Friday, February 18, 2011

Just Fine: A Pluto Story

Dogs that bolt down their food or eat things that are not food are at risk for medical emergencies. Every time we found another stash of Halloween candy had gone missing we worried.
Late one night, right after Thanksgiving, Pluto came and found me just as I finished putting the kids to bed. He had a distressed look on his face, and his tail was tucked way in, under his haunches, and he retched a bit. 
I showed him to my husband (who had exactly as little experience with dogs as I had), and he said, "oh, he'll be fine. He's a dog."
You know how sometimes, when you can't make up your mind about something, you flip a coin? And when you get heads, you realize that's the wrong choice and you go with the other choice? Hearing my well-meaning husband say he'd be fine made me suspect he would not be fine.
I called the emergency vet.
I described his expression, his tail, his unsuccessful efforts to vomit, and I further noticed that his belly was rock-hard and distended. The vet tech on the phone said, "Well, it's a holiday weekend, and we're packed with sick animals and emergencies."  Then, she added emphatically, "you better bring him in RIGHT NOW."
So while my husband sat in the quiet house with the kids asleep, I rushed Pluto to the emergency vet. It was pouring rain. It was crowded in the waiting room. They whisked him into an examination room and x-rayed him.
The x-ray revealed that his stomach was huge--as big or bigger than a basketball. The vet went into lecture-mode. "Well, what you have here is a gastric torsion. You see this faint outline. That's his stomach. His belly is bloated and his digestive track has twisted shut on both ends. Nothing's going in and nothing's going out. A dog can die a lot of different ways from this: stroke, gangrene, heart attack. Fortunately, we have much better anesthesia now, and we don't lose so many dogs. Ten years ago your dog would definitely die. Today we can do a belly surgery on him and we've got a 70% chance he's gonna be just fine."
I left the dog and drove home in the dark in the rain. I had an estimate for the cost of the surgery which I had okayed without reading. In my mind, that 70% chance of being just fine was a 30% chance that he was gonna be dead tomorrow, and I was gonna have to explain to my small children what happened to Pluto in the night.
Exhausted, we tried to wait up for the call, but it woke us anyway. Pluto survived the surgery just fine, as promised. We could pick him up and move him to the local vet on Monday.
Pluto came home a few days after that, emaciated and half-shaved, with a ten inch line of metal staples running along the middle of his gut. He had a cone on his head and a very dull look in his eye. We took him home and put him in his kennel, which we moved to a spot where we could keep an eye on him.
A couple more days passed. Pluto was on a very restricted diet of brown rice and chicken in very, very small quantities. He seemed very sad and very uncomfortable at all times. After dropping the boys at pre-school, I let him loose in the house without his cone. He fell asleep on the couch in his usual spot on the left.
When it was time to pick up from pre-school, I knew I'd be gone only 15 or 20 minutes. The dog looked very quiet and comfortable for the first time since he was home. I left him where he was.
When I got home with the boys, Pluto was lying at the other end of the couch, with his head up. I would swear to this day that he didn't want to make eye-contact with me. Soon I found the source of his detectable shame. But I didn't know what it was at first: about two inches long, black, and with four or five fingers, like a dried monkey paw. It lay there on the kitchen floor. At first I thought it was a very strange potty accident. I crouched to look at it, not really wanting to touch it. It was very dry. I got a paper towel and picked it up. It was the connecting end of an entire bunch of bananas. It was all that was left of five bananas. While I was gone, the dog had eaten five bananas, skins and all. Special diet, small portions, ten inches of staples in his belly, a $1200 surgery, and he was gonna kill himself stealing bananas.
I got the vet tech on the phone. "Pluto ate an entire bunch of bananas." While I spoke I took a look at  him, and the spark was back in his eye. He was sitting up. "Eh," she said. "Bananas are pretty benign. I think it'll be ok."
She was right. From that moment forward, he was on the mend. I think all he needed, maybe, was some bananas.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Pluto Story: Corn on the Cob, and Other Eating Disasters

