Category Archives: pets

THE VOICES INSIDE HIS HEAD

Pippo means Goofy in Italian

The door clicked shut behind the wheels of my carry-on. “YOU ARE LEAVING ME BEHIND!” the shriek pierced my brain loud and clear and my heart started pounding, as I fumbled with those credit card look alike’s that pass for door keys in most hotels, always making me pine for the heavy brass keys of old to be dropped with the concierge on the way out. Of course I was checking-out past my due time and my credit card-key had been deactivated. A mad rush to the front desk had the door promptly reopened and there he was, lying among the crumpled white sheets, all ready to go, had it not been for my forgetfulness.

I stuffed Pippo into my carry-on and, on the way to the airport, I vowed never to bring him on another trip with me. That had been too close a call.

Linus had a blanket and I had Pippo, with the slight difference that Linus probably  outgrew his blanket at age 10 while I, at age 30, was still shuttling around the world with a teddy bear. And not just any teddy bear. Not a teddy bear from a long ago boyfriend or anything with a remotely romantic attachment to it. I actually stopped liking teddy bears at age 6, always recycling well-meaning boyfriends’ gifts of a stuffed toy nature as Pippo had no competition.

Old black and white photos celebrating my birth and my first few years prove that Pippo was indeed my first toy – his face bigger than mine sitting next to me on the high chair, his fur as shiny as my black hair, his eyes as alert and as big as mine. It wasn’t always a cozy relationship – abandoned for fancier toys for long stretches of time, Pippo would wait patiently in a corner of my room, awaiting my need for him to become my sleeping companion again. He always knew such need would arise and he would be there to fulfill it.

His relationship with my sister was contentious at best. To get back at my meanness, the little devil pulled Pippo’s eyes out during a particularly fierce fight and his world went black for many years. No matter. He still had me to tell him bedtime stories and recount my adventures once the lights went out. He made it to London with the few possessions I took when I left home and, at this point inured to his ragged appearance, Pippo had to depend, if not on the kindness of strangers, at least on that of friends and family.

It was a friend who,  moved to pity, restored his sight with a bright new pair of fancy eyes from Harrods and it was my mother, during one of her visits, who sewed his dangling neck and hid the wound with a red scarf. His fur was still a bit worse for wear but he was very pleased with his new lease on life. Besides, his globetrotting days had started in earnest: wherever I slept, he slept (or nearby at least) and, as my job demanded a busy, if not constant, travelling schedule, Pippo got to know very many hotels around Europe and beyond, until that fateful day in Cologne, Germany, where my lack of sleep and tardiness left him screaming between the sheets.

Pippo was retired from flying, unless it involved a full-on relocation. He flew business class to Los Angeles with me when I moved, my only friend and calming presence in a city where I virtually didn’t know a soul. Gradually, he started spending more and more time at the foot of the bed, rather than in it,although, when alone, sometimes I still resort to the warmth of his presence on the pillow next to mine. In his 50 years, he has not uttered a single word of complaint. He knows his lot has been much better than most of his contemporaries. He still listens patiently, he spends his days on a comfy pillow on a beautiful chair and still gets to talk to me. We have both grown up and aged gracefully. His Harrods eyesight is still going strong and the red scarf gets washed periodically. I even thought of sending him for a make-over to a toy repair laboratory but he reminds me he is not a toy, and shouldn’t be treated as such. And he is right: fancy toys have long come and gone while he endures, gentle breeze from the window tousling his fur, memories of fun trips taken together to liven up his days. And, still, my bedtime stories.

 

 

 

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MONKEY MIND

Drawing from howstuffworks.com

In Buddhism, monkey mind is a term used to describe restlessness, that jumble of thoughts that clouds one’s mind and is often hard to untangle. Most meditation practices, all aimed at stilling the mind in order to reach detachment, teach us  to focus our mind on one item only for a sustained period of time, be it a mantra, an affirmation, a sound, a color.

Despite my 17 years of on and off meditation practice, I can still fall prey to stupendous cases of monkey mind and, even if, conceptually, I know I should drag my meditation cushion out of the closet and sit on it, I choose to remain tangled in the jumping jacks of my thoughts, none of them particularly helpful, unable to see the tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it.

Tiredness usually plays a part in this process. It all starts innocently enough, a minor annoyance maybe, followed by someone’s unhelpful comment or my version of how things should be and are not and it all snowballs from there. My worst habit is to revel in this momentary darkness, perversely enjoying where it will lead me, invariably to an unkind word, to shutting out those around me or to a generic black mood, unpleasant for anyone unfortunate enough to stand in my path.

