In Praise of Elder Dogs

This blog is created in celebration of the elder dogs, of any breed, who've touched our hearts. You are invited to add your own reflections, or, if you wish, track the progress of your own elder dogs. ("Elder," BTW, is defined here as 10 years or more, except in breeds known for shorter lifespans, such as the Great Dane.) Send your stories and photos to me at branta(at)

My Photo
Location: Hunt, Texas, United States

I've been privileged to share my life with five unforgettable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. This blog was inspired by Cooper, my first, whose indominatable bright spirit triumphed over his limitations. Every day of his life, till the very end, he woke joyously, happy to greet the day. I would wish the same for all of us!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

SEEING FRANCIS AND TOBY, both elder Cavaliers, gives me such hope. The first breakthrough came when I realized that Cooper isn't dead -- just OLD! My whole way of thinking about him changed, and the awful gloom that had been dogging my steps for months slipped away. He's an old dog living, living with a number of complaints and a significant disability, but he's living ... gladly, often heroically, and always in the moment.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Grand Old Man Francis, 16 in this photo, lived to 17!

Meet Grand Old Man Toby, 15. His birthday present: a stroller so he can go for walks with sibs Gizmo and Gadget.

Yesterday was a good day, a quiet day except for Cooper's occasional fervent barking. Each time he barked, I went to where he lay and found him lying in a pool of fresh urine. He'd been barking to go out, but I didn't get there quickly enough, and he couldn't walk well enough to come tell me. He's diapered at night, but only rarely during the day so his fur can dry properly after his mini-bath.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

THE PROBLEM WITH HAVING A BLOG is being perpetually distracted from responsibilities like housework. That's a good thing, I think.


What a pleasure is this gift of a normal day -- a day without incident, a day without having to call the vet, a night without trying to coax a loved one (canine or human) back from unknown neurological territory.

I don't know who's reading this blog, but if you are new to the Cavalier community, there's a mailing list you should know about. There's a link to it in the sidebar at the opening of this blog, and I hope you'll follow it, no matter what breed or mix of dog you have. The Hoflin publishing website hosts a number of breed-specific mailing lists; while I can't comment on the others, I can tell you that the Cavalier list hosted there has been invaluable to me over the course of my years with this breed. I cannot imagine having a Cavalier without it. The warmth and generosity of the people on this list has touched me deeply, and will continue to do so as my two little ones follow their meandering path to the Rainbow Bridge. To all who've responded, or just "lurked," over the years, supporting our shared journey with solid information, practical advice, encouragement, thank you.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

I SPOKE WITH OUR VET this morning. He says that what happened last night -- about 4 a.m., actually -- is what happened to Tessie months ago when she was boarding with them. Apparently she just keeled over and exhibited the behaviors described below. Two hours later, it happened again, but it hasn't happened since. He doesn't recommend putting her on medication yet because (1) it appears not to be a full-blown epileptic seizure, and there are other things that can cause what we saw early this morning and we should look at the whole picture before we medicate; (2) it's happened infrequently, rather than often.

November 26, 2005 - 4:30 a.m.
We woke to a roaring thunderstorm and to hearing Tessie, 12+, snoring more loudly than ever before. I went to her bed (on a rumpled chenille bedspread on the floor) and found that she'd lost urine and stool and was salivating, still snoring loudly, and staring into nowhere with her one funtional eye. The tip of her tongue was sticking out and her jaws were clenched so tightly I could not open her mouth, which was foamy with saliva.

I picked her up and laid her on a towel on her bed, where I talked to her and massaged her, calling her back from wherever she was. It took a few minutes for her to finally focus, to "come back" from wherever she'd gone neurologically.

She didn't want to stand, but after a few more minutes I placed her on the floor, standing, and she began to pace. Out of the bedroom to the front hall, where the tile is cool, pacing, pacing, never settling. Then into my tiled-floor bathroom, pacing, pacing, going round to the back of the toilet and staring briefly at the wall. I refilled her water dish, but she didn't want to drink.

She's still pacing. The more she walks, the steadier she becomes. But it's as if she's looking for something that cannot be found. She stops briefly to let me love her, but on she goes, pacing, pacing, on a neurological mission I cannot understand.

