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)

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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!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

With a sound like Niagara Falls...

...Cooper's heart beats under my hand. For the first time, I can almost hear it. The beat is fast and hard. I hold him close. Gradually it slows and I wonder, "Is this it?"

There are so many times like this, so many times I wonder whether we're doing him any favors keeping him alive like this, on heart medications identical to those my beloved hubby takes. But my husband's heart doesn't rumble beneath my hand; nor does his physician put down his stethescope and say, "I almost don't need this." Our vet's trained ear can practically hear my dog's heart beating without benefit of instrumentation.

This picture shows Tessie and Cooper just a year or so ago, when Cooper weighed nearly 20 pounds. Back in September, he weighed 16.5 pounds. A week or two ago, 14.5 pounds. He's lost a quarter of his body weight in about a year. Yet his appetite remains strong, and when he's not sleeping (which is most of the time) he seems happy to be alive. So we've asked our sewing friend to trim his diapers back and make us some smaller ones...two dozen this time, since the Lasix seems to be working like gangbusters. That broad back you see in this picture isn't broad any more, but only about four to five inches at its narrowest. In a way that's good, because there's less pressure on his hips and he's much easier to carry -- and he needs to be carried a lot lately.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cubbison Hairy-Bear, at the Bridge

Cubby wasn't an elder, but one who died much too young. Thanks to Karen S. for sharing his story.

I had a Cavalier die during a seizure. Cubby was only three (almost four). He had his first seizure in late October in 2002, and died while seizing the following January 7, so he did not live with the condition long. The vet, after a few seizures, put him on potassium bromide. He still seized every couple of weeks. He would usually seize late at night. I would watch his head go back and body stiffen when it was beginning. Then, when it was over, he would pace. We were told not to worry, that he would live a long life in spite of the condition. I could tell he felt poorly near the end. I did not notice any head rubbing, though.

One thing our vet gave us was valium. She said it would immediately relax him and stop the seizure. It was a liquid in a needle that we were to squirt in his mouth when the seizure began. The first time we used it, it seemed like a blessing. The seizure was shortened. The second time, I was concerned: He seemed blind. He would walk (pace), but would walk into walls. Very sad. It relaxed him so much that his legs would splay out and he’d go through the walking motions, and looked like a turtle upside down.

We used it the third time on the morning he died. I think he was dead before we got the valium into him.

We were up around 5:00 a.m., drinking coffee, and he came over to me and wanted to be held. I could tell he did not feel well. I picked him up and he settled on my lap, then gave a pathetic little whimper/cry, looking at me. He was having pain. Then the seizure began and I picked him up and took him to the sofa, yelling to hubby to get the valium. But the valium came rolling out of his mouth, because he was dead. The only positive thing was that it was super quick. That was the bad thing too, because it was such a shock to us, to have him living, then dead in the space of 30-45 seconds.

I have no idea if he had a tumor, or Syringomyelia (SM). He certainly had no symptoms of SM prior to the seizures.

I know this is a gut-wrenchingly emotional time for you. My concern for Cubby was such that I thought I’d go nuts. Having a dog with seizures, but needing to be away from home from time to time was very hard on me. My heart was always with him. I think from reading, that you’re able to be home with Cooper and Tessie. If so, you’re fortunate, as are they.

We did not expect Cubby to die, and had given no thought to burial. After he had died, I put him in his crate (with the top off), and posed him, and took pictures. I caressed him and “made sure he was dead.” It was such a precious time, and I am grateful to have the memories. I guess we spent about two hours with him. Then, because we were in shock and didn’t really know our options, we drove him to the vet's office for “disposal.” If I had it to do over again, he would be cremated, and I would keep his ashes. I had never had to deal with a deceased dog until that day.

I hope something in what I’ve written will stir up some thoughts or insights that will help during this trying time.

--Karen & Regis Heartwarmer - Cubbison Hairy-Bear, at the Bridge

Friday, January 20, 2006


Last night I woke to Cooper's whimpering in the bassinet next to our bed. Found a very full diaper, and a sleepy occupant wishing to sleep somewhere other than that silly bassinet. So I changed his Poise Pad and set him on the floor next to his sister, covering him with a soft pink towel.

Just before dawn, I couldn't find him anywhere. Tessie was snoring happily, but there was no Cooper in sight. I checked his favorite spots, but there was no sign of him anywhere. As the sun came up I could see a bit better and remembered placing the towel over him a few hours before. And there he was, with Tessie firmly planted on top of him.

