My Dog Wasn’t Eating: How a team effort saved his life

Tucker's Best Day; the first time he got to play ball after a long winter.

Tucker’s Best Day; the first time he got to play ball after a long winter.

The ground was dry; the winter mud had finally hardened. The weather was pleasant and sunny. The snow was long gone. My dog Tucker found his ball under the bushes, where it had probably landed in the fall, and he was clearly telling me it was time to play.

Of course, with a terrier, it’s never just one or two throws and you’re done. Tucker kept asking me to throw his beloved orb, again and again and again—and I did. But I went easy on him, since we hadn’t played a good game of fetch since the fall; I didn’t throw it too far, I kept the toss low so he didn’t have to leap to catch it, and I made sure he rested frequently.

He had a blast, and I loved watching him enjoy himself. I get so much joy out of his joy. 

It was a Very Good Day. 

And it could have been the last time he ever played ball. 

Tucker isn’t quite himself

The next morning, Tucker didn’t come to breakfast when I called him. That was very weird. When I found him in the living room—where he usually hangs out while I prepare dinner in order to avoid getting swatted by an impatient cat who is unhappy with the service in our establishment—he had a strange expression on his face. Sad maybe. Not quite himself.

He looked at his meal longingly and ate slowly. Lilah—the pokiest eater in our house—finished her meal, and Tucker was still at his bowl. Then he stopped, backed away, and gazed at me with an expression of sincere regret, as if he didn’t want to insult the chef, but just couldn’t finish the food.

This was alarming. Tucker? Late to breakfast? Not finishing his meal? Unheard of. Not this dog. He never met a meal he didn’t devour.

The rest of the day, I kept an eye on him. He walked a little slower. Moped a little bit. Slept in the hallway instead of his bed. I wouldn’t have called him lethargic, because that terrier energy was quite evident when we were outside, but he wasn’t quite himself—some of the time.

Tucker wasn't quite himself. For example, he napped in the hallway outside my office instead of in one of the beds in my office.

Tucker wasn’t quite himself. For example, he napped in the hallway outside my office instead of in one of the beds in my office.

I thought maybe we might have overdone the ball playing the day before. You know, like the first bike ride of the season and your thighs are screaming? But he wasn’t limping, and when I felt all over his body, he didn’t show any signs of pain.

That evening, he ate one kibble for dinner. That’s it. Just one. And only after I picked it up from his bowl and offered it to him.

I called the vet. Should I bring Tucker in? There were no other reportable symptoms. He was going to the bathroom normally. Drinking normally. He even brought me his inside ball to play with (the one we throw when we are indoors; it’s soft and light and is less likely to break things when thrown) though I told him no and said he should take it easy. 

We decided to wait until morning; there were plenty of appointments available the next day at the office. If Tucker’s appetite was still off, I’d bring him in. 

Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t have waited.

The next morning Tucker ate nothing. I checked his body again, and this time it seemed like his gums were a lighter pink than normal. I lightly pressed my finger into his gums and quickly removed it to see how quickly it went from white to pink (known as a capillary refill test) and it went back to pink in less than two seconds. That’s normal. But it seemed like his mouth wasn’t as moist as it should be, kind of tacky.

Off to the vet

I took the first available slot to see Dr. Silvers at Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital.

At first glance, he said Tucker “seemed like Tucker.” The initial exam showed nothing dramatic, but Dr. Silvers noticed the same thing I did: tacky gums. He wasn’t that worried about my dog’s gum color; it was still pink, and the capillary refill time seemed normal. Tucker had a fever though, so something was definitely wrong.

And here folks, here’s the point where it is so important to have a trusting partnership with your vet. I told Dr. SIlvers that my worry meter was off the charts. Pinned at 11. I felt that something was very, very wrong. Not finishing one meal was unusual enough. Missing two? All my alarm bells were ringing. 

Dr. Silvers listened to me. He knows me. He knows my dogs—and cats. He knows that I pay attention to my pets, and while I’m a bit (well, maybe a little more than a bit) of a worrier, I also do the best I can for my pets. My veterinarian could have just chalked my worry up to me being an anxious pet parent. But he heard my concern loud and clear. And dug a little deeper.

“Could he have eaten something he shouldn’t have?” asked Dr. Silvers. 

“Tucker? Yes! All the time.” He eats cat toys. Rabbit poop. Dead birds. 

“Let’s do an X-ray. And some bloodwork. Maybe we’ll run it here instead of sending it out.”

Things went fast and furious from that point on.

Dr. Silvers didn’t like the look of the X-ray. “It’s cloudy where the spleen is,” he told me, pointing to a large foggy spot on the screen. “We need to know what that is. I think we should do an ultrasound.”

