My First Dog Was A Dud: Thoughts On Chip, In Advance Of His Death
In February of 2008, some volunteers with an Arizona pet rescue organization made a mistake. They walked past dozens of friendly, emotionally stable, physically healthy dogs slated for euthanasia for want of a home and chose Chip to rescue instead.
I don’t know why. Maybe Chip was tired that day so he seemed (falsely) calm. Maybe he looked like a dog one of them had loved before, and tugged at some heartstrings by accident.
This simple mistake set into motion over a decade of misadventure for Chip and me. He was probably the biggest online purchased I’d made to date, plus my first foray into online dating. I was 22 years old, living alone in a modest apartment close to Arizona State University and beginning my graduate studies in philosophy there.
It was my first time living away from the Atlanta area, and after a semester spent getting settled, it dawned on me that I could finally get the dog I’d literally always wanted. My parents objected, but there was nothing they could do to stop me. I didn’t want to have to beg them for money for vet care, so I researched pet insurance thoroughly and chose a winner (one of the better decisions of my young adult life).
On the warm Friday afternoon of March 28th, I excitedly walked home from school where a volunteer had brought Chip to meet me. I heard him bark at the same time I first laid eyes on him. He was so small, but his bark was big. I was a little impressed, as I didn’t really want a yapper.
Inside, Chip crawled into my lap right away, and I mistook his neurotic clinginess for ordinary affection. There was no serious question as to whether I’d sign on the dotted line. It began.
Our rough start
Within a few hours of being adopted, Chip slipped out of my front door when a day-drunk neighbor who I’d never seen before or since knocked to ask to borrow a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t go after him right away I guess because I didn’t think he’d do it, but he did — he climbed right down my little building’s 3 flights of unenclosed concrete steps and took off across the green space on which all of the little buildings sat.
The neighbor and I followed him, as I panicked. I felt reasonably certain that I’d immediately gotten my long-awaited first dog killed. There were, after all, literally hundreds of undergraduates driving around the huge parking lot there, like idiots.
A few minutes later, Chip finally tired and took refuge under a parked car. In a stunning, one-time act of obedience, he decided to come to me (still a stranger) when I called. The neighbor who’d accidentally set this disaster into motion told me I should name Chip “buzzkill.” He was so right.
I’d read a bit about dog care to prepare, and decided Chip would sleep in his crate for the sake of creating structure and order. But by 1am on his first night home, neither one of us had slept very much, and I let his sorry butt into my bed. That was only the beginning of things not going as planned.
I had also read that it was better not to spend too long offering undivided attention to a new dog, because that would set unrealistic expectations. The dog would then feel extra surprised and upset when you eventually have to return to real life (many a family dog adopted over the summer goes nuts when school starts up again, for instance).
This made sense to me, so I started leaving Chip home alone in his crate for short periods right away. I think the first time, I came back and he’d kicked the pan out of the crate. Other times I’d come home to him shaking like a leaf and barking, with a saliva-soaked chest and sometimes a raw little nose from pressing at the bars.
Soon he started hiding under the bed when he detected I was preparing to leave. I sometimes had to prod him out with a coat hanger. I experimented with leaving him loose in the apartment, but he’d turn over the trash, jump on the kitchen table, pull up the carpet by the door.
By now, I worried my neighbors would complain. I felt like a prisoner in my own home. I wondered whether he’d be dead when I returned, I don’t know… cardiac arrest from thrashing and crying in the crate (I didn’t yet know the strength of Chip’s stubborn grip on life).
I spent a couple hundred bucks I didn’t really have on a home visit from a dog behaviorist, but she didn’t offer any magic bullets. No amount of counter-conditioning and desensitization made any stable improvement in Chip’s separation anxiety.
Then Chip got sick for the first time. He lost most of the fur on his belly and developed a limp that weirdly switched paws (turned out to be from a rash deeply set in the membranes between his toes). He also presented with a new heart murmur, wtf?
Well, Chip had gone quickly hypothyroid, which seems to happen disproportionately often to dogs neutered as adults. Imaging revealed no dramatic defects in his heart, just some little old marks on his lungs probably from illness prior to his adoption. The thyroid medication worked quickly, and Chip rebounded. I submitted the first of many insurance claims and hoped that’d be it.
