I have a secret: My dog, Jones, is incontinent. And his incontinence rules our lives.
It started happening about six months ago, and initially, we blamed it on poor Kona. She was from Hawaii, she’d never been an indoor dog, she’s weird, etc. It never occurred to us that the culprit could be Jones. But then we started putting it together:
A year ago, the week before Christmas 2014, Jones ate three stuffed animals. We were totally gobsmacked. Jones loves to eat broccoli and salmon and anything else that drops on the floor, but prior to that incident, had never shown an iota of interest in anything that wasn’t food. We hoped it was a one-time deal and moved on.
Also about a year ago, our inexhaustible ball dog became noticeably slower, and stiffer. We’re not entirely sure of his age, but we assumed it was arthritis, which an expensive trip to the vet confirmed. We put him on daily pain medication.
Over the last six months, we’ve noticed Jones pacing in circles, and sort of … staring. You can’t do cognitive tests on a dog, but we assume it’s mild dementia. And dementia is often accompanied by incontinence.
This past Christmas, during dinner, Jones unleashed a torrent of urine right in front of our guests. It was mortifying, but not totally unexpected, since his inside accidents had increased to the point where we were having him wear a diaper. In fact, we now own five diapers, the washing machine is always going, and my laundry room smells like pee.
The day after Christmas, I took Jones to a new vet. What if there was something neurological going on? Or what if Jones’ stiffness was making it hard for him to make it outside in time to do his business? As we were making our way from the waiting room to the exam room, Jones pooped all over the floor.
The vet did a thorough examination and reviewed the voluminous records I’d had sent from our other vet. Jones’ blood work is perfect, with no sign of cancer. His vitals are great. His x-rays confirmed arthritis, but no other masses. We opted to do an ultrasound, to rule out an abdominal mass, and we consulted with a neurologist.
There’s nothing in Jones’ stomach that would be causing the incontinence. We don’t know if he has a brain tumor without an MRI, and both the vet and our neurologist steered us away from that. It’s expensive, and even if there is a tumor, there’s not much we can do about it. It’d be more for confirmation purposes. So at the moment, we have no definitive diagnosis for Jones.
The neurologist recommended a course of steroids, to reduce any inflammation in his spine that could be preventing his brain from communicating with his hindquarters. We started those a week ago, and while Jones’ mobility is slightly improved, the steroids make him drink more water, and hence, pee more.
On Friday, I was answering e-mail when I heard his nails going tap, tap, tap, tap on the hardwoods. By the time I got downstairs to find his soaking wet diaper, he’d tracked droplets of urine all over the downstairs — in the playroom, on the hardwoods, on the area rugs. I was supposed to go to a training to be a health room volunteer at Bini’s school, but instead, I scrubbed carpets and washed dog diapers.
“I give up,” I texted Steve during the clean-up. (Which, by the way, I’m very efficient at.) But that’s not true. I can’t give up on him.
I’ve had well-meaning friends talk to me about Jones’ quality of life, and I get it. Sophie, my beautiful German Shepherd, died of blood cancer three years ago, and it was an awful death. We kept her alive too long, because we just couldn’t bear to let her go. It’s a fine line most pet owners will have to walk at some point. I wish vets handed out a decision tree to help make this horrible choice easier (If incontinent + healthy –> keep alive. If incontinent + immobile + confused –> let go). Our vets aren’t advising anything, though. I suspect they don’t want the liability of a bereaved, deranged pet owner.
Is Jones ready to go? His lab tests indicate that he’s healthy and cancer-free. His appetite is great, and he gets around fine, albeit slower than he used to. He doesn’t bound and play like he once did, and he wears a diaper, but he’s old. We don’t kill our grandmothers when they get old, so I’m not going to put my dog to sleep because he’s an inconvenience. I’ll grit my teeth and wash soiled linens and come to terms with the fact that I will need to rip up the carpets in my nearly new house at some point. Because what else can I do?
I’m going to start this post off with a confession: I did the wrong thing, but it was for all the right reasons. You can judge me at the end of this post.
