Today I got a call from the vet to tell me the results of my dog’s skin biopsy & blood tests from 4 days before. I took him to the vet in May because of a red, itchy patch on his left side which was now looking a bit bald and was given a steroid cream to try for a couple of weeks. We hoped it was just some localised irritation that would settle down. When it didn’t clear up I went back in July and the vet was a bit mystified but suspected it may be hormone-related, possibly a problem with his pituitary gland. A few days later he went into hospital for a skin biopsy and blood tests to check it out.
He bounced out of the hospital with a couple of shaved patches on his legs and neck, but otherwise none the worse for wear for a morning in hospital. They had managed to do it under sedation so he didn’t have to recover from general anaesthetic and had a normal evening meal and walk later that day.
The news today wasn’t what they, or I, expected. His blood results were good and his pituitary was normal – no evidence of Cushing’s disease, which was a suspect because of the localised hair loss on his side and the red, itchy patch. Just above this there was a hand-sized flaky, white, scaly patch that felt thick, and they had taken a biopsy of that too.
The vet sounded surprised to be telling me the irritated patch on his skin is actually a large Mast Cell Tumour.
Did I hear right? Tumour. Cancer. What???
She told me they didn’t anticipate this as mast cell tumours usually present as smooth discrete lumps, not scaly itchy skin patches. Google helped me find out more about Mast Cell Tumours and yes, sometimes they do appear like warts but yes, this is unusual. She had already spoken to the Oncologists in the Dick Vet Hospital (actually, in the same building) and I was to take him in the following Monday to find out more about the cancer – grades and stages and the like.
I should mention here that Ash is 12. He has always been healthy, barring a couple of operations a few years ago on his ears and his eyes. Nothing major and nothing recurring. So this diagnosis was a bit of a surprise to me. I had to tell my children (18 and 20, technically not children any more but when it comes to telling them the dog they grew up with may have a terminal illness they may as well still have been 5 and 7).
So I have a week ahead of googling and observing, wondering what Monday will bring.
I decided to work from home to spend one last day with Ash at my feet. The early morning routine was the same as always but as I was getting his breakfast ready I wondered why I was adding tablets to his meals for the day. I missed out the prednisolone but decided to keep the others as I didn’t want him to be itchy again, especially on his last day. I added some extra kibble, worries about him putting on old-lab-weight irrelevant now. I put his bowl down and he sat patiently, head tilted, waiting for me to give the ‘yes’ command as he has done at every meal since he was a puppy.
Ash is a Labrador, ergo food is his favourite. A number of words elicit a guaranteed head tilt:
“Do you want…. (insert any word here)?”
or just –
and best of all, “Breakfast?”
Clare and I found each other on borrowmydoggy.com around 3 years ago. Clare would take Ash for weekends and Ash loved visiting her; he got to lie on the sofa for a start, and she would take him for long walks in country parks and beaches.
She soon discovered the effect the word “Breakfast?” had on him – head tilt, intense stare, waiting for a bowl full of kibble or a bit of cheese. Not confined to the morning meal either, Clare would ask him if he wanted “Breakfast?” at supper time too. Maybe even at other times of day; endless amusement.
Clare and her new husband Kevin came to say farewell to Ash a couple of weeks ago. They brought a banana, keen to see if Ash could still take it out of the skin without help and without thumbs. She asked if he wanted “Breakfast?” (of course) and gave him a banana. He sniffed it and looked a bit confused. Then a huge front paw held one end down as he daintily but efficiently ripped the skin off with his teeth, discarding strips of skin all over the floor as he ate the ripe fruit inside.
Who says Labradors are stupid?
A day’s work
Today’s work is punctuated by frequent trips out to the garden as Ash needs to wee at very regular intervals. No sooner has he come in from the garden than he has another drink, lies down for a few minutes then sits staring at me, asking to be let outside again.
We yo-yo between my desk and the garden. Ash sleeps for short bursts but doesn’t really settle. I wonder if the trips outside are just a distraction from feeling uncomfortable or sore. His legs aren’t quite right, even sitting I can see his back legs are positioned differently as he leans slightly on one haunch. I let him enjoy a couple of apples from the ground in the garden but I don’t leave him outside for long as I want to spend every moment I can with him. I am grateful my job lets me work from home if I need to.
After work, my son arrives and we get ready to pick up my other son from the railway station and head to the vet. He gives him another bowl of kibble and I put the leftover Baby Bels from Rachel’s visit into my handbag along with the usual cheesy treats and some poo bags. I remember to put the lead the hospital lent me yesterday into my bag so I can return it – I won’t need it as a spare. Alasdair helps Ash into the car, hoisting his back legs up as he tries his best to jump into the impossibly high boot.
Ash sits with his head between the back seats in the car looking adorable. He usually looks out the rear windscreen, waiting for motorbikes to dare to come close before barking at the rider. He has never been a big barker but has always been a bit scared of people in motorbike helmets. This is unfortunate as we have sat at many traffic lights with Ash barking madly at a biker sitting behind us, probably wondering what he/she has done to upset this large, loud dog. Today, however, he sits looking at us from the boot, his big soft head with its new pointy shape fitting perfectly between the seats.
