Monday, December 18, 2017
Pets

My dogs and I, devoted till the end

Reggie, my ball-crazy golden retriever, had a lump removed from his lip in late November. It turned out to be malignant oral melanoma. Even with surgery, some dogs live only six months.

He is 13, an old man with a weak back. His face is white. But don't give up on him just yet.

Four times since December, one of his thighs has been inoculated with a DNA vaccine designed to trick his body into attacking any remaining melanoma cells. His immune system must make a new enemy of an old friend: the enzyme tyrosinase, which gives his nose its black pigment but is also a marker for melanoma. The vaccine contains the DNA coding for human tyrosinase, just different enough from the dog version to provoke an immune reaction.

If it sounds expensive, it is: $2,200 for the first four vaccines, with a booster every six months.

I'm probably like a lot of people: amazed at the science and unnerved by the choices that I make for my loyal friends.

Growing up, we never consulted veterinarians. Sick animals died. In the past four years, Reggie, Dixie and the late Abby have seen not only skilled vets but skilled specialists: a veterinary surgeon, neurosurgeon, dentist, internist, oncologist, cardiologist, ophthalmologist and assorted ER doctors.

All three golden retrievers have been surgically treated for early-stage cancers.

I am, of course, always broke. I drive a 9-year-old car, clip coupons and save rewards points. I turn to my sister, a doting dog aunt, in a pinch.

I wonder: Where will I draw the line? The answer is complicated and unique for everyone.

Veterinarians see owners stop treatment long before medical options run out. Some can't pay; others think it's foolish. People worry about putting a pet through surgery. Or they apply a human definition of dignity. It's hard, no matter.

"Only the pet's owner can know how far to go versus not," says veterinary oncologist Philip Bergman of New Bedford, N.Y., primary investigator for the Oncept melanoma vaccine.

"They know their pet better than anyone else in the world, and they also know their own personal situation — fears, history with cancer, financial state, etc. — better than anyone else."

When deciding for our pets, we draw on emotions that fuel many human decisions: fear, shame, guilt, respect, pride and courage.

It takes courage to euthanize a dog, and sometimes it takes courage to keep one alive.

I learned that lesson from two experiences with canine vestibular disease, which brings symptoms of vertigo, head tilt and rapid eye movement. It can mean a brain tumor or inner ear infection. But it can also be idiopathic and temporary. You wait, not knowing if your pet is dying or just dizzy.

Summer before last, well into her 15th year, Abby showed those symptoms, along with rigid limbs and lethargy. After observation, the emergency vet at a state-of-the-art center felt certain it was a brain tumor. I signed paperwork, slipped my hand beneath Abby's face and, through a stethoscope, heard her last heartbeats.

For a long time, I regretted her overnight stay in the noisy infirmary, hooked up to machines. Why had we made her wait?

The answer came 17 months later: hope.

It was Dec. 29, the Saturday before Reggie's second scheduled melanoma vaccine. I was cleaning up after supper when he staggered and fell. I put him to bed and watched, with disbelief, the twitching movement in his eyes.

By morning, his head was tilting 45 degrees to the left. He couldn't lap water from a bowl. I squirted it into his mouth with a syringe.

I called his longtime vet, Jean Mahlman, by now a good friend. We had the same thought: melanoma, metastasizing to the brain. In dogs, 80 percent of oral melanomas metastasize. The next day, Reggie had to be carried on a cart to see his internist, Gary Oswald. The vaccine got put on hold.

If it was a brain tumor, it would get worse.

For most of a week, he just slept — at home, with me. A few times a day, I carried him with a body harness through the kitchen, down a step to the deck, down two steps to the grass. But vertigo kept knocking him over.

On a nice January day, I left him sitting in the grass while I went for the phone indoors. I returned to find him smiling in the doorway. He had scaled the steps alone. He wasn't giving up.

Next he mastered the water bowl. He learned to right himself. He slowly bent down and touched a ball with his nose.

I know these are borrowed days. I know I can't stop time. But I can fight alongside him, and make sure he doesn't suffer.

This vaccine, intended for postsurgical use, has a difficult time overcoming established lesions. But most dogs survive at least two years instead of six months.

Reggie's lymph nodes, so far, are good. His chest X-ray showed only an old, stable nodule.

Dare I hope? On Monday, I drove Reggie to see his neurosurgeon, Anne Chauvet. She fixed the bad disk in his lower back, coddling the incision with hyperbaric oxygen and laser therapy. I could have taken two cruises for what I spent, but it wouldn't have had the same effect.

She has an MRI machine.

The MRI showed the worn spine that one might expect of an old, ball-chasing dog.

And a brain. It showed a normal brain.

Times staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

Comments
Find a Friend:

Find a Friend:

Little Topo Gigio was named after the children’s puppet character, an Italian pop culture icon. This 9-week old kitten was rescued on a busy Valrico road when he was just a few days old, likely dropped by his struggling mama kitty attempting to move ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Find A Friend: Peppermint Patty, the terrier mix

Find A Friend: Peppermint Patty, the terrier mix

Peppermint Patty is a bit of a tomboy. Like the Peanuts character, she’d choose a baseball uniform over a tutu skirt all day long. But if not for her rescuers, this stray terrier mix would have succumbed months ago to pneumonia and a ravaging skin in...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 15

Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 15

Courtesy of Hernando County Animal ServicesUma is a female tortoiseshell found with her five kittens off Main Street in Brooksville. After weaning her own kittens, she became a surrogate momma to another litter of kittens and is now ready for a home ...
Published: 12/13/17
Find A Friend: Bunny the Kitten

Find A Friend: Bunny the Kitten

Hippity hop, it’s a holiday Bunny. This young teenager and her siblings were rescued from disaster as Hurricane Irma was headed to town. All five kittens are now very healthy and loving purr-machines with beautiful soft coats and precious pink noses....
Published: 12/08/17

Watch: Puppies play at the Pass-a-Grille dog beach

Gogo, a Black Border Collie, and Juno, a Merle Australian Shepherd, had a blast the other day on the Pass-a-Grille dog beach, one of a few dog beaches near St. Petersburg.It opened last year on the southern tip of Pass-a-Grille and is free to the pub...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17
Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 8

Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 8

PET OF THE WEEKherpetoftheweek120817MooMoo is a 4-year-old stylish tuxedo girl. She loves to sip cider and bat at pine cones. MooMoo has been spayed, vaccinated and microchipped. Inquiries about adopting MooMoo or other dogs and cats can be made at t...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17
Petting zoos at the office are the latest perk for stressed-out employees

Petting zoos at the office are the latest perk for stressed-out employees

WASHINGTON — Chris Delaney typically unwinds from his job at Discovery Communications by taking leisurely weekend drives or flipping through stacks of vinyl at used record stores. But on a recent midweek afternoon, the broadcast ingest operator was r...
Updated one month ago
Find A Friend: Lilly the kitten

Find A Friend: Lilly the kitten

Can’t make it to Key West this holiday season? Bring home a Hemingway right here in Tampa Bay. Lilly is a 6-month-old kitty asking Santa for a permanent family. She’s got extra toes and lots of love to go around. Social and affectionate Lilly gets al...
Published: 11/30/17
Updated: 12/04/17
Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 1

Hernando Pet of the Week for Dec. 1

Jake is a handsome 2-year-old white and brown terrier mix currently living in foster care. He loves to fetch and play hide-and-seek with his ball. Jake is crate-trained and does well with other dogs, but he needs to be in an adult-only home. He is ne...
Updated one month ago