Petey’s death affected Ben like I never would have anticipated. When I got back home after putting Petey to sleep, Rob held me in the kitchen, letting me cry on his shoulder for a while. Ben stood behind us and whined nervously. He ran outside and looked around, then came back in and whined some more. I told him to be quiet once and immediately regretted it. He knew. Of course he’d sense when his constant life-long companion had died.
That day, my relationship with Ben changed. Having turned 13 just three days earlier, Ben was an elderly dog now, too. I wanted to give him his chance to be the dominant dog, letting him do the things he couldn’t do with Petey around because it would have been unfair or too chaotic. He accompanied me every morning when I took Henry to school. Since it was still cool out, he often tagged along on errands, too, and waited for me in the car. I’d bring him back a bone whenever I went into Whole Foods. And although he’d been walking the trail with me every day for the past year–since I’d first made serious efforts to get into shape–that part of our routine changed, too. I didn’t get uptight or jerk the leash back anymore when he tried to veer off the path. I let him sniff the grass and low-lying branches and make his mark on them, too. I guided him along in a positive tone and told him often that I loved him.
As old as Ben had become, I figured he still had three to four years left with us. Even though his mask had turned mostly white, his shiny brindle coat still showed off his sturdy muscles. If I broke into a sprint on the trail, he did too without any hesitation. He could have easily gone three times our usual distance. He could still knock any of us over when he got excited. If Rob, who is six feet tall, stretched out his arm at shoulder height, Ben could jump from the floor in one swift move and touch his hand. His teeth had also stayed in perfect condition, still tough enough to shred tennis balls all over our living room floor.
I never guessed things would change so quickly.
Ben’s list of health issues fell way shorter than Petey’s. He had some allergies; eggs and the DHPP vaccine made him break out in hives, and he got itchy ears and often sneezed and coughed during the winter and spring. On Christmas Day when Ben was four years old, he suddenly started bleeding from the nose. A trip to the emergency vet and a $1500 endoscopy only turned up some inflammation in his nasal passage. When he got older, he developed a small lump on his back, which the vet removed. And a year earlier, he had developed a stage-two malignant tumor on his tail, but the vet had removed all of it by resectioning the tail.
Like Petey, Ben also had a few fatty tumors. He’d developed one on his chest and another on his shoulder, and they both tested out benign. So when I noticed a lump on the bottom of his throat soon after his 13-year checkup, I didn’t think much of it. By then, Petey’s health and everything going on with the kids consumed all of our attention, so I just let it go. I didn’t even think much about it when, over the holidays, Ben started coughing some. I just thought it was his usual allergies. But after Petey died, the cough became more and more obvious.
On the day I picked up Petey’s ashes, I took Ben with me to see the vet. The doctor felt the lump and could move it around; that sounded promising. But he would need to run some more tests to determine if it had any connection to the cough. He asked to keep Ben for a while that day, then took him back to the X-ray room. Before I left, the vet came back with three tubes of fluid, which he had aspirated from the lump. He didn’t like the look of it. He told me he would call me later. Walking out, though, I didn’t feel very worried. I truly thought that all tests would turn up nothing and that all the worry and fear would stay behind us for a while.
I stopped at the front desk before leaving, and the assistant gave me a white cardboard box, which I opened. Inside sat a small cedar box wrapped in plastic and topped with a card that said, “In Remembrance of Your Beloved Pet, ‘Petey.’” It gave our family’s name, the date of Petey’s passing, and a pet identification number. The assistant showed me a spot for Petey’s picture at the front of the box. “That’s so sweet,” I said, choking up. When I looked up, the assistant smiled at me through her own tears, which of course made me cry more. But as I clutched the box to my chest, I told myself that Petey had lived a long life with many second chances. Whatever information we’d receive about Ben, we’d do what we could to give him a long quality life, too.