Although I know we are doing the right thing, I am filled with guilt and questions about whether I should wait, whether chemotherapy would have given him more time, whether it really is time. But I just know he’s not himself. Someone recently described him as stoic, commenting that Ash never complains. He really didn’t complain, even if I stood on his tail by accident or fell over him in the hall, he might give a small yelp but would then look at me with those beautiful brown eyes and prick his ears up a little.
We reach the hospital and as we go in through the front doors the receptionist comes right out from behind the desk to ask if this is Ash and takes us straight through to a room I haven’t seen before. It’s next to the room I first saw the Oncologist in and it’s what can only be described as a relatives’ room. It has a desk, a sofa and a couple of chairs. The Primula cheese vet comes in and Ash is pleased to see her again, wagging and appreciating the biscuit she gives him.
The vet tells us she will come through in a few minutes and give Ash a sedative. She will then leave us alone for 10 minutes or so while the sedative works. She tells us that when she comes back, if Ash is still able to walk we will go through to one of the treatment rooms but if he’s too sleepy she will come through with ‘everything she needs’ and we will stay where we are. She disappears and we give Ash some Baby Bel cheese and make a fuss of him.
The vet comes back in. She gives Ash an injection into the fleshy scruff of his neck and says she will come back in a while to see how sleepy he is. He wanders around for a few minutes then begins to get a bit wobbly, standing still but not wanting to lie down, a bit confused. I tell him to lie down, clicking my fingers and pointing at the floor as I always do, and he does, resting his head on his front paws. He is barely panting now. He has eaten all the cheese.
I keep stroking him, gentle, reassuring.
The vet comes back through and speaks to Ash but he doesn’t lift his head or wag his tail. She puts a slice of ham in front of his nose and for the first time ever, he leaves it alone. She says he’s clearly too sleepy to walk through to the other room; no shit, Sherlock. A Labrador not eating ham? Never thought I’d see the day. She leaves again and a few minutes later comes back with the nurse and ‘everything she needs’. My kids and I shuffle around the room so that we can all see Ash and touch him if we want to and the vet and nurse can reach his front leg. The ham sits in front of his nose between his paws, untouched. His eyes are still open but unmoving. His breathing is slow, settled.
It takes a while for them to find a vein, his tough old blood vessels defeating one or two needles before she goes to find a bigger one. He stays perfectly still, seemingly not aware of what’s going on with his leg. We keep stroking his fur. They take a few minutes to attach the cannula securely, bandaging his leg neatly before asking me “are you ready?” I want to scream
NO, OF COURSE I’M NOT READY TO SAY GOODBYE TO MY COMPANION, MY FAITHFUL RUNNING PARTNER, MY COMFORT, MY STOIC, SOPPY, SILLY CONSTANT.
Still, I look at my kids and hear myself saying yes.
We rest our hands on him, telling him it’s all going to be ok, that he will see friends and family in the forest and he can wait for us. His breathing slows further and after a few minutes, stops completely. He lets out one last sigh, just like in the evening when he has been lying comfortable in his bed and lazily turns over, letting his paw or his head hang over the edge of the cushion.
Except this time he stays completely still, the ham still in front of his nose, his eyes still open but sleepy. It’s a small comfort that he can smell ham rather than clinical hospital smells. The vet packs up the bits & pieces no longer needed and says we can take as much time as we need and when we are ready she will let us out the side door.
He feels just the same, his soft head and belly still warm. We all cry.
We don’t want to leave but know we have to, that it’s only his body left in the room and that he is already running in the forest, joints and bones weightless and pain-free once again.
The car seems empty and quiet. We go home to drink tea, Ash’s bed still in the corner and his bowls still in the kitchen.
I don’t have to mop up water from the kitchen floor.
Lovely words by a dog lover and beneath it James Stewart reads a poem about his dog, Beau
Over the past week Ash has become an old doggy, leaving a trail of wee and worse behind him, knowing that something isn’t right. He has been restless, spending less time comfortable in his bed and more time lying stretched out on the rug or the floor or just standing in front of me gazing at me intently, his back legs bent and splayed out at an unusual angle as if he’s about to pounce or sit down.
He no longer barks when someone unfamiliar comes to the front door and when I come home he takes his time coming to see me, tail wagging less enthusiastically than usual. He can’t jump into the car boot now although he sometimes tries manfully and I have got used to standing behind him ready to help him heave his 32kg in. He still manages to lie in everyone’s way in the house, picking the best vantage point stretched out across the entrance to 4 rooms and the hall so that every time we try to walk somewhere we fall over him.
Yesterday I phoned the oncologist to talk to him about the incontinence and the odd position of Ash’s legs. It could be the tumours getting worse, or a urinary tract infection or a side effect of the prednisolone, but it’s hard to tell without tests. I made an appointment with the vet for late afternoon the following day.
The carrot dilemma
Ash has been going to Dog Daycare in Gorebridge since he was a puppy. The staff know him well and he often stays with one of them if I’m away for a few days. He still gets excited when he hears Ken at the front door, bounding past me down the hall to greet him, tail wagging excitedly as he trots beside him into the van with the other dogs. I give Ash a carrot every morning as I leave for work and occasionally Dog Daycare arrive just as I give him the carrot…oh the dilemma…finish the carrot or run down the hall to greet them? He often just couldn’t choose, practically inhaling the carrot and taking a couple of bounds down the hall, screeching to a halt and going back for more carrot, ears flapping as he tries to keep an eye on the front door to make sure they won’t leave without him while also keeping an eye on the remains of the carrot to make sure…well I can only guess to make sure I’m not going to eat it off the floor myself.