Other times it is just an inability to focus. Have you ever tried to follow the inane train of your thoughts? The best way to do it is to actually sit still. It goes something like this:

What shall I have for dinner tonight?

There are some tomatoes on the counter I haven’t used yet

Forgot to call Richard back today

What did he want anyway?

I have plans with Meg tomorrow. Can I fit a work-out in?

All the while interspersing a mantra in between random thoughts to try and reel my mind in. If nothing else, I have learnt to forgive myself. If I could sit in the absence of thoughts for hours at a time, I would be Buddha and look like a female version of Keanu Reeves. For now, I content myself with a few minutes of stillness at a time.

A few days ago, during a particular ferocius episode, I chose to watch with some detachment what was happening to my mind and I observed that it was definitely I, and not outside circumstances, that was creating a chain of endless negative thoughts. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to blame the world at large for the minor unpleasant details of our life, when it would be so much easier to stop at the first annoyance and turn it around on its head, or sever it altogether after dealing with it.

At least, I can now recognize when this happens and know it is temporary – eventually I will apply the brakes and halt my downhill rush. I watch the dogs and how they focus on one thing, and one thing only, at every junction of their day. They make choices and stick with them, they go from chasing a bird wholeheartedly to sensing it’s time for dinner and devote their whole attention to the bowl of food. Funny, I trained them and they learnt some. Now I watch them and I learn more.

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A CHANGE IS GONNA COME

Before his stomach took a turn for the worse

As I was sitting down to write a post on some tips and shortcuts for booking a trip to Italy, saving money on unexpected items, Ottie started behaving oddly, frantically pacing around the table, stretching his hind legs, forcing himself to vomit and not succeeding. I didn’t worry about it at first, dogs do get stomach aches, but something in the urgency of his behaviour made me pay closer attention.

Unlike humans, dogs are adept at forcing themselves to throw up if they want to – no fingers down the throat needed – so the fact he wasn’t able to was the first clue that something was terribly wrong. I lost a dog to bloat once: it happened at night, while I was asleep and when I found him completely blown up in the morning, he was barely breathing and died on the way to the emergency.

This time I was not taking any chances. I threw Ottie in the car and flew to the ritzy clinic that saved Portia’s life a few months ago. By the time we got there, I could see his stomach was starting to swell. Good call. Coincidentally, the same surgeon who saved Portia was on duty that night too and, after quick x-rays, confirmed my diagnosis. “How did you know?” she asked me. A lot of dogs under my belt at this point. And Carl’s death which, it turns out, saved the life of his old buddy, as my friend Sue pointed out.

Emergency surgery was performed immediately. Two hours later, Ottie was breathing on his own, stomach stapled into place and spleen removed. Bloating happens suddenly and can kill in a matter of less than two hours. The stomach turns on itself, air accumulates causing the dog to bloat and cutting off the blood flow. It’s a painful death.

While all of this was going on, I wasn’t thinking of another horrendous vet bill that would take months to pay off, nor of my imminent trip, the one I have been planning for months, to celebrate an important birthday. Then reality sank in – my plans would have to change.

I have always been a very blase traveller. I make my plans, don’t think about them that much prior to my departure, professionally pack a bag a couple of hours before leaving and off I go. This time, I had been planning for a long time, meticulously carving the guest list to my party, renting flats in Venice and Rome, enlisting the help of my best friend to hunt down the perfect cake…a madness not usually associated to anything I would normally organize for myself.

Now it looks like I will spend the first week of my vacation at home, taking care of a recovering puppy. I convinced Alitalia to waive the penalty for changing flights by telling them a family member was sick (total truth as far as I am concerned) and my Venice landlord has accommodated my change of dates. I will be cutting my time in Italy down to two weeks and it looks like my birthday party will have to be scrapped. After the initial sadness, I have been trying to find the silver lining – if this had happened  while I was gone, Ottie would have died. And who am I kidding? I never was a party girl anyway. I organize parties for other people.

Change never comes when conveniently planned, that I learnt a long time ago. Adapting to it is a skill one acquires over time, and sooner is better than later. Next week, I will treasure my time with the dogs and spend some time writing. The week after, I will still be with the people I love most in the world, shepherding my entrance into a new decade. If all goes according to plan, that is.

