Two in Two

I am going to be sick.

Just two weeks ago, we lost our beloved dog, Tabasco, to lung disease and old age. She was a close companion, which made the loss more difficult, but we were grateful we had a month or so get used to the idea that she was in a fatal decline.

We got no such warning last night. The kids were in bed, and I’d gone out to my office to watch the end of a television program. At about 10:45, I heard Scooter the border collie barking like I’d never heard him bark before. In fact, at first I wasn’t even sure it was him. The bark was higher pitched, desperate, and very intense. I grabbed my spotlight and went out to investigate, thinking perhaps he’d gotten in a fight with (or simply cornered) a wild animal. The bark was coming from the direction of the road, and was now so urgent that I broke into a full run down the driveway.

When I reached the road, I found no wild animal. Just Scooter, laying in the middle of the street, struggling — but failing — to get up. I ran still faster, to help him, but he’d clearly been injured very badly. He smelled awful, like the stuffing had been knocked out of him. I had to get him out of the road, and I wondered if we could make it to the vet in time.

I’m not sure if my attempt to move him aggravated an internal injury, but he was already going into shock when I tried to pick him up. A passing motorist stopped and carried my light for me as I hauled Scooter to the back porch; I didn’t get his name, but his sympathy was greatly appreciated and I wish I could thank him again.

Scooter was limp by the time I laid him on the porch. I ran in to tell Mrs. Yeoman Farmer; she’d heard the yelps, but hadn’t known what they were. She was as upset as I was about the whole thing, but we were glad the kids were already asleep.

I returned to Scooter’s body, and was surprised I could still feel a heartbeat. His eyes were glazed over, and his body was doing little other than twitching. I didn’t know if he could hear me, but I told him over and over what a good boy he was. And kept my hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat. Finally, he made one big sudden twitch…and then I couldn’t feel his heart beating anymore.

Not wanting the kids to discover the body in the morning, I hauled Scooter to the pasture where he’d gotten so much joy in giving us so much tremendous service. This morning, I got up early and dug a grave near where we buried Tabasco…but closer to the main path the sheep take to return to their paddock at night. I thought that’s where Scooter should rest: right near the place where he did his favorite work.

He was only four years old. He was in the absolute prime and vigor of health. He loved every instant of his life, and the things he got to do here on the farm: bringing sheep in and out from pasture, rounding up the goats when they’d broken through a fence, chasing down errant birds and holding them carefully until I could pick them up, getting big squirts of milk when the Yeoman Farm Children milked the goats, taking romps with me through the woods as I inspected a trap or fence line…I’ll never forget the way he’d yelp with joy and practically jump out of his skin when he realized it was time to get to work.

Which is what I need to do right now, actually. Stop typing and get to work, that is. I’m not yelping and jumping out of my skin at the prospect, but these weeks are absolutely jam packed with professional work for me. Which makes it the absolute worst time to have to cope with losing the Best Companion Dog Ever and the Best Farm Dog Ever in rapid succession. I am glad I have lots of work to immerse myself in. I’ll try to approach it with the enthusiasm Scooter would have for work on the farm.

But right now, my heart is too heavy and my eyes are too full to do anything but grieve.

Beyond My Limit

Today, I did something I never wanted to do…and was certain I would never bring myself to do: personally put my beloved dog out of her suffering. Over the years, I’ve had to put down injured or sick cats, goats, lambs, and birds. It was never pleasant, but I’d never hesitated. But all that time, dogs remained for me a line I couldn’t cross. Especially a companion like Tabasco.

As regular readers know, we’d had Tabasco for nearly four years. We got her as a stray when we lived in Illinois; she showed up at the local rural animal shelter on the same day our Collie was hit by a car. Our vet happened to run the shelter (it was a really small county), and someone there knew we were looking for a new farm dog. Tabasco, it turned out, was a perfect fit. She was on the older side, and wasn’t terribly large, but had plenty of spunk and energy. She had a wonderful temperament, was good with our kids, loved retrieving tennis balls, enjoyed riding around in cars, and made herself a fierce defender of our property (she was a determined enough “alpha” to stand up even to our Great Pyrenees…not to mention any intruders who might show up unannounced). She had long legs and a long narrow muzzle, and loved spending hours digging her way into field mouse dens. (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer didn’t like it so much when these digs were in the middle of the lawn.)