I let Dog Daycare know I’ll be picking him up in the afternoon to take him to the vet and arrive as they are getting ready to drop the dogs home. Sarah tells me he has spent the day on the sofas or falling over, finding it hard to balance. She noticed his head had changed shape since she last saw him, concave areas on the top at each side, giving his head a pointed look. His eyes were also sunken, not their usual bright brown almond shape. He was standing listening to us and as we looked at him we saw his legs were very bent and splayed, the whole area of the back legs below the knee practically flat to the ground rather than just the usual paw area. She’s not sure he can cope with coming to Daycare for much longer. She reminds me he was one of her original dogs, along with Peppa, a beautiful big Newfoundland. I think about Truffle, one of Ash’s other Daycare buddies and my friend Anne’s dog, a lovely chocolate lab/spaniel cross. We used to walk in the woods on Friday mornings with other dogs from school – Truffle, Jess, Jester, Ruby (all sisters) and various others. Sadly, many of the dogs are no longer with us and I was upset to hear just a few weeks ago that Truffle died in her sleep.
Sarah and the other staff said goodbye to Ash and it felt like it was for the last time. I helped him into the car and had a cry. We set off for the 20 minute drive to the vet. After 10 minutes I smelled the unmistakable stench of dog poo. I tried to convince myself it was just muck spreading from the farmland we were passing, but I knew what had happened in the boot. Ash tried to move out of the way but he had his lead on and it got pretty mucky along with his leg, the bed and the boot liner. I didn’t have any wipes, cloths or water with me so I just had to wait to reach the vet. They gave me disinfectant wipes that I used to clean his leg, and lent me a lead so I could wrap the mucky one in a poo bag. We waited inside until our appointment time and I hoped I had managed to get rid of the smell.
No-one warned me flip-flops were hazardous
We saw two final year students who were very thorough with their questions and their examination. Ash particularly liked the young American student who had a lovely way with him, even letting him examine his gums and ears without trying to distract him. He also noted Ash’s head shape, telling me the concave areas are likely an indication of dehydration. Ash had been drinking his usual enormous bowl of water every day, although he had been peeing more. Actually, drinking his enormous bowl of water isn’t quite true. Ash has always had large, dangling lips. They have been the source of regular hilarity when one of them gets caught in his teeth giving him an Elvis-like sneer. A side effect of these generous lips is that they catch a lot of water when he drinks. All well and good but he didn’t always swallow it. Most of it dripped / poured out on the floor as he took a breath, or on an unsuspecting person’s feet or legs as he affectionately stood beside them after taking a drink. Flip-flops became hazardous in the kitchen (wet feet a certainty) and his water bowl sat in a cat litter tray permanently. This would get emptied every couple of days, but it still didn’t catch all the water – the kitchen mop was always handy and every time I went into the kitchen the floor would get mopped.
The students disappeared to report to the vet and the three of them returned 10 minutes later. It was the Primula cheese vet but she didn’t have any today, only gravy bones that she used to distract Ash while she felt around his body, checked his heart rate and observed him as he panted and stood awkwardly. We talked about Prednisolone that can cause panting and increased urination. She said reducing the dose would have to be done gradually as it would by now have affected his adrenal glands which produce cortisol to help fight infection and cope with stress.
As we talked I knew we were just skirting round the real purpose of my visit. I remembered the first conversation with the oncologist when I said I didn’t want Ash to suffer, didn’t want him to have to stop running in the forest, didn’t want to follow him around to clean up after him, didn’t want to spoil his meals with lots of tablets. I thought about the number of times this week I had had to scrub and mop floors. I thought about our last run at Loch Leven and our increasingly short walks in the forest. I thought about the 13 tablets I put in his meals every day and the fact that I no longer take him to the supermarket to sit beside the baskets because he might pee on the floor before I come back out with my 5 items.
I wanted the vet to tell me it was time. Instead she told me only I would know when it was time as I know Ash better than anyone. My voice broke when I said it and Ash came over to lie beside me. She said she could go and get everything ready now but I wanted my kids to be able to say goodbye so I made an appointment for the following evening. I also wanted to take him for a last walk in the forest.
I’m not sure how I saw through the tears when I drove home. I donned my wellies and we went to the forest for the last time. It’s 200m from my front door and we must have walked there thousands of times. I knew he wouldn’t be able to walk far so we took the shorter walk by the river. He usually strays into the forest to sniff and eat unsavoury things when off the lead and I have to keep stopping to wait for him. Tonight he stayed with me. When we reached the river I threw a stick in for him to fetch. He walked into the water but didn’t seem interested in the first stick and instead stood watching the river flow past. I wonder what was going through that big, soft head of his. I tried with another stick and when he came out he struggled a bit getting his back legs up the small bank, and we carried on our walk, Ash carrying the stick with him as he liked to do.
