On the afternoon of July 12th, Bel was bit by a rattlesnake, and we euthanized her later that day. I have some other things to say about Bel, but this is the first post, about what happened to her.
Grieving, I sometimes find myself saying the same words over and over, like a mantra, though it is not one that brings comfort. And in this past week, I’ve been hearing these words run through my head: I lost my little squirrely girl. I let my girl go. My little Bel is gone. But she is not lost, and I didn’t “let her go.” No, I made the decision to euthanize her. I held her while my vet slipped the needle in, and held her as she suddenly slumped, soft as a sigh, into her death. I did that, and we can rationalize it all the ways we need, but I did make the decision to kill her. I know I did the right thing, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, and grief keeps up its oddly euphemistic chant in my head. We lost our girl.
My red girl loved the snow
I’d been agonizing over it for weeks. Years, really, but in the last few weeks of her life, it was a constant weight. It wasn’t a “should I?” it was a “when” and that was the difficulty. I’ve had to euthanize other dogs, of course. With Kai, my German Shepherd Dog, it was obvious. The cancer had turned the bones in this back legs to lace, and he was not always able to get up. But the final sign was when he got a fever he couldn’t shake, and it raged so high it was clear it was going to do damage to his brain if we couldn’t get it down. And we couldn’t. Not with aspirin, not with towels soaked in ice water. It would subside a bit then spike up again, and he was clearly suffering. So, after a bad weekend, we took him into the vet, and he sighed and wagged his tail when the vet asked him if he was ready to go. I think he was. It was the first time he’d wagged his tail in a week.
But with Bel, it wasn’t so easy at all. it wasn’t one, terminal disease Bel had. It was a myriad of other things. Bel was epileptic, and often had small (petit mal) seizures that left her frightened and confused. She was hypothyroid. She had liver and kidney damage, and the kidneys were chronically a problem. In May, we discovered she had two badly broken teeth, and one mildly chipped one. She had luxating patella and had had surgery for it on one side, but in April, the other one went out too and then she tore the MCL, and so from April til her death in July, she got around mostly on three legs (and she mostly got around quite well on three legs). We also noted, at a vet visit in May, that she was beginning to demonstrate some other neurological problems. My vet noticed she was swaying more, and had more trouble recovering from a gentle nudge, not from her bad leg, but because her balance was off. She was confused more often. I had noticed a year or so before that one eye protruded slightly more than the other–this time, the vet noted it too, and felt it was more obvious than it had been just a few months before. I have long thought Bel might have had a brain tumor; my vet disagrees, as her experience has been with fast growing tumors that kill quickly. But I know there are dogs with slow growing tumors, too, and I believe, still, that Bel likely had one of these. There were just too many symptoms. But we’ll never know for sure.
The thing is, many of Bel’s health problems could have been fixed if I had more money to spend. I could have had her broken teeth pulled, had the surgery done on her knee. We couldn’t, likely, have fixed the neurological problems, but we could have done MRIs or CT scans to see if there really was a tumor. We could have ordered a battery of tests to check her kidney function.
I did not. There are times I felt guilty about this, but I have three other dogs, and limited resources, and I understood the hard truth: I could spend thousands more dollars on Bel, and it would still not fix her. It would not change the fact that she’d still be a fearful, sometimes aggressive dog who was often confused and frightened by the most ordinary aspects of her life. No amount of money would make Bel a normal dog.
Bel was often sick
I kept a journal of Bel’s health. Since Dec. of 2012, it had been getting worse and worse. She often wouldn’t eat, and would drink and drink and vomit up bile. She had these episodes at least once a month at first, and then it got worse and was twice a month, sometimes more. I could interrupt it with anti-emetics (and did, and sometimes had to give her injections when it was particularly bad), but it was stressful for us all. When she was sick, she’d ghost around the house, tail and head down, clearly miserable. She’d become incontinent during these times too. As the spring progressed, she was often sick and then agitated at the same time: sometimes she would pace the house, and if I blocked off a place I didn’t want her to go (I was tired of her vomiting on the carpet upstairs, or sometimes peeing on our bed), she went nuts, and she broke down doggie gates trying to get upstairs or back downstairs.
The worst was in May. I was supposed to go to graduation, to celebrate the very wonderful graduate students I had been working with. Bel was having one of her episodes, and had been vomiting, but she also became very anxious and was pacing. I realized, later, she probably had had a seizure I hadn’t seen. But she would not settle. She broke down the doggie gate to come upstairs, and she hid in the closet in my bedroom. Then came back out. Then climbed on the bed. The jumped off, bad leg and all. Then she wanted to go back downstairs, but the gate was still in place. I was trying to dress to go to graduation. Suddenly, Oskar, the Akita, began to bark, and I discovered Bel had crept in between the railings on the stairs and was going to jump downstairs, a jump of six feet or so. I caught her and put her in the big crate, where she went crazy, flinging herself at the side of the crate and screaming and biting the metal.