As Tabasco got older, she increasingly spent her days with me in my office building. She’d go out to relieve herself, but grew less interested in everything else. She slept on my office couch each night, and was my constant companion by day as I worked. I found it particularly heartening when I’d return to the office after a few hours away…and find her curled up on my desk chair. She’d look up with her big eyes, thump her curly tail, and seem to be assuring me that she’d taken good care of my special place.

The first big turning point was last November, when we were gone for several weeks adopting Yeoman Farm Baby. Tabasco developed a hacking cough, bad enough that the family watching our farm mentioned it regularly over the phone. I took her to the vet once we’d returned, and x-rays confirmed a case of pneumonia. We gave her a course of antibiotics, which took care of the worst symptoms, but Tabasco was never the same. She seldom went out at all, or didn’t seem interested in much of anything but eating and sleeping and watching me work. At the time, I chalked this up to the cold winter. But even when the spring thaw came, she never again tried to chase a tennis ball or tag along for chores. The kids would take her to the barn at milking time, but that was more about getting free squirts of milk than anything else.

Then came the bloat. As detailed in another post, her bloat got so bad about a month ago that I took her to the vet…who took another x-ray, and delivered the grim diagnosis: tumors all over her lungs. Technically, pulmonary edema, and possibly lung cancer. At her age, there wasn’t much of anything we could do. The vet gave some medications to drain her fluid and open her airway, but there was never any question of Tabasco making a recovery. The medication was all about buying time so we could say goodbye.

And I am deeply grateful for that. When we were at the vet last month, he wasn’t sure Tabasco would make it through the weekend. The news was such a shock, I broke down right there in the examining room. And then…the medications gave us five more weeks. Tabasco’s bloat was dramatically reduced within a matter of days, and for the next three or four more weeks she seemed almost normal. Slow, subdued, uninterested in strenuous activity, urinating all the time — but stable and able to get around. I treasured every time I walked through my office door and she looked up and thumped her tail. We gave her all the meat scraps and dog treats she would take, and told her over and over what a great great dog she was.

Then came the last week. Suddenly, she had a lot of trouble getting to her feet. Especially on the slick floor of my office. I told her that was okay; I’d help her get up. I wondered if it was a side effect of the steroids, or just her disease running its course. She’d have good days and bad days, but the general trajectory was downward. She went from having trouble getting up, to having trouble walking around. Her joints seemed stiff, and her hind quarters didn’t want to follow her front quarters.

Then, a few days ago, she couldn’t keep herself in a squatting position long enough to relieve herself. Or a standing position long enough to drink from her bucket. I’d hold her at the bucket so she could drink, but then she’d flop down on the grass. She seemed to like the fresh air, so I’d leave her out. And because she couldn’t get to her feet on my office floor, I’d leave her out at night as long as it wasn’t raining.

I sensed we’d reached a turning point, and began thinking more seriously about taking her in for the vet to put her down. I was certain I couldn’t do it myself. I’m a dog person to the core, and Tabasco was my constant companion. Every fiber of my being revolted at the idea of inflicting harm on her body from my own hand. It’d taken four weeks just to get comfortable with the idea of cradling her in a blanket as I allowed a vet to put her to sleep. Tabasco was a survivor, and a fighter. As long as she was physically able to keep going and seemed to have the spirit to fight, I resolved to let her do it. I prayed she’d die on her own, but knowing her…I knew she wouldn’t.

I wondered how I’d know when Tabasco couldn’t go on, and I’d have to make The Call. She wasn’t well at all yesterday, and I started to think Monday would be It. I began thinking about how I could squeeze a vet visit into my crazily busy schedule. I grilled a big batch of lamb steaks for dinner, and made sure Tabasco got every bone and every scrap. Even though she couldn’t move to get anything, she seemed to be having the time of her life as we fed them to her.

Then, this morning when I came to her, I knew it was time. I couldn’t make her wait till the vet opened on Monday. As absolutely revolting as it was to think about putting her down myself, a perfectly clear realization came to me: it was even more revolting to think about making her suffer a single additional day like this. And I couldn’t make her do it. I cared about her too much. I cared about her so much, I knew in my core that I had to end this. Now.