When my kids were younger, maybe 7 and 9 we walked to Cramond Island in north Edinburgh. The Island is accessible by a causeway when the tide is out. Ash was off the lead and he and the kids were running through the muddy silt in their wellies, having a great time. One of my youngest’s wellies got stuck in the mud as she was running and she left it where it was as she was running too fast to stop to pick it up. She got upset as she reached me to tell me about the missing welly, crying into my leg and pointing at the muddy area a few meters away that she couldn’t reach without getting her feet even muddier. I was about to ask my son to go and pull it out of the mud when Ash ran over to where you could just see the top of the welly sticking out, grabbed it with his mouth and shook it free, bounding back over to us with the welly. What a good boy and definitely deserving a handful of cheesy treats. On the way back from our short river walk in the country park we passed a huge area of wild brambles and I stopped to pick some. Ash has always loved brambles and is quite nifty picking only the ripe ones. We shared as many as I could reach and I fed him from my hand, his soft muzzle nuzzling my palm as he ate the soft juicy dark fruit. We made our way home slowly as I wanted to savour every step.
That evening my son stopped in on his way to work to see Ash. We talked about the appointment the following night at the vet and he said he wanted to come with me. I phoned my other son who had just moved away to start University and he also said he would get the train back the following day so he could be there too. Later that evening my friend Rachel came to visit, bearing raspberries and baby bel cheese (she knows Ash well). We remembered all the walks we had been on together and how her cats had never really taken to Ash although he was always very keen to play with them. He was very sprightly, wagging his tail and looking for cuddles as usual and I did wonder if I was doing the right thing. Then I told Rachel about the accidents, the sore legs, the tablets and the prognosis…and knew I was. He snaffled a couple of baby bels and most of the raspberries and had a lie down.
In summer 2013 the kids and I spent another summer holiday in Kintail. The weather was glorious. We stayed in Sallachy on the shore of Loch Long in a house kindly lent to us by my recently retired boss. It had a log fire and some very old, very comfortable sofas and chairs, perfect for curling up on with a book. The house had no TV, no radio, no wifi and no 3G signal. Blissful solitude, with the rare exception of RAF Typhoons buzzing along the very narrow loch every few days. We spent our days exploring the loch, did a basket weaving lesson at the local community hall and drove to Applecross, Plockton, Sands & Skye.
I have lovely memories of drinking hot chocolate in a Yurt beside the Brochs at Glenelg before getting on the ferry, served by a lovely couple from a gypsy caravan, Ash at our side as always. We spent our evenings playing Fleeced (a wonderful board game based on Wallace & Gromit), Bananagrams, reading or playing pool in the nearest pub (a few miles away in Dornoch). We drove up with Numpty, a friend’s kayak, on the roof of the car and Numpty took all of us across the loch to explore the shore on the other side, as well as the island we could see from the house.
Ash wasn’t allowed on the furniture at home but Dog Daycare Centre in Gorebridge, where he had been going since he was a puppy, had some sofas and chairs that I’m sure he spent a lot of time on. We caught Ash sneaking up on the large, comfy chairs in the house in Sallachy, so when we went out we made sure to put things on the chairs to make sure he wouldn’t get up on them when we were out – newspapers, cushions, a rugby ball etc. When we came home one day, he was so comfy he didn’t hear us come in and take our boots off. When we walked into the living room he barely lifted his head from the chair… yes, the chair with the rugby ball on it. He hadn’t moved the rugby ball which was still exactly where we left it, but he was beautifully curled around it, barely registering we were home, clearly happy with himself that the rugby ball was still where we wanted it. Cheeky.
The elusive Fairy Pools and the 7 hour walk
A friend had told us about the Fairy Pools, a must visit place on Skye. We picked a hot summer day to visit and I packed some water, sandwiches and snacks to last us a couple of hours – all the guide books said it was no more than 2 hours plus swimming time. We parked at Glenbrittle car park, past the green forestry commission sign. We headed up past the car park following the path and saw the signs warning us of some forestry work ahead.
Big mistake. The Fairy Pools aren’t past the car park, they are back across the road on the way to the Cuillins. There was no mobile signal. I hadn’t brought an OS map as I hadn’t planned on going off-piste. We followed the forest track, waiting to find the river and pools. There was a bit of a burn that we passed regularly so we were confident we would find the pools around a corner. We followed the diversion past the forestry works – quiet and still because it was the weekend. We kept going, circling up the hill. We did find a ‘pool’ that Alasdair had a bit of a dip in because it was so hot. We ran out of snacks. We ran out of water. You can see the offending hill in the picture below – it isn’t even a mountain, more a rolling bump that really shouldn’t have taken us more than a couple of hours, but I have no idea how many times we circled it! As much of it is forested, it was difficult to get our bearings without a map.
We manfully kept going, round and round the circular track that seemed to be only very slowly climbing. When we ended up back in a place we had been a couple of hours before, I had to admit I didn’t know where we were going to two grumpy, thirsty, hungry teenagers. It didn’t occur to me that there was no one else on the hill so we may have been in the wrong place…! We finally got off the hill, back to the car and admitted defeat.
The actual Fairy Pools, August 2017
My partner suggested I re-create our Fairy Pools trip with Ash and the kids on one last road trip. Great idea. Amazingly both kids were available the following Sunday so we drove to Skye in the middle of the night, leaving Edinburgh just before 2am. This time we took my son’s car and shared the driving. No Numpty on the roof this time. We drove a couple of hours past Dalwhinnie and stopped for a sleep. I woke first and set off for another hour before stopping for another rest. When we woke up it was daylight and we only had 90 minutes to go before reaching Glen Brittle.