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IN THE END

The kitchen doesn’t look quite right. There is a bed missing and only two dogs sleeping at my feet.

Rachel gathered around the dinner party table last night, had an excellent last meal of roasted chicken, and this morning I watched her wobble all the way under her favourite pine tree  and curl up, getting ready to die. I have seen this behaviour in countless nature documentaries but I had never witnessed it first hand.

Selfishly, I had to get her inside the house and let her go the way I would want to. On her comfy bed, with me next to her, and Ottie and Portia hanging around, more comprehending that I am willing to give them credit for. Eyes already glazed over, responding only to a gentle touch of the head, she let me knew my presence was appreciated by blinking every so often. I stayed with her, whispering sweet words, while her breathing became more laboured, getting up only to call my surgeon neighbour, who promised to come over straight after his hospital shift to administer euthanasia if needed. I didn’t want her to get through the night in that state.

But all it took was a couple of hours. I knew immediately when she took three very long breaths, stretched her limbs and released herself to the other side. My hand on her belly  felt her heart beat for a few more minutes. I stayed with her until even her spirit was gone and then our sad procession to the grave that had already been prepared could commence.

Last Sunday Rachel took a happy walk in the canyon. Yesterday, she was still barking at strangers, intimidating nobody. Last night she feasted with my guests. Not a bad way to go.

The thing is, who is going to stare at me so intently tomorrow morning while I brush my teeth?

 

 

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CANINE LESSON # 112


When Rachel came to me with a grim and vague diagnosis of cancer, I was hoping the first vet had been wrong. Apart from her mild incontinence, she looked so well. After a battery of tests, the second vet confirmed an advanced cancer that wasn’t apparent and would require more in-depth testing to figure where it was located. Having made the decision of not submitting her to a lengthy chemo-therapy that might or might not buy her a little time, the vet prescribed prednazone to keep her appetite and energy up. She was given a couple of months.

It’s been four – months filled with walks, lovely prepared meals when store-bought food wasn’t enticing enough, getting to know each other and for Ottie and Portia to figure this new addition out. Rachel’s zest for life and the way she has embraced the ways of the household have been humbling.

There have been setbacks – she stopped eating for a while until my home concoctions brought her back, then a rapid growing and foul-smelling tumour appeared on her lower lip, only to naturally fall off a few days later, after the vet told me it was inoperable. Through it all, she still loves it when I get home, she trots around house, watches me intently while I brush my teeth or make the bed. Every time she hears the door of the pantry open, she runs in, hoping for a treat and she still fights for a spot on the couch.

In the last few days, though, we might be coming closer to  the end of the road. Her appetite is waning again, her hind legs have become a bit unstable and her energy level has taken a dive. But she and I are stubborn females – she will still drag herself down the driveway while I take the trash out and I won’t give up on the food. So, twice a day, I sit on the floor and feed her from my hand – spoiled princess that she is, she just can’t resist being hand fed but will not go anywhere near the bowl otherwise. I wonder if she likes to feel special.

As long as she is not in pain, I am determined not to give up. And, apparently, neither is she. Even if it’s only for one more day of greeting each other first thing in the morning or one more trash duty.

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DOWNTOWN POOCH

Ottie loves running errands around town, which is why I often ask him to tag along, hoping his enthusiasm will rub off on me as, unlike him, I detest driving from place to place, getting in and out of the car, all the while suffering idiotic drivers and congested traffic. Ottie, on the other hand, will sit placidly strapped in the passenger’s seat, head hanging out the window, raking in compliments from other gridlocked drivers, feathers unruffled. He will follow me to the bank, into any store that will have him or wait for me in the car whenever his paws are off limit.

If foot traffic is not too heavy, I will tie him outside stores where he can sit peering at me buying ice-cream or old lady lotions. No errand is too boring or too time consuming, as long as he can be with me. He will even submit to sitting on restaurant patios while I kvetch with my friends, consuming a meal. His only slightly abnormal behaviour occurs when a siren goes by – maybe an appeal to his inner wolf, he will stretch his neck towards the sky and emit a low, guttural howl that startles passersby.

Today we walked the length of the Third Street Promenade, determined as I was to try on a jumpsuit at All Saints. He patiently sat on the wooden floor waiting for the shop assistant to retrieve the item from the stock-room, then he entered the fitting room with me and observed my gyrations in and out of clothes, with complete aplomb and much more patience and enthusiasm than a boyfriend or a husband.

