In recent weeks, Raven has brought home a couple of decaying deer skulls and a nice big antler. I let them chew on antlers for a little while before I confiscate them, I think it’s good for their teeth and their jaw muscles. Chewing on elk legs and antlers saved the life of the old Knobby-headed dog years ago, when he was suffering from a weird disease that left his jaw muscles so slack he couldn’t close his mouth. Dr. Susan gave him some prednisone or something that gave him a little strength, and all those elk legs that someone had dumped at the fence line gave him incentive to try harder, and build up more. He lasted another eight years, even surviving three episodes of gastric torsion.
Which may be what has little Raven in surgery this morning, though I think it’s more likely that she has a piece of skull or antler lodged in her small intestine. Poor girl was up every half hour all night, trudging out into eight inches of snow in minus one degree, and trembling most of the time she was inside, stretched against my legs. I knew something was very wrong, but I hoped it would pass. Something similar happened last week but only lasted about three hours, and she was fine the next day. When morning rolled around I called Doc, who said bring her in right away.
The drive was beautiful, once I got the car up the driveway. Hoarfrost covered every twig and bud on all the deciduous trees, the shrubs, the willows along fences. A dark fog blanket lay flat over the river, with Grand Mesa sparkling beyond. I took the back road to avoid the fog, and it was surprisingly clear of ice and snow once I dropped down from town a hundred feet or so. If I hadn’t been on an ambulance run I would have taken a lot of pictures, with that early morning light catching every facet of the ice crystals coating the vegetation and floating through the air, mountains all around frosted with sugar.
Raven sat patiently in the seat beside me, calm but clearly uncomfortable. Doc gave her a sedative and let me wait with her til it took effect, then let me come back, don an apron, and sit with her while he x-rayed her gut. She had a large fecal mass deep in her small intestine, up against her spine, blocked by something he could not discern. Maybe a twist, he said, he had one in just yesterday. Maybe something else. Any minute now I can call and find out.
I have had a pathological fear of leaving a pet at the vet for as long as I can remember. Even for getting “tutored,” much less for an emergency. Driving home this morning after tucking her into a cage, I could really feel it, and its origin. When I was nine, my mom and I took my very first cat to the vet, and she never came home. Or she came home dead the next morning, and my dad had already nailed her into a nice pine box with her favorite blanket by the time I woke up, after praying myself to sleep. I have long known that this was my first falling out with God, but only this morning recognized it as the source of that phobia. Which you would think I’d have figured out sooner. I’m grateful that in recent years I’ve learned how to manage the panic, and this morning was able to stay calm, come home, shovel snow, stack wood, all without obsessing over her imminent death. Though of course it occurred to me frequently throughout the morning, I didn’t make myself sick with worry.
I knew she was in the best hands, and whatever the obstruction she had brought it on herself doing something she loved, she had had a great life, and I had spent the whole of last night patiently loving her through her distress. If it was her time there was no help for it.
But it wasn’t her time! They called at the asterisks. She can come home at four o’clock.
“Do you have a bird feeder?” asked Christy.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Yes.” She’s been grazing under both bird feeders for years. Sometimes I find a poop that is practically pure thistle seed, but it’s never stopped her before.
“She was packed full of that black thistle seed, just solid. About a foot long.”
“What’s the prognosis now?”
“She can come home and eat and drink and be a normal dog. You’ll need to clean up under that feeder, and she can’t go outside unsupervised for awhile.”
I teared up. “Thank God.”
And I did. As I do every day for my two beautiful, happy, healthy dogs.
Raven will be exactly eight-and-a-half in two days. This morning, across the continent, her brother got in a fight with their younger half-brother and both those boys are full of holes. But still alive. Such short, intense lives our beloved dogs lead, with danger at every turn, predictable or unforeseen.
Raven flew across the country to come to me when she was six weeks old. Her birth mama, not Feather but Feather’s girl Chris, brought her in a soft carrying case under the seat. She was the cutest thing I had ever seen, a little speckled ball of wiggles. Driving over the mountains from the airport with Chris and Raven, we stopped in Idaho Springs for a late breakfast at a restaurant called Jiggy’s. I don’t know who Jiggy is or was, probably an old gold miner. When we got back in the van after eating, I gathered her wiggly self up and said “There’s my little Jiggy!” And so her respectable full (and secret) name of Ravenfeather Sundogdottir became Jiggy Raven, just like that.
The first time we took her on a walk, the big catahoulas, Mr. Brick and Mocha, ran off out the gate into the woods and Chris and I walked across the clearing behind them. Raven sat at the gate and watched us until we stopped and turned back toward her.
