Ginny was my last Muttville foster and my first dog adoption since sweet, shy Sage – a Shepherd mix – spent a brief 18 months in my life in 2003. Volunteering for Muttville for nearly two years, I knew what to expect when adopting a senior dog and over the four months of our foster relationship, I had the opportunity to learn her health limitations. My biggest concern in giving Ginny a forever home was whether she had any internal issues that were, at this point, invisible – cancer, kidney disease, heart problems. But her blood work was clean. Ginny had other health issues, of course. She was deaf, she limped significantly in her hind legs, but neither issue seemed to bother her much and if these relatively superficial issues didn’t bother her, they didn’t bother me either.
About six weeks after officially adopting her, Ginny’s mobility issues became more serious. It became harder for her to get up, she became exhausted more easily on her walks and she panted heavily in the night. X-rays showed that Ginny had fused vertebrae in her neck and a lesion that had formed in the area. Her shallow hip sockets accounted for her strange, limping gait. Painkillers, muscle relaxants, and later, steroids, helped to bring Ginny back to her normal self. She began playing with her ball again and she rejoined her doggy buddies in her 3-day a week afternoon walking group.
Tuesday was a good day. Ginny scarfed her breakfast and dinner, greeted me with playful excitement when I returned from work, and relished the smells on her walks. That night, Ginny was tired. She slept soundly on the living room floor until bedtime. But in the middle of the night, Ginny became restless. I let her out to do her business and when she returned, her violent shaking and rapid breathing frightened me. About 30-minutes after, she settled down in another room (unusual but not alarming) and presumably fell asleep.
When I awoke the next morning, it was with surprise. Ginny, despite her inability to hear, always knew the second my feet hit the floor and would attempt to herd me to the kitchen for breakfast. This morning, she didn’t move. When I went to wake her, I found her with her eyes open, shaking, and panting. I offered her water and she turned her head. Super food-driven dogs like Ginny will only refuse treats if they are under severe stress or in deep pain so I brought her a couple. She ate them but took no pleasure in the act. I carried her in to the kitchen to prepare her breakfast. She took a couple of bites and then dropped her head. When I carried her outside to do her business, she took the opportunity, but could hardly stand or move her back legs. Later, she vomited several times.
By the time I took Ginny to the vet, she was paraplegic – unable to move her hind legs. She had lost significant function in her front legs. The vet believed she slipped a disk in her spine but couldn’t be certain without an MRI, technology that most neighborhood veterinary offices don’t have. Given her age and mobility issues, and we had to act fast; Ginny was in severe pain. Our options were limited. The first was to put Ginny on heavy morphine and keep her immobile for 6-8 weeks (i.e., in a crate) to hope that the slipped disk would adhere to its new position with scar tissue. If the disk acted as we hoped, Ginny might be able to walk again. More likely, she would regain some function in her legs and would need to be partially carried with a sling to keep most of her weight off of her legs. But even if she regained some function, Ginny would inevitably find herself back at the vet as her spine deteriorated and her pain increased. She would take morphine daily and would move around less and less. The second option was to put Ginny to sleep now, gently, and spare her from additional pain.
I chose the later. Ginny passed away a little before 11am on July 5, 2012.
Everything about this little dog in my life took me by surprise. Ginny came to me severely underweight, missing large patches of fur, covered in scabs. At her death, Ginny was soft and fluffy, her skin was clear, and her belly was soft. Ginny didn’t know any obedience when she arrived. By the time she left me, she had learned to sit, down, roll over and shake using hand signals. She walked by my side when off-leash and came to me when I motioned to her. Her initial fear of the car had dissipated to comfort and even joy. She was playful and loved to tug on her plush ball and chase it around the living room, giving goofy growls and barks. She was a constant scavenger; I’ve never seen a dog so good at finding “food” on the street or in the park. She had a spirit of a dog half her 12 years. She adored her walks and greeting dogs at the dog park.
And I adored Ginny. I often marveled at how much love I had for this silly little dog and how quickly it had developed. I loved being with her and regularly begged off of outings with friends or left early from events to go home to be with her. For eight short months, Ginny was the light of my life.
It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon as Ginny and I crossed the Bay Bridge headed to Walnut Creek for a Muttville adoption event*. Two different families were interested in meeting my sweet girl and our hopes were high. Ok, well Ginny’s hopes were probably at the same level as usual, but mine were soaring – there is never any rhyme or reason as to why some dogs are adopted more quickly than others. At one month and counting, Ginny has been with me longer than any foster dog since Franny.