I left anyway. I had to go; it was graduation. I got in the car. I could hear her barking and crying outside the house. I drove away. I could only drive a few miles, though, before I stopped and turned around. I worried she’d hurt herself in the crate. I went home and sedated her, and after an hour, when the acepromazine had finally worked and I was able to leave (ace, while not ideal, was the only thing we could use that would actually have a sedative effect on her by then–we’d already worked our way through valium and xanax and prozac, all of which made her hyperactive and aggressive).
It was terrible. I was worried about her, but I was also frustrated, and exhausted. She was not an easy dog to live with in the best of times, but her behavior had become so erratic, her health so unpredictable, that sometimes I simply couldn’t take it. I’m not happy to admit I did not always feel kindly toward Bel. When she refused to take her pills, I became frustrated with her, and one day, when she refused liverwurst or cheese, I finally just opened her mouth and shoved the pills down. She had to take them: without the phenobarbital she’d have more seizures, and be even worse. She had to have the meds for her injured leg, the antibiotics to keep her broken teeth from becoming painfully infected. I didn’t hurt her, but I scared her, and she ran away from me tail down, and hid, and I felt so horrible and so guilty. It haunted me. I did the best I could, but seeing her fear was terrible.
Leo comforting Bel while she was sick
In early June, I took her to the vet. We were supposed to have her teeth pulled, but I finally realized that maybe that didn’t make sense. I wasn’t sure putting her under general anesthesia and putting her through the recovery of the pulled teeth was a good idea. I handed my vet the list of Bel’s illnesses since December (most of which, of course, they’d seen). I told them about her behavior, how some days she didn’t know how us. How many nights I couldn’t get her inside at all, and how finally, I’d given up, and let her sleep outside at night, though I never slept well, listening, fearfully, for her, worried a coyote would get her. My vet weighed her. She’d lost 15 % of her body weight in 3 weeks. She wasn’t eating anymore, or barely enough to sustain herself. Some days she would eat nothing. Some days, she’d eat a half a stick of string cheese. She’d eat a quarter cup of Stella and Chewy’s Duck Duck Goose, the only food she’d tolerate in those last months. She’d eat a spoonful of ice cream or liverwurst. And no more. There was a real worry, my vet said, was that Bel would simply starve to death, a particularly unpleasant way to die.
And so we had to have the talk. My vet has known me through all these years of struggle with Bel. She was there to put Toby back together after Bel nearly killed him, and she listened to me think about euthanizing her then, all those years ago. She even helped me try to find another home for Bel, though in the end, I kept her. She did the surgery on her knee; she’s stitched her back together after the coyote attack that caused head injuries, and after the stray dogs bit her a year or so ago. She or her husband attached Bel to IVs for failing kidneys, and she helped us sort out the thyroid levels and the right dose of phenobarbital for her epilepsy. She’s seen it all. And my vet said that she thought it might be time, and that I’d done all I could do for this little dog. But I think what really got me was this: she told me that if I wanted, we could order tests. We could do a full panel of blood work to try and figure out what was wrong with her kidneys. We could do a MRI or a CT scan. I could spend several thousand dollars, or more, but in the end, we’d still be where we were, and she’d still have to recommend putting the dog down.
And I knew. I knew that before I’d come in. I needed to hear someone else say it. But I also couldn’t do it right then; the thought of losing Bel was too hard, and also, I knew my husband who loved Bel deeply, but was also in deep denial about her health, would never agree to it. In the weeks to come, though, what to do about Bel, about euthanizing her, became the constant question. Not if. But when.
And in those weeks, while she still managed to race through the yard on three legs, while she refused food and refused to come in, but then had moments of unaccountable sweetness, I mourned my little Jezebel, though she was still there, a flame-bright presence in our lives. I saw a dog bed I thought she’d like at the thrift store, then started crying when I realized it made no sense to get it for her. I watched Leo lay snuggled up against her and got teary thinking of how much he’d miss her.
On the summer solstice, some dear friends came over and we sat outside under a tree, the other dogs happily gathered around us. Bel was like a phantom already, a red presence who ghosted through the yard like a shadow. She’d been unaccountably friendly for a few moments, then she disappeared, moving like a wild animal through the trees, too spooked to do more than glance at us. She had a favorite place in the yard she liked to sit, and from that place, she’d stare out to the woods beyond the fence, the woods the coyotes often called from, and I had the sudden sense that she was already only half in this world anyway, that she was already looking out into whatever comes after for dogs. She seemed utterly indifferent to us, like a wild creature who had stumbled into the yard and stayed, but was not really part of our lives. She was like this for weeks, a feral presence in our little half acre.
