Canine health – Hope and Tragedy

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Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through this over and over and over again?

This morning I found out that a dear friend’s dog was diagnosed with cancer – a cancer all too prevalent in the breed we love. This is the second dog she has had with this form of cancer this decade.

Years ago I lost my beloved Border Collie to hemangiosarcoma. At the time, I could imagine nothing more devastating.

Then I fell in love with Bernese Mountain dogs.

Sanity would suggest that these dogs are their own Greek tragedy. Their life span is one of the shortest of all breeds, they are subject to multiple cancers as well as having a tendency to bloat, bleeding, and dysplasia. Why anyone would self-select for the kind of grief that is almost certain is almost beyond comprehension.

Until you meet the dogs. My first Berner was not my first dog. And my relationships with my dogs before her were wonderful relationships. But something in Sophia really, really got to me.

She was a challenge, both in attitude and health. We had a lot of issues to overcome before she blossomed into the dog we always both knew was lurking behind her pain aggression.  We worked together to make her well. She taught me so much about patience and courage and perseverance and joy. Especially joy.

Even on a bad day, she could light up with energy, happiness, goofiness, … She was clever and she was smart. And she needed me in ways I had never expected. When she was young, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of the whole house – I quickly learned the up – and down sides of crating. For her, a few months of being crated while I was at work gave her the time to mature to the point where she could take care of the whole house while I was gone. She became my most trustworthy, ‘bulletproof’ dog to be loose in the house.

Berners love their people – and don’t like separations. For a time (after she had once again been given full run of the house all the time) she was growing increasingly agitated when I got ready to leave. After a week or two of this escalating anxiety, one day I turned around, set my stuff back down, and sat down in front of her.

“I always come back. I will always come back. As long as there is breath in my body, I will come home to you. I will never, ever abandon you.”

I sat with her, looking into her eyes and telling her this, for several minutes.  I watched and felt her body relax. She finally put her chin down between her front paws and gave me that look: “What are you still doing here?” I never had another moment of separation anxiety from her.

My girl died of cancer, Malignant Histiocitosis, several weeks shy of her eighth birthday. Although we tried chemo, we were too late. She let me know she was ready to leave.

I wish that no one ever again would have to experience the kind of grief I felt, but I know that isn’t going to be a reality for some time to come. I fear that my friend’s dog, another goofy, sweet, intelligent and challenging dog, will break her heart much as mine was broken.

But I know, too, that the sorrow we feel is a reflection of the love and the joy we have known, and I have never known dogs that bring more joy than these.

So we keep coming back to these dogs. We rescue, we support the health studies, we support each other in times of illness or injury (to our dogs, mostly – our own illness or injury seems trivial in comparison).

And we support the breeders who carefully track the health of the dogs they are considering breeding, and of those dogs’ relatives, and of the puppies they have been responsible for bringing into this world – those breeders who work so hard to breed toward longevity and health and self-confident dogs.

We know they exist – we have met some, and we celebrate the 10- and 12- and 13-year old dogs, and the people who love them. And we weep with the people who love the 4- or the 5- or the 7-year-old dogs who have just been diagnosed.

It isn’t fair that such lovely, loving and intelligent dogs should have such short lives. It isn’t fair that the people who love them feel such grief at their loss.

But we are so lucky to share what few years we do with them.

And I will put in a plug for the Canine Health Foundation – they support research into so many of the ills that plague our dogs, of whatever breed. If we keep working and searching for the answers, perhaps someday I will not see the letters MH and feel like I have been kicked in the stomach.

We can overcome. My Berner taught me that.

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