His voice sounded urgent. Dr. Frank—the ultrasound veterinarian—wasn’t scheduled to be in the office that day (she works for several veterinary practices), but Dr. Silvers reached out to see if she’d come to the office. If not, he told me he’d send me to wherever she was. 

Now as it turns out, one of my other dogs needed an ultrasound too. It wasn’t urgent, but we have been trying to diagnose an issue where Lilah wasn’t concentrating her urine; so far all tests came back normal, but it might be a kidney issue.  They told me to leave Tucker at the office so he’d be there if Dr. Frank was able to come. I offered to bring Lilah back for her scan as well.

Ultrasounds—and results

An hour later, I sat on a bench, looking at, but not actually seeing the pet care videos playing in the lobby of the animal hospital and holding my breath as I waited for results for two out of my three dogs.

Suddenly, there was Dr. Silvers; as he walked toward me, he shook his head slightly. Before I could truly process that head shake, he began speaking. He sat down next to me as he explained that there was a mass or masses in Tucker’s spleen. It could be something benign like a hemangioma, a nodule of clotted blood. Or it could be hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer. 

The pieces had begun to fit together. Tucker wasn’t feeling well because he was anemic; the bloodwork showed that. He was anemic because the masses, or the spleen, were leaking blood. Untreated, the spleen would rupture, and Tucker would bleed to death. Or the blood inside his abdominal cavity could cause a severe infection, and kill him.

He needed his spleen removed. Now. 

I could barely keep up with the information, but Dr. Silvers was patient with me. He asked if he could do another X-ray, this time of Tucker’s chest, to make sure, just in case it was cancer, that it hadn’t spread to the heart, the lungs, or other essential organs. If it had, then they wouldn’t do the surgery. What he didn’t say—but I understood—was that if they couldn’t do the surgery, it meant that my dog was a lost cause.

I said yes, of course, and off he went.

The Room

Dr. Arbach—another veterinarian with whom I’ve worked at the practice—came out to get me. “Let’s put you someplace a little more private,” she said, and directed me to The Room. Not all veterinary practices have a room like this, where there’s no exam table. It’s where conversations can be had, in a less medical and sterile and cold environment. There’s a box of tissues, strategically placed.

I’m sure there are other uses for it, but I know it’s where bad news is delivered. Dr. Arbach took me there out of kindness; things were moving fast, I had two dogs with me, and it would be a good thing for me, the dogs—and probably the other patients and pet parents at the hospital—for me to have some privacy as I absorbed what was happening.

But all I could think was that something bad had happened: the X-ray showed metastasis. As Dr. Arbach left me in the room, the tears started flowing. I had trouble breathing.

A few minutes later she came back. “Are you ok?” 

“It’s the room,” I said. “The room. It’s a bad room.”

She looked puzzled; she had no idea what I was talking about. 

“Is it cancer?” I couldn’t even see the vet through my tears. “Did it metastasize?”

“No. No. The X-ray looked fine,” she said. “No mets.” No metastasis. No additional masses seen.

I cried more, this time with relief.

“Lilah’s ultrasound looked great. She’s fine. There are no problems there. We’ll get both dogs to you in a moment.” Dr. Arbach’s voice was calm, professional, and reassuring, but she spoke in short sentences that made it easy for me to parse. “We’ve already talked to the surgeon at Animerge. Dr. Collins. She’ll be waiting for you.”

Dr. Arbach told me that Dr. Collins was the person we would want to do the surgery; apparently a splenectomy is tricky—with lots of possibilities for bad outcomes. But Dr. Collins apparently had perfected a procedure that proved to be very successful.

Minutes later, I was on my way to Animerge, with two dogs, one of whom had a ticking time bomb in his soft sweet, rubable belly.

Animerge and surgery

Dr. Collins and her veterinary technician saw us quickly, meeting both Lilah and Tucker in an exam room. There had been no time to drop Lilah off at home.  Dr. Collins has helped us before, when Jasper had a run-in with a groundhog who tore a hole right through one of his ear flaps (pinnae) and when Athena broke her jaw. (I am SO glad I have pet insurance.) She carefully examined Tucker, and told me what to expect.

In the past, the odds for dogs undergoing splenectomy weren’t that great Dr. Collins told me: one in four died. Fifty percent of the dogs who undergo the surgery develop heart arrhythmia. Others throw clots, which could mean stroke. But Dr. Collins has worked hard to improve those numbers, and she said—as she knocked on the wood door frame—she hasn’t lost a dog after a splenectomy in two years.

After the surgery, they would keep Tucker at Animerge for at least two nights, to monitor my dog for all those potential issues.