The weather forecast had been for rain all day so we packed waterproofs and boots. We arrived at the car park at around 0930 and got the last parking space. This time we walked across the road, in fact we couldn’t have missed it as we only had to follow the crowds. It was pretty busy. Where were all these people 3 years ago? The clouds were balancing on top of the Cuillins, the Inaccessible Pinnacle just visible. We followed the path and spent a glorious couple of hours looking at clear blue-green water, iron-ore tinged rocks and inviting waterfalls. Although it was summer it was only 17 degrees, a bit cold for a dip this time.
We kept Ash on the lead in case he disappeared to find sheep or eat rabbit poo. We had to let him off for the river crossings as it would have been too difficult to hold on to him while we were also trying to balance, and he couldn’t use the big stepping stones. He made it across without falling in, a bit wobbly but stayed with us. He was finding it difficult to balance on the uneven rocks on the path so we tried to let him walk on the soft peat and heather at the side of the path. Even so, a few times he lost his footing and almost fell.
We walked till we reached the sign that told us we had reached the end of the Fairy Pools. As we turned back, we saw the hill we spent a full day walking round and round in the other direction.
It was the most beautiful couple of hours with my 2 kids and my dog. I wish we had had the place to ourselves, but strangely there were no other dogs walking till we almost reached the car park on the way back. Ash is always admired and today was no exception. A few people probably wondered why we were making this heavily panting, gangly-legged old boy walk when he was clearly struggling but he had a smile on his face the whole time.
The great leap forward (almost)
When we got back to the car Ash had a slight uphill jump to make it into the boot of the car. There was a slightly muddy patch right behind the car and I tried to get him to take a run up to the boot so he might make it in one go. He gave it his best but 2 hours of walking had taken its toll and he launched himself towards the boot, landing right against the lip but not even getting a single paw in. Instead he seemed to balance on the edge for a second or two before falling comically on his side right into the muddy patch. I’ve never seen him fall without putting his legs out before, but he just didn’t seem to be able to move them quickly enough and he splatted right on his side. So we then had a 30+kg muddy and tired dog to haul into the car – good job my son was there to help him in.
Not a drop of rain fell while we were walking. A friend (Anne) told me later she had been to the Fairy Pools later that day and the rain lashed down. I’m glad our last long trip with him was dry and beautiful, couldn’t have been more perfect really.
Ash spent the week with my kids and their dad while I was in Portugal. He was thoroughly spoiled with cuddles in front of the TV, constant access to the garden, snacks and walks through the wheat fields. He was sitting on the step outside the kitchen one evening looking into the house and Dave had to help him over the last step, poor chap.
Since I got him home he has followed me around like a puppy even more than usual. We have noticed he’s often wobbly on his back legs. When he is standing his legs are often slightly bent and splayed, as though he’s a bit sore. He stares at me a lot, asking for something and I don’t know what it is.
Tents & coral beaches
Mac and I stayed in a beautiful tent in Portugal, complete with decking floor, proper bathroom with pantile roof, water from the bore hole and a real kitchen. We had to make sure all food was sealed because of the various creatures sharing the orange grove with us. It reminded me of a holiday in Skye around 4 years ago with the kids and Ash. We drove to the Coral Beach at Claigan, just north of Dunvegan in the North West of the Island. The beach is a good 25 min walk from the car park but well worth the trip with pure white ‘sands’ made from crushed, bleached skeletons of Red Coralline seaweed and views of North Uist and Harris.
As you walk along the beach there is a little hill known as ‘Ghrobain’ that you have to climb for the best views. It only takes a couple of minutes. Once at the top, I decided it was time to let Ash off the lead. After all, there was no one around and we had passed only a couple of people on the way. No sooner had I released him that he took off, full speed over the brow of the hill in the opposite direction. Now Ash only runs at speed when he can smell food. I had no idea what he could smell…maybe some deer poo or an animal carcass? I took off after him, knowing I would never catch up but knowing I had to keep going as he was probably going to eat something unsavoury.
As I reached the brow of the hill and started running down it I saw a small, orange tent at the bottom. Rough placement in the photo above. I hadn’t noticed it on the way as I had been looking at the coral under my feet, and the views of the Outer Hebrides. I kept running, but Ash reached the tent what seemed like minutes before I did. It was an old fashioned tent with guy ropes and a loose groundsheet. This meant there was an Ash-sized gap between the tent and the groundsheet, which he made his way into to find the stash of food. By the time I reached him, he had his nose in the Sunblest bag having eaten most of a sliced white loaf and a pack of sliced ham and what I can only guess was cheese wrapped in clingfilm.
I hauled him out by the collar, looking around to see where the owner was. No-one to be seen. I had no pen or paper to leave a note. No food to leave as a replacement. No money with me to leave as an apology. We just had to go back to the car, feeling terribly guilty that some poor person would return from a day’s walking to their meagre meal which had been shared unwittingly with a Labrador.
We had a walk in the Country Park this evening and he had a paddle in the river, dragging his back legs up the bank behind him slightly as he tried to haul himself out. No loopy turn tonight, not even any rolling around in the leaves to dry. Maybe next time.