The early years
I’d adopted such a small dog planning for him to become a good travel buddy, but of course Chip really hates flying. I had to sedate him into oblivion every trip, and pray for no delays. Timing the sedative was tricky. Too early, and he’d try to chew out of his soft-sided bag during landing. Too late, and he’d try to chew out of the bag waiting to board.
Finally, a year after coming home with me, I finally had to leave Chip behind for a few nights. Another grad student at Arizona State offered to take him, and she owned an adorable little 3-legged chihuahua mutt of her own. I previously thought Chip hated other dogs because he’d bark at them on the leash, but he and this other little guy really got on fabulously.
I decided to adopt another chihuahua mix and (on the second try, ugh) got the match right with Ringo. They took to each other immediately. You’re really not supposed to adopt a second dog in order to fix your first one’s separation anxiety — it can go the wrong way, and turn the second dog anxious. But lo and behold, Chip’s separation anxiety never became a major issue again. He stopped clinging to me and started wanting to just chill alone or with Ringo most of the time.
Those next few years were extremely eventful for me (marriage, divorce, cross-country move), but not so much for Chip. From 2010 to 2014, the 3 of us lived alone in a ground-floor west Harlem studio, not far from Columbia University where I had transferred my studies. I sent Chip and Ringo to a boarding place on Long Island without incident a few times. We mostly kept to ourselves.
A slipped disk…
Late in 2013, I met my now-husband and moved in with him in midtown shortly a few months after that — thank goodness he happened to live in a dog-friendly building, or the whole trajectory of our relationship might have been different.
One night, after hubs had gone to bed, I spent a little longer messing around on my computer with Chip sitting in my lap. He jumped maybe 18 inches to the floor like he’d done so many times before, yelped, and went floppy in his hindquarters — instantly paraplegic. In total dismay, I took him out for a walk with Ringo anyways, hoping he’d snap out of it or something? But Chip’s back legs dragged uselessly when I set him down on the sidewalk.
I wrapped Chip in a blue towel and carried him a few blocks west in the warm rain, past Alvin Ailey, to the emergency vet nearby. I was sort of under the impression that lame dogs were to be taken out back and relieved of their misery. But I had not yet learned about the true breadth and depth of modern veterinary care.
Chip won/lost the triage and was admitted quickly. I moped back home, eager to hear from the neurologist making rounds the next day. An imaging technique called myelogram revealed that Chip had acutely herniated a disk. It was unlikely to resolve very well on its own, though those unwilling or unable to choose surgery try meds and crate rest instead. Less than 24 hours after his injury, Chip went under the knife so a surgeon could cleaned out the fubar disk. He came home wearing a tiny fentanyl patch and some heavy-duty staples a few days later.
Nursing Chip back to health was kind of tricky, even though I wasn’t working much at the time (not to mention didn’t have any kids yet). His schedule was screwed up and it was hard to predict when he’d want to go outside. More than a few times, I carried him out very early or late, crossing 8th avenue to gently deposit him on a tiny patch of dirty grass outside a pretty good bagel shop.
Eventually, Chip regained about 95% of his former function (he’d fishtail a little when he took a corner too quickly, but that was about it). I was really pleased they were able to help him, and that I was able to help him (thanks to the pet insurance). I sort of figured that’d be the big medical experience of his lifetime.
… with a cancer chaser
Maybe 6 months later, we took Chip and Ringo for routine exams at our regular vet back uptown. Chip had developed a little bump squarely on his butt, but I thought it was his anal glands filling up again or something. The vet took one look and aspirated a sample for biopsy. She called a few days later — mast cell tumor. i.e. skin cancer. And a specialist needed to remove it, due to sensitive location.
Back I went, to the emergency and specialty vet. It didn’t fully sink in that my dog had cancer until they scheduled us with an oncologist. He explained to me that sometimes these tumors spread, but sometimes they’re one-and-done. I told him I’d come back to have it removed when the policy year had rolled over on our pet insurance plan, as I’d spent most of last year’s cap on the spinal surgery.
Chip and I weren’t excited for another surgery, but it went just fine. I was worried Chip would have issues pooping, what with stitches on his ass, but he handled it like a champ. The surgeon was able to get a clean margin around the tiny tumor, reducing the likelihood that it would grow back there or elsewhere. I worried about recurrence when a lump turned up on Chip’s ear (just before I gave birth for the first time, no less). But it turned out to be nothing.