As confident as she was, Dr. Collins wanted me to understand the risks.

But doing nothing would definitely kill my dog. There was only one option. I told her, “Do what you need to do.”

I hugged Tucker and whispered in his ear. “I know you don’t feel good, and I know you’re scared, but this will help you.” I kissed the top of his furry head. “I love you. You’re a good dog.” I stood up as we opened the doorway to the hall. 

Dr. Collins and the tech led Tucker away—and Lilah began crying, straining at her lead to follow her brother. My terrier looked back at me. “Good boy, Tucker.” I tried to hold back the sobs. “You’re a good boy.” 

The door closed. Lilah and I made our way to exit, my vision blurry with tears.

Now we had to wait.

Tucker’s recovery begins

Tucker made it through the surgery uneventfully. He spent two nights in the ER, with only one problem. “He showed signs of anxiety,” Dr. Collins told me on the phone. 

“What does that look like for Tucker?” I asked. The only behaviors I’ve observed in my dog that indicate anxiety are a slightly lowered tail (instead of lifted high up over his back), tentative wags (instead of wide happy arcs) and a subtle change in the way he holds his ears (back a little instead of perked high and forward). And by the way, that’s how he normally presents at the vet’s office, so I couldn’t imagine what signs of anxiety Tucker might have shown that were obvious enough for the vet to remark upon.

Apparently, my crate-trained dog—while recovering from major surgery and in the veterinary equivalent of intensive care—was digging and biting at the bars of his cage. He was very unhappy. A determined terrier version of unhappy. 

To calm him, the techs made a special spot for my dog in the computer room. They piled towels and blankets to create a soft bed on the floor, and put a gate up in the doorway to keep him sequestered. Apparently that was all my dog needed; he settled down.

Tucker is a people person. He likes to be in a group. And it meant so much to me that, instead of medicating Tucker’s stress away, the staff at Animerge found a better way to help my dog feel more comfortable. For Tucker, it must have felt a little like a day in my home office—just with different people—all of whom would stop now and again to reassure him and pet him and talk to him. 

Yup. That’s my Tucker. 

I will forever be grateful to the Animerge staff for that kindness.

A visit with my dog

I visited Tucker on Friday morning. He was obviously uncomfortable, but he had been given pain medications, which made him a bit spacey. He was also agitated: sometimes giving me hugs (a special Tucker behavior where, when someone sits on the floor, he’ll put his paws on their thighs and lean into their head or neck). Other times he paced like he wanted to leave.

Tucker gives me a hug when I visit him at Animerge.

Tucker gives me a hug when I visit him at Animerge.

They brought blankets for him to lay on but he only sat down once, briefly. I don’t know if it was because he wasn’t comfortable or if it hurt to lie down, or if he was just focused on going home.

At one point, Tucker walked deliberately up to the chair where my coat and purse were and put his paw up. He was obviously telling me we needed to leave. It just about broke my heart.

Tucker wants to leave, with me.

Tucker wants to leave, with me.

 

Tucker shows me the leash; if I put it on him, I can take him home.

Tucker shows me the leash; if I put it on him, I can take him home.

 

Tucker walked over to the chair with my coat and purse and put his paw up on it, waiting. He was telling me he just wanted to go home. This moment nearly broke me.

Tucker walked over to the chair with my coat and purse and put his paw up on it, waiting. He was telling me he just wanted to go home. This moment nearly broke me.

I was there for maybe a half hour, but I could tell that, while he was comforted by my presence, I was also causing more agitation. He couldn’t rest—and my dog really needed to sleep and recover. So, knowing it was the best thing for him—even if it was wrenching for both of us—I left him and went home.

Because Tucker was doing well, and was recovering with no issues, he was released the next day. I picked him up as soon as I could get there. Everyone I met at Animerge told me how they would stop and talk to my dog in his “private suite.” The woman at the reception desk slipped upstairs while I was filling out paperwork and paying the bill (Did I say I’m glad I have pet insurance?) and said her goodbyes to Tucker. When she came back, she said she told my dog he was coming home. 

“Do you think he understood?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “He wagged his tail.”

Tucker is home now, recovering. And feeling better every day.

Once Tucker came home, all the other inhabitants checked in on him. Lilah chittered with worry. Calvin gave his friend some gentle sniffs of welcome and comfort.

Once Tucker came home, all the other inhabitants checked in on him. Lilah chittered with worry. Calvin gave his friend some gentle sniffs of welcome and comfort.

And now the bad news—and the good news

Sadly, devastatingly, we found out that at least one of the masses they removed along with the spleen was malignant. Hemangiosarcoma. An aggressive and nasty disease. 