My vets are often in and out of town, and what I knew was that I did not want to have to euthanize Bel at a strange clinic. I wanted, instead, for our vet to come to our home. Bel had always been a little homebody, a dog who could be lively and charming at home, but who did not enjoy going to strange places. So I made an appointment. My vets could only come out on Weds or Saturdays, so I picked the last Saturday they would be in town in June. June 29. It was also her eighth birthday. It was terribly difficult: my husband didn’t agree with me and I wasn’t even sure the time was right, though I had one illuminating moment when a friend asked me what I would do if I wasn’t arguing with my husband about the “when” and I said I’d put Bel down. And she said, well, there’s your answer. And it was true. I knew it was the right thing to do. Though she didn’t act like it, I knew Bel was in pain–from her teeth, from her leg, from the chronic kidney issues. I also was aware that I was giving her more and more meds: for pain, to sedate her when she was crazily anxious, and it just didn’t seem right.
Then, unpredictable as always, Bel began to eat again. The week before I’d planned to put her down, she rallied. She ate. She started to come in at night, happily. She was affectionate again, and she played with the other dogs. She was lively. Our little girl was back! I wasn’t fooled–I knew she was not going to get better. But I also decided to give her a bit more time. The night before her birthday, my friends and I went to see Patty Griffin, and she sang a heartbreaking song (Wild Old Dog) about a dog she’d seen on the highway, and I cried through the song, and was so thankful that I had called the vet that day and cancelled the appointment, and that the next day was not the day I was going to put my little girl to sleep.
It wasn’t that everything was better. Bel’s problems remained. And in the final week of her life, I noted more confusion. Once, when my husband came home, she ran out to greet him, then got confused, and she backed away from him so fast and so fearfully that she tumbled into me and fell, stricken and scared. A few minutes later, she came out of it, and showed her regular delight to see him. That happened more than once.
I knew we were just biding time, but we had that time, those few extra weeks, and in that time, Bel seemed happier than she’d been. I thought vaguely of making an appointment before we left for Germany, as I was worried about leaving the responsibility of her to my friends who were housesitting. I just tried to be present with her in those days, to watch her, to be with her, though often I was in tears as I stroked her soft fur.
Leo and Bel in the yard
Her final day was unexpected, and I think, in someways, as awful as it was, that it was also a great gift. Because I couldn’t seem to decide. I couldn’t figure out what the right thing to do was, and I talked to friends about it endlessly, needing advice, but more than that, probably, just an ear. I scoured the web for articles about euthanasia, about when to make the decision. I found a good article from a hospice vet that included a quiz to help decide if it was time. Bel’s score was 11; they recommended euthanasia at 8. But it was still a decision I couldn’t seem to make, though I knew Bel would not live out this summer. (Some other good links about making this hard decision are here and here)
Friday, July 12. Bel was out in the yard, in the early afternoon, and I heard, suddenly, her shrill alarm bark. I let Oskar out after her, and then I heard him bark, and a dog scream, and I ran out into the yard yelling “no!” before I even knew what was happening. A part of me registered that the scream I’d heard was not one of my dogs, but I ran out to find all three, Leo, Bel and Oskar, packed around a small, strange dog, which was on its back, screaming. It was a Shih Tzu or Maltese, a small white dog in a blue, untagged harness, and even as I was screaming “leave it” and Oskar was backing away, I saw Bel move in to bite it. She’s always ignored the signs of surrender, the dog turning on its back, always took that as an opportunity to do damage, and all I was trying to do was to stop her from killing this dog that had somehow appeared inside our fenced yard. Then some miracle–the little dog pushed itself back and fell through the fence (it was so small it fit through the squares of the wire of our fence), and then it was on its feet and running away. I wanted to make sure it was ok, so I ran after it, but I had to run around to the gate to get out, and by the time I made it to the street, the dog was very far away, running. And then, forgotten, because of what happened next. I hope that little dog was ok; I hate to think of someone else losing their dog that day.
I went back to get the car, and I called the dogs in, and when Bel came in, I noticed she was pawing at her face. It looked like there was a little knot on the side of her muzzle, and it looked like a bite, though a very small one, but I figure that tiny little dog probably had tiny teeth. Still, I’ve been through enough dog fights to know that it is best to always treat even the seemingly minor bites, so I called the vet, and as I was calling I saw the knot was swelling rapidly….and I think I knew then it was not a dog bite.
We’ve been through the rattlesnake bites before, of course, with Leo, and he’d swelled up like that too. He’d been uncoordinated and confused, though, within minutes, and Bel was not. I got her in the car, and she leapt into the front seat as if she were fine, ignoring the bite, the injured leg, and she leaned against me in her favorite place to ride. I knew. And in the brief drive to the vet I talked to her. “Girly,” I said, “if this is a rattlesnake bite, I think this might be it. It might be time for you to go.” I was crying, and she leaned against me harder, as if she were trying to comfort me.
