My Dog is Sick

Fred came into our lives in a surprising and totally unplanned way.

In August of 2015, our friends Cindy and her daughter were driving around the northwest side of Chicago when they glimpsed a scruffy, scared mess of a dog zigzagging across the street, with a man giving chase. Being the sort of people they are with warm hearts and arms open for the action, they travel with a leash in their van seemingly for moments such as that. They pulled over, jumped out, and rushed at the man who by now was holding a squirming Fred and probably happy to hand him off. Cindy quickly put the leash around his neck and comforted him, thanked the man, and deposited the dog into their van, then headed back to the building we both lived in.

D’s phone rang that evening and on the other line was Cindy, who knew D had a history of rescuing animals and a soft heart. She told him about the dog they’d found, that they had his chip scanned at a vet which came back with only three pieces of information: A chip implant date of January 2008, a non-working phone number, and a name, “Scruffy”. They gave him a bath to rinse off some of the dirt he’d accumulated, cut his hair to rid him of knots and mats, one of which rubbed his eyeball enough to cause a corneal abrasion. Aside from being somewhat overweight, the vet told Cindy he was in relatively good shape for apparently being abandoned and on the street. So now they have this little freaked out dog who is avoiding everyone but Cindy, and the thing is, they’re going out of town on a 10-day trip pretty soon, and would we mind fostering him for that time?

D and I had been married for all of two months by that point, and lived in a studio apartment. I hadn’t been around a live-in dog since my family dog who we had from when I was 3 to 18, and I was not friends with her. I had no clue about dog ownership or fostering, behavior, feeding, going out habits, you name it. D however, had fostered many in his day and loved them dearly. When we met, he had a rescue pit named Jorah who he loved deeply but who was wild. Sweet but nuts. The place we lived “didn’t allow dogs”(read: Pits), we couldn’t afford to move to a new apartment, and every attempt to re-home Jorah fell through. Heartbreakingly, we gave him up to a shelter, which was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through and possibly the only thing to date that garnered so much judgment from others. It was a terrible situation and we weren’t quite healed from it (we may never be, really). So wounds were still open and Jorah still got some of our tears, then all the sudden there’s this ball of shivering fluff in our living room.

I sat on the couch and watched as D sat across from Scruffy (who wasn’t yet “Fred”) and slowly moved closer as he fed him little treats to gain his trust. After some time, D could sit next to Fred without Fred running away from him or moving to the other side of the room. I don’t remember him interacting with me, I was still deep in observation mode and didn’t want to overwhelm him. We took him for a walk in the rain that evening, renamed him en route, and when we brought him back home, I grabbed a ratty beach towel and wiped him down. I pulled him up on my lap and dried off his chest, his feet and his face. I dropped the towel and he stayed put. So there we sat, Fred taking in his surroundings on my lap and me taking in Fred.

In the following days, we learned he had separation anxiety particularly at night, when we crawled into our lofted bed and he stayed in his bed, out of sight. He cried and whined, and I’m sure D went down to comfort him and sleep next to him against both of our better judgments. He barked whenever we left our apartment, seemingly the entire time we were gone because upon our returns, we could hear him from the elevator (our unit was next to it). We thought he would be miserable the entire 10 days, what had we gotten ourselves into with this poor thing?

Then the night came: D was going to go hang out with his friends and I’d be alone, with Fred. Just me and this dog, who hadn’t really bonded and didn’t quite know what to do with one another. In truth, I wasn’t really a dog person. I appreciated them from a distance, but I never wanted one and didn’t know how to just be with one. I was hesitant to bring Fred into our home for a lot of reasons, mostly based in non-understanding of the animal. After D left and I settled onto the couch with the blanket and Roku, Fred appeared. He lept up, settled into the little spoon position, and slept. Hard. He snored. I was filled with a feeling of nurturing and affection that took me by surprise. Here was this scared, nervous dog and he chose to settle in next to me and rest, maybe his first solid rest since he arrived in our building. I remember having to pee so badly but I didn’t dare move until D came home to take him out.

Those 10 days passed without incident apart from re-naming and the birth of a dozen nicknames which have all stuck to this day. Cindy and her family returned and asked how it had gone, by then we were smitten and Fred was adjusting so we decided he should stay with us. The building had a moratorium on new dogs, ostensibly due to allergies and safety, but we concluded this was more them covering their behinds in their rejection of Jorah. Also, D and I intended to move out in the fall, and it wasn’t worth the fight for anyone. As life had it, our plans were pushed to the spring and we weren’t able to move out until May, and by then Fred was firmly entrenched in the apartment and in the hearts of those who met him. The anxiety barking stopped, he slept comfortably both on the couch and with us depending on the mood, and we got pretty good at bathing him in a tiny bathroom.