I have spoken to my partner, kids, mum, friends and a couple of people at work about the best thing to do and no-one has yet come up with a good reason to put him through surgery or chemotherapy. There just isn’t enough certainty that they will do any good, and the down-side for Ash is significant.
The worst thing about surgery would be if they began the operation and realised they had to take a much larger area than anticipated, potentially removing his front leg at the shoulder. I just can’t imagine expecting a 12 year old dog to learn to walk again, and potentially only for the remaining 8-12 months of his life. To me, that feels cruel and selfish. Younger dogs can bounce back after amputations and can run again after a matter of months, but Ash is finding it hard to run now with four legs, let alone three.
Labradors have a fantastic freedom about them when they run; carefree, gangly, uncoordinated, often with a large stick or small tree trunk balancing in their mouth. If the tree trunk / branch is held perfectly in the middle and he gains good speed, Ash inevitably meets two trees that stop him in his tracks, reverberating through his body as he lets go of the branch and reassembles himself.
He has few loopy turns nowadays. They used to be prompted by the sudden chill of a river or the discovery of an enormous stick / branch to run with. Splashing out of the river and shaking dry beside me he would throw himself down in the leaves & dust and roll around, back and forth, making sure they ground in properly. I would send him into the river again to clean off, out he would come again. shake beside me and back down into the leaves and dust to roll back & forth, round and round. This would go on for a few cycles until I sent him back into the river while I ran away from the dust and leaves back onto the path, calling him to follow me without rolling around again. Sometimes it would work.
She crossed a wide ocean, during war times, in danger A life of adventure, of courage, of fear Yet, nothing reveals the hint of the years that have chiseled her wrinkles, but not dampened her cheer
She pours me some tea, we relax in the shade Cool on the porch of a summertime day Honeysuckle vines circle the posts, Spider-webs glisten, hosts offer a toast. She chatters nonchalantly, so glib on the tongue, Of a war and the journey that left her alone To her, all these stories, are quite ordinary, I cling to each word, but she’s here to assure me A true-life adventure.
Inside the house, the counter is a clutter, piled high with dishes The old floor is sticky, and dog hair floats in prisms of light One old hound sleeps in the middle of the worn kitchen rug. Another lame Labrador laps water from a pie tin, dripping water from his sloppy face across the peeling checkered floor.
Throughout the house, a lingering musky smell of well loved pets, and a stale, smoky odor of burnt toast from her attempt at breakfast. Servants, cooks, gardeners, part of a long ago past. The house is filled with dust covered, belongings History fills each corner to mingle, along with the dust motes that linger in air
Junk mail, newspapers, dog treats, documents and clippings prized antiques and artifacts, ……just facts of life, from how she sees them
On every shelf, and on the walls, are sepia-hued photographs Famous faces I have seen, on the news, and on the screen
A handsome young man, and she was his bride A commander when the world took sides She followed him to the ends of the earth. And soon will gladly follow him to the grave
I sit here now,…with this woman of many lives. Like one of the flowers on her porch, she wears a tattered, splattered dress. Today, she is a homespun, country widow. An extraordinary woman, this grand Duchess, yet now who bears traits of Ma Kettle She brought class, dignity, and a wealth of knowledge to our small country neighborhood,……. to my life. Here we are, together, so far from the world she once knew. We sit in the shade of her covered porch A long haired, grey cat jumps into her lap. Under the veil of a summer day I pour her another cup of tea, and a little more for myself. Tea is served, flavored with lemon….I have much more to drink in…..to savor
I phone the vet to tell him we would like to continue with the steroids and anti-histamine treatment. He sounds slightly disappointed. The disappointment may come from the teaching hospital environment. They are at the forefront of veterinary medicine and technology, boasting about their oncology service on the large screen in the waiting area. Ash’s MCT is not straightforward, so he’s bound to be an interesting teaching case, and the surgery would be something new with the unusual tumour presentation. He then says it’s an understandable decision and it will allow Ash to carry on without having to worry about surgery or chemotherapy, and we can always review things to see how he is getting on at a later date. He says he will write a new prescription for me to collect tomorrow after work and I should make an appointment for a review in a month.
I collect the prescription and he tells me that he should have 2 x prednisolone with food daily, 6 piriton and 3 zantac. He says it’s a good thing that they have had a positive effect on the tumours but he says this may not last. We can look at increasing the dose if we find the tumours growing again, but we can’t do this forever.
Later in the evening I sit beside him and stroke his fur, all the time feeling for new lumps. He’s not panting so much tonight but seems restless, lying down for 10 minutes at a time then standing or sitting beside me as I write, trying to tell me something. It’s probably “can I have some cheese?”
Instead of two meals/day he now has three – he has to take tablets three times a day and some have to be taken with food. He doesn’t complain about this but somehow he sometimes manages to filter out the nasty tablets and leave them slimy in the bowl or on the floor. I wonder how this is possible with the speed and gusto with which he hoovers up the contents of the bowl, ears swinging back and forth and identity tag chiming on the stone bowl as he licks clean every last millimetre
When he needs to pee, he really needs to pee. Right now. Quick, get the door open and run to the garden or someone had better be behind us with the mop
Restlessness. He sleeps for a bit then stands up, goes to lie on the rug. Sleeps a bit more. Stands up again. Comes over and stares at me for a bit. Finds another spot on the floor and flops down. Sleeps a bit more. And repeat
Panting, even when doing nothing
When I come home he used to be at the door wagging, looking for a head rub even before my key was out the lock. Now sometimes I’m in, bag put away, keys put in the bowl and he finally appears from his bed to come and say hello
Walks are shorter, much shorter, and slower.