I still wasn’t sure when we got to the vet’s office. She wasn’t disoriented. She didn’t seem dizzy. By this time her muzzle, though, was horribly swollen, though she didn’t even act as if she were in pain. I told the vet that I didn’t think it was a snake bite, but I saw his face darken as he glanced at her when we walked in the door, and I knew I was wrong. We went into the exam room right away, and even before he examined her, he talked about our options, about using antivenin or not (we had with Leo), about possible treatments and the difficulties we faced because of her particular health issues. And he said what I’d been thinking–did I want to try to get her through this? In the meantime, Bel acted like her usual self, pacing a bit, trying to jump up onto the chair in the room. On the exam table, she was calm, and didn’t seem disoriented, even when he shaved her muzzle and we saw not one, but two set of puncture marks. She was calm even when we saw that her muzzle was already turning black where it was swollen, and the wounds were seeping black beads of blood.
I knew. I knew when we’d gotten in the car. My vet reminded me, gently, of Bel’s failing kidneys, and the damage that snake bites can do to kidneys even in a healthy dog. Could he get her through this? Maybe, maybe not. In any case, she’d be on an IV, left in the vet clinic overnight, and I knew I couldn’t do it. It was too much–the snake bite and everything else, the litany of health issues that never seemed to end, and I knew how scared my little girl would be there at the vet, overnight, and what if she died anyway and I wasn’t there with her? I couldn’t bear it. And so I made the decision then. It was not the way I’d wanted Bel’s death to be. I’d imagined she’d be at home, and my husband would be there and my best friend, M., who had driven with me, almost eight years before, to a place in Nebraska I wasn’t then educated enough to understand was a commericial breeder, a puppy mill, where I’d payed $300 for a 4 month old puppy who I had named Jade Jezebel Foxglove, and called Bel. I wanted us all there. I wanted the other dogs there. I wanted her on her favorite sheepskin, surrounded by those who loved her.
But Bel had always had a mind of her own. And as I told the vet as he prepared the injection, I couldn’t help but think Bel had had a good day for her. She’d loved to fight, and she’d gotten in a fight. She liked to hunt, and obviously, she’d been after a snake. She’d gone for a ride. She was calm, and seemed happy and pleased with herself, and I think, if she could have chosen, she’d have chosen to go out after such an eventful day. At least, that’s what happened. I held her, and kissed her between the ears on her fur bright as a fox’s pelt, avoiding that still swelling muzzle, and she had that final dose of phenobarbital, the one let her slip away from us forever.
In the end, her death seemed so sudden. But I suppose that was the gift, in the midst of grief. There was no more agonizing over what was right to do–there was just that moment, and the knowledge that I couldn’t let her go on in pain. It was time, and it almost seemed as if she’d chosen the way she wanted to go–to go out fighting.
The next morning, I walked around the yard, looking to see if I’d find a dead snake. I wondered if she’d killed the one that bit her. I didn’t find anything, but I found a slight hole in the fence, and grabbed a big log to block it. Under the log, there in the middle of the yard, was a rattlesnake. I don’t know if it was the same one that bit Bel, but I hope it was. It didn’t move, and I went into the garage and got an axe and killed it. I think Bel would have approved of that.
A past snake encounter she won
The next week, all the other dogs got the rattlesnake vaccine, which will help lessen the effects should they be bit.
There’s more to say about Bel of course, about her life from the days I got her at the puppy mill til the day she left us. I learned so much from her. Some of it I suppose I wish I didn’t know, but because of Bel I know how to flush drains in wounds. I know how to give dogs injections. I know about luxating patella and torn ligaments, about canine epilepsy. I’ve learned a lot about fearful dogs, and fear-based aggression, and dogs that haven’t been socialized. I’ve learned, too, that many dogs are dealt a bad hand by the people who breed them, who don’t care enough about animals to be more careful, and I’ve learned that many dogs who come from puppy mills are not actually ever able to overcome that initial bad hand. Bel was one of those dogs. She didn’t even come from the worst of the mills. But she was never able to really be a normal dog. Toby paid for that. I paid for that. Our entire family did, physically, emotionally and financially. The last count I had of Bel’s costs, we were up to around $12000, and I’m sure it was closer to $14,000 or $15,000 by the time she died. She was a hard dog to live with.
And yet, I loved her. And that day when I took her home, I committed myself to her, became responsible for her life. I gave her the best life I could. I also gave her a good death. And in between, she lived her life on her terms.
Goodbye, squirrely girl. We miss you.
(More about Bel’s story is here and here.)