As I write this, my old friend Oliver, canine extraordinary, is still sleeping on his bed by my office bookcases. I’m writing this now because I’m not sure I will be able to write it later.
This evening a vet will be coming to the house to euthanize Oliver. He’s always been fearful of the vet’s office and it just didn’t seem right to have his final moments be fearful ones.
Oliver’s story has a short-version: While we were living in Christiansburg, VA, we adopted Oliver from the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in early 2003. He, along with a group of other dogs, had been dropped off on the grounds of the shelter unceremoniously, so little was known about his life before then. He had been given the name Hershey, due to his chocolate colored coat (he was an odd mix of dogs that somehow came together to resemble a miniature Chessie). He was renamed after Oliver Twist, which grew even more appropriate as we came to know him better. It was estimated he was about 6 months old at the time we adopted him, which was about how long K and I had been married. In addition to being a dog, Oliver was a marriage counselor; my wife and I would both tell you that he gave us a common purpose and forced us to work together in ways that I’m not sure we would have on our own at that age. Oliver was not an easy dog; the first several months were spent trying to keep him from attacking K. He mellowed with age and after battling chronic disease. As he grew weaker, we adopted a second rescue dog named Mollie who gave Oliver a lot of comfort and aggravation. As we had expected to happen at some point (but we were still not ready for), Oliver’s body eventually failed him in a way that his spirit never did. He was deeply loved by my wife and I, as well as his adopted sister Mollie. He will be missed, but never forgotten.
Of course, that’s not the full story.
Today, Oliver does not resemble the dog we knew even a month ago. He stopped eating normally about 3 weeks ago and has only eaten what would have been a normal day’s worth of food since then. He has become very frail. He can only walk with great effort. He’s not alert, but he still recognizes us.
We took him to the vet a couple weeks ago. I thought at that time he was dying, but there was some evidence it may have all been resulting from a nasty infection. He spent a few days in the vet hospital and was loaded up on antibiotics and had been given nutrient drips since he wouldn’t eat. For a few hours when we got back home, he did seem okay but he still wouldn’t eat much of anything (and we tried pretty much everything).
Last week, I had a business trip it was going to be hard to get out of. I didn’t want to leave him, but I wasn’t going to be too far away that I couldn’t drive back if he got significantly worse so I went ahead with it. I was glad that he made it through that week, but by the time I had gotten back it was obvious that he wasn’t going to bounce back from this.
On Saturday, we took him back to the vet just to confirm what we knew already. There were some additional measures we could take, but nothing that we had a lot of confidence that would work in the sense of returning him to normal. He could be sustained through IVs, but that would require weekly 24-48 hour stays at the vet. The likely cause of his infection could be resolved with surgery, but he wouldn’t survive it if he couldn’t get to a better place before he was operated on.
I didn’t think the infection was the issue–I thought this had all started a couple months back. Oliver has always been the top dog in the house, bossing around our much larger Boxer/Staffy mix, Mollie. A little before Thanksgiving, he had started licking her incessantly. I did a little research and read that kind of licking was usually a sign of submission or affection. As soon as I read that, I thought Oliver must not be doing well.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, he was still acting mostly normal but was sleeping a little more. I remember taking him and Mollie out around midnight on Christmas Eve, after having watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The sky was so clear and you could see a ton of stars. While we were outside, I suddenly had this realization that this would be our last Christmas together. It wasn’t some Nostradamus-like predictions–he had clearly gone downhill in the past year–but it was sort of sunk in that he probably wasn’t going to make it another 12 months. Like my emotions often are related to Oliver, I was sad but I was also thankful for the time we’ve had together.
About 7 years ago, Oliver was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia or AIHA. I still remember the day I had taken him out and he started peeing what looked to be red wine. Dogs either are born with AIHA or they develop it as a reaction to cancer, blood disease, or various toxins. The best guess the vet could come up with based on the evidence is he either got it from eating onions or from rat poison. Since we didn’t have rat poison around, I always assumed it was from some onions that may have fallen to the floor (we never fed Oliver leftovers or he only got “regular” food very rarely).
Basically, what happens with AIHA is the immune system destroys the dog’s red blood cells. As you might imagine, untreated this can kill a dog rather quickly. We got very lucky because our vet had done some work on AIHA and quickly introduced that as a possibility when he was examining him. His quick response more than likely saved his life at that time, but the treatment took a lot out of Oliver. In addition to the drugs that forced the bone marrow to quickly release red blood cells, he had to be put on a variety of drugs to suppress his immune system. At the time, the prognosis was that he’d likely have another major attack within 2 years and he probably wouldn’t survive it even with early treatment.
Before he got hit with AIHA, Oliver was a very energetic dog. He liked to jump around, climbing on top of our couch to get a view out the window. In our cars, he’d even climb up in the back window ledge when we weren’t paying attention. After his treatment, he never really was the same. The days of jumping were over and while he still was as stubborn and grumpy as before, he lacked the energy reserves to let everyone know about it too much.
As predicted, about two and a half years later he did have another attack. However, he did respond to the treatment and made it through. Like before, he was diminished after recovery, but he didn’t have another issue with AIHA other than some minor relapses. Due to the nature of his disease, he never made it off immune suppressants, which did make him susceptible to some other minor problems that we had to treat over the years. Overall, given his prognosis, he had an excellent quality of life for the remainder of his time.
Oliver’s toughness belied his physical vulnerability, so there was a moment of disbelief when we had to come to terms with the fact that he was not going to recover from this most recent health challenge. But my wife and I both strongly believed in him dying with dignity and we’ve didn’t waver with our choice once we understood what Oliver was facing this time.
Oliver was so much more than his health problems, though. Due to the fact that I worked from home, we spent a lot of time together. Without any office friends around, the initial transition to working alone at home all day was a little rough–even for a staunch introvert like myself. Oliver had plenty of personality and quirks that made him a great companion during my long days plugging away on database code or learning how to be a manager.
One thing Oliver was famous for was “going on strike”. If we needed him to go somewhere, he would often flop down on the ground to prevent you from leading him there. You could either drag him at that point or attempt to pick him up. If you went with the picking up option, you’d find that he had gone completely limp and had magically doubled his weight. We decided he must have been some kind of protester in a past life.
Like most dogs, when he was healthy Oliver loved to chase squirrels and had an intense dislike for cats. Also, he was not a big fan of small children. One thing we discovered early on was he had a strong affinity for old men. When we’d take him on walks in a park, he was always trying to run off with some random old guy. That combined with his intense fear of smoke detector alarms and burning smells of any kind (even if you were just trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich) led us to create a tragic origin story for Oliver–his previous owner was some old man who lost everything in a fire and couldn’t support his dogs any longer.
Oliver loved the rare treat of rotisserie chicken and cheese, which were often employed to get hard-to-swallow medicine down. He seemed to enjoy watching Dallas Cowboys games with me until I would start yelling–then he’d prefer to look out the window. He loved laying in sunlight and rolling in clover.
The advantage to writing this ahead of time is I haven’t felt the real pain of loss yet. This evening will be really difficult. The first time I forget he’s not around and go to do something with him will be hard. Over time, though, I know the pain will subside and I can comfort myself knowing that he did not suffer much in the end.
Oliver was a remarkable animal and an excellent friend. I’m so glad he’s been a part of our lives these past 11 years.