How did I know? And how did I do it? Some of you may be uncomfortable with the details, but I think they need to be shared. For that reason, the details will be after the jump. Continue reading only if you want to.

(I don’t know why the “Jump Break” doesn’t work, so I’m inserting the following manual break instead.)

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Tabasco’s inability to stand on her feet, or to squat to defecate, was the core of the problem. I didn’t mind carrying her around, or holding her as she drank. The issue became hygiene, and it was a lot worse than I’d thought. Bottom line: flies started to love her. By Saturday afternoon, they were all over her rear end. Saturday night, I got a look at what they were doing to her: her orifices were crawling with fly larvae. I hosed her down, and that brought some relief. Her spirits, despite everything, seemed to remain high.

Then, this morning, the larvae were back with a vengeance. And she smelled absolutely horrible. And Tabasco’s spirit was gone. I sat her on her tail in my lap, put on a latex glove, and used peroxide to clean her up as best I could. But as much as I cleaned, the larvae kept coming. And, despite the early hour, the adult flies were already swooping in to lay more eggs. I knew there was no way whatsoever we could let her go a full additional day in this condition. Not in this heat. Not in this humidity.

It was time.

I went in the house and advised Mrs. Yeoman Farmer as to the situation. She agreed there was really no other option. It’d be cruel in the extreme to make Tabasco linger for another 26 hours while we waited for the vet to open, and we certainly couldn’t call a vet to the farm on a Sunday morning to administer an “emergency” euthanasia.

We broke it to the kids, who took it surprisingly well. I think the five weeks of preparation helped a lot with that. Homeschooled Farm Girl got choked up, brought me a fabric flower that she’d been saving, and asked if I would bury it with Tabasco. Despite the huge lump in my own throat, I assured her I would.

I took a shovel to the pasture, and dug the deepest hole I could. When I came back to retrieve Tabasco, Homeschooled Farm Boy asked if he could go with me. I let him carry my (unloaded) pistol, while I cradled Tabasco in a blanket for the trek.

We set Tabasco in the bottom of the hole, and helped her curl up as comfortably as we could. HFB and I both said our last good-byes, and then I covered her head with an old dish towel before delivering the bullet that would end everything.

I’d actually given a lot of though to the type of round I wanted to use. A shotgun slug or .45 pistol or 7.62x54R rifle would be too big. I didn’t want to blow her head off. A .22 or .380 might be too small and not do the job the first time. I settled on a 7.62×25 pistol; it’s a relatively small but extremely powerful round that would be effective without overkill.

And it indeed was the perfect choice. One pop (which, I confess, I closed my eyes as I delivered), and it was over. No doubt, but no mess. HFB and I quickly covered Tabasco’s body with rocks, and then filled the hole the rest of the way with dirt. We tamped it down, and then made our way back to the house with heavy hearts.

Strangely, my heart didn’t remain heavy for long. Yes, I felt a sad pang the first time I entered my office and looked for Tabasco’s thumping tail greeting that would never come again. But, at the same time, I felt oddly liberated. It was over. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer agreed: it was a relief to finally have resolution to the situation. Finally, we knew how it was going to end. Finally, we could move on.

I’m still surprised I found it within myself to pull that trigger, and I’ve sensed an odd change within myself today as I’ve reflected on it. I’m a stronger person now. I’ve confronted and overcome a challenge I ever even wanted to confront, let alone overcome. The other big challenges in life seem strangely less insurmountable today.

All that said, I have missed Tabasco today. Especially when I was de-boning the meat for lamb stew, and thinking about how much she would enjoy feasting on the scraps…before remembering.

But it’s going to be okay. Scooter loved those scraps. And Tabasco…I’m just glad her suffering is over. And I’m grateful God gave me the strength to render that service.

Hanging in Here

Sorry for the slow posting of late; we are here, but buried under the summer’s work on the farm. Add to it a slew of professional work (my business is opinion research, particularly political, which spikes during the summer and fall months of even-numbered years), and it’s been hard to come up for air.

