I’m driving fast on Highway 93 on my way to a wedding in Whitefish. It’s Friday, there’s traffic and I’m winding along the western shore of Flathead Lake, steering with one hand and holding my cell phone with the other, checking the bars that indicate the level of reception. My eight-month-old black Lab/hound cross is standing with her hindquarters in the back seat and her front paws on the center console between the two front seats. “At the helm,” I call it. There’s not much to grip on the center console, just slippery plastic, and as we take the turns she slips off to the right into the empty seat, or to the left into me. It’s not the safest way to travel, but I’ve long given up on trying to get her to settle or stick her head out the window like a typical dog.
Six months ago, I entered the world of dog ownership with a trip to the humane society and a return with a three-month-old puppy. I’d wanted a dog for years, but waited to make sure I could afford what it costs to take care of one. After interviewing friends, siblings and parents, I calculated the time and money it would take. Lunch breaks at home, afternoons at the dog park, Saturdays at the river or rolling in a snowbank. A few trips to the vet, Frisbees, tennis balls, a dog bed and lots of 40-pound bags of Canidae.
After a few weeks, I had to recalculate: chew-resistant extendable leashes, puppy classes, more Frisbees, more tennis balls, Nature’s Miracle stain remover. Then came the costs that went along with the things she simply decided were chew toys: the TV remote, sunglasses, CDs, records, my wallet, my checkbook. Having a dog quickly became a series of lists: things she needed, things she needed more of, and things she destroyed that needed replacement.
But like the MasterCard cliché, it was worth it—she was priceless. It didn’t matter what she ate or where she shat. The bond was there. Maybe it’s having a life dependent on you. Maybe it’s like a great dorm-mate in college—sharing a tiny space and sleeping a few feet away speeds up the process of becoming fast friends. Then again, it could be that dogs and people are just meant to be together. Idyllic, yes, but that’s certainly what it felt like.
Then she developed a kidney problem, raising my antes of time, money and emotional commitment exponentially.
Six months ago, I’d never been to a vet’s office. I didn’t know that dogs took vitamins, or needed intestinal surgery, or contracted what I had previously believed to be human-specific illnesses. I didn’t know that you had to wait 10, 20, 30 minutes sometimes before you could see the doctor. That the examination rooms are replicas of the examination rooms people-doctors use. There’s gauze, cotton, tongue depressors. There are otoscopes and opthalmoscopes and view boxes for X-ray film. It’s expensive and time consuming; sick dogs and cats are everywhere, and turtles named Helmet with stitches. For a newcomer, it’s altogether surreal.
Being thrown into sick dog world forces you to become a sick dog story sharer, and in return to listen to others’ sick dog stories. My sick dog story is mostly about urine and blood tests, driving from vet to vet for opinions and second opinions, and in the beginning, lots of fear. Fear of chronic problems, fear of an illness I didn’t understand. Fear that my dog might die.
But this was my baptism into sick dog world, and I was just a neophyte. My story was only a preface and half a chapter. The stories I heard in exchange for my fragment forced me to put fear into perspective. They are some combination of a Jon Krakauer book, an episode of ER and an ancient Confucian text—with dogs replacing people as the protagonists. The stories are full of pet owners more than willing to spend thousands of dollars, miracle dogs, and practitioners redefining the boundaries of veterinary medicine.
I’ve never been a big fan of rottweilers. I always thought of them as the Terminators of the dog world: cold, relentless killers. It probably started in the ’80, with the myths (and truths) of babies devoured by pit bulls, and movies starring Doberman pinschers as the villainous pets of choice, and until I met Janine Mazzola’s rottweiler Lucy, I harbored a prejudice against any big, black and tan, short-haired dog.
Every bit as happy and playful as any smiling puppy, Mazzola’s dog looks like a rottweiler but acts like a golden retriever. It’s easy to see why—when Lucy blew out her knee three years ago—Mazzola wanted her to have the best care available.
Mazzola drove Lucy all the way to Sun Valley, Idaho, to a vet she had heard was a master at knee reconstuctions. The surgery cost a grand and a half, but Lucy’s recovery went well, and in a couple months she was chasing her Flying Squirrel like a Border collie. Then a year later, Lucy began limping on the reconstructed leg.
“I thought that she blew it again,” says Mazzola.
