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Animal Hospital: Lessons in Truth and Honor For Pet Parents

Many of us spend a good long time trying to first discover, then ponder, and hopefully eventually master the art of being true to ourselves. For those of us who choose to share our lives with companion animals, we must also choose to accept the responsibility to be true to them as well. This challenge, if met with honesty, grace and compassion, may indeed exemplify and embody the expression of unconditional love. In so doing, we come to realize our four-leggeds’ lives are comparatively greatly abbreviated, and therefore must make thoughtful decisions on their behalf, which best suit their needs and present circumstances. So grab a tissue (or two or three) and read on about one guardian’s first-hand account of learning how to honor and be true to her beloved animals.

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This Above All: To Thine Own Pet Be True

By Dr. Reema Sayegh

Although I am fairly certain Polonius meant something else when he spoke similar words in Act One Scene Three of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I am also fairly certain animal guardians everywhere can appreciate this albeit altered sentiment.

Appreciating the sentiment is the easy part. Living the sentiment, not always so. We as guardians claim to know our pets better than anyone else, yet I believe most of us would struggle to be true to them as unconditionally as they are to us. For example, when we are sick or injured, our pets usually keep a bedside vigil, and comfort us with quiet company and acceptance of circumstances, which often means abrupt changes to their cherished routines. We as humans are not so adaptable. When our pets are happy and healthy, we tend to take the day-to-day for granted. When we begin to see some white come into the muzzle, a growing trend of shorter walks, more time spent sleeping, or a little “hitch” in our pet’s “gitalong,” we grow uneasy. When our beloved animal companions become ill or injured, this uneasiness may give way to downright worry, and a consequent trip to, and possible extended stay at, the animal hospital.

Pet Hospital Don’t misunderstand me. I think we as our animal's guardians have a responsibility to seek professional veterinary care whenever the need. I simply believe we as guardians also have a responsibility to honor our animal's true natures (not to mention biochemical individuality) and select treatment protocols accordingly, in a state of focus and clarity, with their best interests in mind.

For example, three animals may present with the same basic illness or injury, but, in my opinion, the best treatment and recovery plan depends, at least in part, upon the true nature of each animal. Let’s say the first animal is a bouncy, hyper, “friends-with-everyone” puppy who broke his left hind leg after he wriggled and fell out of a child’s arms. His treatment and recovery? A simple veterinary repositioning of the leg, plaster casting and bandaging, and the miracle of a young body’s innate ability to heal (along with self-removal of said cast with teeth and front paws after being confined unsupervised during a 60-minute Thanksgiving dinner!). The second animal is a formerly abused and neglected timid rescued now-eight-year-old large breed dog who, prior to his forced owner surrender, lengthy physical and behavioral rehabilitation and eventual re-homing, sustained his broken leg (and permanent structural and neurological damage) at the hands of a vicious, ignorant teenager as punishment for chasing chickens on the family’s farm. (No treatment was sought for an entire month, the poor injured animal was penned up alone outdoors in unforgiving Utah desert winter conditions, and there was no available orthopedic treatment in the area, so the pup’s leg did its best to heal on its own.

Reema and Zeus When the dog could no longer bear any weight on the leg, and hobbled along with his paw held up, he was finally taken to a veterinarian for treatment. Although the veterinarian gave it her all in her efforts to repair the leg by cutting a still-visible seven-inch line deep into the muscle tissue parallel to the femur with the intention of surgical intervention, upon further inspection and manipulation of the area, she determined the bone had already formed a callous along the fracture line and healed in a novel – read: abnormal -- shape, and it was in the terrified, forlorn, unsocialized, fear-reactive dog’s best interest to merely stretch the bruised, swollen and contracted muscle as much as possible, stitch up the leg, wrap it in gauze and Coban, and safely confiscate and then place the dog with a local rescue organization until he would be ready for adoption into a loving, permanent home.) The third animal is a “touch-me-only-if-I-trust-you” giant breed 13-year-old dog with arthritis and degenerative disc disease, whose leg managed to twist (and cause a tib-fib fracture that required an internal fixator) during a walk through the grass. Three animals, three broken hind legs, three very different treatment and recovery scenarios.

I dare say this, since I have been (and currently am) fortunate enough to be the guardian of the animals in every aforementioned example. My experience with my deceased senior dog Zeus was by far the most challenging, and also by far the most rewarding. Here is our story.

