Daily Cents Blog

How Much is That Doggie in the Window....Gonna Cost?!?

By Caren Chesler
March 26, 2008

Growing up, I was never allowed to have a dog. Their breath stinks, my father would say. We managed to have one for a short while, a small gray poodle with an afro that we named Cocoa, but after about a month, my father came home from work and said Cocoa was gone. He said he had brought the dog to work with him in the Bronx and that Cocoa had jumped into one of his plywood delivery trucks as it headed out to Westchester. She must have jumped out at some point because when the truck returned to the warehouse in the Bronx, Cocoa was nowhere to be found. Or something like that. I didn’t believe a word of it so I was barely listening. In retrospect – and retrospect can be kind -- I think my parents, who were neat by nature, already had their hands full with four screaming kids running through the hallways, leaving toys on the floor and watching the television way too loud, that their tidy sensibilities were already overburdened.

That’s not to say families with lots of children rarely have dogs. I think my parents were sort of unique that way. But I have noticed a distinct phenomenon. It seems the more children a family has, the more the dog is treated like an animal –a beloved animal but an animal nonetheless. The fewer the children the family has, the more the dog is treated like a human being. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not chastising people for treating their dogs well. But there’s a difference between leaving the heat on so your dog doesn’t freeze, and buying him a closet full of Tommy Hilfiger sweaters so he doesn’t catch a chill. And these dog owners don’t just view their own dog like a king. They view everyone’s dog that way. I know this because as an adult, I finally have a dog of my own, and on several occasions I’ve been relaxing in a café, my feet up on a puffy stool, sipping a café au lait, when someone has barged into the restaurant demanding to know the identity of the monster who has left their dog out on the sidewalk.

“He’s been out there for quite a while,” one woman said.

“Well, I only got here about 15 minutes ago, and he didn’t arrive before I did,” I said.

“Well, it’s hot out there.”

“That’s why I put him in the shade,” I said.

She paused. “And you’re not supposed to have him on such a short leash. They have a law against that, you know,” she said and stormed out of the café, satisfied that she had saved yet another dog from the perils of a cruel owner.

But if people with few children see their dogs almost as if they were human beings, people with no children virtually have them sitting at the table with a bib. Such were my thoughts at a recent dinner party hosted by my friend, Amy, and her husband, Blair. Amy and Blair have no children, and so their four-bedroom house is occupied by just the two of them and their new Boston Terrier, whom we met as soon as we arrived.

“This is Dot,” Amy said, picking up the small snorting dog and thrusting it in the air toward my boyfriend, Bruce.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Bruce said, leaning in toward the dog so she could lick his face. Its bat-like ears stood straight up as it sniffled and wheezed like a sow. “She’s tiny.”

“Seven pounds. And that’s as big as she’s gonna get,” Amy said. “Our old dog, Wilma, was a lot bigger.”

“Wilma died last year,” I told Bruce.

Amy said Dot was undersized because she had genetic issues. She then leaned in toward us and, almost whispering, said, “The breeder said nobody wanted her. I think she’s adorable. Aren’t you?” Amy pushed her face up against the dog’s snout and rubbed her nose back and forth against it. She then placed Dot back down on the floor. The dog’s little legs were so bow-legged, they looked like parenthesis. She scampered off into the living room like a crab.

“It’s taken a while, but she’s almost as affectionate as Wilma was. Don’t you think, Blair?”

“Nobody’s like Wilma,” Blair said.

We sat down around the dinner table and began to eat. Every time the conversation waned, Dot’s snorting and wheezing could be heard from under the table. Bruce smiled.

“Wilma was even louder,” Amy said. “She had genetic issues, too. A heart condition.” Amy paused. “We had a pacemaker put in.”

Bruce nearly spit out his curry.

“She had cataracts, too, but she died before we could have her operated on,” Blair said.

“Oh, it was so sad,” Amy said. “She would hear someone at the door, and she would run into the hallway and slam right into the table leg.”

In the car on the way home, I waited to see how long it would take for Bruce to mock the pacemaker. We barely made it out of the driveway.

Several months later, while Bruce was on a ski trip in Colorado, our dog, Sparky, fell sick. He could no longer lift himself up on his hind legs. He’d been having what our vet called “Old Dog’s Disease.” The doctor didn’t waste the more technical term on us. He simply said it was not uncommon for old dogs to have neurological issues now and again. He sent us off with a prescription, which we never filled because by the time we got home, the episode had passed. Sparky had a few more bouts of Old Dog’s disease in the months that followed, but this latest one was by far the worst. In the previous episodes, which usually lasted about two days, Sparky would stand almost all night, as if lying down was painful. In this episode, he couldn’t get up. Even if I helped him up, it wasn’t long before his back legs would give way. And it went on for days. Three times a day, I would carry Sparky down the five steps that led to our porch, and I would move him forward by walking alongside him, supporting him under his belly with my arms. We would walk to the park about three houses away, and he would begin urinating before we’d even reached the grass, oftentimes on one of his feet.