Running is for now a solo activity
Is this why travel rugs were invented?
Today I spoke to the surgeon. Mum came with me. Mum has lived with Labradors for many years and always offers wise words. She remembers the day Zelda (Smelda) died while me, my brother and sister were at school. She came home from the shops to find her dead on the kitchen floor. What to do with a dead dog? She didn’t want to leave her there for us to find when we got home from school, but also didn’t want to take her away to the vet without letting us say goodbye. Practical problem: how to lift a 33kg dead weight of a dog when you are 5′ 2″ and have never been a weight lifter?
Solution: get the travel rug from the car, pop her on it and lift her into the car boot. Good idea, difficult to execute. However, my mum has never been one to shirk a challenge so she somehow managed to get her onto the rug, down the half-dozen steps and into the car boot before we came home.
A girl at work then told me that she knew a large, heavy cat who was also placed in a travel rug when it died.
My best friend then told me her parents also used a travel rug when their yellow Labrador, Sandy, died.
I think I now know why travel rugs were invented. It may also explain why older people keep a travel rug on their parcel shelf…
Excision, diffusion, lesions
The surgeon was accompanied by an intern and two students so the room was fairly busy. The students listened intently as the surgeon talked to us about margins and excision and diffusion and lesions and degranulation and primary closure. She explained the area across his shoulder, although looking less red than last week, still hadn’t shrunk to reveal a typical mast cell tumour. This means surgery would be what they call challenging. The wouldn’t know how big an area to cut out because they just don’t know where the tumour begins and ends. They wouldn’t know this until they had begun the surgery and shaved the area, and even then they wouldn’t really know until the lab results came back to show if they had managed to remove all of the tumour or not. The oncologist had also talked about possible amputation at the shoulder if they had to operate aggressively but they wouldn’t know until they started.
They were hoping the Prednisone he has taken for almost a week would have miraculously shrunk the area on his shoulder to leave a defined mass that they could neatly cut away. Nope. It has seemed to reduce the size of the tumour on his prepuce (foreskin) though, and it could probably be removed along with a 3cm margin. However, this would leave his penis partly exposed, which is a problem for a dog. It may require a second operation to pull his foreskin forward and attach it again further along the penis. This kind of operation is sometimes tricky to heal because of where it is – difficult to keep this area sterile as it keeps getting washed in urine, for example. Each operation would need a 2-week rest / recovery period. The only walks would be 5 mins to pee, on the lead. And then there would be the cone of shame..
The oncologist then came to talk me through the different treatment options again. He confirmed surgery wouldn’t have any guaranteed outcomes and could be difficult. It would also have to be followed up with chemotherapy and possibly radiotherapy. They may not be able to close the wound properly i.e. join skin to skin, which would introduce other difficulties. For a 12 year old dog, with no firm prognosis and certainly no cure, surgery seems a non-starter. I don’t want to artificially extend his life only for him to be poorly and restricted as this clearly wouldn’t be for his benefit.
As I write this he’s stretched out on his bed in the corner, belly lumps (limpomas) exposed where the hair is growing back, grey hair on the bottom of his paws and around his muzzle, his large thick tail curled in tight. As soon as I stand up, usually he would be beside me wagging, waiting for me to say “do you want out?” so he can tilt his head quizzically and wag even more enthusiastically. Tonight, however, I expect he will get up when he feels like it, perhaps after I’ve put the laptop in its bag or when I go over to speak to him. He’s taking his time a bit more, not so eager to do things.
Chemotherapy was also discussed. Although this isn’t as invasive as it is with humans it does sometimes have side effects. More importantly, it doesn’t cure the cancer. It may stop or slow it spreading – but in Ash’s case, they don’t even know if this is likely. The practicalities of chemotherapy are important too. Once a week for four weeks, and then every 2 weeks for another 8 weeks (3 months in total) we would travel to hospital in the morning, a 30-40 min drive at that time of day. He would stay in hospital until lunch time. While there he would have his bloods checked to make sure he was able to cope with the chemotherapy. I know Ash will probably need sedation each time. He volunteered as a blood donor a couple of years ago and they politely told me he wasn’t suitable as he became too excitable when they were trying to do the necessary. He then took part in a research project where, again, he had to give blood and they had to sedate him. So, after the blood tests he would have an I-V infusion of chemotherapy. He would then rest for a bit until I came to collect him. Apart from changing work patterns to accommodate this – which wouldn’t be a big problem but would need some negotiation – it’s a real change to Ash’s pattern. He doesn’t spend mornings in hospital having treatment.
With no guarantee of extra weeks or months or years, this just seems a bit much. Instinct tells me I would be doing it for me, not Ash.
The third option is to continue with the prednisolone and anti-histamines he has already been using. They have had an effect on both tumours – one has shrunk back to looking like a small cyst and the other no longer looks as red, thick and scaly and he’s not scratching it as much.