We are used to seeing “purse” dogs, Paris Hilton style, pretty much everywhere but larger breeds are usually confined to the dog park, jogging on the beach and very few other public places. Look around when you walk around town – nobody has large dogs in tow. Which might explain the amount of looks Ottie gets, the requests to be petted (to which he patiently submit like a Santa Claus at the mall), the “cute dog!” exclamations and the random pick-up lines or just conversation starters.

Single folks everywhere, you should get a dog instead of investing time and money on match.com. Seriously, a dog is endearing and, by mere virtue of association, will make you look endearing and caring. His silent gaze invites questions from all and sundry and even the shyest people will feel comfortable circling around the subject of a dog. The rest is up to you. Think about it – no more countless hours spent reviewing profiles and doctored photographs, no more coffees and drinks with strangers, no need to make yourself sound more appealing than you are.

If having a full-time dog is not an option for you, Ottie, for his part, will entertain offers. Hourly rates supplied upon request.

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A DOG’S PERSONAL CHEF

My little canine cancer patient was having a hard time eating and I didn’t have the luxury of time, waiting for the appetite stimulant drug to kick in. Rachel was already too skinny. Her palate is severely compromised and soft food is easier for her to ingest but I had run the gamut of available choices – different kinds of canned food, soups, baby food, turkey and beef burger, nothing seemed to interest her. She would take two licks and then her head would start a song and dance like a two-year old throwing a tantrum.

Out of ideas, I tried to think what she could like so much she couldn’t refuse. I went to work doing what I do best and here is what I came up for difficult dogs the world over. It’s healthy, nutritious and dog gourmet.

RECIPE

10 Chicken thighs

2 Large carrots, peeled

2 Celery ribs, cleaned

1 C Brown rice, slightly overcooked

 

  1. Place the chicken thighs and the vegetables in a pot with the vegetables and 8 to 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for about two hours. Let cool and when cold, skim any excess of fat that might have formed over the surface.
  2. Remove the meat from the bones and, using a blender, puree about half of it with 1 cooked carrot, 1 cooked celery rib and 1/2 cup of rice. Proceed in the same manner with the rest of the ingredients.
  3. Feed it as is or add some kibble or other solid food to it.

 

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TALES FROM THE DOGS’ UNDERWORLD

The decision was made. It didn’t take long after all the facts had been gathered. For a little while, until the results were in, I kidded myself into thinking that little Rachel’s weight loss, her sudden lethargy and her constant drinking were symptoms of something, if not benign, at least curable. I brought her home from a vet’s visit feeling optimistic, her vitals were good – something could be done.

Ottie had been none too pleased about our new “acquisition” and made sure I was informed of his displeasure by leaving a turd in the dining room every single night for a straight week. Once I acknowledged he was unhappy but I still loved him best, he acknowledged Rachel’s presence, while still making sure she knew her place in the pecking order – on the lowest rung. Portia, less mommy-centric than her über jealous brother, took more kindly to the newcomer by leaving her be and by not being too obvious in her efforts to steal her food.

Having a dog is a walk in the park. Two dogs need some adjustment but, in the end, they balance each other out and keep each other company in my absence. Three dogs suddenly tripled my workload – different foods for different ages and stomach needs, the challenge of diapered nights that still left some accidents, four-legged creatures around my ankles at any given time whenever I am home, making me run to the bathroom for some privacy. And then the walking, three dogs pulling me in different directions, my arms getting the best workout ever, all the time praying no other dogs or coyote cross our paths.

I instinctively knew something was very wrong when Rachel’s appetite took a dive a couple of weeks into her stay here. Ottie and Portia possibly knew too and became kinder towards her – scientists are aware that dogs can detect disease both in other animals and humans although they can’t explain how they do it. Portia went so far as to share the same bed and fall asleep with her head on Rachel’s back, in a kind of comforting gesture.

Once I got the news it was cancer that was eating her little body, I made the decision not to pursue aggressive treatment in an effort to buy a few pitiful months. Rachel started refusing food, no matter how delicious, how soft or how lovingly prepared. With a heavy heart, I made arrangements to have her euthanized tomorrow. There would be a little grave in the backyard, alongside the other two dogs who roamed around here long before her. Despite having been with our posse for just over a month and knowing full well that a dog adopted will at some point be a dog lost, letting go of an animal is always intensely painful and different every time. I spent the afternoon at work in a bit of a daze, dreading having to come home and seeing her.