Tucker’s prognosis is grim. He probably has only months left on this earth.

And while I am personally gutted by this diagnosis, there’s also a part of me that believes I’ve been given a gift. A gift of time.

How many times do we wish we had more minutes or hours or days with our loved ones?

I could have lost Tucker multiple times in the past two weeks. 

Too often, a ruptured spleen is found in a post mortem, after a seemingly healthy dog dies suddenly. Or it is discovered too late, after a dog has lost too much blood to withstand surgery. Or blood seeping out of the spleen causes a deadly and fast-progressing bacterial infection. 

We caught Tucker just in time. “Another 24 hours would have made a terrible difference,” Dr. Silvers told me later.

Tucker didn’t die on the operating table. Dr. Collins had two years of spectacular success with splenectomies, and she can add my dog to her list of victories.

My dog had no complications. No heart arrhythmia. No stroke. No infection. 

Tucker in his typical sleeping position in the bed in my office. You can see the huge incision; just looking at it hurts. But I think Tucker likes his more naked belly; he feels belly rubs that much more.

Tucker in his typical sleeping position in the bed in my office. You can see the huge incision; just looking at it hurts me. But I think Tucker likes his naked belly; he feels belly rubs that much more.

Tucker is alive. Right now, he’s lying next to me, gently snoring, his paws twitching, probably dreaming of chasing squirrels or retrieving squeaky balls. 

He just shifted, kicking me as he does, pushing his feet against my thigh. I can feel the warmth of his body, I can rub (and kiss) his belly, where the fur is just beginning to grow back. 

I can snuggle him and scritch his head and scrunch his ears—and he can give me Tucker hugs.

I can tell him he’s a good boy. And how much I love him.

I am grateful, so very, very grateful for this gift of time. And I will cherish every one of these extra days we’ve been granted.

We’re going to do everything we can for our Tucker, getting him the best care possible, providing him as many Best Days Ever as we can, and giving him all the love and snuggles and pets and thrown balls a terrier could want.

How I love that face, those eyes, that smile. What a gift that I can continue to spend time with Tucker.

How I love that face, those eyes, that smile. What a gift that I can continue to spend time with Tucker.

What can you learn from Tucker’s story?

This story might have had a terrible ending. And while we know there’s more to be written about the next steps in Tucker’s journey, we can all learn some things from his path so far.

Know your pet. If my cat Elsa Clair skipped a meal, I wouldn’t be worried. Sometimes she’s just not in the mood. (More than one missed meal, that’s another story.) Same with my dog Lilah; she’s always been picky, so if she turns her nose up at food, it sometimes simply means she’s bored with it. But I knew that Tucker not eating was extremely abnormal and very worrisome.

Brush your dog’s teeth. What does that have to do with anything? First of all, it’s an essential practice for their health. But it’s also good because you get to know your dog’s gums: what their normal color is, and what they typically feel like—one of the keys to understanding your dog’s health. I knew Tucker’s gums were not as pink as they usually are because I see his gums every night. 

Trust your gut. Tucker had no additional obvious symptoms—other than anorexia (the technical term for loss of appetite.) He was not lethargic, but I knew he wasn’t quite himself. To the vet, my dog presented as almost normal, with nothing more than a fever and tacky gums at first. But my alarm bells were loud.

Treat your veterinarian as a partner. Develop a relationship. Let her see your concern. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Then ask more. Or ask for clarity if you need it. My partnership with the vets at Bridgwater Veterinary Hospital meant that they took my concerns seriously, listened to me, and acted. Quickly. They worked as a team, along with Dr. Frank—the ultrasound vet—and Dr. Collins—the surgeon—and the entire team at Animerge who were so willing to adapt to Tucker’s needs.

Do what’s best for your pet. Sometimes it’s not what you want. I would have spent hours with Tucker at Animerge. I would have visited him multiple times. But it was so obvious that my being there made him more stressed, because all he wanted to do was go home and he was so unhappy and frustrated that I didn’t seem to understand his request. It was excruciating to leave him at Animerge, knowing that he wasn’t out of the woods yet, and it could easily be my last moment with him. But Tucker needed to rest and to heal. He needed to be monitored for arrhythmia. He needed specialized, round-the-clock care that I could not provide, and my presence only hindered that.

Get pet insurance. Get it now. Better, get it the moment you adopt your pet. The cost of Tucker’s treatment so far is in the thousands of dollars, but I don’t have to make any decisions based on finances. It will still be expensive, but Trupanion covers 80%, and that makes a huge difference. Having pet insurance may also make it easier for you to decide to bring your pet to the veterinarian in the first place, when something isn’t right. If you’re not worried so much about cost, you’ll be less likely to think a worrisome sign or symptom can wait. You’ll also be more likely to agree to tests and procedures, like Tucker’s X-rays and ultrasound that helped diagnose a dire situation.