Pluto story #4 was supposed to cover all of the most disgusting things Pluto did. I realize in retrospect that there were many other disgusting things he did, and I share some more of them here.
Pluto bolted his food. We tried kibble, which he seemed to suck into his mouth and swallow in four chews. We tried canned food, which we carefully spread to the edges of his dish, and he seemed to suck it into his mouth and swallow in one motion. In the end, we found that adding hot water to his food made him slow down and savor it in six or eight mouthfuls.
He willingly ate any food, and even things that seemed like food, like PlayDo, modeling clay, crayons, and scented soap. Often, we would not discover that he’d eaten something until it came out the other end. Crayons and modeling clay pass through a dog with color and texture intact. Expensive scented soap turns into a massive, grey mucous-covered substance that makes me ill to think about.
Pluto loved beer, and barked when beer was opened until he was given a small amount in his dish. He also loved broccoli, so much so that he clamored for the water the broccoli was cooked in—what we called broccoli water. Broccoli water was usually still hot, and would elicit growling sounds from the dog, head down in a big saucepan. You could amplify the sound, and vary the pitch by poking him in the ribs while he drank it. Our current Vizslas do not understand why we sometimes absent-mindedly offer them the pot of broccoli water.
Once, at the end of a big family meal, my brother asked me whether he could give Pluto the ear of corn left over from his young daughter’s nibbling.  I had a charming mental image of a dog quietly gnawing the ear while he steadied it between the paws. I thought it was a great idea. Sure! Give Pluto the ear of corn. Pluto swallowed it in two or three bites.
It took a few days, but the corn cobs needed to be barfed up, since they would not break down and come out the normal route.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Last Friday, an Alaska Airlines flight out of Seattle was delayed because a rat was seen scurrying in the cabin. Our county health department provides helpful advice if a rat swims up your sewer lines into your toilet. 
We even have a neighborhood nicknamed “Rat City.” Rats are featured in the popular Underground Tour of Seattle, and I believe are part of Seattle culture as much as Douglas firs and coffee.
Not long after Schwartz killed our pet snake, I discovered some evidence in our basement of rats.
They had found some secret stashes of dog food samples and treats and chewed their way in.  I called the exterminator and he went through the usual routine of setting bait and traps and dutifully returned once a week to look for results.  We suspected they were living in the basement ceiling, and Schwartz did his part letting us know that now we were on to something. 
The exterminator finally decided that it was time to open the ceiling and pull out the rat’s nest once and for all.  As he got to work unscrewing the screws that held the panel in place, Schwartz watched him carefully.  As he tipped the panel down to slide out the rat’s nest, down it came, full of leaves and sawdust and lots of rat poop and there in the middle one big live rat.  As it hit the floor it took off at a run, but Schwartz was on the case.  He had the rat immediately.  In one pounce he stopped the rat.  The exterminator did the rest. 
The exterminator was very excited and proud to tell me this story.  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Pluto Story: Vizslas

I had cats and other pets growing up, but never a dog.  In 1992 my husband and I were living in the Bay Area, and went to a big dog show at the Cow Palace. Walking around with our son in a baby-backpack, we saw a lot of breeds we had never even heard of before, including a Hungarian breed, the Vizsla. My husband was born in Hungary, and escaped from the communist regime in Hungary with his family when he was a small child. The privilege of owning a real Hungarian dog was meaningful to him, and the more we learned about Vizslas the more interested we became.
We were told that the Vizsla is a breed dating back to the 9th century. A gentleman’s walking and shooting dog, the Vizsla may have been originally developed by the Magyars to hunt with falcons. The dog is a pointer/retriever, capable of finding prey birds, pointing, flushing the birds on command, and retrieving the bird after it is knocked from the sky by a falcon. If you ever wonder what inventive Hungarians are like, think about that Magyar, who contrived to train two animals to do most of the hard work of hunting.
Vizslas were also always intended to be family companions, as well, and I have not met one yet who is not a couch-potato in the home.
After the second World War, because of their associations with wealthy landowners, the breed was almost completely wiped out by the communists in Hungary. The story I read said that eleven purebred Vizslas were rescued by a Canadian breeder who smuggled them out of Hungary in the early 1950s to reestablished the breed abroad.  Today the AKC standard says that the dog should be “A natural hunter endowed with a good nose and above-average ability to take training. Lively, gentle-mannered, demonstrably affectionate and sensitive though fearless with a well-developed protective instinct. Shyness, timidity or nervousness should be penalized.”  I believe that this means those who make the best Vizslas do so by trying to meet this standard. I have not met Vizslas “bred for hunting” with the same outgoing, positive nature as those “bred for show.”
That having been said, I know that there are an awful lot of homeless pets in the world, and would encourage anyone interested in a dog or cat to consider going to find an adoptable companion languishing in a shelter. Both dogs and cats know when they’ve been given a second (or third) chance.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Pluto Story: Little Boys

