Do you have a companion animal?
Maybe a dog, maybe a cat, maybe a mongoose?
Well, OK, probably not a mongoose.
But chances are pretty good that you own a dog (39% of American households own at least one dog) or a cat (33%).
And, if you own a dog or a cat, chances are that you consider that animal a member of the family.
This can be more challenging with some animals than others. I've already mentioned our crazy Border Collie/Lab. She of the destroyed vinyl floor, the decimated cove base, the chewed arm of my favorite oak chair, the 52 stolen chocolate truffles. (Supposedly chocolate is toxic to dogs - this apparently does not apply to the walking garbage repository that is the Labrador stomach.)
The Border Collie/Lab is living proof that cute and fluffy counts in this world. I can guarantee that a dog with less "hug appeal" would have gotten promptly transferred to another unit for even five of the infractions she's perpetrated. But she's incredible with the kids and a phenomenal tent camper and she's pretty entrenched in our hearts.
And then there's the Terrier. For the last five or six years his official name has been "Lucky you smell."
This would be due to his head full of rotten teeth. Teeth that we didn't dare fix because there was a good chance we wouldn't survive the general anesthetic needed for doggie dentistry.
Lucky came to us 15 years ago when our second child was barely walking. We had been dogless for about a year after a traumatic episode with our previous dog, a Sharpei that developed a serious aggression and biting problem. (I loved that dog but, if I had known then what I learned later, I would never have gotten a Sharpei as a family pet. They are closely related to Chows and tend to have the same issues with children.)
When we finally felt we were ready for another dog, we went looking for a Rat Terrier. John had grown up with one that he had adored and so we found one in the classifieds and went to check him out. After our experience with the Sharpei, the primary thing we were looking for was agreeability and bonding with the kids. Which he passed with flying colors.
We were to be his third owners and were never exactly sure how old he was when he came to us. The vet's best guess was 1 to 1 & 1/2.
The story was that the people selling him had discovered their children were allergic to him. Within a month, we were pretty sure that had been a front and that the real truth was that they couldn't handle his marking his territory all over the house, running away every chance he got, and his incessant barking.
By the time we discovered these endearing traits, it was too late. He was officially one of us.
After about a year of dealing with the peeing and the fleeing, we scraped together the money to get him fixed. This took care of the first two problems pretty well - although, every once in a while he would slip into old habits - but we could never cure him of the barking. John used to say Lucky barked at the passing time.
I once read part of a book by the neurologist Oliver Sachs called "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat". With a title like that, you might think it was a funny book, but it turned out to be a serious look at various medical conditions including one called "visual agnosia". Which turns out to be an affliction where the affected person cannot recognize faces.
As soon as I read about it, I turned to John and asked, "I wonder if a dog could have that? Maybe that would explain Lucky."
Because, I kid you not, not only did this dog bark at my students - some of whom came to me weekly for over ten years - every single time he saw them, he would often bark at them again if they simply moved from one room to the next. He would bark at us when we arrived home. It was as though, until he sniffed us or heard our voices, he had no clue who we were. And it's not that he couldn't see - he could sight and run down a squirrel from 200 yards.
So let's recap. He was stinky, he had an overdeveloped bark instinct, and he occasionally peed in my house (which is why I never spend more than $100 on a rug).
But he was the sweetest dog I have every owned. No biting issues. Loved to be with us and slept with the kids. Perfect at sitting and staying. He was particularly good at walking on a leash - something which I failed to appreciate until I spent 5 years trying to get the Border Collie not to drag me down the street.
And he was a member of the family.
Which is why, when he began failing in June of 09 we dealt with the extra smelliness and the extra barking and the fact that he now had trouble walking and had to be carried practically everywhere. And we bought him special arthritis dog food at $28 a 5 pound bag. And we gave him pain pills wrapped in cheese. And the food and the pills helped for a while. Until they didn't.
And because he could not be described as a clever dog, it was difficult to tell if his whining or howling was because he was in pain or had forgotten we were in the room.
I have owned 4 dogs and 2 cats since I became an adult and have had to have 2 dogs and a cat put to sleep. And it never gets any easier. You ask yourself over and over "Is it time? Is he suffering? Might he magically get better?" And you can never come up with the right answer. And you torment yourself with the knowledge that, once you make that move, there's no going back. Euthanasia is the definition of final.
I am getting choked up even writing about it. Because he was such a sweet little dog and we so hated to do it.
But it was time. The pain pills were less and less effective, he ate and drank less and less, his muscles atrophied from lack of use and he weighed a fraction of what he was at his healthiest. And, contrary to the way it usually goes, it was actually the kids urging us on. They could see his suffering and could hardly bear it.
And, most of all, I didn't want to come home from work to find that he had died here in the house alone, confused and afraid. Or worse, in my arms drowning in his own fluids with pneumonia at the animal ER the way my Boston Terrier had.
So I know we did the right thing.
But we can't take it back. And I miss him.
And I probably always will.
Goodbye Lucky. You were a great dog.