Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Losing a Pet: Topper's Tale

Let me begin by saying that this post is purely for vanity. It's to help me feel better about an excruciating decision that I recently made. And to remember my mostly-sweet boy, Topper.

Topper was a black greyhound who came into the adoption group I worked with about 2 or three years ago. He had been returned because he was grumbly with his then-family. These issues presented themselves from what we thought was a lack of leadership from his family. The group decided he just needed a firm hand, and so into a foster home he went.

He did not do well in said foster home. Knowing that he wasn't going to be easy to place, and running desperately low on foster homes, the burden of Topper came to me, the foster coordinator. As the then-foster coordinator, I would often take the dogs that had "issues." And he did have issues.

At first, one couldn't even walk by his dog bed (or anywhere near where he was laying) without him growling. We successfully trained this behavior out of him (mostly, his behavior was, if anything erratic). But then one night, while I was out, and my then-partner was sleeping, Topper attacked our sweet senior greyhound, Super.

Super pulled through, although it wasn't pretty (when a dog gets attacked, it is never pretty; even less so when a greyhound is involved as they have no body fat).

A couple months later my partner and I split up, yet were still living together. The dogs could sense this and were both decidedly on my side. Super took to peeing on his pillow (she was perfectly house trained and he had taken the bed, while I was on the couch). Topper took to viciously growling at him while Topper was eating. This is the only time I saw Topper so outwardly aggressive about his food. I secretly relished these transgressions and even took solace in them as I was going thru a rough time, and it was nice to know that the other residents of the house were on my side.

Super passed away due to what the doctor suspected was cancer. This was the first dog of my own I ever had to euthanize. I still get sad when I think about it. She was my first greyhound, and I had her for 9 years (she was 11 when she passed). The vet told me she was in a lot of pain, and due to her age, I knew that treating her for cancer wasn't going to be an option. It was completely unexpected for me.

Fortunately, Topper was there when I came home. I absolutely have no idea what I would have done if I would have come home to an empty house. My friends carried me through that night, and for that I will be forever thankful (that and Xanax).

Shortly after Super's passing, Kessie came into my life. She was another "misfit" who had multiple bites on her history (possession aggression, and supposedly space aggression, which I have never seen exhibited) She looked a little like Super but had the most playful, happy personality. She was a bundle of energy, and her and Topper got along extraordinarily well. It was a strange match, but I knew they were going to be mine forever. She had a spirit about her that I couldn't get over. Just like the Cars' song, she was just what I needed.

So there we were, a bunch of misfits living in my huge decrepit house with me. After making the decision to formally adopt Topper and Kessie, Topper bit me in the face.
Yep. In the face.
I have a jagged, Harry Potter like scar on the right side of my face.
He was sleeping in the bed with me (as he was wont to do), I moved, he startled and attacked.
Why he startled this time, and not the countless other times he had slept in the bed with me? I have no idea.
He immediately snapped out of it, and followed me to the bathroom as I inspected the wound (I initially thought he scratched me or something, I was shocked at the fact that I needed 18 stitches. I think I have a ridiculously high pain tolerance).

While I didn't brush this incident off, I did realize I was playing with fire. I knew Topper had sleep aggression, and like an idiot, I thought it was gone.
 New precautions were taken.
Topper would be muzzled at night

Things went smoothly with this situation. A new, permanent boyfriend entered the picture, and while he's not a crazy dog person, he respected my insanity.

I moved to a new place, Topper and Kessie seemed to love it. Topper didn't like to meet new dogs on leash, but again, it was something I could manage. No big deal. Not IDEAL. But not necessarily a deal breaker.

In his time with me, Topper learned to LOVE meeting new people. At first a bit shy with strangers, and even growling at friends when we first got him, he learned that strangers gave pets, and sometimes treats! He would often seek people out on walks, knowing that they would often ask if they could pet him, and I would always acquiesce.

So things were going well. I was managing Topper's aggression as best as I could. He and Kessie were muzzled when I wasn't home, and at night, during bed time. I could pet Topper when he was laying on his dog bed, and his recall was getting really good, with me being able to call him off the bath mat (his recent favorite spot) to be gated in the living room.

Then one night, I didn't muzzle Topper. I had some people over, drank too much, and went to bed. In the middle of the night, the boyfriend heard a rustling. Topper had gotten a bag of Oreos off the kitchen table and was trying to eat them. Boyfriend, half asleep and perhaps not knowing/realizing Topper's dumb issues, reached for the Oreos. Topper went for his face. BF quickly turned around and Topper bit him in the back. It didn't break the skin or rip his shirt, but it was still a major step back. I could tell he was upset and shook up (and rightfully so).

So I placed an email to a trainer that came highly recommended.

Four days later Topper was able to get the baby gate unlatched (don't ask how, both BF and I were confused as this happened twice during this night). Topper was in the kitchen. Not responding to my offers of treats, he wouldn't move. I walked over to him and latched a leash to him (often my last resort with him, but always successful), and started to lead him towards the living room. He was having none of it and immediately started growling, and when I tried to tug (gently, obviously) he charged me, baring teeth, eyes wild. I have no doubt that if he hadn't been muzzled I would have been bitten. This happened multiple times, with it escalating when I pulled a dining room chair between us to block him from getting close to me.