And then I did. She came trotting down the stairs, all skin and bones. She followed me down the driveway while I was taking the trash out, she stared at me with curiosity as I was cleaning my closet, in an effort to keep my mind occupied. That’s when I called the vet back. If I gave her the Prednizone, how long before she might recover some appetite? It’s not a cure, it’s just a palliative that might or might not buy a little more time, a month maybe, while keeping the dog comfortable.

I realized that the decision of letting her go tomorrow was to appease my anxiety, the heartbreak of watching her slowly go in front of my eyes. Rachel is not in pain yet and, while not strong enough to run or jump, she is still happy to trot around the house and the yard and watch me do unfamiliar things she finds interesting.

With a chef’s attitude, I pulled out a blender and pureed an improvised concoction I thought she might find irresistible. I made her smell it, she pretended not to want it and then she started licking it off my fingers. About a cup of it. After refusing burgers, soups, baby food and whatever other dog food I could think of.

At least, I can still cook. She might have to go in a week, two, a month or three days. But when she is ready, she will let me know.

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TRAILING THE PACK

People who show me pictures of their dogs annoy me slightly less than those who show me pictures of their children. Is there any other appropriate response besides feigned enthusiasm and murmuring “how cute”? But here I am, posting a picture of the latest addition to my canine family. It’s official: I have become that old lady whose household is being overtaken by animals.

My only disclaimer is that Rachel, whom I was supposed to foster for a while, could not be returned to her previous owner who, for health reasons, cannot take care of her any longer. They had only spent 6 months together. Rachel’s previous 6 years are unknown – she was abandoned and lived in two different shelters for a while. Despite this, her disposition is one of happiness, curiosity and eagerness to please. There is only one slight hitch – Rachel is incontinent. It might be a result of her spaying or it could be a symptom of something more serious, either way, at times she will sit and, upon getting up, a pool of pee will be left behind.

The thought briefly flickered in my mind of returning her to the shelter but it was quickly dimmed by her smile and the knowledge that no one will adopt an incontinent dog. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend my evenings with mop in hand. The medication the vet prescribed, with no guarantee, makes her groggy and listless so I discontinued it. And that is when the power of the internet kicked in…looking for advice, I discovered the existence of doggie diapers. On they go, swaddling her butt as if she were a baby (with a hole for the tail) before bedtime.  I watch her strutting around, parading her cute, enrobed butt and, as if she knew that was the condition for staying here, she will oblige and keep them on all night long.

Hence the pictures I am sharing with you. Feel free to be annoyed.

Ready for the runway

 

She is happy. Really

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BATTLE OF WILLS

After her sudden brush with death, Portia can look forward to a month filled with days marked by pill taking, taken at set intervals. The problem is, she loathes taking pills, with a vengeance. The nifty trick of prying a dog’s jaws open, gently inserting the pill down her throat and then keeping her mouth closed until she has no choice but to swallow it, doesn’t really work. Portia is a pro at staying very still, even for minutes, and then promptly spitting the pill out, no matter how far I rammed it down her throat. And she has utter contempt for chewable tablets.

On day 1, she was still so weak and disoriented, she didn’t fight me and I naively imagined a new trend was born. Foolish me.

On day 2, I thought I would be very clever and roll the pills in peanut butter balls. It worked and I felt vastly superior to my canine friend.

On day 3, the jig was up – Portia would lick the peanut butter instead of swallowing the ball whole and spit its contents.

On day 4, appealing to her love of cream cheese, I created cream cheese nuggets. All was well. And then, day 5 dawned. Peanut butter, cream cheese, jaw opening, nothing worked.

At 7 in the morning, my kitchen looked like a drunken 5-year-old had engaged in a crazed food fight. Food scattered all over the floor I had mopped the night before, I was running after my dog who was finally cornered against a door – ten fingers dipped in either cream cheese or peanut butter, I could feel the rage mountain, the same rage only children had ever managed to engender. Portia was covered in cheese from head to toe, I looked like a bladeless version of Edward Scissorhead, frantically agitating my hands. Ottie, with manly aplomb, was staring in disbelief. It took her twenty minutes but she had won the battle of wills.

I had to take a time out, have breakfast, before trying a second round, more calmly, reminding myself I have 25 more days to go.nLooking at the bright side, if she is fighting me tooth and nail about the pills, it can only mean her strength is coming back and she has lost none of her chutzpah.

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