Adoption events are high stress environments for dogs. Many are overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar furry bodies smooshed together in a small space and each handles this stress differently; some dogs get barky, some become overstimulated and can’t settle down, others prefer to curl up somewhere quiet and ignore the chaos. The most energetic dogs, however, are often those that have not yet visited the vet to be neutered. These new arrivals to Muttville are not just dealing with the excitement and stress of losing their homes but with years of testosterone surging unchecked through their doggie bodies.
Dogs like Buddy, a 15-year old Aussie mix that arrived at Muttville this week from a broken home and a history of neglect, spend the adoption event trying to get close to the eligible ladies and posturing around the more high-strung males. Muttville, like nearly all rescue organizations and shelters, spay and neuter their pets prior to adopting them out. In part, this is to slow down the cycle of dogs producing puppies that eventually turn in to unwanted dogs that wind up right back in the shelter. But neutering and spaying is not to stem the tide of needy dogs, it also has health and behavior benefits.
In male dogs, the second leading form of cancer is testicular and enlargement of the prostate effects 60% of intact males over the age of five. The most common malignant tumors in female dogs are found in the mammary glands. It is more than three times more likely that an unspayed female will develop mammary cancer than a spayed female. The strong desire to roam to find sexual partners in both male and female dogs is also greatly decreased by spaying and neutering. In urban and suburban environments, dogs that roam are much more likely to be wounded or killed by cars than those that stay put. Spaying and neutering can decrease wanderlust but up to 90%!
And then there is the matter of behavior. Neutering and spaying has not been proven to decrease play, activity or the desire for affection and attention. It has, however, been proven to decrease aggression and behaviors such as mounting which can quickly deteriorate from play to fight. It also decreases inappropriate peeing such as excessive marking. There are very few risks associated with spaying and neutering adult dogs**, besides the unavoidable risk of the anesthesia the dog receives to undergo the surgery. Since breeding becomes dangerous for females over the age of 8, spaying may curb the slew of potential problems that could arise there, as well (such as ruptured uterine walls). Once spaying and neutering in an adult is complete, it will take a few weeks for testosterone and estrogen levels to drop and, during that time, your dog may continue to display intact behaviors like wandering and mounting.
A dog is essentially never too old to reap benefits from spaying and neutering. And if it’s the look of an intact male dog you worry about losing, check out neuticles – prosthetic testicular implants made just for dogs!
**There is some evidence that neutering a dog too young leads to health problems that may include distorted bone structure, hyperthyroidism, and obesity, though not all veterinarians agree that there is a link.
In her last 36 hours, Franny was only a shadow of her self but I don’t want to remember her that way; I want to remember her as the dog she really was.
Franny loved the outdoors. I suppose most dogs do but for a 12-year old with cancer, she was surprisingly active. Because I work from home, we had the great fortune of being able to explore San Francisco’s open spaces on a regular basis. Her favorite place, without a doubt, was Baker Beach. The first time I took her there was the first time I saw her in a full-out bounding gallop of happiness. She didn’t like the water – she would trot away from the waves if they got too close – but she loved the sand and the smells and the tiny little crabs that would wash ashore. On the beach she chased balls, running after them with gangly adolescent legs she never grew out of. Recently we discovered Glen Canyon and she loved traipsing around the hillsides and digging in animal holes.
Franny’s smile was infectious. We were regularly stopped on the street or at the park by people telling me how cute she was. Like all dogs, she loved stinky stuff and when she would roll in a smelly spot in the grass, legs akimbo, she looked like a puppy.
If Franny were a human, I’d call her a foodie, always in search of yummy remnants in the park and on the street. Franny loved her treats and demanded them with her barks. If anyone else in the park had them, she would run over and sit nicely in front of them, straining for a piece. She loved bully sticks and regular sticks and chomped them down with abandon. Franny fancied herself as an enforcer. If the cats got too rowdy, she gave them a closed mouth growl that, to my ears, was totally goofy and useless. In the park, she would join in any good barking session.
Franny liked her space – she didn’t like sleeping on my bed or sitting on the couch – but she always kept me in her sights. She was never so happy as when she was off-leash. When she wasn’t distracted, Franny stayed right by my side; we even occasionally walked on the street without a leash. Whenever I could, I brought her with me – to picnics, to dog friendly bars, to concerts, to dog-training class.