After a few trips to the vet and some X-rays, Mazzola was told that Lucy had probably just stressed it out, and that with time the leg would recuperate. But time only led to things getting worse.
Eventually, Lucy stopped using the leg and wouldn’t eat. Mazzola took Lucy back to the vet for more poking and prodding. It was then that they spotted the cancer.
Mazzola wanted to know her treatment options, and Missoula veterinarian Patti Prato gave them to her: euthanasia, chemotherapy, amputation or homeopathy.
“Putting her to sleep was never an option. She’s my baby,” says
Mazzola. “So we tried to do a little holistic hocus pocus.”
There aren’t any vets in Missoula who practice homeopathy. Prato says she’s dabbled in the approach and is eager to learn more about it, but wouldn’t “waste a patient’s time” with it for a life-threatening illness. The life-threatening illnesses she leaves to the professionals. So Prato connected Mazzola with Jonathon Wright, a vet in Spokane. Wright says he has a small group of patients in Missoula, but doesn’t want to go into the details of his practice. He’s been interviewed before about homeopathy and doesn’t think the articles have properly explained his approach, he says. Wright does say that the tenets of homeopathy don’t vary much between human and canine patients. Conventional medicine uses drugs or therapy to target parts of the body where disease has control. Homeopathy tries to take into account the unique constitution of particular patients—human and canine—and treat the individual, not the disease. The logic behind homeopathic remedies is to allow the body to express symptoms instead of suppressing them. Eventually, through diet, exercise, and occasionally drugs, the illness should make its way out of the body.
“They go back to the beginning and treat the first thing that ever happened to her,” says Mazzola, who admits that she “was trying anything at that point.”
A few weeks into the treatment plan, Lucy showed no signs of recovery, and Mazzola was nervous.
“It just took longer than I was willing to take,” she says. “Lucy was just so sad and sick.”
By this time, Lucy’s coat was coming apart. She was ashy and spotty and thinning out. Mazzola thought about chemo, but didn’t want to make her dog sicker than she already was. Amputation was the only option Mazzola saw.
“I just decided to take the chance and amputate, and hope that it hadn’t spread,” she says. “So they pretty much sawed it off, then they threw it in the garbage. I call it the $4,000 leg that was thrown in the garbage…I keep telling Lucy that she needs to get a paper route, but she’s not buying it.”
One of most difficult repercussions Mazzola feared from the amputation was that her dog would be even more miserable.
“I worried that she would hate me,” she says.
After the amputation, Lucy was supposed to spend the night in the hospital. But around 3 p.m., Mazzola got a call. Lucy was awake and running around the office. It was as if she didn’t even know the leg was gone, says Mazzola.
“I think that she was just so stoked to be out of the pain,” she says. “She hadn’t used the leg for a month and a half. Then she was immediately Lucy again. She is exactly the way she used to be.”
As I watch Lucy take off after a ball in Northside Park, it truly looks like she doesn’t notice that she’s one limb down. She’s not fast, but she gets the job done, and she’s happy to do it. Mazzola has even seen the dog scratch behind her ear with the phantom limb and make that oh, yeah, that’s the spot face.
Lucy was supposed to take it easy after surgery, but with her temperament, that wasn’t an option. A week later she was chasing tennis balls and swimming the Clark Fork to fetch sticks.
“Of course, being a rottweiler, she’ll only fetch small trees. Normal sticks won’t do it for her.”
Mazzola admits that the ordeal was a huge financial burden—she had to sell her truck to pay for Lucy’s medical bills. But she says it was worth it to get her dog back. As her brother told her, “I’m a dog owner, Janine. You’re a dog lover.”
It’s been almost two years since the amputation. The average life span after amputation for bone cancer is four months. Prato—whose own dog lost a cancerous leg to amputation, and has subsequently outlived its life expectancy—attributes both dogs’ longevities to Wright’s homeopathic treatments.
Mazzola is hopeful, but knows that she needs to keep Lucy “psycho healthy”—Lucy’s brother and father both died of intestinal cancer. No more dog food from Albertson’s for Lucy; diet is one thing Mazzola has retained from her dabbles in homeopathy. Lucy’s on a diet of raw meats, Solid Gold dog food, herbal supplements and fish oil.