Old dog learns new tricks
As the due date of my first pregnancy approached, I wondered how I’d manage the dog and baby situation. I didn’t really know what having a baby would be like, but I knew enough to know that all of us getting along in various ways was by no means a foregone conclusion.
My mom had a little puppy mill bichon, purchased impulsively from the mall, when I was born. This was back before an internet’s worth of dog behavior information was readily available to everyone, back before dogs were given SSRIs. He went a little nuts when I arrived, my parents weren’t sure how to handle it, and when he bit me under my chin a couple years later — well, that was that.
I felt determined not to let this sad story repeat itself. The first night home from the hospital, I found myself gingerly changing the first of many midnight diapers when the dogs became alarmed by the baby’s cries and started bouncing up and down at the changing table like raving lunatics. I just wanted to turn away from everyone and run.
Chip and Ringo eventually stopped barking at the baby in the middle off the night, but those first months remained challenging. Although a newborn is not really at risk of harassing a dog and getting herself bitten that way, the logistics of caring for things on different schedules were quite complex (at least, it felt that way).
I remember times when the dogs grew impatient, waiting for the baby to wake up from some shockingly long, inconveniently-timed nap. I remember prying that little vampire from my breast and loading her hastily into the carrier, hoping she was done enough not to cry through the dog walk.
Beginning around 5 months old, baby 1 started really loving the dogs — she’d giggle just to see them. Now, at 14 months, baby 2 is much bolder. She’ll frequently touch a dog, look at me while I tell her “no touch,” then touch or poke or grab the dog right again.
In the past year, our logistical issues have only multiplied. Keeping two kids away from two dog food bowls is no small feat. Bundling everyone up to go outside is a colossal pain in the ass. In his senescence, Chip sometimes prefers to ride. The kids sometimes prefer to walk. Ringo prefers to run. With everyone going in different directions, these walks tend to feel more like a quartering than a pleasant little break.
Ringo is a pretty good sport. But I never in a million years would have chosen Chip had I known I’d have kids. Small and snippy dogs are very likely to hurt their human child siblings, if they’re not hurt by them first. But here we are, getting by.
A real brush with death
In the summer of 2018, Chip’s left eye went all blue and hazy one day. I freaked out and took him to the emergency vet, thinking it was glaucoma which google assures me is painful. Some simple eye drops fixed him right up. Chip had a weird bout of bloody urine incontinence in the fall, which was gory af in the house, but antibiotics seemed to fix that too. Thank goodness, because we’d just spent a small (non-insurance-funded) fortune getting 18 of his junky teeth removed.
Flash forward to Christmas 2018. Chip’s left eye is acting up again, this time it’s red and he’s hiding under the bed. I didn’t want to take him to the emergency vet on Christmas day, so I dragged him (and both girls) to the regular vet the next day. They diagnosed hyphema — basically hemorrhage within the eyeball, gave me some different meds, but they didn’t seem to work.
I really, really did not want to drag this dog to a veterinary ophthalmologist. I wanted our regular vet just to pop his bum eye out for me. But he was still acting weird. I made the soonest appointment available, 10 days away.
Chip got worse and worse. He hid under the bed. I gave him pain meds, but they didn’t seem to do much. In the last couple of days before our eye appointment, he nearly wouldn’t/couldn’t walk and was mostly laying around with his tongue awkwardly hanging out.
By then, I had convinced myself that Chip had cancer again (vet journal abstracts taught me that, in about a quarter of dogs with that kind of eye irritation, tumors are the root cause). So while I was sad, I didn’t think there was a huge hurry to get to the vet. We’d get some bad news there, and make a decision.
The ophthalmologist placed obviously-sick Chip on the table, mentioned to me that he thought Chip’s problems might actually be neurological, shone a light in Chip’s eye — Chip promptly barked, flopped over, and had a seizure. They whisked him off to the ER, where the vet on staff soon told me that Chip could see a neurologist in the morning and possibly undergo MRI for suspected brain tumor.
I headed home glumly, with an empty dog carrier under my arm, and half expected them to call me overnight, explaining that Chip had died. It was a real possibility, as his neurological status was in the toilet when I left. I had known that Chip wasn’t well. But that was even more drama than I’d expected.
Instead, I received a surprising update in the morning. Chip had developed spontaneous bruising overnight and was found to have a devastatingly low amount of platelets, perhaps meaning some kind of clotting issue rather than a primarily neurological one. He was transferred to the internist, who quickly pulled out all the stops in saving him.