Not many dogs like hugs, but Franny wasn’t one of them. If we were in a strange situation or if I had just come home, she would walk up and lean her forehead in to me. One of the cutest things Franny did was her nightly face scratching in which she used her front paws to rub her nose. Sometimes she brought up a hind paw to scratch her ears but it was almost like she was putting on a show rather than doing anything useful, her nails hardly touching herself and her hind leg moving slowly.
All her life, Franny was a sweet, soulful creature and everyone that met her fell in love. She was my friend and my heart. I will remember her always.
Last night, Franny lay her head on my knee and passed from this world.
Just a few days ago, Franny was her normal self. Tuesday morning we went for a hike in Glen Canyon and off-leash Franny went nuts running all over the hillsides, digging holes, stomping through the river…
On Wednesday we took a walk in Golden Gate Park; Thursday it was Alamo Square…
When Franny violently vomited on Friday morning, I assumed it was something gross she ate. She had eaten only half of her breakfast – fairly unusual for her – and I figured she must be feeling pretty nauseous. We went for a walk in the neighborhood around 11am and Franny moved slowly. Her cropped tail which she usually holds high and wags was low and still.
I left Franny for 90 minutes to walk another dog and when I returned she was laying by the front door waiting for me. I pulled out the remaining cheese from my treat-bag and offered it to her. She took the cheese I held out but when I dropped the remaining pieces in her food bowl she walked away from it. I turned from her food bowl and realized the whole floor of the kitchen was covered in vomit. An hour or two later, she walked in to the backyard, vomiting again.
The last week or so Franny’s shaking had increased. She would occasionally get shaky – sometimes before a meal or when she first woke up in the morning – but it was now coming much more frequently. On Friday she shook all day. When dinner time rolled around I offered Franny some plain white rice and cottage cheese, a combination vets recommend when dogs have digestion problems. She didn’t touch the food and when I took her out for a walk in the evening, she looked at me questioningly, standing at the top of the stairs of my building, then slowly made her way down. Once outside she just stood there. I coaxed her on and she took a few steps and stopped again. A few more steps and stops later, we turned and headed back home; we hadn’t even made it half a block to the end of the street.
After our walk, Franny couldn’t get comfortable. She was restless, getting up and standing awkwardly for several minutes at a time then laying down again, shifting around and shaking. I made a painkiller meatball for her and hoped it would help. When I offered her treats later that evening she ignored them.
The next morning was the same. I offered Franny another painkiller meatball and the remaining wet food I had, feeding it to her by hand. She ate the food and, bolstered by this slight improvement, I pulled out the cottage cheese, digging out bits with my fingers and giving it to her. After a few bites, she turned and walked back to her bed. Our attempt at a walk went much the same as it had the night before. Franny showed no interest in this activity which she adored; we didn’t get more than 50 meters from the house.
In the afternoon I called the 24-hr veterinary hospital at Pets Unlimited. I asked them “how do I know when it’s time?” They suggested I bring Franny in so I could consult with the vet. I called my dear friend Mark who has always been there for me in times of need and asked if he would come to help and he immediately agreed.
At 6pm we drove Franny to the vet and they had a private room ready for us. Dr. Villard joined us and asked me to recount the last 36 hours. I told him I was terrified that I was making this decision too early but more terrified that she might suffer. He said that what I was describing suggested to him it was the end – the increase in shaking was pain, the vomiting and refusal to eat was a tumor obstructing her organs (in stomach cancer, tumors will either burst causing blood in the urine and vomit or will grow to block normal functions). Dr. Villard told me that, though this was a personal choice, he, himself, would rather err on the side of early euthanasia than have the animal in deep pain. I found myself agreeing. For the last five months, I have done everything I could to make Franny’s last chapter the best it could be; to let her suffering increase would betray that effort.
At 6:45pm, Dr. Villard brought the lethal cocktail. I sat on the floor next to her, stroking her side as Dr. Villard injected the solution in to a catheter they had inserted in her front paw. As the drugs entered her body, Franny stretched her neck and we gently guided her head to my lap. Less than a minute later, Franny’s heart had stopped beating. She was gone.
Franny didn’t get along so well with our last Muttville foster dog, Dusty, but so far so good with our weekend charge Layla.
