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What Price Love?


A trip to the vet means putting your money where your heart is



AUGUST 8, 2021

illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

It’s the place we hate but are grateful to have. There is no parking, and the prices are insane. But it trades in hope – that vets can work miracles on sick dogs, some old, but many the young who can’t resist a fight or a car chase.

The clientele is rich, poor and in between. They are well dressed, shabbily dressed or not dressed, arriving in pyjamas dragged out of bed by seizures, or maybe the sudden eruption of advancing illness.

I haul in my immobile 80-pound dog on a wagon. Others mill about, brushing away tears as they reach for wallets. Some stand outside, clinging to each other as they make difficult decisions.

I am there because Emma’s laboured breathing of the previous summer had turned to gasping. My vet suspected even then it was laryngeal paralysis, a condition that paralyzes the larynx muscles so that during exertion or heat they don’t reopen and the dog, basically, suffocates while their lips turn blue.

She warned me it would require surgery.

“On an 11-year-old dog?” I countered. “Never.”

And yet here I am. To see Dr. LarPar, with a success rate equal only to the fees.

After a five-figure surgery and a week of recovery, Emma came home with rules: no exertion, no hard food. We exchanged her collar for a harness, like a big pink bra over her barrel chest.

A spleen tumour discovered nine months later and removed – another five-figure surgery – turns out to be benign (most aren’t). But the work done takes its toll.

One day she can’t stand and it takes two of us to lift her into the car. My vet says she needs to go immediately to emerg.

“What’s the point?” I ask.

“You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with a paralyzed dog,” he says.

It feels like the same people are there – the guy with resignation on his face as he pulls out his wallet, two women on the sidewalk sobbing, the jubilant click-click of heels as one woman leads a healed pooch out of the waiting room.

After tests reveal a ruptured disc, I’m told this surgery is “easy-peasy,” a simple V-cut in the neck. What they don’t tell me is the week in clinic it takes for her to recover, then the weeks I must lift her up and down the steps to get her out to pee. I purchase a super-hauler harness contraption.

I tell myself it’s not about the money. But in some ways, it is – investors call it the sunk-cost dilemma – with the money, time and effort already spent pushing you forward.

What financial investors can’t measure is the cost of pain. It’s excruciating to watch my big old girl pushing herself on each halting step. I’m told this is the predomesticated mind trying to hide weakness from the rest of the pack so she’s not left behind to die. I think she’s trying to please. They say if you’re happy, your dog is happy.

It’s a struggle other pet “parents” experience. I know this how? Because in the U.S., pets account for about US$100-billion (roughly US$30-billion of that on vet care). In Canada, with a 10th of the population, the amount is proportionately lower: about $8-billion overall, with $3-billion of that on vet care.

Not hard to believe given how much I’ve dropped at this clinic the past two years. You’d think pet parents are rich.

But we’re not.

You’d at least expect the animals to be expensive purebreds. But you’d be wrong.

For the week after Emma’s third surgery, I sit beside her a couple of hours a day, a ringside seat to the parade of pets and their people.

Even before illness struck them down, these dogs would have been incredibly ugly. With wonky eyes (or no eyes); tongues stuck out sideways; bristly hair; massive body lumps that undulate with every move; splayed feet; elbows, knees and hips riddled with hot spots, these are faces only a mother could love.

Some are miserable, as well, like Ira, the female border-collie-wolfhound who gives the gimlet eye and bared teeth to any feet walking too close as she lies on the floor. No doubt she’s someone’s beloved companion, but she is one ugly mutt with a surly temperament and bad teeth.

Recovering at the clinic, Emma isn’t the prettiest dog right now either – she can’t move much, and the vet can’t guarantee she ever will. The clinic assistants regularly take her out to the bathroom, but mostly she poos in her bed. It takes two of them to lift her into the wagon, her legs are that useless. I go outside with them to the strip of grass in front of the clinic where they hold her up with slings to pee. Occasionally she does. After almost a week, she walks shakily on her own, enough for me to take her home where I have everything ready – harness and sling, rubber mats and yoga mats, supplements, a new bed four inches off the floor with elasticized mesh in the middle so she can pee through to the floor and not lie in it.

It’s this utter dependency on me that is both appealing and appalling, imprisoning me with this animal who requires so much care. She can no longer get up and around easily, and sometimes refuses to open her mouth, even when I pry it at the back near the tickle spot, to force medication into her. I have well-meaning friends, neighbours, family who offer several suggestions, ranging from “there’s still some life left in the old girl” to “this is cruel for that poor animal, do the right thing and put her down.”

The vet doesn’t offer much better advice as he nods sagely and says: “You’ll know when the time has come.”

Well I haven’t. Fluctuating between the have-I-done-enough doubts and the pleading dear-God-someone-anyone-please-tell-me-when-she’s-had-enough, I declare a moratorium on future interventions.

And so, for the past year I’ve stopped worrying, and decided to just enjoy our time together. Even that’s been a big effort, like during a recent trip to the beach, what with the schlepping her deadweight down the steps to the car, pulling up as close as possible to the beach and lifting her with the harness over the sand where we plopped down, both of us exhausted from the exertion.

One spectacular summer day when we finally got to the water, we both squinted into the sun and then at the dazzling water. Her mouth half-open, breathing in the fresh breeze, as small waves lapped lazily on the shore and seagulls called out.

When Emma is happy, so am I.

The time will come, does come, when we must take action. But not now.

Alex Newman lives in Toronto.


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