Zeus was a Great Dane, and Labrador Retriever rescue who spent the first nine years of his life in the wilds of southern Utah as a companion to an outdoor climbing guide, who eventually concluded she could no longer meet his growing needs, so I adopted him. Despite his advanced age, with some urgent dental extractions for long-standing abscessed teeth, gradual, yet radical, dietary changes and an incorporation of various holistic modalities, we managed to share a pretty healthy, incredible, life-changing three and a half years together before he injured his left hind leg one chilly November night in 2007. No one (except Zeus) realized how badly the leg was injured until we tried to continue our walk and my ever stoic Zeus yelped once, and then could not bear any weight on the leg. He held it up feebly and pleadingly, and when I went to touch it, it dangled much like a pendulum, to and fro in my hands. My stomach lurched and my heart sank, as I knew that, despite Zeus’s seemingly minimal reaction to the injury, it was far more serious than a simple ankle twist in the tall grass.

So to the multi-specialty 24-hour emergency animal hospital we raced, Zeus and me in the Animal Ambulance, and my husband and mother following in the family vehicle. From the time we got him into the ambulance until we arrived at the hospital, in an effort to keep him from going into shock, I dosed Zeus every 10 minutes with Rescue Remedy from the Bach Flower Essence collection, as I came to realize over the course of those three and a half good years that veterinary homeopathy in general and flower essences in particular were at the top of our go-to list for adjunct care, especially during emergencies.

Even the chief of staff at the hospital was impressed by the essences’ effects, as he determined Zeus had not gone into shock, and required approximately half as much morphine as he originally intended to give him for the pain, based on what they normally give a dog his size. (In fact, during one of our many house call visits, this doctor shared with me that he had placed an order for several bottles of Rescue Remedy, one for each exam room at the facility – wonderful news during such a dark time!)

After x-rays were taken, the orthopedic surgeon was called in, and informed us that we were up against some pretty heavy odds. A lengthy, complicated surgery was required to mend Zeus’s injury, and due to his age and the amount of time required, he had a 50-50 chance of surviving surgery. The surgeon also explained the leg would not heal if we simply casted or bandaged it. I was almost paralyzed with fear – no, make that dread – yet I knew it wouldn’t be fair to the larger-than-life, magnificent Zeus to just leave his leg in this mangled condition and call it a night.

Four sleepless hours later, the phone in our hotel room two miles away from the animal hospital rang, and I braced myself for the news. True to his nature and name, Zeus had survived the surgery and was in the ICU. We were told we could see him soon, which turned out to be when we stormed into the hospital unannounced after another three-hour wait with no further calls.

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Somehow, the Universe again had our backs, as the anesthesiologist was at the front desk when we arrived, looking something like what can only be described as feral humans, and could not help but overhear my loud, assertive insistence that we see my dog. Now.

He managed to ignore the scene I was causing, and graciously and quickly ushered all three of us into the recovery area, where I found my beloved friend propped up on numerous blankets and pillows in the far corner of the room, unfortunately next to the room where the deceased pets were housed. Apparently, despite its bevy of state-of-the-art staff, procedures and equipment, the facility did not feature a cage that could accommodate my boy who came up to my ribcage with all four on the floor, and could see my six-foot-tall husband’s bald spot when we allowed Zeus to greet us in preferred Dane fashion. He looked so old, weak and drugged. He had tubes and bags and poles in and all around him, and I could hear him whining from across the room. I was beginning to doubt my choice, when Zeus noticed us, and circumstances be damned, began to wag his tail and struggle to get to his feet to greet his human family.

Tears poured from my eyes as we all rushed over to Zeus, and I managed to hold down the mighty beast as I sprawled out on the floor beside him, covering him with hugs and kisses.

When the love fest was over, I began to notice the catheter bag was full of red-tinged urine, and some was backing up into the tube. Before our anesthesiologist escort could get away, I tugged on his scrubs and brought the matter to his attention. After what felt like forever but had really only been three of the longest minutes of my life, a technician ambled over, nodded a cursory greeting, and began to attempt to change the bag. Before anyone knew what was happening, Zeus rose up on his front legs, growled loudly and twisted in a furious attempt to bite the man. Everyone was stunned. I had seen Zeus snarl at his veterinary acupuncturist when a needle or two or five caused him pain, but never before had he done anything like this.

The nimble and quick technician escaped unharmed, but I intuited Zeus’s reaction did not bode well for any hope of future, more attentive care. Never ignore your gut! Five hours later, I was awakened by a distressing call from the chief of staff, whom I am convinced is an angel among us. I had refused to leave for another two hours after the incident, and in that time I had successfully hand-fed Zeus his supplied homemade fare and seen to it that he had been re-positioned, medicated, and sufficiently – if not reluctantly – attended to before he lapsed into slumber, and I surrendered to utter exhaustion and returned to the hotel for a nap.