Now you might think that a strong and energetic dog like Pluto would be way too much for a family with small children. In many ways, you would be right in thinking it. When he was a puppy, Pluto was so hard to control or contain, he was sometimes tied by his leash to the leg of the sofa when he was indoors. Even then, he was strong enough to move the couch across the floor if anything interesting happened.
As dog owners, we were newbies, having never really had a dog of our own before. Neither of us had any idea that Pluto was more rambunctious than a typical puppy, and so we simply dealt with him as best we could until he grew up. Many people say that Vizslas never grow up, but it has been our experience (now that we have had four different individuals) that a kind of ripening occurs between the age of 2 and 3 years.  Pluto settled into his adulthood as we were settling in to our home in Seattle.
Even as an adult, it took about 45 minutes of solid ball-throwing (with a Chuck-It) to get Pluto slightly tired. It was up to us to pay attention to the condition of his feet, for he was willing to run on pavement until his feet were bleeding.   Once, I was throwing a ball for him in the heavily wooded park in my neighborhood, and he hit a huge tree running full speed. He hit it so hard the moss stained his red-brown hair green. It would not wash off either.
Powerful and tireless, Pluto probably sounds like he would be an inappropriate choice for a family with small boys. What our experience was, though, that he was more than willing to wear costumes, endure ear and eye inspections, hide in forts, and submit to being sat on or rolled on. When our toddler middle son was starting to eat solid food, he rapidly moved on to feeding himself, and regularly shared with Pluto.  I have a vivid memory of Max in his high chair, plunging his tiny spoon-clenched fist into a bowl of strained peas, raising it to his face and sucking it off, and then extending his arm to Pluto, for cleaning. 
If Max and his brothers say they were raised in part by Vizslas, it would be true.

Things I Find in My Basement #14

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Pluto Story: Panic!

Pluto soon learned how to swim without splashing, and how to fetch objects from the water. He often would bound into bodies of water without waiting for anyone to give him permission or throw him a ball.  He never had the chance to experience water that was anything more that really cold, living in the Pacific Northwest, but it never seemed to bother him. He swam in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast, emerging bright red, covered in sand and shivering, every hair on his body standing on end. He swam in glacial lakes at the top of hiking trails when we’d stop for lunch. He swam in the Puget Sound in winter.
More than once he encountered a floating log in the water. As much as he enjoyed fetching sticks and balls, and hauling large tree limbs on land, a floating branch in the water was one thing he found frightening. More than once he got stuck in the water, frantically trying to get past the log that was between him and the shore.
He also had this reaction to coming down a ladder. Now, you might wonder why a dog would ever need to come down a ladder. Pluto loved to climb ladders, and also to slide down slides. He would entertain himself on our play-set if you would just stand and watch him, climbing clumsily up the ladder and galloping down the slide.  There was a slide on one side of the play-set, and a fort on the other. More than once he followed the kids up the ladder to the fort, and found himself unable to jump or climb down. He would begin to shake and bark in a very frightened voice.
Our solution was to cover the ladder with a tarp long enough for Pluto to attempt to slide down it. Typically, the tarp would go through the space between the rungs of the ladder as soon as he put weight on his paws, but he could stumble down in a fairly controlled fashion this way.  Once, he followed our contractor up a ladder onto the roof of the garage, and the very understanding and heroic contractor carried him down.

Things I Find in My Basement #13

Monday, February 7, 2011

Things I Find in My Basement #12

A Pluto Story: Water

Pluto was an extremely energetic dog, and required a lot of exercise.  He was passionate about fetching a ball (or any other dog’s ball), and about swimming.  Not long after we moved to Seattle, we took him to a dog park for the first time. Pluto ran and leaped and barked.  We threw the ball for him for a while, but found he was easily distracted with so many people and dogs to meet.
We made our way to the river, which is accessed from the park in a series of small, steep, rocky beaches.  Pluto had never seen open water before, and immediately bounded in. This river is not particularly deep, but can be fast moving, especially in the spring. In his excitement, he found himself in moving water over his head. From shore, I could almost see his instincts kick in. His front paws began to paddle rhythmically, and soon his expression changed from panic to real pleasure. Almost immediately he grew confident, and began thrusting his front legs out of the water in huge, circular strokes, generating a lot of splash and not really moving him in any direction very fast.
A man standing nearby with his own dog in the water turned to me. “Is that your dog?” he asked.
I was laughing so hard I could barely answer him.  He began to laugh, too. Another passing dog owner joined us, and we all stood, strangers on a river bank, laughing at the most ridiculous dog-paddle any of us had ever seen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How Pluto Lost a Piece of His Ear

