When he first arrived, and for the first few years of his life, he was bright-eyed, cute and full of energy, just like any young creature. My niece named him after her favorite Ateneo basketball player.
By the time our family’s beloved black labrador retriever, Larry, passed away last May 16 of congestive heart failure, he was three months shy of 13 years old. By some counts, that’s 91 human years. He slept a lot, tired easily and was sometimes grumpy when pestered by his younger “sister,” 5-year-old Kikay.
He had cataracts in both eyes, worn-down teeth and white hair in his black fur. He was almost deaf; you could sneak up behind him and surprise him, and it would take several calls for him to hear you, laboriously lift his 75-lb frame, and come.
Still, even if it had admittedly gotten difficult to care for him in the last few weeks of his life—we were constantly monitoring his body temperature to avoid heatstroke—I wasn’t complaining. Neither were the house help, who backed me up when I couldn’t do the job by myself, especially when I was fighting cancer the last 11 months.
Our cook and our houseboy learned how to use a digital rectal thermometer on a dog. They had seen Larry grow old through the years, too. He was family.
Larry was the last of our family’s big dogs, a pack which had, at one time or another, included a rottweiler, a German Shepherd, a Belgian Malinois, a pit bull and three Dalmatians—all of them given to us. Still, I was peripherally involved only in their care.
After the other dogs from the pack passed away one by one from old age, it was Larry who remained, and I took over his care when he turned 7—the onset of old age for some large-breed dogs. I immediately had him neutered, started mixing fruit and vegetables in his diet, and added on to the vitamins. Still, within a couple of years, the health problems started.
Just like with humans, seniorhood is a different ball game for dogs, with the corresponding adjustments that have to be made. Sadly, this is something some dog owners don’t think about. In the West, older dogs are sometimes surrendered to shelters when owners can’t (or won’t) manage their care; if they’re not immediately adopted and the shelter isn’t a no-kill establishment, they are inevitably put to sleep.
In the Philippines, where shelters are not an option, some heartless people (especially irresponsible dog breeders) simply abandon dogs. Animal welfare groups like the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and Compassion and Responsibility for Animals (Cara) have too many horror stories of senior dogs tied to posts, left on unfamiliar roads, left behind when the owners move house, or even dumped in canals or trash bins.
PAWS gets regular calls from people insisting that their dogs be taken off their hands—“Mabuti na, kaysa iligaw pa ito (That’s better than us having to lead this dog astray).”
Think about that for a moment: intentionally leading your dog astray so he never finds his way back, and could die from the exposure, hunger and thirst. It takes a special kind of cruelty to do that.
Owning a dog is a lifetime commitment—the lifetime of the dog, which will never be as long as our own, anyway. Part of that pledge is accepting that, one day, our dog will get old, get sick and die, and it will be our obligation as his guardian to do the best we can.
“We were never meant to share all of your life, only to mark its passages,” Jon Katz wrote in “Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die,” in what he imagined a letter from a dog would read like. “We come and we go. We come when we are needed. We leave when it is time.”
A senior dog will be less hardy, more prone to illness and will have less energy. He will be less resistant to changes in temperature or in his environment, and may require different food. A senior dog will suffer in this heat, but his bones will also hurt in colder weather. Caring for him will need more time, attention and money.
“It’s the same as with people,” says Larry’s long-time vet, Dr. Siday Peñaranda of Vets in Practice. “They get lethargic, have a weaker immune system, have less appetite, engage in less activity and may not want to play as much with other dogs. Just as we watch over them when they’re very young, we have to do the same when they’re old.”
Larger breeds age faster than small dogs, she notes. “Expect that they will need more care talaga. Keep their weight down, and keep walking them, even if they can no longer handle vigorous play. If veterinary care is expensive, then you can just get a baseline test, for example, and then work on keeping them comfortable and giving them a good quality of life.”
The right thing
Please remember those pointers the next time you want to bring a cute puppy home, for yourself, or for your kid, who keeps asking for one. If you can’t see the animal in your or your child’s life for the next 12 years or so, then please do the right thing.
With Larry, there were constant skin problems, a bout with ehrlichia (the tick-borne doggie equivalent of dengue, which also causes their blood count to plummet), and a regular battle with ticks and fleas when the seasons changed. There were rickety joints, and a marked slowing down that forced us to adjust his walking schedule to early morning and late afternoon to spare him the heat.
There was a close call with heatstroke that landed him in the emergency room, when we thought his heart would stop when it was beating at a frighteningly fast rate. Naturally, this meant veterinarian’s bills that made me wince, and I did ask for generic, less expensive options for the medicine.
And then, as I had written about before, there was what I consider a clear case of “sagip,” when Larry saved me from a common side effect of chemotherapy. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle, and I knew deep in my own heart that he had absorbed the illness in my place. He had anywhere between three months and about a year left, I was told.
Larry lasted for seven more months, pumped with diuretics, supplements and an anti-hypertensive medicine.
The night before he died, he already seemed restless. After calming him down and checking his body temperature, I prayed for a good death when his time came—that it would be quick, that he would go on his own, at home and in familiar surroundings, and that I would be there to say goodbye.
Early the next morning—the day I was scheduled for a follow-up CT scan, three months after I had been cleared of cancer last February—I woke up to find Larry panting. His breathing became more labored when I cradled him in my arms. Our houseboy knew the drill, and was ready with a second electric fan, ice packs, more ice cubes and some calming oil.
But I already knew he was tired, and just wanted my permission. I think he even timed it so I wouldn’t miss my CT scan; I made it to the hospital later that morning, crying inside the machine.
Our old, faithful dog was ready to go. “It is my time to say goodbye,” Katz wrote, and I could imagine Larry saying the words to me. “… My spirit is fading, and I have been called home and away from you.” I whispered in his ear, just as I have released all the beloved dogs I have sent off on their final journeys: “It’s okay, baby. You can go now.”
And with one final heave of his massive chest, Larry’s ancient heart slowed down and eventually stopped. He flew straight to heaven, I know, where he is a puppy again, running around at the feet of God.
“And finally, I ask these things of you,” Katz concluded. “Remember me. Celebrate me. Grieve for me. And then, when you can, let me go, freely and in peace.”
I am still missing Larry; he would be the first to welcome me home whenever I pulled into the garage, and it hurts deeply to realize he’s not there anymore. Still, I know I can eventually let him go in peace because I never gave up on him—just as he never gave up on us, his humans.