But besides diet, Mazzola says that she hasn’t had to adjust her life or Lucy’s much. She has a cheaper, lower-to-the-ground car. She doesn’t do the hikes she once did. But Lucy can still get on the bed.
“I think that if she had one leg she would still jump on the bed,” she laughs. “And now she’s my scapegoat if anyone wants to go on crazy, steep hikes. I just say, ‘Yeah, sorry, Lucy can’t do that.’”
Lucy definitely had something to teach me. Diet and exercise I had learned from my sister and her dog. “Don’t ever buy any dog food they sell in a grocery store,” she’d told me. What I learned from Lucy was that dogs have a drive to survive. Sure, we humans want to live, but our feelings on life and death are colored by thoughts of the Divine, or Socrates, or Sartre. Mazzola’s story convinced me that Lucy knew her diseased leg was killing her, and she wasn’t happy until it was gone.
“I’ll have a diet Pepsi,” Julie Lapham tells the waitress at Sushi Hana. A mortgage broker, Lapham is meeting an associate for a quick downtown business lunch—as close as it gets to power-lunching in Missoula. Dressed in a gray suit, lightly made up, and wearing subtle jewelry, Lapham looks too put together to be a Missoulian. She certainly looks too put together to carry a paralyzed 75-pound Labrador retriever down a mile-long mountain trail. But when circumstance forced her hand, that’s what she did.
Two years ago, on a hike up Mt. Jumbo, one of her dogs, Spencer, jumped for a tennis ball and came down on his back. There was one quick, loud yelp, and then he went silent.
“He tried to get up, but ended up just dragging his back half on the ground,” says Lapham. “The second he hit the ground, his back half was paralyzed.”
Spencer’s hindquarters weren’t working and Lapham was alone, a mile from home. Like the mother of urban legend who lifts a Chevy Nova off her trapped little girl, Lapham hoisted Spencer in her arms like a baby and started back down the trail.
“He was in shock and all he could do was lick me,” she says. “I was breathing hard, and all I can remember is that he was licking my mouth. But I was determined. I wasn’t thinking that it was gross. I think that the adrenaline really kicks in, and you know what you have to do and you do it.”
Lapham rushed Spencer to her veterinarian, who examined the dog and took X-rays. The vet couldn’t find a break, so assumed there had been some damage to the spine—an injury Missoula isn’t equipped to handle. Like Mazzola, Lapham was told the treatment options: euthanasia, permanent paralysis, or head to Washington State University Animal Hospital in Pullman to look at the spine.
“The doctors at Pullman told me, ‘whatever you’re doing, drop it and get in your car and get your dog here as soon as possible,’” says Lapham. “It was the longest drive of my life.”
In Pullman, doctors confirmed that Spencer had a traumatic intervertebral disc extrusion. In layman’s terms, two discs had exploded and collapsed, and were strangulating his spine. They had to operate to relieve the pressure if he was ever going to walk again. So Lapham waited.
“I spent a lot of time sitting in this vet hospital. For three days I just sat there watching people come and go,” she says. “There was this one lady who had this beautiful rottweiler, and this dog had cancer. I saw the doctor telling her that the dog had been through months of chemo, and it just wasn’t doing it. The dog just looked like it was miserable, and I thought, ‘I do not want to be in that position.’ You’ve just got to know when to let go.”
Over the three days, she thought about what was best for Spencer. She remembered her first sick dog, and decisions she’d made years ago. While in college, Lapham had found Hailey abandoned on the beach. The dog was wriggling in the sand and clearly ill. When Lapham arrived at the vet, the doctor told her the dog had swallowed something she couldn’t pass. To live, the dog would need surgery to cut out a section of her intestines. Lapham could have walked away, or she could have stayed and committed herself to the dog. If Hailey survived the surgery, Lapham would have to pay for it. She committed to the dog.
“Ironically, I got my first credit card two days before,” says Lapham. “I didn’t max it out, but I came close.”
Since then, Hailey hasn’t been cheap—she’s also had a knee reconstruction—but her recoveries have always gone well, which encouraged Lapham to do all she could for Spencer.
“I don’t have children, but I’m married, so our animals are our kids,” she says now. “I’m fortunate that I have disposable income that I can spend on something like this. But they are a responsibility. They are people to me.”