They just can’t tell me. They say dogs who have typical mast cell tumours successfully removed with straightforward surgery have a median lifespan of 8-12 months. That doesn’t seem like a desperately long time when you consider Ash’s unusual tumour wouldn’t be straightforward surgery and they don’t know if they can treat it at all. They can’t tell me how much longer he would live after chemotherapy. They can’t tell me how much longer he will live without. Given this uncertainty, my gut tells me that the steroid and anti-histamine seem to be the best option. He won’t have to compromise his lifestyle (makes him sound like a movie star…) at all, at least while he is as healthy as he is now, and it doesn’t involve weekly trips to hospital for more ‘procedures’.
They sent a detailed report of their findings and it reiterates everything the oncologist told me.
“There are multiple negative prognostic indicators which help us predict which MCTs are more likely to behave in a more aggressive manner, of which Ash has multiple”
Apricots, bananas, raspberries, tomatoes, apples
Instead of putting the leftover bits of steak fat in the food recycling I find myself slipping them into his bowl. He shares a couple of apricots with me in the evening. He has always loved fruit. When he was a puppy, he was left alone in the dining room while I was next door in the kitchen preparing a meal. I thought he was sleeping as the dining room was a lovely sunny room with long windows and low, broad window sills where the fruit bowl used to sit.
I’ll say that again….low, broad window sills where the fruit bowl used to sit…. yes, the fruit bowl that had a bunch of bananas in it. The fruit bowl that I found on the floor along with 7 banana skins, empty of the delicious fruit inside. How he managed that without thumbs I will never know but from then on he loved fruit. He would pick only ripe raspberries from the bushes in the summer, his big gentle muzzle and huge lips nuzzling into the ripe fruit to nimbly pick only the juicy deep pink ones, leaving any with a hint of green or white to ripen another day.
The one year I successfully grew several varieties of cherry tomato, Ash discovered the ripe fruit before I could harvest them. Every time he was in the garden he had to be supervised to make sure he wouldn’t steal them. The apple tree sacrifices its low-hanging ripe apples to Ash every Autumn. The only food he loves more than fruit is cheese.
The oncologist said to phone by 4pm if I hadn’t heard from him. I left a message with reception who couldn’t get hold of him and got on with work. I phoned again at 5.45pm and was disappointed to hear the automated message saying they were now closed. I expected to hear nothing until the next day so was surprised when the phone rang later than evening and it was the oncologist apologising for the delay.
He confirmed that the ‘cyst’ on his foreskin is another a mast cell tumour and is a typical presentation. As it is now bleeding and ulcerated, that suggests that it’s fairly advanced and has the potential to spread. Although his liver, spleen and lymph nodes are enlarged there is no sign of tumours having spread internally. They are unable to tell if the tumours on his side and the one on his penis are related – and if so, which one is the primary tumour. Common sense tells me that the one I went to the vet about last December is the primary tumour and the ones on his side are secondary but they can’t confirm.
The treatment of choice for mast cell tumours is surgical excision, but in Ash’s case this is difficult. Firstly the tumour on his shoulder is undifferentiated i.e. there is no clear edge to the tumour. The scaly patch covers a large area, bigger than my hand, and the red hairless patch is a little smaller but connected to the scaly area. A successful excision removes the whole tumour and 3-5cm of surrounding tissue. If they can’t tell where the tumour starts and ends, this is an impossible task. The tumour on his penis is equally tricky because of the amount of tissue they would have to remove.
They recommend starting with Prednisolone for a week and returning for a further assessment with the surgeons. Prednisolone (a steroid) can shrink tumours potentially making Ash’s tumours easier to identify and possibly remove. However, this is not always the case.
Chemotherapy was also discussed. This is different to human chemo in that it aims to improve the quality of life rather than treat the cancer. Dogs react less harshly and the dose is smaller and less toxic. Typical side effects (e.g. vomiting or diarrhoea) can be treated easily and more severe reactions are uncommon. However, the practicalities of chemotherapy are challenging; a morning in hospital once a week for a month then a morning in hospital every two weeks for a further two months.
I asked what the prognosis is with and without treatment. He couldn’t tell me because of the nature of Ash’s tumours and the unusual presentation of the one on his shoulder. He did tell me that dogs whose tumours are successfully removed by surgery have a median life expectancy of a further 8-12 months. That doesn’t really seem very long given the fact that they probably can’t operate on either tumour. Would pursuing surgery or any other treatment be best for Ash, or would it be just keeping him alive for me? I wouldn’t want his quality of life to deteriorate. I don’t want his last months filled with hospital visits and tablets and pain.
Mountains and rivers and beaches
We have walked in dozens of forests together, climbed Munros, swum in seas and rivers, camped in tents, run by moonlight deep in the forest when the torch battery failed and jumped into the North Sea together on New Year’s Day (twice). The only compromise we have had to make because of his recurring ear infections is to avoid complete submersion in water. That’s pretty easy, except when he falls into a river that’s way deeper than he expects, but the submersion is short-lived and funny.
I already find our walks have shortened because he’s out of breath after 20 minutes or so. He rarely has his infamous Labrador loopy turns now, running with legs splayed and ears flapping round trees and through puddles, tumbling in mud and leaves and coming to shake dry right beside me.
I have a feeling our last run together was last Sunday at Loch Leven and it makes me cry to write it down.