Learn. Stay up with the latest research on pet health, or if you can’t, follow a few bloggers or Twitter accounts, or veterinarians or other trusted resources. When Tucker first started to seem a little off, I remembered a story I read on the blog My GBGV Life that features the blogger’s adorable, humorous, and sometimes mischievous French Scent Hounds. Emma, the original hound who inspired the blog, died very suddenly not that long after an active day, according to Joy, her mom and blogger. It was possible her spleen ruptured, causing sepsis. Emma’s story was in the back of my head as the events with Tucker unfolded. It was one of the reasons my worry meter was pinned at 11. I am thankful that Joy shared Emma’s story and that I took something away from it that may have contributed to Tucker’s positive outcome.

Love your pets. Love them more. The thing is, they are all living on borrowed time. We don’t often know when the end is coming. Sometimes it’s slow like a summer shower that you can almost outwalk. Other times it’s like a thunderstorm that sneaks up on you and hits you before you can seek shelter. This is true of all your loved ones, including the humans. You already have been given a gift of time. Remember it. Use it. Treasure it. 

 

 

 



14 Comments on "My Dog Wasn’t Eating: How a team effort saved his life"

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  1. Joy says:

    I’m just in tears as it is so similar to what happened to Emma. We never got to the surgery part. It was just two days that it all happened and changed my life. I’m so happy for you that you have time to spend with him it will help you so much when it is time for him to go. He is one very lucky boy. Give yourself and Tucker a big hug.

    • Joy, thank you for the kind words. I can barely imagine how gutted you must have been when Emma died. I know that kind of pain and grief doesn’t go away quickly. If it helps at all, please know that Emma’s story helped us save Tucker. And I am ever so grateful to you for sharing it. I’ll be giving lots of hugs to Tucker, and will let him know that some of them are from you—and Emma. <3

  2. Sandy Weinstein says:

    i am so sorry abt the cancer. i know how dreadful that word can be. could they do chemo or radiation, mushroom therapy. my oldest passed away from histiocytic sarcoma, which very fast growing cancer, most dogs die with in 1-2 wks, but Evie lived almost a year. she could not go under anesthesia because of her age, 15 yrs old and other health issues. my cancer vet was wonderful. she dumbfounded the vets because she lived so long. she was great up until the last day we were at the vet. both of my vets even thought she would live another 6 mos or more. the cancer had spread into her lungs and she could not swallow and was coughing. i am glad they were able to give you more time with Tucker. have you seen a cancer specialist? or do you have a vet school near you? wishing you and Tucker the best.

    • Thank you. Yay for Evie! What a strong girl she must have been. We’re scheduled to see an oncologist tomorrow. I believe there’s hope for Tucker, to add some quality time to his life. But a diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma does not indicate a good prognosis. So we’re learning to accept that and be grateful for whatever additional time we have with our Tucker.

  3. My heart goes out to you and Tucker. I am so glad you listened to your gut and that your doctor did too. That way you were able to get to the real truth.

    Time is such a blessing. When my Brut went through this, we had a couple of extra months together that made all the difference in being able to say good bye.

    Will be thinking of you and Tucker. God bless.

    • Thank you. While I’m devastated at the news, I also feel like I’ve been given that ever-so-precious gift: time. So glad you were able to have the same experience with Brut—not glad that he went through a difficult illness, but that you were able to treasure additional moments with him.

  4. You’re so right about having a good relationship with your vet. It’s so key in any treatment plan. I’m sorry the news about Tucker isn’t better but I know you will do what’s best for him. Sending you a big hug. ~Island Cat Mom

  5. Mary McNeil says:

    We are sending purrayers an POTP to Tucker and all who love him !

  6. The lessons learned section of this story are hard-won, but so important. Having a trusted vet partner is so important. The week Pierre got so sick, there was a fill-in vet on duty, and the experience underscored how much I trust my regular vet, who knows my cats and knows me. And I agree about pet insurance. It’s a lifesaver… literally.

    • Exactly. I didn’t just want this story to be about what happened to Tucker. It’s also about what I learned—and what others can learn from what happened. Maybe others can have happier endings…

  7. meowmeowmans says:

    Thank you so much for this, and for loving Tucker so much, and so well. We know you will always do what is best for him. We are sorry the news isn’t better, but glad the two of you have some more time together to share in love and life. We think of you often, and send love, hope and hugs.

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