Monday, September 24, 2012

The doggie hospice

It's been a rough couple of months with Thor. A time I've come to think of as "doggie hospice".

It started mid June when Thor developed a cough. My experience with a previous dog is that a cough in an older dog is never a good thing. So off we went to the vet.

On the second visit to try and knock out the cough, we looked at some lumps on Thor's skin. He had four that had suddenly emerged and looked decidedly unfriendly. Time to schedule surgery.

(It's kind of gross, but if you would like to see a photo of Thor with his chest drain, click here.)

The vet took  wide margins around the lumps, thinking they were probably mast cell tumors, which is a cancerous tumor. The tumors were sent out to biopsy. The result made me wish they were mast cell tumors.

Malignant Histiocytosis. It's a form of systemic cancer that is rare in dogs, except for Bernese Mountain Dogs, where it is all too common.

Since our regular vet had no experience with this sort of cancer, we consulted with a doggie oncologist. He offered chemotherapy, but cautioned that in a dog, with its shorter life span, chemotherapy is only meant to prolong the quality of life.

With chemotherapy, he estimated, we could extend Thor's life by about four months. Without it, we probably had one to two months left with Thor.

We opted to skip chemotherapy and make the best of our time with Thor.

I've been through cancer with two previous dogs, but never with this much advance notice. My experience is limited to a sudden weight loss and loss of appetite, which leads to rapid decline and only a few days at best to say goodbye.

How would Thor's cancer play out? I asked the oncologist.

He said we would know it was the end in one of three possible ways: Thor would have trouble breathing, or the skin lesions would get so bad we couldn't care for them, or he would lose his appetite and waste away.

I didn't anticipate having to deal with all three options.

In July his cough came back and he started coughing up blood. I decided there was no reason Thor had to suffer so I called his regular vet and asked what we could give him. Since his cough had responded to Clavamox before, we tried it again. It worked.

In August his appetite was waning and he noticeably lost weight, down 15 pounds from his normal 75. The major effect of this was to aggravate his arthritis. The vet explained that as he lost muscle mass, the effects of the arthritis were worse. So in we went to get more pain medicine. It helped.

In this time, more skin growths started to emerge. By September, one on Thor's side was the size of a golf ball. He managed to tear it open and start it bleeding. The vet advised that we couldn't stitch it up without removing the growth all-together, which would require anesthesia. We opted to keep it bandaged.

This began Thor having to wear a T-shirt all the time. A black T-shirt with a maxi-pad stuck to the inside to absorb blood and other fluids. The tumor has gotten to be the size of a tennis ball. Very gross looking and smelling. (Click here if you would like to see. Fortunately we don't have a way to share the smell.)

Through this all Thor has been so good. So patient. Working with me to let me help him.

And I've had to constantly do the reality check and ask: Is Thor still enjoying life?

The answer has been a consistent Yes. He has been big smiles for me. He has enjoyed laying and napping outside. He has continued to make it up the stairs to sleep with us.

But yesterday his cough started to come back. And today his rear end has so little strength, he is falling a lot and having trouble moving around.

I do not believe the answer is a whole-hearted Yes any more. It is time.

I am sad and will miss him.

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