Remember that time my dog tore her cruciate from lying in the sun too hard? Yep, that would be Birdie. My 11.5 year old dog decided to go blow a ligament in her rear leg the other week. Super expensive surgery has been recommended. Beer, please.
Here’s the thing about working with dogs all my adult life: I’m pretty good at giving compassionate, reasonable advice to people who are struggling to make the right call for their dogs.
And here’s the thing when it comes to my own dogs: I am not very good at hearing the kind, reasonable, forgiving lady that lives in my head. She talks to everyone else, but clams up when I ask her to weigh in on my problems. Most times, I can only hear a weepy confused kid spinning around in panicked circles calling me a dick for not being a better dog owner. That kid is such a drag.
So during our recent consult with a very nice surgeon, I found myself suddenly fighting off hot tears when I forced myself to ask her what would happen if I couldn’t afford the surgery that Birdie needs. It made me feel like I was saying, “I don’t love my dog.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here’s what the surgeon said, “You should feel supported if you choose not to do the surgery.”
You should feel supported. Those are some good words right there.
And she went on to say it was reasonable for me to weigh all the variables, including my dog’s age, her activity level, and my financial situation when making the decision to opt for surgery – or not.
The surgeon also patiently answered my two million questions about Birdie’s pain levels and what would happen over time to her other limbs since they’d have to pick up the slack of her bum leg.
We ultimately agreed that this was not emergency surgery and it was reasonable to give Birdie four weeks of rest combined with cold laser treatments and hydrotherapy (with an awesome physical therapist Birdie knows and loves). And then we’d revisit the idea of surgery.
Of course, four weeks from now, if the results from physical therapy aren’t what we hope they’ll be, it still won’t change the gist of the conversation I had with Birdie on the way home from the surgical consult:
Me: Your dad and I are broke.
Me: You’re kind of old.
Me: We’re broke and you’re old. I feel like maybe it’s ok to choose not to sink an entire line of credit into one of your legs. Right?
Me: Birdie, listen. I feel like an asshole trying to figure out how much your leg is worth. I don’t want you to be in pain, but that’s a lot of money. If you want the surgery, I’ll rob a bank to pay for it (or use a credit card). Just tell me what you want me to do. I don’t want to make the wrong choice and have you suffer for the rest of your life. I hate the idea of putting a dollar sign on your leg. You deserve all the bionic legs a dog could ever dream of having…I’m sorry I’m not rich. Just tell me: What do you want me to do?
I wish dogs could tell us what they want. One of the hardest parts of caring for our dogs is making decisions on their behalf and feeling badly that we’re not doing the right thing. A lot of us are beating ourselves up and second guessing everything – from the everyday decisions about diet and training to the excruciating choices we need to make at the end of their lives.
It’s no fun being the one in charge of making the call. As humans we carry around all these conflicting, painful thoughts – about the various options available and what the future holds for the dogs we love so much. Luckily, our dogs continue living in the moment. Knowing stuff is our burden, not theirs.
You might think that those of us who make a living working with dogs would have an easier time making choices for our pets. We know all the questions to ask about quality of life and the different scales to help measure their good days and bad days. Plus we have tons of personal stories from clients and colleagues, etc. to mentally reference in order to help us put our own situations in perspective.
Turns out, when it comes to my own dogs, like most pet care pros, I’m in need of the same sort of outside perspective and compassionate counsel as everyone else. The situation isn’t life threatening (for the record, I’m grateful the diagnosis wasn’t something more serious), but I needed someone else to help me get my footing. And to tell me I’m not a jerk.
I really appreciate that the surgeon told me not to feel guilty for considering my financial situation. And I could have hugged her for saying I should feel supported in trying a non-surgical option first.
It’s what I would have told myself if the confused, weepy kid in my head wasn’t busy shouting about how I was turning into Cruella De Ville for allowing money to pop up when thinking about what Birdie needs. It’s what I would have told any of you, if you were in the same spot.
Thanks for the compassionate advice Doc.
We’re starting rehab next week. In the meantime, Birdie still seems to love me, despite the fact that I’m thinking about the value of her leg repair versus the potential span of her life divided by my credit line. Maybe that’s because she’s thinking about snacks and smelly stuff to roll in, not surgery. That’s my job.
p.s. if you’re interested in some alternatives to surgery, this article at Whole Dog Journal is really helpful.