For those who are curious, Tabasco continues to hang in there as well. We got a refill on her medications; I think the vet was a little surprised to hear she stabilized, but gave us a month’s worth of pills for her. We’ve kept on spoiling her rotten, letting her have first crack at the best dinner scraps. She’s been acting very old and slow, but content and not in a lot of pain. So…for the time being we’re going to keep appreciating every extra day we get to have her in our lives, even as we prepare ourselves for the day when it’s clear we won’t be able to let her keep going on.

My goal for the weekend is to butcher the six remaining Pekin ducks. Or maybe fewer, if Homeschooled Farm Girl prevails and convinces me to keep a one or two of the females.

“Why do you want us to keep one?” I asked her.

“Because I like them,” she replied.

When you’re a Daddy’s Girl, that’s usually enough to prevail.

Our Survivor

Thanks to all who have responded with sympathy at the recent news that our dog, Tabasco, is dying. She’s been a wonderful companion, and I’m going to miss her terribly.

She’s also a scrappy survivor. We don’t know how long she survived on the streets as a stray before we got her; she was scrawny and starved when she showed up at the animal shelter four years ago, and the experience probably took a permanent toll on her body. But she held her own against Tessa, the Great Pyrenees we had at the time. Tessa was built like a polar bear, and outweighed Tabasco by orders of magnitude, and considered herself the farm’s Alpha. But Tabasco never backed away from a confrontation, and wasn’t afraid to snarl back. We ended up having to keep them physically separated.

So, it takes a lot to keep Tabasco down. And, remarkably — with the help of the medications the vet gave — she’s even been clawing her way back from her most recent medical problems. The diuretic has led to a dramatic reduction of her bloating…to the point where she’s now getting thirsty and drinking significantly more. I wasn’t crazy about mopping up the big “piddle puddles” she left in my office overnight this weekend, but it was a whole lot better than seeing her about to explode from bloat. The steroid the vet prescribed has helped her breathing a lot; Tabasco is getting around much better. She still doesn’t run, but her walking gait is a lot closer to what it had been months ago. She’s more perky, more interested in what’s going on around her, and no longer looking like she wants the whole thing to be over.

We don’t want it to be over, either. As long as she’s willing to keep going, we’re willing to let her. X-rays don’t lie, and I’m not kidding myself about Tabasco’s long-term prognosis. But we’re deeply grateful the vet has bought us some quality time to get used to the idea of letting her go. And to spoil her rotten with all the good stuff she likes to eat.

Saying Goodbye

That recent post about calling the vet, and calculating how much an animal is “worth” in vet bills, has now become highly relevant for us.

We have two farm dogs. Scooter the Border Collie gets most of the coverage here on the blog, because he’s such a useful worker. He’s young and very healthy, and loves nothing more than running with the livestock.

But there’s also Tabasco. She got more posts in the past, but has since gotten old and much less active. She’s largely been a companion, and spends her days and nights in my office. It’s hard to ask for a better pet than she has been.

The problem is, she’s been getting up there in years. Just how far, we don’t know. We got her nearly four years ago (seems much longer, though); she showed up at the local animal shelter the exact same day our collie was killed by a car, and we welcomed her as an addition to our Illinois farm. The vet estimated her to be at least six years old, but no one knew for sure. Anyway, late last fall she developed pneumonia. The vet x-rayed her lungs, identified it, and gave me some antibiotics to treat it.

She seemed fine. Then, over the last couple of months, she’s been getting increasingly slow and stiff. And then her belly began bloating. At first we thought that was a good thing; her days as a stray had left her very scrawny and bony, and it was nice to see her fill out a bit. But in recent days, the bloat has gotten so bad she’s had trouble breathing.

I was finally able to get her in to the vet today, and Tabasco looked so bad they let us cut to the front of the line even without an appointment. The vet x-rayed her lungs again, and put the image next to the one from December. Not only was the pneumonia back, but there was something worse: lots of nasty-looking growths and masses in her lungs. Those had been invisibly microscopic in the December x-rays, but were now sizable. She’s got a full-blown case of lung cancer, and it came upon her very fast.

