Living with a dog who is actively dying of cancer is excruciating. Our dog, Gemma Joy, came to us with metastasized mammary cancer. Gemma had several litters of puppies and was not spayed until she arrived at Turtle Gardens. Once in rescue, she was spayed and had her tumours removed. The vets said they got good margins but with aggressive forms of mammary cancer it really does not matter. We had her for 2 months before we took her for an x-ray to determine if the cancer had spread. Sadly, at that appointment in June we were told that there were tumours in her lungs and that we had about six months.
Gemma has been really good for almost all of this time. In early December we noticed her attempting to catch flies with her mouth. She was biting at the air a lot. I didn’t think much of it because we still have flies in the house. After a couple of weeks, and the flies mostly gone thanks to Deb swatting them Gemma was still trying biting at the air with increased frequency. Finally, I googled that symptom and found out it could be a type of seizure. So off to the vet we went. We did blood work because, according to the vet, cancer in the liver could cause this symptom as well. However, the vet was fairly sure that the cancer had now spread to her brain.
I was quite upset by this news as we went home. Almost as soon as we got home, she attacked Zoe for no apparent reason. It was one vicious fight and we had a really hard time separating them. Zoe’s ear was bleeding quite badly but she did not need stitches. We stopped the bleeding with corn starch. Gemma and Zoe had fought before but it had been a couple of weeks since their last fight and they had only fought in our bedroom, on the bed. The fights had been mostly noise and there had never been an injury. A couple of hours later I was sitting with Zoe in the living room and Gemma had been laying on the couch. All of a sudden she jumped down, and then jumped up on to me and latched on to Zoe’s injured ear. I am not even sure how we got them apart. She also caused a small tear in Zoe’s ear but we did not see it due to the blood from the other cut opening up again. We patched Zoe up again and decided they would be separated from now on.
So how do you live with a dog who is dying and who is showing behavioural changes as a result of cancer in her brain? For all intents and purposes Gemma looks just fine. We can see that sparkle has gone out of her eyes but strangers would not notice. She is able to run and play with if she chooses. Her appetite is not great. She does not eat every day which is disturbing. She does not seem to be losing any weight. Also she is a little overweight so she has lots to fight with.
I know that I value every bit of time she graces me with. I like her to come and cuddle with me in my chair. She is a little bit more aloof than some of our other little dogs. Sometimes she needs a little coaxing to come up. Other times, she will just arrive which can be a little disconcerting because all of a sudden you have 22 pounds of Gemma Joy on your lap and in your face. She is a lovely dog to pet because she looks into your eyes and you know there is a connection there. She contorts her body so that your hand goes where she wants it. She sighs deeply and for that moment you forget that she has cancer and you love her even more. And when she goes you remember that she does not have long and you want her to stay, maybe you even make her stay past the time she wanted to go. You know this is not fair and you really should just let her go but you can’t help yourself.
The practicalities of living with a palliative dog are many. You have to ensure that the dog is receiving adequate pain relief. Carol from SAINTS points out that many vets are not in the practice of treating pain. She also believes that any dog who has cancer has pain and therefore needs pain meds. We talked to the vet and he agreed to put her on metacam. Once you have the pain under control hopefully things are ok until they are not. That is the thing with cancer, the dog goes along and then there is a crisis of some sort at which point there are considerations and decisions that have to be made. You may need to look at upping pain medication or maybe the dog has gotten to the point that all the meds in the world are not going to control the symptoms of their cancer. Once the dog has no more quality of life it is time to let them go. Keeping them alive after that point is an extremely selfish act. Part of being a pet guardian is the unspoken covenant that you will look after all of their needs for their entire lives. This includes making the decision to humanely euthanize. Personally, I would rather euthanize days early than risk the dog suffering past the point where they just can’t do it anymore.
I am sure some of you would wonder why would adopt a dog who was going to die. I would ask why not? We did it for many reasons some selfish some not. Gemma had been transferred to SAINTS and we knew that SAINTS was pretty full at that time. Carol takes in so many sick and dying dogs we felt that we could step up and help Gemma. After all we are involved in rescue and this is a part of rescue. When I saw her picture I fell in love. We also hoped, deep down, that just maybe she was going to catch a break. We have learned a lot from Gemma. Deb has discovered that little dogs can like her – in fact Gemma chose Deb as her primary person. This is out of the ordinary as usually little dogs gravitate to me. Gemma is a great comfort for Deb who is grieving the loss of Mackenzie. You get something from every dog you welcome into your life. They all have different things to teach. For me, Gemma is amazing. She has cancer and she does not seem ill. As Deb says “it is like no one has told her she is sick.” She is not as resilient a dog as Zoe. They both came out of the same puppy mill and they were both subjected to the same treatment. Zoe now embraces life. It is like she is making up for lost time. Gemma on the other hand is more reticent. Even thought I know all to well what the end will be like, I would not have given up the privilege of having Gemma Joy in my life.
We are not at the point with Gemma Joy where we need to consider humane euthanization. When that time comes it will be evident to us and we will do the right thing. We have to. We have a covenant.
*The three photographs used in this blog were taken by Big Air Photography.