We have some happy news to report this month, but some sad news, too.
On the happy side of things, we were delighted to recently welcome this little bundle of joy — Stella the blind and kinda/sorta deaf Pug. A small rural shelter in Maine had asked us if we could take Stella after they took her from a puppy mill in the area. Stella had spent her whole life in a cage used for breeding more Pugs at this place. When this puppy mill has a problem with a Pug, the operators just dump the Pugs at the shelter.
The shelter director had told me that their local vet had said Stella was blind from cataracts, and was also deaf. When I drove over to Maine to pick her up, I took one look at her eyes and could tell it wasn’t cataracts but KCS (Keratoconjunctivitis sicca), commonly known as dry eye. She had a thick dark film across both corneas, and had discharge coming from each eye. This disease is usually easily treated with eye drops and doesn’t need to result in blindness, but clearly Stella had received no treatment at the puppy mill. We think she’s between six and eight years of age, and the damage to her eyes happened quite a while ago.
Stella had become a favorite of the shelter staff, and she basically had the run of the place. She’d follow the employees around as they did their daily chores caring for the other animals. She was sweet and affectionate, and loved nothing more than to be held and cuddled.
Once back home, I took photos of Stella’s eyes and emailed them to our veterinary ophthalmologist in Burlington, Dr. Sarah Hoy. I told her the Maine vet’s diagnosis of cataracts but said, “This sure looks like KCS to me.” The next day Dr. Hoy emailed back with a simple “YES it is dry eye!!!” We started Stella on cyclosporine eye drops we already had on hand until we could get her in to see Dr. Hoy a couple of weeks later. Stella is now on another twice-daily eye medication called tacrolimus that she will stay on for the rest of her life. It was amazing to see how fast the cyclosporine made her eyes more comfortable and moist, and the discharge stopped within a couple of days. The tacrolimus has made even more improvement. However, it is too late to restore her vision, so the goal now is just to maintain comfortable eyes.
One evening about a month after Stella arrived, I had just returned about 6 p.m. from a day-long veterinary trip to Burlington. Alayne and I were finishing dinner about 7 p.m. when we heard a commotion from the living room. We ran in and found Stella in distress … vocalizing, arching her back, falling over. We picked her up but she would struggle, arch her back again, and try to get out of our arms. We put her on the floor but her hind legs wouldn’t work. She’d just fall over. This wasn’t a seizure — we’ve seen plenty of those over the years — and knew something else was occurring.
I called the emergency veterinary clinic in Littleton, NH … about 45 minutes from the farm … and asked if I could rush Stella down. I told them I thought she was having a stroke or a vascular event of some sort, like an embolism. They told me to go ahead and bring her on in, so I rushed her to the clinic. Once there, I put Stella on the front porch of the clinic but she couldn’t use her back legs. After waiting for an hour outside in the vehicle with her (Covid-19 rules mean you can’t go inside the clinic), I called back in and asked when a doctor was going to be able to see Stella. That’s when they told me there were another four or five dogs ahead of us, and only one vet on duty, so they couldn’t give me a time estimate but asked me to be patient.
At that point I called Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists (BEVS) to let them know we were going to head their way. It was a two-hour-plus drive but I figured Stella had a better chance of being seen there sooner than if we simply waited in Littleton. I rushed back to the farm first, where Alayne had prepared an overnight bag for me, some coffee for the road trip, and a hospital bag for Stella (food, meds, etc.).
I had noticed on the drive over to Burlington that Stella was perking up — lifting her head, looking around, no longer in any distress.
When I got to BEVS and took her out for a pee, she was able to walk! She had some ataxia — a little wobbly, her back feet spaced far apart, kind of a stiff gait — but she was walking. I was incredulous and relieved. But of course we had no idea what had occurred with her.
Stella was soon inside the emergency hospital, and I drove over to check into a hotel where Alayne had booked a room for me. About 2 a.m. one of the emergency doctors called to say that Stella was bright, alert and responsive and that they couldn’t find anything wrong with her at that stage. They suspected a vascular event of some sort, too, but couldn’t pinpoint anything. The next day one of the internal medicine specialists at BEVS, Dr. Rebecca Stevens, would take over Stella’s case and run more diagnostics.
Stella spent two days in the hospital getting multiple tests, an ultrasound, and staying under observation. But the specialist couldn’t find anything wrong with her, either. It just seemed to be a transient, unknown “vascular event” that fortunately hadn’t caused any lasting harm.
After scaring the daylights out of us, Stella returned home and settled back in to her new life here. She is just this incredibly sweet girl who follows us everywhere, too. A few times a day, she will come into the sun porch (where our dining table is at one end and my office is at the other) and search for me … going from one end of the room to the other until she finds me. Then she swirls around my feet. That’s the signal for me to pick her up for our “Hug-A-Pug” moment. I hold her in my arms against my chest, and she throws her head back and licks my face, grunting and wiggling the entire time. Then she’s ready to be put back on the floor, and she scampers off to the living room again.