I don't know for how long Tessie endured her "episode" this morning. All I know is that more than 30 minutes have passed and she's still pacing. She has no history of thunderstorm anxiety. Her only seizure history I know anything about was several months ago, while she was boarding at the Vet's. She seized during the afternoon, and again two hours later. Nothing before or since, as far as I know -- though I am told dogs will sometimes experience seizures at night, and we never know it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

WELL, IT'S FINALLY HAPPENED. We're sleeping soundly. Cooper whimpers a bit, so I get up and reposition him in his bassinet beside my bed, which became his bed when I was pretty sure we were about to lose him. Back to sleep. He's happy. Next thing I hear is a soft "thud" as he hits the floor. He's unharmed. No, he doesn't want water, he doesn't want out, he doesn't want anything but to get out of the damned bassinet and down to the floor where his sister is sleeping. In this, I learn a lesson for me and for everyone I know who makes assumptions about the ability or disability of another:
he's just old; not dead.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

WHAT A PEACEFUL DAY THIS HAS BEEN! We woke early to a beautiful sunrise. Earlier, well before dawn, Cooper had whimpered, so I lifted him from his bassinet to see what he wanted. Did he want to go out? No. Get a drink of water? No. I set him on the blanket on the floor where his sister sleeps, and he settled in happily, sleeping through breakfast. He ate a good-sized lunch -- Purina One Senior, plus a dash of vitamin/mineral supplement, a half-teaspoon of olive oil, and some soy milk to soften the kibble. A friend mentioned that the skin of old folks becomes thin and brittle, so I'm beginning to think more about enriching his diet with fish oil or something. Olive oil will have to do till I can get something more suitable. Advice welcome!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

WEDNESDAY, THE DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING. Just a normal day, with Cooper getting around on his own as needed, but stumbling at times and needing to rest before getting up again.

We live on a hillside and our driveway slopes up to the road where I usually walk them two or three times a day. We walked this morning and he did unusually well. First we visited with the yellow lab next door, then walked up to where the driveway meets the road. His pooping seemed less difficult than usual; sometimes he really struggles with that, trying to hold his back end up as the process requires. He had to rest a while, but he was able to walk down the hill back to the house. I want to make a video of his gait -- I suspect an orthopedist could diagnose him just from watching that.

He's happy with one small meal a day now. Just a few weeks ago he was demanding two, sometimes three. The only difference between then and now was the addition of a vitamin/mineral supplement prescribed by the vet. It's really made a difference in Cooper and his sister.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cooper and his sister, Tessie, are Blenheim Cavaliers, meaning that their coats are a rich, red-brown and a pure, reflective, iridescent white. Tessie's color is probably preferred over Cooper's. While it's often hard to tell from photographs, the photo above shows how the two differ. Cooper's color was stronger, redder, more like Tessie's, when he was young.

For months I have been living in a small, quiet, relentless gloom, certain that Cooper was dying. But now I have a sense that this isn't so, not yet. Cooper is living, living with old age and arthritis and near-blindness and a late-onset heart murmur, as well as whatever degree of heart disease one sees in elders of his breed. But there is no question that he's alive. A shred of pepperoni proved that last night.

Last night, with his pain medication pretty well depleted, he made his way across the house to the three-quarter point, where his back legs slipped out from under him (with the right leg, as usual, going first). I carried him into the bedroom, gave him his meds, and settled him into his bassinet. It's interesting to see how he sleeps all night, no longer whimpering, since we increased his Rimadyl by a third. I suspect that our Vet did this as much for me as for Cooper, in adding the third half-tablet to the bedtime dose.

There was a time when I resisted giving him Rimadyl for fear of long-term side effects. But as our definition of "long-term" shortened -- realizing that few of his breed live this long at all -- we decided to stop worrying about prolonging his life and to begin instead making him as comfortable and happy as possible. My husband, whose medical reg has followed a path similar to Cooper's, declared, "Let him eat cheese!"

So we let him eat cheese and pepperoni now and then, in very small bits, so small I hesistate to call them "quantities." A deli-thin slice of pepperoni is cut into eighths, a sliver of mozzarella pinched in half, a bit of crust crumbled to the size of my smallest fingernail.