Bottom line: at her age (and this vet estimates Tabasco is actually closer to 12-14 years old), there is nothing we can do to treat the cancer. And nothing we could’ve done, no matter when this had been diagnosed. Declining further treatment, in my mind, is a question of accepting the inevitible and not trying to prolong an animal’s suffering. He gave her a shot of steroids (to clear her airway), and a diuretic (to drain the fluid that’s been pooling behind her heart), and gave me a ten day supply of pills that’ll keep doing the same. The vet totally understood that the whole family needs some time to say goodbye, and to get used to the idea of not having her with us. He cautioned that she may not even survive the weekend. But if she makes the ten days, we should call and decide what to do next.

I never thought I’d break down at a vet’s office. After all, we lose animals all the time. I’ve personally put down any number of animals. But this was completely different. I managed to avoid totally sobbing until Tabasco and I were back at our car. I’m a dog person. And Tabasco is my companion dog. I’m going to miss her a lot.

In the meantime, I’ve had to let her out about a half dozen times to urinate — which is good. Hopefully she’ll get that fluid drained. And she’s already getting around a little better. We’re going to spoil her rotten for the next ten days, giving her all the choice stuff from our table. Scooter…he’s just going to have to wait.

There’s a novel I recently finished reading. It’s called The Art of Racing in the Rain. (Although I enjoyed the story, there are a number of reasons why I can’t recommend it.) Anyway, if you happen to have read the book, you’ll understand why a certain phrase has been in my mind since beginning the drive home from the vet:

Two barks means faster!

When to Call the Vet?

In some recent posts, an issue came up about calling in a veterinarian’s help. We’ve experienced both extremes of veterinary availability: in Illinois, a large animal vet lived literally around the corner from us and could come pretty much any time; here, we can’t even find a large animal vet (who does anything but horses). As one commenter pointed out, with livestock it is really necessary to do a cost-benefit analysis before calling a vet. How much is it worth to save a $150 animal?

We’ve found $50 to be about the limit for young goat kids who’ve developed pneunomia. We’ve driven a couple of them to the local “dog and cat” vet clinic, gotten them treated, and had them grow to butchering size. But given the cost of butchering, and of feeding them to get to that size, when you add another $50 you’re basically just breaking even on the price of meat. And if the animal doesn’t survive, you’re out everything.

There’s another element, however: we see ourselves as custodians or stewards of these animals, and therefore under an obligation to do what we can to maintain their health. For that reason, we’re sometimes willing to spend more than an animal’s replacement value, if necessary, and if the treatment promises to yield a good result.

Still, it’s quite a different — more utilitarian — mentality than the approach many people have to veterinary care for their house pets. For many, a dog or cat is almost literally a member of their family, and they’re willing to spend great sums to prolong that pet’s life. I confess to a deep attachment to our dogs, and in most cases would spend significantly more on veterinary care than they are “worth”. Barn cats are different; we (especially our kids) like them, and we do get them basic veterinary care, but they are expendible when their conditions are too complicated.

This issue has been on my mind the last couple of days, after reading a provocative piece on the NY Times website, which explored the amount people are willing to spend on a sick pet.

Most pet owners (62 percent) said they would likely pay for pet health care even if the cost reached $500, but that means more than a third of pet owners said that might be too much to spend on an animal.

What if the bill for veterinary care reached $1,000? Fewer than half of pet owners said they were very likely to spend that much at the vet. Only a third said it was very likely they would pay a $2,000 vet bill.

Once the cost of saving a sick pet reached $5,000, most pet owners said they would stop treatment. Only 22 percent said they were very likely to pick up $5,000 in veterinary costs to treat a sick dog or cat.

The piece says “only 22%” would pay five grand, but I was frankly surprised it was that large. Even more fascinating than the poll results in the piece itself are the comments people have made, detailing the enormous sums of money they have spent (and consider well-spent), sometimes just to prolong an animal’s life by a few months.

I do understand that for some people, a dog can be a beloved companion, especially in cases where a person does not have any children of his or her own, and prolonging the pet’s life for several more years is worth more to the person than having some extra pieces of green paper in the bank — particularly when the pet is relatively young and the prognosis for treatment is good. And when a person agrees to become the custodian of an animal, he is also agreeing to make some financial sacrifices on behalf of that animal.

