Lotte grew more perfect with each passing year, settling into her advancing age with quiet dignity. Our walks became more leisurely and one of her greatest pleasures became lying in the sun on the deck – baking her bones, I called it. She barked rarely, unless it was called for, and greeted visitors to our home and people on the street with an unchanging friendly comportment. She even let a neighbor girl’s kisses cover her face and much of her body (more than I would do in spite of my love for the dog). I frequently told her she was “the best dog,” thinking it made up for her aborted show dog career and telling myself that the words did not represent disloyalty to her eight predecessors. Truth be told, this was the dog that received more of our time and attention, and while she never became a cuddler like some of the others, she did seem to enjoy being in our presence.
When she was eight years old, a lump began forming on her back between her shoulder blades. A biopsy indicated it was benign. “Forget it,” the vet said. But the lump continued to grow and I kept returning to question it. “If you want to do something that would have an effect on her overall health, then have her teeth cleaned,” she said. Lotte tolerated the anesthesia and came through the teeth cleaning but still the lump continued to grow. “Your dog is turning into a camel,” fellow dog walkers would say good-naturedly, once I’d assured them the lump was not cancerous.
But the lump continued to worry us. Would it eventually interfere with her walking? Having seen how well she did with the teeth cleaning procedure, we convinced ourselves that delaying removal of the lump would only make surgery harder the older she became. We consulted a surgeon at an animal specialty hospital and scheduled surgery. The operation itself went well but almost immediately she developed heart arrhythmia, requiring intravenous medications and constant monitoring over several days. We were finally able to take her home but now she was under the care of a cardiologist. Like the places we’d seen in New York and New Jersey, this specialty facility boasted veterinarians in every discipline, and in time Lotte visited many of them. The lump was gone but had we opened Pandora’s Box?
When Ed was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, we fell into shock and disbelief (“What? Acting as it we would live forever wasn’t going to make it so?”) Lotte seemed to know. Frequently, when he was sitting in a favorite chair staring at nothing, she’d stand in front of Ed and place her big head in his lap. “I know, I know,” she seemed to be saying. “It stinks.”
And then one day she became very ill, vomiting and coughing up a clot of blood. I rushed her to the vet who suggested I leave her for x-rays. When I returned, I was shown the pictures: Lotte had lung cancer, just like Ed!
We returned to the specialty hospital, this time to consult with a canine oncologist who told us it is not unusual for a pet to develop the same illness as the owner. He said the cancer probably started elsewhere and moved up to her lungs, meaning it was already advanced. Most of the medications he might suggest would be dangerous for her heart or exorbitantly expensive in the dosage her size required. Plus, he pointed out, her hips and back legs were beginning to weaken and said, “She’s a nine-year-old Great Dane and will probably die of something other than cancer.” He seemed to be suggesting we let her live out her remaining time without more tests and procedures, and we agreed.
So now Lotte and Ed entered into their real symbiotic relationship. Since becoming so ill with her cancer diagnosis, the dog had been on a diet of chicken, rice and cottage cheese. As I began to wean her back to dog food, Ed said, “No! She likes that food. Let her stay on it.” If I mentioned that she was eating a lot but still seemed to be losing weight, he’d say, “Just like me.” And both of them were becoming more unsteady on their feet. Lotte could maneuver the carpeted stairs inside the house but not the wood steps of the deck, so I’d take her out on the street for bathroom purposes. But that’s all she’d do. My formerly compliant dog refused to take more than a step or two before planting her feet and refusing to move.
I wondered whether physical therapy would help her regain some strength so back we went to the specialty hospital where a veterinarian who was also a physical therapist gave me exercises I could do at home and suggested supplements I could add to her food. When I saw the treatment was helping the dog, I asked Ed’s oncologist about physical therapy for him. So now both husband and dog were doing exercises at home in between their various doctor visits.
A nagging worry at the back of my mind had been how to manage both of these patients if their illnesses became debilitating here in this two-story house with the bedrooms below ground. I’d already seen how expertly paramedics were able to get Ed up the stairs and into an ambulance during an earlier healthcare episode. But what about the 130-pound dog? What if she became incapacitated? We were no longer able to lift her ourselves to take her somewhere for help. So from our vet we obtained the name of a veterinarian who would perform euthanasia in the home and also a pet crematorium that would pick up the body. I was prepared now for that eventuality.
We’d been noticing Lotte’s abdomen becoming swollen and wondered if it was the result of all that chicken and rice she was consuming or some other problem. We knew it wasn’t bloat, having long experience with those symptoms. And then one day in the e-mail came an article from the animal specialty hospital – part of their ongoing educational outreach – about a condition I’d never heard of: splenic hemangiosarcoma, “a highly invasive variety of cancer which most commonly forms a mass on the spleen…an aggressive cancer of the blood vessels, most commonly diagnosed in middle-to-older-aged large breed dogs…(that) typically presents itself as an emergency when the mass ruptures and the patient starts to bleed into the abdomen…”
Holy smoke! That sure sounds like what Lotte has, I thought, and researched further. Almost all the symptoms listed matched hers. The thought of massive hemorrhage and collapse leading to a painful death convinced us that we had to spare her while she was, we hope, still relatively pain-free.
We put in a call to the veterinarian who does in-home euthanasia, intending to ask if she could recommend someone to come to the home to test for this suspected condition. But before long I was asking about the end-of-life scenario and made a snap decision. Lotte could not end her days in that way. I made an appointment for a few days hence, and when I hung up the phone, Ed agreed it was the right thing to do. The crematorium was also alerted.
Our Los Angeles daughter came by to drink a lot of wine with us the night before, and again the night after, and we decided it was best to wait until after the fact to tell our New York daughter. “Sad news,” our message read and began, “Your father and I are fine. Please call when you can.” She was on the phone immediately and said she knew right away what we were calling about. Both of our daughters lived their lives with Great Danes as companions and experienced with us every sad good-bye through the years.
It was our first experience with in-home euthanasia, and it was as compassionate and peaceful as you could expect. “Is this just a California thing?” I asked. “No,” the vet replied, “All over the world people are realizing that this is the kindest way – for the animal as well as the owners.”
I keep urging Ed not to internalize Lotte’s situation with his. His cancer is being treated and thus held at bay because that’s what he opted for. We couldn’t know what Lotte would have chosen but I suspect she would have decided, “Enough with the tests and the scans and the x-rays.” And I hope she would have added, “It’s been a good life but now it’s time to rest.”
People keep asking if we’ll get another dog. “No,” is my quick reply. “Certainly not another Great Dane. Lotte was our last.”
And yet…never say never.