They gave Chip fluids, they gave him immune-suppressing steroids. He received a fresh blood transfusion straight out of J.J., the vet group’s CEO’s robust black lab. Chip received vincristine, a chemotherapy drug that forces marrow to release its store of platelets. Anything to get the presumptive brain bleeding under control, and to prevent random dangerous hemorrhage in his gut or lungs.
In the midst of this, I did receive a call: the emergency vets found themselves close to losing Chip, despite all their best efforts. I was at school with my older kid and unable to rush to the vet. But by the time I arrived a couple hours later to visit Chip, things were looking up. By the next day, Chip was walking around and eating. By the next day, he was just about ready to come home.
Though the vets looked hard for other causes like various cancers, they couldn’t find anything. By exclusion, the diagnosis became “immune-mediated thrombocytopenia.” Sometimes the immune system just screws up and kills off its own platelets. It can often be coaxed back into submission with the right drugs — as long as the platelet-less, fragile patient doesn’t bleed out first.
I could hardly believe Chip was really coming home. He actually seemed livelier than ever, due in part to the vigorous thirst and appetite induced by his steroids. We had to stick him in diapers to deal with all the pee, a small enough price to pay for life. That little mutt clicked around in here like a golden ghost.
For a while, everything he did charmed me. I’d look at him sleeping soundly when I got up in the middle of the night and feel like everything was right with the world. I acclimated to administering his complex drug regimen.
You can’t feel sublime continuously forever, though. Maybe my sense of ordinary life began to return after a few weeks. Chip has been a fixture for me for over a decade, after all. It’s much more normal for him to just be there than to not. Chip receded a little bit into the background again.
Still, I was relieved that things looked good at Chip’s first platelet recheck. I knew he could relapse at any time, but at least now I’d know what we were dealing with, and I kind of thought we might decline to treat a relapse anyways (due to Chip’s age).
One damn thing after another
Well, one morning just under a month after his first hospitalization, Chip woke up in pretty iffy shape. He didn’t want to move much, wouldn’t take treats, could barely keep his eyes open, and laid around with his tongue out in the same awkward way as the day he almost died. It didn’t help that the day before I’d clobbered him in a door, trying to come in with the double stroller and double disobedient dogs. I almost hoped I’d just hurt his leg.
A few hours later he was up and scrounging for snacks again, but I felt pretty damn spooked. I took him to the vet and more or less asked them to admit him, despite a lack of obvious problems at that time. I was in theory willing to let Chip suffer a little more if necessary (whether to save him, or to decide not to save him), but I didn’t want to watch. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.
They did find an unknown object lodged in his stomach, but the vet admitted she didn’t know whether that was even the issue. I consented for that to be removed by endoscopy. It seemed like it’d be a dumb way to go after all of this, and I was afraid I’d caused the problem myself by letting him eat something inappropriate off the sidewalk.
Well it was just a hairball and the vet got it out no problem. But Chip’s red blood cells fell inexplicably low, then his platelet count crashed again. The relapse I’d feared had apparently occurred. More fluids, more meds. I had to go out of of town (another long sad story), and I really wanted him to survive at least that long. They made it happen.
The vets offered me an MRI which I felt deeply tempted to accept out of curiosity, but there’s no real benefit for Chip. Brain tumors are relatively common in older dogs, but they can’t/don’t really treat them. Our approach would be the same anyways: wait until the treatments are really not helping to restore him to a decent quality of life, and then take the only option left.
Bringing Chip home this second time has not felt magical. He didn’t really “bounce back” again. Instead, he came home disgruntled and weak, with a lot of diarrhea from the new immune suppressant. On top of that being gross, no one enjoys having the runs. How many remaining days of moderately pleasant doggy life trade off against a few days of diarrhea? Does anyone know?
I had previously envisioned that Chip’s death would arrive very quickly or very slowly. Like, maybe you hurriedly euthanize an actively-dying dog in a kindhearted effort to curtail the ordeal. Or, you realize one day that the dog has been mostly unhappy for some long while and you sadly make an appointment.
Instead, we’ve been dealt what Atul Gawande, in his best-selling Being Mortal, calls the “one damn thing after another” scenario. Bodies can handle a lot, but they can’t handle everything. It gets to be like whack-a-mole, with the moles being your various breaking-down bits.
