Gazette Vet: The Lessons Dogs Teach

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By John Andersen, DVM

I wrote this 5 years ago and thought it appropriate to reprint it now as it pertains to many of us who have recently lost one of our cherished pets. Losing a pet is never easy. But focusing on the good life lived and appreciating the fragile nature of each day goes a long way towards healing.

A few months ago I saw a bumper sticker that had a paw print next to the words “Who rescued who?” It stuck with me as a profound thought as I had been dealing with what I knew were the last few months of my own rescued dog’s life. Sadly, we lost our dog Kaya just after Christmas. She was an incredible companion and gave us 11 memorable years of her life.

It’s odd sorting through mixed feelings at the moment. On one hand, my wife and I are incredibly sad at the loss of our beloved friend. Our home is simply not the same without her presence. On the other hand, we have an acute sense of how blessed we were to have her in our lives. It’s funny how a dog can so profoundly impact our complicated lives.

Kaya came to me from the Roanoke SPCA at the start of my second year of veterinary school. She was supposed to be spayed by the third year veterinary students but had already been spayed. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) was in that lab and knew I was thinking about a dog. Apparently this dog was very sweet, and so a meeting was set up.

After class, I went down to the lab cages and cowering in the back of her cage was our Kaya. She had the sweetest, most terrified expression on her face, and as soon as I got her out of her cage, she just sat down and handed me her paw, as if to say (I’ll be really cute if you don’t hurt me!). It was love at first sight.

In our first weeks together, Kaya had all the markings of a previously abused dog. She hid under my bed when I left the house and would not come out when my roommates tried to get her outside. Only when I came home did she cautiously emerge from her hiding place, still unsure if she could trust her new situation. Slowly but surely, she and I bonded as we spent hours upon hours hiking the nearby national forest and she sat at my feet while I studied.

Over the ensuing years, Kaya continued to come out of her shell as she began to trust her new world. Her MO was sitting in front of you and staring with her soulful eyes, demanding that you hold her paw or pet her.

There are timeless lessons dogs teach. Lessons about loyalty, love, and devotion. And don’t forget joy, enthusiasm, and peace. For me, the biggest lesson was learning how to simply give part of myself away freely to help someone/something else. The food, the walks, the gear, the vet bills, the house repair, this was never a trade off for having a great companion – this was for the great companion. And I got something more special back, loyalty, love, devotion.

Kaya was with me through my immature bachelorhood, engagement and marriage, the move to our home in Crozet, and for the first four years of our son’s life. In August of 2009, we diagnosed Kaya with stage 5 lymphoma (a cancer in the immune system) and were devastated. Our perfect dog, who had been aging so graciously, had suddenly had the wind taken out of her sails. Incredibly, with plenty of ups and downs, she lived 16 more months, well beyond the average survival for such a condition. Along the way, she taught us a few more lessons about caring for others, staying positive, and enjoying a limited time on earth. She raised a puppy and was the best big dog for a little boy to have grown up with.

By December, I knew her time was near. We had run out of tricks. She could no longer go on walks, was tired all the time, and the cancer was physically changing her body. As many of our clients have, we worried if we would know when it was “time.” We wished she would pass away quietly in her sleep, but as veterinarians we know that is uncommon. We just loved on her, cared for her, and trusted we would know.

The morning of Dec. 27, she didn’t come out from under our bed. This was the first time she had done this since her first days out of the pound. I finally got her up and tried to feed her some pancakes. She took a bite just to appease me and went back under the bed. My eyes filled with tears as I knew this was the day. We had cared for her so long, but she could go on no longer.

Later that day, she declined further. As my wife put our son to bed, I lay next to Kaya, knowing these were our last moments. It was surreal and sorrowful. She was so brave, yet so exhausted. I wanted to delay every minute. My wife soon joined me and we both lay there for a while, smothering her with love, probably freaking her out a little with all the tears and crying. In one of her finest moments, my wife placed an IV catheter in Kaya’s rear leg and while we both held one of her paws, we gave her the medicine that finally let her rest.

As sad as that moment was, we could immediately feel relief that her time of suffering was over and feel gratitude for all she gave and meant to us.

Life moved on, as it inevitably does after any high or low. There has been time to ponder her life, and how a dog can so profoundly impact our lives. Wherever your beliefs may lie, know that we are truly blessed to have dogs (and cats) in our lives.

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