Later that afternoon, the vet called me. “I have some not-so-good news,” he said, then told me that the X-rays had revealed two masses in Ben’s lungs. He would share the X-rays with the radiologist at the end of the following week. If she found the images suspicious, she would recommend a biopsy. And that’s what Rob and I would have to give the most thought. The purpose of the biopsy, which ran anywhere between $600 and $800, would be to get a clear diagnosis. The purpose of a diagnosis would be to get chemotherapy. And in lung cancer, chemotherapy did not have a very high success rate; while it could slow the tumors’ growth some, it would not likely cure or reverse the condition. We’d have to look at the big picture and consider whether or not that whole process was worth it. On the upside, though, Ben could live another 12 to 24 months, even if the tumors were malignant and we got no treatment.
The vet did suggest removing the lump in Ben’s throat as soon as possible, though. This could perhaps give us more insight to the masses in his chest. When I picked up Ben that afternoon, I scheduled the surgery for the following Monday.
Over the weekend, I read anything I could find on lung cancer in dogs, and it all confirmed what the vet had said. Surgery to a dog’s lungs could be very painful and complicated, if the tumor’s shape and size didn’t make it impossible. And though chemotherapy was the most recommended treatment for various types of cancer in dogs, it did not sound promising for lung cancer. One site said that doses were smaller for dogs than humans, hence leading to much less success in dogs. Chemo also seemed so taxing in an elderly dog. If given intravenously, each treatment could take several hours. Side effects, while less severe than those that humans experience, could include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and would probably call for more medications. It could also decrease his white blood cell count and weaken his immunity to other conditions. Rob and I couldn’t see putting Ben through all of that in his final years. It sounded like torture. Not to mention, there was some concern about the chemicals coming out in his waste; I read several warnings that pregnant women and children should stay away from where dogs undergoing chemo peed and pooped. Having two young kids, that really scared me. A biopsy sounded more and more useless. But hopefully, after the neck procedure and the radiologist’s reading of the X-rays, the doctor would deem one unnecessary.
A few hours after I dropped Ben off on Monday, the vet called and said he’d reconsidered the surgery. He’d consulted with another doctor, and based on the lump’s location–right by Ben’s thyroid gland and near his carotid artery–they didn’t feel comfortable removing it. They could if I insisted, but it may be more risky than we initially thought. We decided to wait and see what the radiologist said before making the next move.
I did more research in the meantime. On several websites, owners of dogs with cancer swore by a low-grain, high-protein diet. Carbohydrates apparently fed cancer cells while protein starved them. A friend of mine, whose first dog had developed splenetic cancer and been given just days to live, had seen her dog live nine more months with such a diet. In addition, certain supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids and a small amount of Vitamin D (too much could be toxic), could inhibit or prevent certain tumors’ growth. I asked my vet his opinion; he said he could only give advice from a medical standpoint and not a homeopathic one, but he didn’t see any harm in trying, either.
At the end of the week, the vet called me back. The radiologist recommended a biopsy, but only if we wanted to put Ben through chemotherapy. Rob and I tossed around the idea again, but it just didn’t seem practical or fair to Ben. And to some degree, neither one of us fully believed his condition could ever progress that badly. “Look at him!” Rob said. He still seemed more likely to die from one of his wild episodes, like the time he ran out of my Fresno apartment in the middle of the night to chase a cat, leaving me in his dust as I desperately ran after him, barefoot and in my bathrobe, across the complex. Or like the time he caught a squirrel in our backyard. We couldn’t imagine that he would ever lose that energy. And we were going to treat him that way.
After perusing several recipes, I concocted a mixture of ground beef, liver, peas, carrots, and a small amount of brown rice. This would become Ben’s meal twice a day. I also fed him Merrick’s Grain-Free dry food once a day, and I gave him supplements of vitamins A, C, D, and E coated in peanut butter. Ben loved it. He stayed in the kitchen and whined while I cooked for him. When I served him up, he licked his bowl, pushing it all over the kitchen and dining room with his nose.
Throughout the day, he chewed beef bones on our living room floor. We took him on our family vacation to Lake Tahoe, where he and I walked the trails and he soaked up the sun spilling onto the cabin’s floor. And he continued to walk with me every day when we returned home, helping me reach my pre-pregnancy weight by June. We had to believe things would continue in this way for several months. Maybe years.