Layla was adopted last week but, when a gastrointestinal bleeding issue returned, the woman decided she wasn’t equipped to handle it and returned Layla to Muttville. Her return coincided with a perfect storm of the Muttville staff’s exodus to the No More Homeless Pets National Conference in Las Vegas so, Friday morning, I got a call from Anne at the office asking if there was any way I could take Layla in for the weekend. Since I am a sucker for fosters and a huge supporter of Muttville, I immediately agreed. Anne told me Layla was a pom, and the last two foster poms I had were amazing little creatures (one, Debbie – a toothless old lady – to this day remains my favorite…beside Franny, of course). I’m using some of the advice I learned from our experience with Dusty and things are mellow. I think I will foster Layla until she has found a new home…but, as with any foster, the faster she finds her new forever home, the happier she will be!
Layla is around 7-8lbs and a major fluff bucket. She has beautiful apricot fur that takes over everything but her tiny little feet, the tips of her ears, and her pretty face. Layla has very nice manners. She walks well on a leash and is very people friendly. She is a bit shy around other dogs but warmed up to Franny very quickly. She is great cats and sweet as can be. Layla is puppy pad trained and housebroken. She’s energetic and playful but not bouncing off the walls. She loves to “den”, fall asleep under furniture. I’m not sure how old Layla is but I’m guessing around 9-10yrs. If you or someone you know is interested in adding a gorgeous little lady to their lives, please contact me or visit www.muttville.org!
Signs of Trouble in Your Senior Dog
Tips from Muttville’s October newsletter:
1. Changes in mobility such as lameness, reluctance to jump, and/or difficulty getting up.
2. Excessive water drinking and urination, without changes in energy level. (Can indicate diabetes or changes in kidney function).
3. Changes in appetite, diminished or no appetite; aggressive eating.
4. A hacking cough or a deep moist cough.
5. Weight loss not related to exercise or dieting.
6. Pendulous abdomen. (Can mean organ enlargement or fluid retention)
7. Vomiting and/or diarrhea for more than 3 days.
8. Behavioral changes such as anxiety, circling, vocalizing, uncharacteristic aggression, or confusion.
9. Oral malodor (bad breath) is not normal. (May indicate tumor or periodontal disease)
10. Emergence and rapid growth of any lumps.
If you notice any of these changes in your older dog, don’t ignore them and do not attempt to self-medicate your pet.
Visit your vet as soon as possible.
The first health problem I noticed in Franny was her excessive water drinking and urinating. After several tests, the vet diagnosed her with Cushing’s Disease. There are two primary causes of Cushing’s:
1. A benign tumor in the pituitary gland (usually less than 3mm in diameter) which causes the oversecretion of a hormone called ACTH. Normally, the release of this hormone causes the release of cortisol by the adrenal gland. As the cortisol is released, the pituitary responds by stopping the release of ACTH. But in pituitary dependent Cushings, the hormone release doesn’t stop. In response, the adrenal glands become very large to keep up with the cortisol production.
Pituitary tumors account for 85% of all cases of Cushing’s.
2. A tumor in the adrenal gland that causes the secretion of too much cortisol. The brain doesn’t register that the cortisol is being released and the ACTH hormone is also secreted in excess. Half of these tumors are benign and the other 50% are malignant.
In both types of Cushing’s disease, then, it is the overproduction of cortisol which causes a number of symptoms. Franny’s signs of Cushing’s included increased/excessive water consumption, increased/excessive urination, loss of muscle mass, giving the appearance of weight loss, hind leg weakness, excess panting, seeking cool surfaces to rest on, and coat changes like dryness.
Other symptoms of Cushing’s can include:
• urinary accidents in previously housetrained dogs
• increased/excessive appetite (polyphagia)
• appearance of food stealing/guarding, begging, trash dumping, etc.
• sagging, bloated, pot-bellied appearance
• bony, skull-like appearance of head
• exercise intolerance or lethargy
• new reluctance to jump on furniture or people
• symmetrically thinning hair or baldness (alopecia) on torso
• easily damaged/bruised skin that heals slowly
• hard, calcified lumps in the skin (calcinosis cutis)
At it’s worst, Cushing’s can cause diabetes, pancreatitis and seizures.
Cushings typically strikes dogs of 10 years of age or older and left untreated, it will progress. Excess cortisol suppresses the immune system and can, therefore, lead to congestive heart failure, seizures, liver and kidney failure, and more. If treated, the symptoms of Cushing’s can resolve fully in 4-6 months. A dog will never completely recover from Cushings but treatment can improve the quality of life and perhaps even extend it.
If your dog is showing any of these symptoms, especially excessive water drinking and urination, see your vet