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.

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