Before we went to Kauai last month, we heard about a program, conducted by the Kauai Humane Society. Vacationers can come to the shelter, the only one on the island, and take a dog or two out for a field trip — to the beach, on a hike, on a walk. You can come cuddle the kitties, too. The program helps with socialization, of course, and potentially could lead, in the case of the dog field trips, to someone seeing the dogs and deciding to adopt.
The Kauai Humane Society is a kill shelter. They have no choice. Kauai’s permanent human population is somewhere around 65,000, and the number of homeless pets is inordinately large for an island that size. They rely on tourists falling in love with the animals and taking them home, as furry souvenirs.
Usually, going to a shelter is my worst nightmare. Shelters — even the best ones — are sad, desperate places. But we decided as a family to go and “check out” a dog or two on our second-to-last day on the island.
“You know how this is going to end,” I warned Steve as we drove to KHS.
He sighed. “I know.”
We decided to check out two dogs — kennel mates who preferred to go out together. Flynn was a beautiful brindle whippet mix, and Zellie, a scruffy Airedale mix with sad eyes. The two had been at the shelter for months, a bonded pair found abandoned in Waimea Canyon. We took them to Kalapaki Beach for a little stroll.
Steve and I had assumed that the dogs would be crazy — high strung, difficult to control. Shelters are stressful places, and the animals tend to be in a constant fight-or-flight state. Stressed-out dogs would have made it easier for Steve and I to return them to the shelter, knowing that it just wouldn’t work. What struck us about Flynn and Zellie is how calm they were, how good they were with our son and the other kids on the beach, and how sweet they were with each other.
Several people stopped us with the dogs. “It’s so good that you’re doing this,” said one surfer guy. “The Hawaiians are terrible to dogs, just terrible.” I nodded, but I had no idea what he was talking about.
Another woman, with a geriatric Golden Retriever, approached us on the beach. She was a volunteer with KHS, and she went into more detail. Kauai is a rural island, and people tended to use dogs as “tools,” she said. They’d have six or eight of them, usually kept outside, chained up or in a kennel. The dogs were typically used to hunt feral pigs, or as bait for dog fights. Flynn, a lightning-fast whippet with a strong prey drive, had likely been a hunter. And the 6-year-old Zellie, with her swollen, ulcerated nipples, had probably been bred over and over. Her ears were torn and she cowered when I first tried to pet her, although she perked up after about an hour.
Driving back to the shelter several hours later, Steve and I were quiet. I knew he was thinking what I was thinking — how could we take them back? We were moving in just six weeks, and our dog, Jones, himself a rescue, could be very reactive to other dogs. And don’t even get me started on our two cats.
Back at the hotel, we all went to the pool for the last time. None of us could get the dogs out of our minds, but we knew it was a crazy idea. So we talked about adopting just Zellie, since girl and boy dogs do better than two boys. Steve went back to the room, and I took Bini to pick up our boarding passes, which were being handed out at the hotel.
While we were waiting, one of the Alaska Airlines employees heard Bini begging me to adopt both dogs. She told me that she headed up a program between Alaska and KHS to get dogs to the mainland. We could do it as cargo, or as checked baggage, she explained. But it probably wouldn’t work in time for our flight tomorrow.
Back in the room, Steve was sprawled on the bed, looking troubled. “We can’t leave them both,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we can’t leave them.” It’s one thing to know, in the abstract, about all the homeless pets in the world. It’s another to spent four hours with two, and know that they might not make it.
I put out a call on Facebook, complete with pictures, to see if anyone would be willing to adopt Flynn. I used every ounce of persuasive language that I could, but I was honest — these dogs hadn’t had the easiest of lives. One family stepped up for Flynn, and my other friend, Janet, volunteered to take Zellie until we moved in six weeks. I was elated, crying with relief as we taxied down the runway toward home. We were going to save the doggies!
I wrote to the shelter and told them we wanted to fly both dogs over. The manager told me that she couldn’t do that, not unless I intended to adopt both dogs. So I lied, and told her we did intend to adopt both. I bought the crates over the phone and felt more than a twinge of guilt when the woman on the other end of the phone gushed with gratitude. She remembered Flynn and Zellie, and how wonderful that we weren’t going to split them up.