“Come on, Jiggy, come!” I called, and she jiggled her roly-poly body along the path through shrubs of winterfat and rabbitbrush to join us. She is of a mischievous nature like her father Sundog was, and was forever finding trouble even at that tender age. The first time I had occasion to scold her, a week or two into our relationship, she rolled over onto her back and wiggled. She’d been sleeping on her back since the first day, and she was so cute, so cute… well, so cute that forever afterward that coping strategy worked supremely well for her. Whenever she got in trouble she rolled over, I bent over and rubbed her tummy and laughed, and that was the end of it.
Jiggy Raven has led a full and happy life, with the exception of getting spayed. I let her go through one heat so her hormones could help her mature, and I wish I’d let her go through two. But she was a real handful during the first one, even climbing the six-foot pen fence to run loose a few times. She may have wanted puppies but I didn’t. So I had her spayed, at the same vet where she waits for me now, and she has been terrified every time she’s had to go back there for the past seven years. She was deeply traumatized by getting spayed. Not many dogs are noticeably the worse for the procedure, but she was.
She became instantly snappish and spooky, glaring at me when I’d bend to pet her. And that precious tummy that had been my favorite place to give her lovies was off-limits for over a year. I simply couldn’t touch her there without her jumping out of her skin and smashing her head into my face. Once she adjusted a little better to her new way of being, I slowly desensitized her, and eventually was able to rub her tummy again.
I realized pretty quickly after the spay job that the only thing Raven wanted in the whole world was a puppy of her own. I can’t say how I knew that, but I did, with searing clarity. And so, fortunately, about six months later a baby brother was born in Florida, and shortly after that we were on our way south and east to meet him. Having Stellar to lick and play with and tend to gradually restored her sweet nature. She became a devoted mother to him the moment she met him. He was two weeks old.
She watched and sniffed him through the fence. Their mother Feather finally invited her into the puppy pen when he was five weeks old. Raven was still pretty bouncy, and pranced over to the chair where I held Stellar and Feather supervised. As Raven approached Stellar with her nose aquiver, Feather suddenly snapped her head and shut her mouth over Raven’s mouth. Gently, with the single intent of setting the limit on how Raven was to be with Stellar. Raven understood. She sniffed him, touched him lightly with her nose, licked him tentatively. Feather lay back down. From that moment, Raven was the other mother to the two giant pups in that litter, following them around, licking them clean, lying down and letting them climb and chew all over her. Feather had a babysitter, and could finally take a nap alone after five weeks of incessant mothering.
Remembering how spooky and traumatized she was after getting spayed, I can only extrapolate how terrible she feels after this major abdominal surgery. She lies trembling on the opened-out futon, quaking with pain. I’ve taken off her cone for awhile because I’m confident that as long as I am watching her, and she is in this much pain, she will not try to lick her wound. Every now and then she opens her eyes and looks at me; at first, from inside the cone, alert yet completely still. Now, from her trembling recumbency, even more aware. I think she understands that she’s been given a reprieve. At the very least she’s more comfortable. From lying as if dead, barely moving her breath so tight, she is now releasing into the safety of being home, warm, stretched out on a giant cushion, and in excruciating pain.
Here’s what they had to do: cut open her belly, that precious tummy already once sundered; get through to her small intestine (I imagine this included temporarily removing most of her organs); lift out the swollen tube and find the downstream end of the enormous long blockage; slice it lengthwise for a few inches; and massage the tube of saturated, solid thistle seed down and out through the slice, rinsing and making sure not a single seed escaped into her abdomen. Then of course stitching it all up inside and out.
“It took quite awhile,” said Christy, “to work out all that thistle seed.”
They speak matter-of-factly. They see things all the time that would rotate my mind.
“Another six to twelve hours, said Doc, “and there wouldn’t have been a dog to worry about. I’d have gone in and that would have been that.”
It’s touch and go for the next 72 hours. If her intestine is going to die and leak, or swell and burst, that’s when it will happen; more specifically in the 48-72 hour window. If she vomits, if she won’t eat or drink, won’t move, or won’t pee and poo, it’s an urgent return to the office for even more drastic surgery: removing a section of intestine, installing a drain, and probably days or weeks of hospital stay.
“A lot of it’s attitude,” said Doc. “If she weren’t alert and looking around, she wouldn’t be going home now. If she develops a high fever, if she won’t get up and move, she needs to come back right away.”
She’s a tough little dog from a tough line. I think she’ll be fine. I think they don’t give her a pain pill because the pain will keep her still. I’m giving her a Rescue Remedy/Arnica blend of drops every hour or two til bedtime, and will continue for a few days, gradually increasing the interval between doses. Just feeling her trembling instinctively makes me want to somehow ease her pain, though I know that letting her quiver and sleep it off is the best thing. I grossly underrated the severity of her condition earlier today, before seeing her and hearing the details of the surgery, the gravity of remaining risks.
As we lay our heads down on this last night of the old year, I double my thanks for all that it gave us, and pray for a healthier year ahead. My foremost resolution is to get rid of the thistle feeder. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night.