs and cats, putting one down simply means you can drive to the humane society and save another”:
Intellectually, I agree 100-percent with this. However, until it happens to you, you just cannot know to what lengths you will go for a pet. One of my dogs suffered a back injury. He was in great pain. I took him to a specialist who, after a $2,500 MRI, determined that he was a good candidate for successful back surgery. There were no guarantees, needless to say, but Homer was only six and a half years old at the time. I decided he was worth it and took money out of my retirement savings to get him the surgery.
Yes, he was on the end of a six-foot leash for two months. He didn’t like it. I slept with him on the living room floor for the first six weeks, then we built some kick-ass stairs for him to walk up to the mattress on my platform bed, where I tied a scarf around my wrist to his collar and he continued recuperating without being allowed to jump down, and believe me, his personality would dictate that he jump down. He has recovered beautifully, and even seems to have learned the benefit of using the stairs to get up and down from my too-high bed.
Would I do it again? I don’t know. My other two dogs are just fine. I do get them dentals as needed, and they do go to the vet more than your average dogs. Homer has developed seizures, so we’re working through medications and dosages to keep them at a minimum.
I guess the answer on just how far you will go for your pets is so personal and individual that there might not be all that much point in discussing it. If someone told me to my face that I was stupid for spending the money that I spent on him (we call Homer the “Eight-Thousand-Dollar Dog,” though altogether I am sure I spent more like $10,000), I would call them something far worse than stupid. Certainly financial circumstances can change enough as I get closer to retirement that the choice will be taken from me. For now, I’m happy to spend the money to keep any one of my dogs happy and healthy and with me.