They rarely do this; as I've written before, they're rather like an old married couple who have come to take each other's presence for granted. Sometimes, they'll sleep back-to-back, but it's years since they slept this way -- close and warm, close and warm.


While a number of indignities seem to inevitably accompany the aging process, we elder dogs must often endure additional embarrassments at the hands of otherwise well intentioned keepers. Consider the above, in which I am dragged about the house in a wheeled cart. It's cozy, all right, and that was not a particularly good day, mobility-wise, but really, Mother ... really!

Signs of Head-Rubbing

I'm not proud of these photos as evidence of my housekeeping prowess (or interest), but it seems appropriate to share them. I didn't realize the extent of Tessie's head-rubbing until I noticed that the back of our couch, adjacent to an outer corner of wall and woodwork, was in perpetual need of cleaning and vacuuming. As a test, I left the wall uncleaned, the woodwork unscrubbed, and the couch unvacuumed for a few weeks. (Uh, months.) This is what I saw: brown goo on the wall and woodwork, and dog hair embedded in the couch -- so deeply embedded, even masking tape hair lifters didn't work as well as I'd hoped.

The photos told me that Tessie was rubbing the right side of her head far more, and more often, than I thought she was. Watching her more closely now, I have the sense that her head pain comes and goes. It's probably always present, but sometimes it seems to be worse than others.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Nope, it wasn't!

SO THIS WASN'T THE DAY FOR COOPER TO DIE. I spent much of the day, after his bath, holding him on my lap, swaddled in thick, soft towels. I gave him half a Rimadyl. He slept. As we left for the vet shortly before 4:00 p.m., I wasn't sure we would be bringing him back -- he still couldn't support his weight on his front legs. It seemed as if all systems would fail, one at a time, and we'd likely be bereaved by evening.

I carried him into the vet's office. The vet checked him over, suspected something spinal, listened to a late-onset, Grade 6 heart murmur that roars like Niagra Falls, issued him a new supply of thyroid meds, authorized an increase in his Rimadyl dosage, and then wrote a prescription for his sister's seizure medicine. We talked some ... and as we were finishing up, Cooper raised himself on his front legs, stood up an all four -- and walked!

This, the very same dog who did such a good imitation of Death Warmed Over this morning. This, the dog who not only could not walk, but could not even stand, gave brief thought to chasing a cat, but stopped adbruptly when his back legs wouldn't follow the front ones and he sank to the floor. This, the dog who could not rise from his bed this morning to claim a speck of his beloved Gorgonzola, but strolled into the kitchen tonight and asked, "So where's my dinner?"

I remember the last time I'd carried Cooper into the vet's office, how tenderly the vet took him from me and how tenderly he carried him back into the examining room. You can say what you want about Texas, but there are gracious, loving people here, and we are grateful for every one of them.

And once again, I'm reminded of Cooper's indefatigable bright spirit. And once again, of the importance of not burying anyone till they're dead.

Is This The Day?

Is it love, or is it gorgonzola?
This isn't a good day from Cooper.
But while we worried, "Is this the day?"
and fed him bits of gogonzola,
his sister made sure no
piquant nibbles slipped away.

Cooper woke late this morning, agitated and looking every which way, with one eye so swollen I thought it might pop out. He ate eagerly, but kept his head cocked oddly and keep looking every which way. For the first time, ever, he is as weak in his front end as he is in the back. I gave him a warm, lying-down bath, cradled in my arms, in the kitchen sink. Then I wrapped him in warm towels and let him fall asleep in my arms, the two of us lying in a recliner. (This is the first time, ever, that he's done that, too. Lately he's enjoyed being swaddled and has been willing to sleep in the crook of my arm, but never in a chair like this.)
Post-bath, post-nap; I settled him into a wheeled cart so I could move him about as I did chores. This isn't right. He doesn't look right, sound right, or feel right. We see the vet at 4:00 today. Never has he had a day like this! I'm afraid this may be the day we've dreaded for so long.


HERE'S MY KEEPER. He came to me as a rescue (thanks, Barb!) when he was estimated to be 13. He lived for another 364 days before he died of lymphoma. Keeper had just about every problem possible...he was deaf, blind in one eye, allergic to everything in the world, very unsteady legs, yada, yada. He was SO sweet, affectionate and gentle...never asked for anything except to be warm and held close. He was one-in-a-million and I'm grateful for each and every day he was with us. -- Winnie C.

