Some Puppy!

After our recent loss of Tabasco and Scooter, our farm was left without a canine. Dogs are essential to a working farm, whether for protection of the property or for herding livestock. Scooter’s loss, in particular, hit us hard in both departments. Suddenly, we had no dog watching the property while we were away from home. Suddenly, if the sheep or goats got out, we were on our own in trying to round them back up. Suddenly, there was no deterrent to predators which might visit our property by night.

Replacing a dog like Scooter isn’t easy, and I’m not confident we’ll find his equal. But we learned an important lesson with him: it’s best to start with a young puppy. Scooter was only about eight weeks old when we got him, and he was acclimated from that very early age to the whole environment and expectations of our farm. Ideally, we could find a border collie puppy to take his place…and we will continue looking for one. But, in the meantime, we need a dog of some sort to get to work.

Our solution was to scout the local humane society’s animal shelter. Fortunately, about a week ago, we found a promising prospect: a litter of German Shepherd mix puppies was available. They went fast, and we managed to get the last one. His name is Wilbur, and his is indeed…Some Puppy!

I’d almost forgotten how much fun little puppies can be; it’s been nearly four years since we got Scooter. He’s bright, inquisitive, and a quick learner. He enjoys tagging along as I do chores, and is eager to please. Best of all, he’s small enough so the other livestock (even the barn cats) are able to teach him his place and ensure he doesn’t turn predator. He may have some bird or hunting dog in his mongrel mix, but at this early age I think we can break him of any inclination he may have to attack the chickens or ducks.
I’d also forgotten how much trouble little puppies can be, especially before they’re housebroken. And how much they chew on everything. And get into everything. He spends his days in my office with me (and his nights in a crate in my office), and the building is unfortunately starting to smell like it. Hopefully we’ll get him big enough soon to be able to spend his nights in the barn, and by next spring to be patrolling the property at night.
And we’ll make sure we get the front of the property fenced tightly enough so he doesn’t meet the same fate that Scooter did.

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!

Now, From the Dog

We spend a lot of time following politics in our family, and spent most nights of both conventions eating dinner in my office as we watched the proceedings. And it’s been interesting to see the sorts of things the kids have been absorbing.

To preface this story: long-time readers know we have two farm dogs. Scooter is a mostly-black border collie mix, while Tabasco is an Australian Red Healer mix. Both dogs spend a lot of time in my office while I’m working.

A couple of evenings ago, I was typing away at my computer. Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG), age 9, was sitting with both dogs on the couch across the room. Holding Tabasco in her lap, and moving Tabasco’s muzzle up and down as if the dog was talking, HFG began to extemporize a television commercial:

Everybody should vote for John McCain. Scooter was going to vote for Barack Obama, because he’s black. But I convinced him he should vote for John McCain. I’m Tabasco, and I approved this message.

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing, but HFG still doesn’t understand what’s so funny. And that in itself, I must say, makes it even funnier.

The Not So Good Shepherd

Managing sheep, particularly when out watching them graze, is wonderful fodder for prayer about the “Good Shepherd.” Just a couple of weeks ago, after bringing the sheep in to the fold from the pasture, we seemed a few lambs short. I took Homeschooled Farm Girl and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog back out in the high weeds for a second look — and located the lambs which had become disoriented and left behind.

But every shepherding story doesn’t have such a happy ending. Regular blog readers know we had a bumper crop of lambs born this year; the eight ewes had 16 live births. Tabasco, our occasionally hyperactive Red Healer, killed one of those lambs when it was a week old, but we hadn’t had any other deaths.

Alas, that record was not to stand. With this many lambs, we were due for some kind of disappointment. A few days ago, I noticed that the youngest and smallest lamb was beginning to act a bit lethargic and to hang back from the rest of the flock. I immediately administered an apple cider vinegar drench, which is a nice overall tonic. He would still get up and walk just fine, but I quickly discovered the root of his lethargy problem: he was getting crowded out at the hay feeders. And he was a little too small to reach the drinking water in the stock tank once the level had gone down — and ditto for the mineral in the mineral bucket.

Over the next couple of days, I kept close tabs on him and tried to make sure he got better nutrition…but the damage had apparently been done. Once a lamb gets beyond a certain point, it’s sometimes difficult to get their health built back up again to where they can hold their own with the flock. Saturday afternoon, he was still making an effort to eat — but by Saturday night it was clear he wasn’t going to make it. He’d crawled into a corner, put his head down, and begun breathing heavily.

As the rest of the flock enjoyed a late evening snack of hay, I took the little lamb in my arms and sat down to comfort him. I’d seen this more times than I care to count, and knew he was now in the death spiral. I talked soothingly to him, rubbed his back and stomach, and tried to find a position that would let him breathe a little easier. Most of all, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t have done more for him.

But I couldn’t bear to put a bullet in his head. I save that action for the most severely injured livestock. For a sick lamb, I hold out hope to the very end that he might get a good night’s sleep, or that his immune system will kick in, or that he’ll find a hidden reserve. So I made him comfortable in his corner of the barn, locked everything up, and called it a night.

Not surprisingly, Sunday morning, he was exactly where I’d left him. As the rest of the flock got busy eating, I found an old paper feed bag and managed to slide his stiffened body into it for disposal. (With the heat this week, I didn’t want to just throw the body into the trash can without something around it to help contain the smell. And I certainly didn’t want to leave his body in the hedgerow, where it might attract predators like the fox I’d just spooked off.)

In a thoroughly melancholy frame of mind, I went about the rest of my morning chores. It always bothers me when I can’t save one of our animals, especially one as innocent as a little lamb. I suppose I ought to be used to it by now, but it still gets to me. And that gave me an awful lot to think about for the whole rest of the day.