One day, my brother and I both had relatives visiting, and we decided to take the whole group on an easy hike on Cougar Mountain.  As I remember it, I had all three of my kids with us, both dogs (Pluto and Wheatie) plus my half-brother, Tony, who was 10 or 11.  My brother also had his daughter, his mother-in-law, and his father-in-law along.  The hike had the flavor of what my children still call a “forced march,” in that they weren’t altogether so keen to go for a walk in the woods and might actually complain the whole way.  Tony was pretty excited to go, and asked for the chance to walk Pluto.  Pluto was very strong on leash, and wore a prong training collar.
We were on our way down and almost back to the parking lot when we encountered a Dalmatian off-leash. Whether it actually bit off the bottom of Pluto’s ear, or the ear was trapped under the prong collar and was ripped off by the force of Pluto’s lunging at the other dog we can never know.
My brother was far enough behind to actually notice the piece of ear lying on the gravel path (I am sure of this detail, because later he wrote a haiku about it).  Someone did go back for the piece of ear before we loaded everyone up in the car to find the emergency vet. I don’t know if we thought it could be sewn back on. I think we folded it in a tissue and I put it in my pocket.  A dog’s ear is a blood-rich thing, and Pluto reacted to the bleeding by flapping his ears vigorously. To transport him without being showered in blood, we wrapped his head in disposable diapers and a cold compress from the minivan’s first-aid kit.
Despite these efforts, the car interior and the children and my brother’s in-laws were showered in dog blood, especially Tony who was visiting without his parents. Tony came from a home where he was an only child and did not grow up with pets.  He was very agitated, and complained the whole way to the vet’s office that he was going to catch a disease from the dog blood. I had a vet technician tell him that he could not get AIDS from a dog. Pluto had some stitches put in, and we all drove home.
For many years, the piece of Pluto’s ear sat forgotten on a bookshelf in our computer room. It dried into a nice little triangle, covered in short red-brown hair.

The Three Most Disgusting Pluto Stories

Every Vizsla we have ever owned has known that a dog needs to sit under the right spot at the dining room table to maximize his chances of getting a dropped floret of broccoli, an errant piece of bread or any offerings of uneaten gristly meat bits.  Pluto was well-trained enough not to beg at the table, but he always chose someone at a big family meal and lay down at their feet under the table. Typically, he chose the youngest person in the room, because he was a very smart dog. Sometimes, though, he chose a guest, probably because he suspected they might just slip him something.
Pluto’s general attitude about the world was that it was awesome and that all people were awesome.  He brought the ball to strangers at the park so they could have a chance to throw it for him. He visited each of our immediate neighbors’ houses at least once, barging in uninvited and rushing upstairs to sample their toilet water.   When he was only 6 months old, he knocked my mother over the very first time he met her.
I don’t remember exactly who it was, but I think it was a friend of my brother’s.  Maybe she was even the guest of a friend of my brother’s. As I recall she wore pretty nice shoes. At some point during dinner, Pluto had produced a huge heaping mound of vomit under the table. The guest, sitting in Pluto’s chosen dinner spot, had been just short enough to swing her feet. I clearly recall that it was much easier to clean her shoes than to clean the carpet.

On more than one occasion, Pluto caught a nasty case of giardia. He was our very first dog, and gave us so many opportunities to learn about new things.  Giardia is a flagellated protozoan parasite thought to be transmitted to dogs when they drink contaminated water.  Pluto slept in a crate at night, and one morning we woke up to a crate filled with the foulest smelling diarrhea we had yet encountered.  The puzzle of trying to clean up a struggling-to-be-free, diarrhea-covered dog or restrain him somehow until the kennel was cleaned was solved by closing him into a bathroom.  The prospect of cleaning the dog (and then the bathroom) was nothing compared to climbing into the dog kennel filled with an inch of liquid dog diarrhea.
The final disgusting tale I have to tell explains why one of Pluto’s ears came to be two inches shorter than the other. I think I will tell it tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Pluto Story: Lunches

Pluto used to sit in the living room looking out on our street through a large window. In an urban neighborhood like ours, the houses are old and in need of attention. Pluto was quite aware that our block was attended to by an army of painters, plumbers, exterminators, gutter and window cleaners, carpenters, electricians, appliance repairmen, in addition to the regular landscape workers and housekeepers.  Typically, subcontractors drive a pick-up truck with a topper on the bed, they show up for work around 7 am, they knock off for the day around 3 pm, and they eat lunch and make calls in their vehicles.  The ubiquity of this vehicle, and the predictable temperament of a subcontractor in the Pacific Northwest being a somewhat outdoorsy guy who enjoys the company of a hunting dog, meant that it was in Pluto’s interests to be aware of the comings and goings of these guys.  Pluto knew that if he could slip out the front door when I brought in the morning paper, waiting on the front seat of the pick-up with the door left ajar while its owner carried in some tools was a sandwich and piece of fruit. Pluto didn't mind eating the wrapper around the sandwich, either, and enjoyed an apple or banana almost as much as the sandwich.

I worried actively that he would be discovered in the act of stealing food, and either make someone very mad or get himself dog-napped.  But it never happened.