If you have (or had) an elder dog you'd like to honor, send a photo and we'll post it (and your story) here.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


IT'S HARD TO SLEEP. One of the Listers sent me a lengthy letter about losing her young Cavalier to seizures. It's so important to put all these things -- even the saddest things -- into words, and I will treasure her story and tell her so when I can bring myself to it. At the same time, I go to bed each night wondering if this will be The Night -- not for Cooper, who I finally realized is simply old, and he'll go when he goes (I like to think of it's being "when God's lonely for a brave little Spaniel") -- but for Tessie, who's not only old, but likely has some terrible disease.

To some extent it's the drama of these seizures. For generations my family on my mother's side, even into this generation, has been hostage to fear of seizures. We've had all kinds: febrile, traumatic, non-epileptiform (induced by driving along a country road beneath a canopy of sun-dappled leaves!), and even full-blown epileptic ones a couple of generations ago. I am determined to live not as a hostage, but sleep still doesn't come as automatically or swiftly as it once did. I get through them calmly -- perhaps a bit numb -- but we get through them together, while Cooper and my husband sleep undisturbed.

Sometimes I think I'll never have two dogs so close in age again: I'll let one age as one grows. But then I hear of young ones dying, and it seems that there are no strategies to insulate myself from the pain of anticipated or actual loss. I honor the courage of those who welcome love despite the risks that come with it. I meet so many people who once loved a dog (or spouse or partner) but won't risk loving another because the pain of losing the one was too great. I don't want to be that person. I absolutely believe that God brings us precisely the creatures and the challenges we need, when we need them, and in the manner that will best teach us to be wholly human. Trusting that, I am grateful to be the one awake with Tessie through these episodes. St. Paul wrote, "In everything, give thanks." Even in this. Perhaps especially in this.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


It's happened again -- for a second night, at about the same time (~4:00 a.m.) Tessie's had another seizure. It's a "shallow" (my word) seizure again, without the heavy, rapid snoring of last night. But the foaming is the same, the staring, relatively little rigidity. I wrap her bottom in a towel (she's lost urine again, this time lots), set her on the bed and let it happen. When it's over, she who rarely wants to be held, rests in my arms. She asks to get down, paces a bit, then comes back to be held again. The pacing is less this time. At first her front legs, as last night, won't hold her. But she quickly regains her stance and paces more -- less than last night. Unlike last night, she keeps returning to me almost as a checkpoint. She wants to lie down, does so, then rises again to walk some more. Still, the pacing doesn't have the automotonic quality of last night. Throughout this morning's seizure, she seems less "possessed," more present. These two nights' seizures, while close in time (closer than ever before), seem somehow shallower, shorter than the previous ones. After about an hour of neurological oddity, she's ready, I think, to go back to bed ... and so am I.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Another Pre-Dawn Seizure for Tessie

SEIZURE: IT'S HAPPENED AGAIN. Again, in the early hours of morning, as we all lay sleeping, I wake to hear Tessie snoring very loudly. I wait to make sure it's unusual snoring, then get up, turn on the room light, then pick her up and put her on the bed. Yes, she's lost urine (not typical for her) and is panting and salivating foam, eyes fixed on a distant nowhere. Yet this seizure seems less deep than the one before: she's not "gone," but is somehow aware that I am with her. We wait for it to pass, just five minutes or so. She's back ... and the pacing begins. Different from previous episodes: she stumbles as her front legs splay before her. Two or three times, I help her stand. She walks the length of the house, twice walking around a life-size plaster Sandicast sort of dog figure we keep on the dining room floor. I take her outside, but she seems puzzled, so we go back inside and she continues pacing. Again, it's not like before; her pacing this morning lacks the "driven" quality of previous seizures. But she visits her favorite spots, as before: the bathroom wall, her sleeping area, out to the other end of the house, up and down the galley kitchen, and back again. Still, she's not transfixed by invisibles as before.
She seems to get headaches, and the right side of her head often feels warmer than the left. She engages in head-rubbing so insistent that she's marked the wall and the back of the couch. (I'll post photos later.) This points to the possibility of terrible, virtually incurable disease. We're not sure what to do. The vet doesn't want to start her on anti-seizure meds till they become more frequent. A neurology workup, with MRI or CAT scan, will be very expensive. She's 13. What do we do now?