The question I have to ask myself is, when does the amount cross the line from “responsible” to “disordered”? Where each individual draws that line is a matter for his own conscience, but it’s something worth giving thought to.

For myself, I think it’s a question of competing obligations. There were all kinds of things I was willing to spend money on before I was married or had kids, that now I would never consider spending so much on. Five grand might be an acceptable price for some people to spend saving a dog’s life, given their financial and family circumstances. But if a vet quoted me that amount, in anticipation of treating my dog, as much as I love him and as much help as he is with the livestock on our farm, my thought would be: Five grand will cover all of our family’s routine out-of-pocket medical and dental and vision care expenses for the next two years. How can I spend that on Scooter, when I have four kids who are depending on me to spend it on them?

Where do you draw that line for yourself?

Coda on Mean

My apologies for the slow posting of late; things with work and the farm have kept us preocupied. Some of this has related to the legal process in adopting Yeoman Farm Baby — which, by the way, is progressing nicely (we appreciate your ongoing prayers for this intention).

About a month ago, I wrote about the passing of a barn cat named Mean. She had a prolapsed rectum, and had to be put down. At the time, we puzzled over the choice the vet gave us: $15 to have her put to sleep on the spot, or $20 for an office visit if we took her home alive and put her down ourselves. After further discussion, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I came to a rough consensus about the price discrepancy: the vet’s office probably gives the price break to ensure the animals die as humanely as possible. I’m a pretty good shot, but not everybody is. The vet probably heard enough horror stories about people putting three or four bullets into their pets, causing unnecessary trauma for both the animal and the family, to decide an incentive should be offered to get the job done on the spot.

We thought that would close the books on Mean. Then, a few days ago, we got a nice card in the mail from the vet’s office. The outside was covered with an illustration of doe-eyed puppies, kittens, bunnies, and the like, and read “In Loving Memory of Your Pet.” On the inside was a hand-written inscription reading:

Dear [Mrs Yeoman Farmer], A loyal companion is hard to find, hard to lose, and impossible to forget. May you find comfort in the knowledge that you were truly belssed to have shared your life with such a friend as Mean. Thinking of you in your time of loss.

And it was signed by every member of the vet’s staff.

I want to emphasize that this card was extremely thoughtful, and very much appreciated…but it also sparked a conversation around our dinner table that was perhaps even more so. First off, we thought it was amusing to read the name “Mean” in the same sentence as the tender sentiments of pet friendship. “You know someone at the vet’s office was chuckling when they wrote that,” MYF commented (see the post linked above for more info about the name’s origin). But secondly, and more importantly, we discussed why the vet’s office probably sends these cards out: most families get so attached to their pets, and so “personify” their animals, losing one of them becomes as traumatic as losing a human member of the family. We’ve largely avoided that, by being vigilant in how we refer to the animals and treat them. Yes, it’s still hard when one of them dies — especially a barn cat that the kids enjoyed playing with, or a dog that was a constant companion [see the four “Goodbye to a Great Dog” posts linked in the right margin of the blog for an example]. But it’s not the end of the world, and we don’t construct memorials to them. By contrast, we have heard of some kids so stricken at a pet’s death that their parents allow them to miss school so they can grieve.

Our kids were sad about Mean’s death, but they got over it in relatively short order. It turned out to be good preparation, because we ended up going through an identical situation just last week: Mean’s last surviving littermate, Hairy (yes, an extremely long-haired cat), also developed a prolapsed rectum. We caught it earlier this time, so thought perhaps the vet might be able to do something. MYF and the kids took Hairy in, but the vet said that once this kind of thing gets going at all there really isn’t any treatment. Furthermore (and this was important), it wasn’t that we did anything wrong. Cats can have a genetic predisposition to rectal prolapse, and that’s clearly what happened here. Both littermates developed it within weeks of each other.

We told the kids that we could get another free kitten or two, the next time we see someone advertising them. Not surprisingly, all three of the older Yeoman Farm Children are urging me to start looking actively. And given the average life expectency we’ve had with barn cats, we may need to NOT have the new female kitten spayed, so we can produce some litters of our own in the future.

But that’s okay. We and our kids understand well that both life and death are all part of the natural order of things. Especially on a farm.