Well, there’s something else she likes to do. She likes to sit on the other dogs. We’re not sure why she does this, nor are we quite sure why the other dogs let her do this, but … it happens:
Stella gets along great with the other dogs and — when not trying to sit on them — loves to curl up with them. Here she is with Tanner:
So that’s the happy news.
The sad news is that we lost little Harley the day before Thanksgiving. The previous week he had stopped eating but otherwise was bright and perky and active. Our internal medicine specialist at BEVS who had earlier cared for Harley, Dr. Bryan Harnett, suggested taking him off his Cushing’s medication briefly to see if that would make a difference. Sometimes the Cushing’s medication can “build up” and result in a loss of appetite until the dose is changed. But that didn’t help, and on the Friday before Thanksgiving I drove Harley over to BEVS to admit him into the hospital.
They did an ultrasound that afternoon and found what they thought might be a foreign object in his intestines. An emergency room doctor took him into surgery that evening but couldn’t find anything. She did find plenty of adhesions (scar tissue) in his abdomen, as well as an old suture site in the abdominal wall, so it was clear Harley had undergone abdominal surgery at some point in the past. For what, and when, we don’t know. But all the adhesions on the intestines and other organs made it very difficult to find the object. With our permission over a speakerphone in the operating room, she ended up terminating the surgery and closing him up because she was concerned it could be causing him more harm than good.
Over the weekend in the ICU they gave Harley lots of supportive therapy but he still wouldn’t eat anything, so they inserted a feeding tube to ensure he got adequate nutrition. Yet he didn’t turn around. On Monday Dr. Harnett did another ultrasound and he still saw what he thought was a foreign object in Harley’s intestines. The board-certified surgeon, Dr. Jacob Helmick, was in that day. He reviewed the ultrasound, as did a radiologist, and the consensus was that there was something in the intestines.
Dr. Helmick took Harley into surgery again that afternoon, and this time — after much painstaking searching of Harley’s little intestines — he finally found the culprit: A tiny piece of wood that had pierced Harley’s intestines in three different places. He removed the object, sutured up the intestinal openings, and cleaned out the abdomen as best he could. Harley’s intestinal lining was thin and friable, and it was difficult to get everything sewn up and to get the sutures to hold.
Bear in mind that Harley’s small intestines were only the size of your pinkie finger, which is why finding this object was so hard. We had only seen Harley eat grass here, and occasionally a bit of dirt — this with a mouth with no teeth! — but we had never seen him chewing or picking up wood or sticks. Yet clearly he had found something and eaten it.
The surgeon cautioned me that in the best case we only had a 50/50 chance of Harley coming home, and given his age, Cushing’s and other issues, he was clearly not a best case. In fact, Dr. Helmick said, Harley’s was one of the three worst abdomens he’d seen, and the other two hadn’t survived. So we knew the odds were stacked against him, and we tried not to get our hopes up.
Over the next few days in the ICU Harley would have his ups and downs, and we answered each phone call from BEVS with trepidation, not knowing what the news was going to be. We were having breakfast Wednesday morning when the phone rang. It was the emergency room doctor who had first operated on Harley, and had been caring for him on and off over the past several days. She said his intestinal sutures had come apart overnight and his intestines were now leaking food and fluid into his abdomen. There was nothing more they could do to help him. Euthanasia was the only thing left.
She asked if I wanted to be there for it. The doctor knew I had a long drive ahead. She said they could keep him comfortable until I could arrive. I gathered my things, poured more coffee, and jumped in the vehicle. (Alayne, bless her heart, is the one who keeps everything going in my absence, and gets all the chores done when I’m on the road.) I drove as fast as I safely could.
A nurse ushered me into their “garden room” at BEVS where they do euthanasias, and a few minutes later two nurses brought Harley in on a bed … one nurse holding him, the other carrying the IV stand. For about 20 minutes I sat there with him, stroking him, kissing him, and telling him how much Alayne and I loved him. I told him how sorry I was that we couldn’t do anything more for him, but that we adored him and would never forget him.
I bent down to kiss him once more, and when I pulled back, I noticed he suddenly wasn’t breathing. I put my hand under the blanket and could no longer feel his chest moving. I checked his pulse and couldn’t find one. I realized he had just slipped away, all on his own. It was so quiet and peaceful.
I was crying, bent over his little body, when the doctor walked into the room to do the euthanasia. She was surprised to find out there was no need, and that he had just passed away.
I am not a spiritual type, but it’s almost like Harley had waited until I could get there. As if, somewhere, deep down inside his frail body, he had willed himself to hold on until I could be with him.
Did he? I don’t know. But it sure felt like it.