The story I heard was that Zeus had awakened, realized we had left, and again became “quite combative” toward everyone who approached him, including the gentle, loving, patient, empathetic, yet now very concerned, chief of staff. He warned me that if Zeus could not calm down, he would have to be muzzled and tethered (to what? I wondered in bewilderment and growing panic, as I remembered he was being warehoused in the corner of the room).

Bear in mind, this was a dog who, in what now feels like the blink of an eye, managed to endear himself to everyone, even the most reticent of non-animal folks, in our uptight, conservative, overwhelmingly judgmental formerly little-dog-preferred gated community. He became everyone’s friend, and brought the residents together whenever we walked through the neighborhood. Zeus had dozens of common area play dates (his all-time favorites with the 10-year-old 200-pound Great Dane named Marble and the almost-blind 13-year-old toy poodle named Bubba) and doggie birthday parties, and loved to visit the elderly, wheelchair-bound widow who kept him in tennis balls. He first stood, and later lay, patiently by my side when children unabashedly played with his ears, showered him with clumsy hugs and kisses, and even tried to ride him as their parents watched with ear-to-ear grins.

Behind bars - pet hospital So you can imagine my shock and disbelief when I heard the doctor’s tale of events. I told the doctor I would be right back to discuss matters, hung up the phone and scrambled down four flights of stairs to the hotel lobby, where angels intervened once more. I literally collided with one of the hospital’s elite veterinary specialists who had flown in from Tennessee to perform gastrointestinal surgery on one of the patients, and who has just returning to his home away from home for a rest. I had seen him earlier in the recovery area, and therefore recognized him as we collided. Before I could restrain myself, I was bending this man’s ear with the story, and he calmly drew in, then out, a deep, long breath and said, “If it were my dog, I would sign him out AMA. Just don’t tell them where you got that idea.” I heard teeny tiny bells ringing and saw little fluttering rainbow-colored birds fly around his head, as it dawned on me Zeus just might be getting his get-out-of-jail-free card. (Actually, it ended up being a $6 thousand-plus get-out-of-jail card, but that’s the best 6 grand we ever spent!)

Tubes and wires disconnected, dirty bedding piled in a messy heap on the cold, gray hospital floor, Zeus was loaded onto our newly purchased stretcher with mommy glued to the side of his head in effort to avoid further “combative” behavior. The whole scene was so morosely surreal, I felt like a pallbearer helping to carry a cherished, albeit very heavy, relative to his hearse. Only this was my Jeep, and we were on our way home.

Zeus fought the good fight for seven more months, and the chief of staff agreed to privately arranged twice weekly home visits for the first few nightmarish weeks as we all did our utmost to get Zeus up and walking again.

What’s that phrase? Life happens when you are busy making other plans? Something like that. Anyway, Zeus never walked again. His body began to reject the implanted apparatus, and he developed what the dermatologist called the worst case of sarcoptic mange she had ever treated. She deduced he had contracted it from the hospital bedding, and it had incubated quietly and fiercely underneath the layers of non-breathable bandage material before Zeus developed secondary bacterial infections body-wide. Oh yeah, he managed to acquire nasal mites as well. (I am scratching myself as I write this, from the mere recounting of the struggle.)

Days, then weeks, passed as we worked through range of motion exercises and daily massages to keep everything moving. We took turns sleeping on the couch above Zeus (the most central, open area of the house), and rotated shifts spent toileting, feeding, medicating, and entertaining this former star quarterback of the canine world. Much to the disgust of Zeus’s two feline housemates, when it was too rainy and then too warm to stay in the community park for hours on end, our small living room welcomed scores of visiting play pals and their people, who came first to motivate, then to comfort, and finally to bid last farewells.

Upon reflection, we unknowingly provided hospice care to a dying animal. Some folks confuse animal hospice with at-home veterinary euthanasia services. This is not the case at all! Much like human hospice, animal hospice is a growing sub-specialty that provides palliative care and services for animal and guardian alike, in attempts to allow pets and their people to usher in the inevitable with grace and dignity, in priceless comforts of home’s environs.