Intensive hospitalization gives with one hand even as it takes away with the other. Perverse institutional logic, iatrogenic problems, simple lack of sleep. It’s a good deal for vigorous patients who require a specific fix. But it’s a pretty bad deal for frail patients facing unclear problems and treatments of questionable value.
The last chapter
It’s obvious to modern animal owners that they need to remain open to the possibility of euthanasia. It’s much less obvious what remaining open to the demands of continued caregiving looks like.
Trial by fire experiences (becoming a mother, facing the incurable cancer of a parent) have recently expanded my capacities for loving and caring. I have begun peering into the far corners of human experience with eyes that are ready to see what might be there. I want to soften and grow in the face of aging and illness, death and loss, instead of hardening inwards. I want to rise to these caregiving occasions. But half the time, I don’t even know what that would mean in practice.
It would have been permissible to euthanize Chip on several occasions by now. (And it would have been necessary, if not for the insurance). But now the resources at stake are mostly within me — my energy, my psychic wherewithal. Am I being selfish or selfless? Am I just insane? What if he lasts until my 3rd child under age 4 arrives? What if he doesn’t?
An obscene amount of money has been spent on Chip’s medical bills in the past month, as is not unusual for end-of-life patients in industrialized countries. The only unusual thing is that we were able to afford this much (thanks, Petplan). I have mostly convinced myself that at least it’s no morally worse than the other things people like us spend a lot of money on (clothes? travel?).
Chip’s on 8 drugs now, schedules all staggered. We’ve descended into medications-to-deal-with-side-effects-of-other-medications land. I wouldn’t previously have believed that a dog (or person) who needs that much help could be at all ok, but he’s definitely not miserable.
I want a sign, a sign that it’s time, but Chip is still the stubborn asshole he always was. The only signs he gives indicate that he’s not done clinging to life with those hard black talons he never let me trim. I just can’t euthanize a dog who still rolls in the grass, even when there’s ice. I can’t euthanize a dog who still dives under the couch looking for crumbs.
“Will to live”-type behavior in an animal comes from instinct and genetics more than value-laden choice. But that doesn’t make it not real. Will he never give a sign? Or just not yet?
I’ve walked Chip thousands of times: around Tempe, Arizona and Atlanta, Georgia, then Harlem, midtown Manhattan, South of Market Street in San Francisco, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’ve walked him early and late, sober, drunk, and hungover. In rain and snow and blasted “wintry mix.”
I’ve walked him a little pregnant, a lot pregnant, and fresh from the delivery room, with stitches in my abdomen or with stitches in my junk. I’ve walked him with one then two babies in tow. I’m pregnant enough now that I’ve sort of got three.
Sometimes on our walks, Chip drags me. More often, I drag Chip. We are chronically out of sync.
I won’t miss the way Chip alternates between demanding to eat or go out and refusing to. I won’t miss his random moodiness, his idiopathic recurring bile-y vomit. I won’t miss the way he randomly yaps loudly to complain if you pick him up in slightly the wrong way.
I won’t miss worrying about him while he mopes around the million-dollar dog daycare places that Ringo loves. I won’t miss the medication schedule, and I certainly could have lived without ever having had to clean liquid shit out of the baseboards.
I tell Chip he’s a good boy, but that’s just a figure of speech. In actuality, everything about owning this animal has been enormously inconvenient. Year after year, he’s squeezed me financially. He’s squeezed me emotionally.
I don’t know that I’d “do it all again.” I don’t even know what the payoff really was. He didn’t turn out to be very affectionate, friendly, playful, or even portable. If he had been a potential human friend, I would have ghosted.
Chip came kinda broken. It wasn’t my fault, but it became my responsibility. I just didn’t want to make him worse. When he broke in other ways, I did what I could.
There’s more breakdown to come. Chip’s departure and another major loss both loom for me, in a slow-motion race to the big finish. If you’ve never yet watched someone you love fall apart, it’s only a matter of time until the universe sends you its cruelest honor. Either that, or you fall apart and die first. Those are literally the options.
In a world that urges you to shop, to choose, to compare, to optimize, sometimes the particularity of what you ended up with is still enough. Chip’s not an inherently lovable dog, but I love him just because he’s mine. Occasionally, through his curmudgeonliness, it seems like he loves me too.