Still, things were in motion, and I was possessed with a single-minded zeal to get the dogs to the mainland, no matter what. I priced out how much it would cost to ship the dogs as cargo, and booked them space. Meanwhile, I badgered the Alaska employee I’d met, asking her about the program. Finally, the day before the dogs were due to fly, she called to tell me that she’d found an employee willing to chaperone the dogs — for free. Steve and I got a babysitter so we could meet the 10 p.m. flight at Sea-Tac, and I was giddy, bubbling over with excitement. We’d done it!
Then, reality: Flynn’s new owners returned him after just 12 hours. Though I’d warned them about Flynn’s strong prey drive, the wife had said earlier in the week that she could handle it. But the first night had been a tense one between Flynn and their cat, so on Easter Sunday, back he came. “My mom is really mad at you,” Bini said wrathfully, as the husband handed over the crate.
Bini and I took Flynn for a walk that afternoon. He was trembling and stuck close to my legs, obviously bewildered by the plane flight, the overnight stay, and now, this. When we got to the elementary school by our house, I sank to the curb and started crying. Bini put his arms around me.
“Don’t cry, Mama,” he said. “It’s going to be OK.” He rubbed my back and took Flynn’s leash. “It’s really going to be OK.”
“Oh Bini,” I sobbed, “I think Mama did the wrong thing. I was trying to do the right thing, but I think I just messed things up.”
“No you didn’t,” he said, wiping my face with the hem of his shirt. “You didn’t do the wrong thing. You did the right thing. I know you did.”
We sat there for a few minutes, Bini, Flynn and I. I composed myself, and life went on. A dog-loving friend of mine found cat-free family willing to foster Flynn. It wasn’t an easy transition. Though Flynn was gentle and calm with their three kids, he went after their bouncy, aged Vizsla. I paid for a training session, and the couple committed to a few more weeks.
On May 10, I got an e-mail from the wife. Things had changed, dramatically. The family had faithfully done what the trainer had advised, and now, the two dogs were buddies. Their kids adored him. And they were going to keep him. “Thank you for sharing this beautiful soul with us. He is such a gift,” she wrote.
Zellie we renamed Kona, and she spent a month with Janet’s family, who loved her and spoiled her and helped her come out of her shell. She played with the other dogs in the house, she ate mangoes, she snuggled with their daughter at night. Janet sent regular updates, photos and videos, and generally made me feel like we’d done the right thing. She was a partner in this crazy scheme, and I’m forever in her debt.
Last Thursday, Janet brought Kona over for the weekend. She and her family were leaving on a trip, and I felt like it was time to take her — at least for the weekend. My friend, Kristie, had been helping me work with Jones, and we figured we’d give it a shot. The weekend’s over, and Kona’s still here. We’re moving in five days, and it’s crazy around here, but she’s already family. She’s determined to make Jones her friend, and he seems resigned to his fate as a dog sibling. Last night, I heard Steve calling her his little sweetie.
The timing on this dog rescue was ridiculous. No sane person would do what I did, but I never claimed to be sane. I also know that two dogs doesn’t make much difference in the larger homeless-animal problem. But it matters to me. It matters to the people who helped us. It matters to my son, and to my husband. It matters to those two dogs.
When I was a kid, my dad bought a used 1976 Audi Fox. It was a lemon, forever breaking down, and he was sick of spending money on it. Rather than sell it, like a normal person, he went to night school for several years to learn to fix cars. Though these skills brought him pleasure — and saved us money — it also enabled him to help people. If we passed families broken down on the freeway, all of us would start elbowing each other and rolling our eyes. Dad was going to pull over and make us late — again.
“Someone has to give a damn,” my dad would say as he eased our car onto the shoulder. I guess I got that gene too.
Was Bini right? Did I do the right thing? I was dishonest with the shelter, but my aim was true. I hope that counts for something.
That first night that Kona spent with us, Bini sat up in bed, his face shining. “Mama, we did it!”
“Did what, honey?” I asked distractedly.
“We did it! We saved the doggies!” He leaned across his mountains of stuffed animals, and high-fived me. And then fell back, smiling.
It was a year ago today that my beautiful Sophie died. A whole year. I’m another year older, my kid is in kindergarten, I’ve been to Paris. But my Sophie is still gone.