He wasn’t really eating so I started making him omelets in the morning for breakfast, and ground beef and rice in the evening, for dinner. When he’d smell the food, he’d make his way into the kitchen. It warmed me to see him there because it made me feel like he was getting better, even though he was snorting and wheezing as waited for his meal. When three days later I saw blood in his urine, I rushed him to the vet.

“He has a tumor in his abdomen,” the vet said. “It looks like it’s in his spleen.”

He showed me Sparky’s x-ray, and then put an x-ray of a healthy dog’s abdomen alongside it so that I could see the difference. The healthy dog’s x-ray showed a large corkscrew that the vet said was the dog’s small intestine. In Sparky’s x-ray, the corkscrew was almost completely obscured by a large mass.

“I’d get him over to the hospital for an ultrasound,” the vet said. “You can think about it, but I wouldn’t take too long.”

“How long do I have?” I asked. I wished Bruce were home.

“I’d get him there in the next 48 hours.”

I was confused. I went in thinking it was a bad bout of “Old Dog’s Disease,” and it suddenly sounded dire.

“Are you telling me he’s dying?”

“It doesn’t look good.”

I walked into the waiting area and paid my bill.

A little girl and her mother were seated near the receptionist. A crate with a cat sat on the floor in front of them.

“Mommy, is that dog sick?” the girl asked her mother.

“I think so,” the girl’s mother said.

“Yeah, he is,” I said. “He has a tumor.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “Is he a husky?”

“Border collie/huskie mix.”

“We had a husky,” the woman said. “He had a tumor, too.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He died a couple of months ago. On the way to the vet,” the woman said. “We got another dog right after that.”

I burst into tears. The receptionist pushed the credit card bill in front of me. I signed it and walked out to my car. Sparky seemed to be holding himself up now. He didn’t look like he could be dead in two days.

When Bruce called that night, I told him what happened at the vet and how our neighbor, Bob, had just taken his dog into the hospital for surgery and that it cost $5,500. I told him how the doctor said there were risks involved in having an old dog go in for surgery and that if they found the tumor was cancerous and had already spread to other organs, they would put him to sleep right there.

“I just don’t know—“

“Surgery’s not an option,” Bruce said. “He’s 16.”

The following morning, I went downstairs in my pajamas and got Sparky up and massaged his back legs. I then ran upstairs to get dressed so I could take him out for a walk. I walked back downstairs just in time to see him straddling our living room rug urinating. It was the second time he’d gone in the house that week.

“Goddamit!” I said. “I told you I’d be down in a minute!”

I considered going to the hospital but was afraid. I didn’t want to know our options if we’d already decided that you don’t operate on a 16-year old dog. We didn’t want to put him through it. We didn’t want to put ourselves through it. And it was costly. And for what? Another six months? A year? I’d searched the internet to find out the average life of a dog. 12 years? 14? A border collie could live until 16 or 18, if you’re lucky.

For about a year now, every time Sparky suffered another bout of Old Dog’s Disease, I’d think to myself, if Sparky dies, does that mean I’ll finally get pregnant? Bruce and I had been desperately trying to conceive a child for several years. For some reason, I thought if Sparky died, that’s when I’d become pregnant, as if God, or my dead father, would feel sorry for me and would somehow intervene.

When Bruce returned from skiing the following night, he was surprised when he saw how hard it was for Sparky to get up.

“He’s a lot better than he was,” I said. “I think he’s getting stronger.”

I pictured the size of his tumor.

That night, Bruce and I talked some more about what we should do, and we both agreed it was silly to operate on a dog that old. The vet said when he did pass, it would happen quickly and painlessly, in a matter of minutes.

The following morning, I woke up and went downstairs to check on Sparky. I went back upstairs and lay down on the bed next to Bruce and began to cry.

“We’ll never find another dog like him,” I said. “I want just a little more time with him.”

“Let’s take him to the hospital then,” Bruce said.

As we sat in the waiting room with all of the other pet owners and their dogs and cats, I saw a woman holding this little white dog on her lap so that the dog was almost sitting upright on two legs. His hair was matted. She told us he had cancer and that the chemotherapy was making his hair fall out.

“Chemotherapy?” I said.

“I can’t help it,” the woman said. “He’s my baby.”

His belly was swollen like a blowfish.

When the vet examined Sparky and did an ultrasound, he confirmed there was a tumor in his spleen. He said given the size, it wasn’t likely it had spread, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he went in. I asked him what he would do if it were his dog. “Oh, I’d definitely have the surgery,” the doctor said.

Needless to say, we plunked down the $3,500, to save our 16-year old dog –money that would have gone toward my Invitro Fertilization, which we are about to attempt. But heck, who knows if the IVF will even work. And Sparky, well, he’s part of the family. I mean, c’mon.