Let me tell you a bit about my friend Fred: He, and his breed from what I understand, are mellow. Meh-low. They were bred to be lapdogs, have low prey drive (meaning they don’t fetch, YOU fetch), they are way into naps, and are the sweetest creatures in general. Fred’s smart. He has a dignified, almost aloof air about him. He caught onto commands quickly and aside from occasional stubborn streaks (also built into the breed), doesn’t hang around with his mouth open and tongue out, waiting to please. Due to this discernment, we refer to him as our “weird furry roommate”, when almost everyone else refers to him as our child, or we as his parents. Nothing about that feels right, he came to us as an old man, he’s now in his mid-50s. He’s not our child, but we snuggle him as if he was. I should note, he does this adorable thing where he leans into you and tips his head to lean on you, and stares into your eyes. It’s too much to take sometimes, and I coo at him like he was a baby. He doesn’t seem to mind, just don’t put your face right up to his or touch his feet, he’s not into that. At all.

Fred’s allergies started to bother him in the fall of ’16 so we began giving him a half Benadryl as needed at the urging of our vet. They made him sleepy and lethargic but they do that to everyone, right? One day, I came home from work to find D upset that Fred had behaved strangely while I was gone. He was shaking and confused, and didn’t seem to know where he was, but was responding to D’s voice. It passed within minutes, but Fred wasn’t himself for the rest of the day, sleepy and withdrawn. After some research, we thought perhaps he had vestibular disease, common in older dogs, and the symptoms seemed to fit. It’s untreatable and incurable, so we kept an eye on him and made sure he was comfortable and safe when the rare moments occurred.

By late winter of this year, he was having those incidents once every two or three months, so we let our vet know and made an appointment for March. Right away, she ruled out vestibular disease. She called Fred’s moments “seizures”, which neither of us were keen on since we’ve both had dogs that had terrible grand mal seizures and these were not those. She hesitantly suggested a very unlikely and extremely rare cancer called insulinoma. She asked us to get Fred an ultrasound and suggested we space his feedings throughout the day rather than two large feedings per day, and to keep her posted. We made the changes to his eating times and he seemed to bounce back immediately. His energy was so high, he acted like a whole new (young) dog, which have us hope he’d be just fine. We made the ultrasound appointment for April, in the midst of our decision to move to Ohio.

Sure enough, the ultrasound came back indicating a very small 2 mm insulinoma or in other words, pancreatic cancer. The ultrasound tech was not a doctor and could not offer much medical advice, just a basic “what’s next” list of options, some of which included: exploratory surgery, a CT scan, actual surgery, and possibly radiation afterward. We sat quietly, holding sleepy Fred and his shorn belly. D cried, I retreated into my intellect and asked questions while I took notes on my phone. We drove home in silence, cradling our sweet boy. When we got back to the house, D hopped on his computer while I sat on the couch and we began to research. What was the cost? What was the likely outcome? What is his stage and prognosis? How much worse can it get?

The answers came slowly but clearly: Too expensive, surgical outcome is only 40% successful with likely inevitable metastasis, and when it finally grows, it moves very fast. “Quality of Life” becomes a conversation within a year. It was April. How much time did we have from then? How long had he had this thing lurking in there? There were tears, D’s company is amazing and let him have the day off with pay, my boss let me take the following day off (without pay, less amazing). We knew that there were too many physical and financial risks to surgery, and our focus had to be keeping him as happy and healthy as possible, for as long as we have him. We decided to shelve the conversation until we got to Ohio.

It turned out that the seizures weren’t exactly that, but rather tremors from hypoglycemia, a side effect of his type of cancer and a marker for its progression. In the last two weeks, Fred had had two tremors but both were minor and fixed quickly by a finger of honey each time. I called the vet to get him in, that was more than he’d ever had close together in the last year.

His first appointment with his new vet was August 29th, Fred’s “Gotcha Day”. She’s no nonsense, to the point, and confirmed the ultrasound’s results while adding that she hadn’t seen an insulinoma since vet school and even then, she’d only ever heard of them in big dogs, and it was strange territory she’d have to research more. In the meantime, to slow it down and keep his weight evened out, she prescribed Prednisone and asked that we check in with her in two weeks, and to note any tremors should they happen in that time. She put Fred’s prognosis at about one year, give or take. She guessed that may be accurate because of how quickly his symptoms seem to have advanced just in the five months since the ultrasound. More tears, another quiet drive home. Except this time, there was no more research to be done.

So here we are. Giving Fred, this amazing, best-dog-on-earth, furball the most comfort, love, and reassurance that we can. He has no idea this is happening and aside from watching us cry from time to time, thinks nothing is wrong in the world.


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