Three nights before Zeus died, I was sitting beside him going through his enormous toy collection. I had sensed we were nearing the end of our journey, and wanted to gift Zeus’s BFFs with some favorite possessions. As I reached for a fuzzy orange basketball, I heard a feeble play growl and felt an enormous paw pin down my hand as Zeus worked to roll the ball toward his mouth. I instantly snapped out of my grieving fugue state, and spent the next half hour playing our new version of fetch with my boy. We fell asleep together on the floor, me with my hand on Zeus, Zeus with his paw on the ball. That little ball accompanied Zeus throughout the next day’s 4-year adoption anniversary party. We stowed it in the pocket of his customized harness when he devoured two hot dogs and some frozen yogurt, welcomed a dozen canine party guests, ate some doggie cake, and soaked up the early June California sun.

That ball went with us to the veterinary acupuncturist the following day, Zeus’s last on Earth, as he crashed and we rushed him in for an assessment. We spent five hours sitting in a large cage with Zeus as he received IV fluids, some homeopathic remedies and intermittent monitoring. At the end of the day, we took Zeus home. To die. He was no longer wanting to eat or drink, and he could barely raise his head.

GoodbyeWhen we got home, the sun was almost setting as we went out to the park so Zeus could say goodbye to a beloved trio of his special needs canine friends (all of whom belonged to the same amazingly compassionate guardian) -- one who suffered from intermittent syncopal episodes due to a rare cardiac condition, one in a wheelchair as a result of degenerative myelopathy, and one uber-reactive formerly stray rescue who liked to make goo-goo eyes at my boy. Three humans and four dogs sat together in communal silence and watched the sun set. Oh, what a beautiful memory. No words were needed, as we watched our dogs pile together in a way that made us all wonder where one animal ended and another began.

After they left, we returned home in the dark for a quiet night as a little family. My husband left the room in tears when I held Zeus’s head in my lap, looked him in the eyes, and told him how much I adored him. I gave him permission to leave us, and continue his journey into the Great Unknown. I kissed him goodnight and my husband took a final turn on the couch.

The next morning, I awakened to a sound I would very much like to, but doubt I can ever, forget. My husband was screaming Zeus’s name through choked tears of grief. Even though I was two rooms away, I knew what I would find. Our beloved Zeus was dead.

Two hours later, we delivered Zeus’s body to the pet cemetery, where we made arrangements for private cremation. We held a park side memorial service for him, and over 20 people and their pets attended. One friend gave us a homemade plaster garden paver with Zeus’s name on it, and it flanks our front porch to this day.

Although it’s probably obvious that I still desperately miss Zeus, I have no regrets. I believe his true nature was honored, and even though the last seven months were incredibly difficult, I knew my dog, and as long as I saw that fire in his eyes, I never stopped trying. Neither did he.

We euthanized my childhood dog, Tumbleweed. You know, the one who chewed off his own leg cast about 40 Thanksgivings ago. He lived to the ripe old age of 14 before advanced (yet undetected) gastrointestinal cancer got the best of him. As he pushed the lethal contents of the syringe into my dog’s IV line, Tumbleweed’s vet looked my sobbing mother in the eye and said, “We are kinder to our animals than we are to people.” In that circumstance, I buy that.

Dakota Dakota, the former farm dog-turned-suburban warrior, had better not be planning to go anywhere anytime soon. Tumbleweed was a buddy. Zeus was a soul mate. Dakota is a four-legged child. This living, breathing study in contrast is both incredibly loving and deeply cautious. He can be on his back in complete, blissful repose and surrender one minute, and bolting to the front window to bellow the possible approach of his nemesis the UPS man the next.

I don’t know when or how this dog will spend his final moments. I just know I must be strong, and do my absolute best to allow this animal with whom I share heart and home to live out his life his way, sometimes with awkwardness, sometimes with gut-busting humor, and always with unbridled authenticity.

Dr. Reema About the author: Dr. Reema Sayegh has a Ph.D. in Holistic Nutrition and Doctor of Naturopathy degree, and has enjoyed an extensive career in the integrative wellness field. In 2004, Dr. Reema rescued a nine-year-old Great Dane mix named Zeus, who inspired her to “shift gears.” She has since become a Reiki master teacher, published author, public speaker, animal welfare advocate, and currently works as a certified holistic pet consultant, working in tandem with veterinarians and their clients to provide companion animals with adjunct natural wellness modalities, and specialty geriatric and hospice care. Dr. Reema lives in southern California with her husband and the love of their lives, a spirited canine teacher, healer, and fun-loving goofball named Dakota. To reach Dr. Reema, you may email her at drreema4pets@yahoo.com.