By this time it became a battle of wits.
I could have let him stay in the kitchen. But that was not the rule of the land. And as dumb as it sounds, he would have gotten his way.
By luring him with a piece of bread, I got him in the living room.
Again he unlatched the gate.
Again he acted insane when I tried to get him to go into the living room.
I had never seen him this bad for so long.
As I said previously he usually snapped out of it right away but he wouldn't this time.
I was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.
I knew that I was going to have to make a decision that I didn't want to make.
Topper ended up in the guest room that night.
I cried myself to sleep.

The next day I alerted close greyhound friends of my plans. All were tremendously supportive.
One friend said a dog like Topper is a huge liability.
Another said only I knew him best.
Another suggested I do a full blood work-up, and research vasculitis, a condition he was diagnosed with upon first getting adopted (upon doing research, from my understanding the vasculitis is an auto-immune disorder that often occurs because of a major infection. In this case, it was because Topper's tail wasn't healing properly, and eventually was amputated. From what I could tell, it doesn't cause pain after the original, underlying cause is found--in this case, it would have been his tail).

And while I wasn't against doing a full blood panel, he had had multiple panels done before (over the years) and all posted WNL.

What I saw that night scared me.
And I've been bitten in the face.
I don't scare easily.
I couldn't continually, in good conscience, put my friends, BF, dog sitters, my own dog in danger by having him around.
Why he reacted in such a fashion is beyond me. Nothing was different about that night. Furniture hadn't been re-arranged, nothing was left in the living room that should have been there. It was as typical of a night as any.

So I made the call.
My vet graciously fit me in.
We discussed Topper's issues (she knew of them), and she reassured me I had done all I could. While I'm sure it was just lip service, it was still nice to hear.

I have seen countless euthanasias. I used to work at a humane society where I was actually trained to perform them. And I did. It wasn't fun, but it is, unfortunately, part of shelter work.

Topper did not go down easily. I watched the doctor administer the drugs.
The vet tech was extraordinarily gentle.
I was stroking Topper's hocks.
And then a door shut.
The vet coughed.
And Topper.
Oh Topper.
He lost it.
He made what I can only describe as the worst sound you'd ever hear.
It wasn't purely pain.
It wasn't purely aggression.
It was like this weird mix of pain, aggression, confusion.
I don't know.
The vet and the tech, apologized profusely, and ended the procedure as quickly as they could.
It wasn't their fault.
The catheter was in properly, the vein wasn't blown out.
He was just reacting the only way he could.
He was losing control, and wasn't able to react in the way he wanted to.

After the procedure, the doctor and I chatted a bit.
I asked her if she's ever had a dog react that way.
I told her about my euthanasia experiences, and how I've never seen this.
But with her years of experience, I thought surely she must have.
She said she's witnessed some vocalization, but nothing like this.
She also said, that right before he started vocalizing, she could see his eyes change. She said it was fascinating to watch, as unfortunate as that sounds. I told her I understood what she meant.

While some may interpret this experience as a bad one. I only thought this reinforced my decision.
Even in death, Topper didn't have a normal reaction.
Was their something wrong with his brain?
Was he just wired wrong?
I won't ever know the answers, and I'm sorry that I couldn't fix him.
Or manage him as the case may be.

A couple days later I received a call from the trainer I had previously contacted.
I sheepishly told her that I had, unfortunately, made the decision to euthanize him.
She asked me if something prompted that decision.
I explained the kitchen episode.
She then went on to tell me that as she was reading my initial email, she was left somewhat aghast.
She told me she was unsure if she would have even been able to help me, and that without meeting him, and just knowing what I said, that I had made the right decision.

We chatted a bit more and she gave me her theories about aggression (which I believe were culled from another behaviorists theories):

Aggression can't be cured. It can only be managed: this was like a god-send to hear. I'm sure people will say that they cured their dog of certain types of aggression, she likened it to smoking. No one is 100% sure that they will never ever smoke again. We can THINK that we will never smoke again. But we don't KNOW for sure.

She said that one type of aggression can often be managed with success.
Two, you're pushing it, but maybe its doable, depending on what types of aggression.
Anything over two and you're getting into dangerous territory

Topper had possessive aggression, sleep aggression, space aggression, leash aggression (with other dogs). And these were (aside from the leash aggression) all unpredictable.

She respected my knowledge as a former shelter worker and the work I've done with my adoption group. She said this type of aggression in a greyhound, for one, is a red flag. These are not highly aggressive dogs (sure they can be sassy and have their issues, but most are not aggressive).

She asked how the procedure when.
"Well. Not good."
"Let me guess, he didn't go down easy."
I explained what happened, and she agreed with my theory on the subject. Something just wasn't right and he was reacting in the way he knew how.

It was just a really great conversation to have. Two people who obviously love dogs, and want them to be well, but yet still know that we won't know everything there is to know about every situation. I think it really helped my healing process.

The other thing I have to mention is the outpouring of support that came with this horrible event. I posted on Facebook, and received "likes" and comments from friends and strangers. Friends of friends, people who have never met me, sent me condolences. It was truly humbling, and showed me how strong this connection is that we have with our pets.

These are creatures that we see everyday. We feed them. We take care of them. We pick up their poop! They make us laugh and giggle at their silly antics.
They frustrate us with their incessant naughtiness and sassy streaks.
And they always, eventually, make us cry.

Hug your loved ones, pets or not, a little closer tonight. How we ever got lucky enough to have them is a grand mystery.