It was a gorgeous, early spring day, March 25. Steve and Bini had left, it was preschool day, and I was racing out the door to go somewhere. Steve had fed Sophie; her bowls were downstairs. She was downstairs all of the time in that last year. She was too weak to make the trek up the indoor stairs, so she was alone a lot. She slept most of the time.
That morning, I found her collapsed, next to her food and water bowls. She looked at me, bewildered, and I remember thinking, “No, no, no, no NO. No, goddammit. I’m not ready. ” Because I knew this was It. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma seven months prior, and the dog oncologist had told us four to six months. I didn’t listen. I believed she’d beat it, somehow.
I was hysterical, the way you are when you find your best friend in a really bad way. I tried to coax her to eat, but she couldn’t stand. I tried to hold her up, but her legs kept buckling. So I called Steve and shrieked out something, and he rushed back. Thank God Bini was at school that horrible day. Steve and I were not fit to parent.
It didn’t go well at the vet. This is a pretty horrible story, so if you don’t feel like crying today, I might skip it. We got her to the vet and they examined her and told us that she was bleeding internally. She was dying. If she came home with us, she’d die a terrible death. If we left her there they could keep her alive for maybe another day, but she’d be without us. So we decided to put her down.
If you’ve ever done this, you know how it goes: They give you time to “say goodbye.” It’s ludicrous. When are you ever ready to say goodbye? But we did our best and we cried so much that we went through a box of tissues. Then, they sedated her and we sat with her as they gave her “the shot.” And here’s the truly terrible part, the part that still keeps me up at night: She didn’t die. She had no circulation in her legs, where they gave the shot, so the drug didn’t get to her heart. They had to try several times before it took, and during that time, I was like an insane person, raving that I wanted to stop, that I wanted to take her home. I truly lost my mind for a couple of days. But that’s what happens when you kill your best friend.
I still see her, lying there. My glorious, gorgeous dog. If you’d ever met her, you’d agree — she was magnificent. A year later, I still can’t think about my sweet Sophie on the cold, hard ground without completely going to pieces.
Grief has weight to it. It takes every bit of your energy. Those first few days I felt like I was trudging uphill with rocks in my pockets. I did the bare minimum, begging off from everything that I possibly could. I kept her bowls as they were, with her uneaten food still in it. I buried my face in her blankets, trying to remember her smell, the feel of her fur. I created a shrine on her extra-large heated dog bed, with her well-loved stuffed toys. One day, about a week after she died, I came in to find Jinx, our cat, sleeping there. I started screaming “Get off her bed! Get off!” Jinx scampered off (and knowing her, probably peed on my shoes). I felt like I was losing my mind. Who grieved like this for a pet?
There were people who got it, who called me and wrote me e-mails and left care packages on my front doorstep. My mom, who adored Sophie, wrote a beautiful poem about her. My good friend texted me that she was going to get my son from preschool and keep him for the afternoon. She knew I was in no shape to be any kind of decent mother. Another friend told me that she went to a grief support group when her dog died. It made me feel less insane.
There were those who didn’t get it, who asked me things like “are you still upset?” when I clearly was still upset. I pulled away from those friends and I’ve kept my distance. Thankfully, I have more people in my life with empathy than without.
Two months later, we got another dog. I found Jones on Petfinder and I knew, just by looking at his silly face, that he was our dog. Some people questioned whether it was too soon, and in truth, it might have been, a little. But we needed a bit of joy in the house. Sophie’s long illness and our intense grief had left us wrung out and empty. We needed something to fill that void.
Jones is a different dog than Sophie, in pretty much every single way. Where she was regal, Jones is goofy. Sophie didn’t go in much for playing fetch; Jones’ singular obsession is the Chuckit. Sophie gently gnawed on her stuffed animals; Jones eviscerates antlers. Sophie was a dignified, once-a-day pooper; Jones passes gas all day long, and quite unselfconsiously. Sophie loved the snow; Jones high-steps through it like he’s walking on tar. But that’s OK. I’m glad Jones isn’t like Sophie. I couldn’t replace her if I tried. How do you replace your best friend?