Partly to counteract the stew of sorrow and happiness I feel every day, I have been making a mental gratitude list. High on the list is always Cooper's breeder, to whom I owe so many years of unabated happiness. Also near the top, his Vets over the years and their wonderful Techs who have provided so much hands-on care and once, in fact, saved his sister's life. Then too, there are his many friends and admirers on the Hoflin Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mailing list, who have provided us with so much education, compassion, cameraderie, and -- most of all -- patience. It takes a village to raise a Cavalier. Our village is partly hands-on, but also electronic. And we are grateful citizens of that special place.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"So, Mom went out to the garage and found this silly wheelchair..."

What to do after a nice, warm bath? Nap.

WE WAKE FROM OUR AFTERNOON NAP with Cooper crying softly. I pick him up and place him gently on the floor. He cannot walk. I carry him to where I think he may want to go -- the adjacent bathroom, with its door that leads to his fenced potty-place -- and stand him up, positioning his hips just so and gently massaging his legs. Sometimes this works, as if reminding legs that they can stand, walk, propel triggers muscle memory into performance ... in hope that desire can eclipse pain.

But he cannot walk, not yet. It's often like this in the hours after the effectiveness of his pain medication has worn off.

I remove his diaper. He, and now I, smell of stale dog urine. Perhaps a warm bath will help?

But first I carry him to my desk and set him into an infant stroller, where he reclines uncomfortably till I set him on the floor at my feet. He dozes.

We don't euthanize people when they can no longer walk. Adult diapers are advertised in the Sunday paper supplements. But wheelchairs for handicapped pets cost almost as much as those for people. One of the sadder things I ever saw was an ad for a lightly used wheeled cart for which the owner had paid $350 and used for only two days before his dog passed on.

Again and again, I look into Cooper's eyes for some clue. Always the question: "Is it Time?"

People say his eyes will tell me. But one eye's blind, and the other's thick with cataracts. He no longer barks at deer passing across the lawn; when we walk outside -- when he can walk outside -- trios of deer will stand nearby, watching, till some small, sudden move on my part spooks them away. It's as if to the deer, Cooper has ceased to exist.

We'll try a warm bath. At this point, it feels as if we are buying time, a day here, a day there, hoping to keep him here,comfortably, one day at a time. One day more, for as long as he wants to be here.

Now to fill the kitchen sink with warm suds in hope of buying a few more hours of comfort, of mobility till it's time for his evening pain medication....

It's not always easy getting up in the morning. But I'm happy to be able to do it!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Here's Cooper in his bassinet, just before his afternoon nap. In his left eye you can see a cataract forming; in his right eye, a corneal lesion complicated by the condition known as "dry eye." Both are medicated regularly. He's had a tough day today, with his rear legs never quite where he wanted them to be. But he got around as he needed to, but by evening was ready to be carried and even asked to be lifted into his bed.

Sometimes I watch him struggle to do something that was once so easy for him and think, "This is The Time; we should put him down." But then he perks up again, gets excited over something interesting, comes looking for a meal, and I think, "No, this is not The Time." I have said that he can smell a bagel toasting on the moon and command it be his. I suppose that when he can no longer do that, it will be Time.

COOPER WENT TO THE VET THIS WEEK, where we learned that he's dropped a whole pound since September and is now down to 16.4 pounds; he's averaged more like 18 or 19 over the past decade, so this drop is considerable. His spirit remains bouyant, however, despite a weakening heart and crippling arthritis in his back end.

Yesterday I brought him to work with me (I work part-time in an office that's quiet on Fridays) and he slept in his little Moses basket most of the morning. Despite his increased dose of Rimadyl, he was walking poorly, often unable to stand without help and stumbling as he moved.

At one p.m., however, he showed miraculous improvement when my colleague brought her saucy little terrier mix to the office. Cooper rose from his basket, labored painfully to his feet, pulled himself up to full height, and greeted her with glee. The two danced a bit and did all the apppropriate sniffing, and for a little while it seemed he, always the Great Romantic, was four years old again.

When I tried to lead him out of the office and into the car, he laid down, unwilling to move. No, he could not stand. And no, he could not walk. He kept turning to look for the little terrier as if he could just keep her in his sight, he could dance on all four feet and hold his own on two, should she be willing ....

Cooper now sleeps, diapered, in a bassinet beside my bed. Last night he woke up only once, then settled in till morning. It's cold now, even in south-central Texas, so he lets me tuck him in with a soft fleece blanket. Perhaps he dreamed of the saucy little terrier.