Added up, Spencer’s veterinary expenses came to about $4,000. Costly, but eventually effective. A few months’ salary is what I thought you were supposed to spend on an engagement ring, not a dog. But the way Lapham talks about her animals, I’m inclined to think she’d find the necessary money one way or another, even if she had to max out her Visa card. Another set of lessons learned from experience: When it matters, you can carry a dog three-quarters your own body weight a mile; and $4,000 is a small price to pay to see your dog walk again.
Spencer’s recovery hasn’t been full, but it’s been good. And Lapham hopes there’s still room for improvement by utilizing more unorthodox methods. Like Mazzola, Lapham has turned to Patti Prato for advice. Instead of homeopathy, Prato recommended that Spencer try acupuncture.
Prato’s Four Paws Acupuncture Clinic looks nothing like the vets’ offices I’ve been through in the past few weeks: Carpeted, with soft lighting, the room is decorated with pictures of happy dogs and cats, a model dog spine (Prato also practices dog and cat chiropractics) and a poster illustrating the energy pathways throughout a dog’s body. The office—in the basement of the Central Pet Clinic, where Prato also practices traditional veterinary medicine—is above all tranquil. Until, that is, Spencer notices someone new in the room. He jumps up from the large, soft dog bed in the center of the room and attacks me with dog kisses. He struggles a bit moving around, but he’s in true Lab form—energetic and happy to lick any stranger’s face.
He’s wound up, but with a tummy rub from Prato and head pat from Lapham, he’s quickly down on the mat again. As Lapham cradles his head, Prato pulls out a sheaf of small needles. Usually, it takes about 10 needles, she says.
“You don’t want to use too many,” says Prato. “It’s like a string of Christmas lights. If you have a whole string of Christmas lights, they are going to shine dimmer than if you have just three or four.”
The first one goes into the top of Spencer’s head. I wince, but he doesn’t respond. Well, maybe he’s responding on the inside, but he doesn’t appear agitated or in pain, or even to notice.
For Spencer, much of the treatment is designed to manage pain and increase energy. Like most dogs—Labs are especially difficult—Spencer wasn’t too willing when he first began coming to Prato. But after two or three sessions, he knew what he was there for and went straight to the mat, says Lapham.
“I really think it helps Spencer, because when he walks in here and lays down, he practically falls asleep,” she says. “It’s not that he walks any better, but the look in his eyes is a look of relief.”
Acupuncture isn’t cheap at $30 dollars a session. Money well spent, says Lapham. She has worked so hard with Spencer on his recovery; she doesn’t want to stop short of doing everything she can for him.
“I already spent more than $4,000 on him,” she says. “What’s another $500?”
Like Mazzola, who tried the homeopathic route when she reached the end of her rope, many of Prato’s clients subscribe to an oh, I’ll try anything at this point outlook. It’s not so much that they’re skeptical of the method, but rather that having exhausted so many options, they’re accustomed to poor diagnoses, even as they cling to the hope that there may be a wonder cure left unexplored.
Both Lapham and Mazzola were won over by Prato’s willingness to explore any and all treatment plans.
“She’s my hero,” says Mazzola. “She has the kind of mindset of both the conventional and the non-conventional. A lot of doctors would have never recommended a holistic doctor, because that’s against their beliefs and theories. She was giving me all the options. That’s what makes her so awesome.”
Prato knows that there are limits to acupuncture and “doesn’t like to over-promise people.” But she says she’s had a lot of luck with the technique. She especially notices the effect it has on her own dogs. One of Prato’s dogs, Polly, a Burmese Mountain dog, is having liver problems, which Prato treats with acupuncture and diet. She can’t tease out which treatment is most effective, but knows that every time Polly gets the needle, she’s more energetic. She has also outlived her life expectancy.
As the session goes on, Prato sends a tiny jolt of electricity through a few select needles to stimulate the muscles. It’s clear to me that my education on sick dogs is reaching a new plateau. Spencer—a crazy Lab like my own—is almost asleep, so relaxed he’s nearly rolling over on the charged pins.
This is something I might try. Not for myself, but for my dog.
When Prato begins pulling out the needles, Lapham comments that she’s having some back pain of her own, and echoes my thoughts—the thoughts of a thousand people in sick dog world.
“I’m willing to do it for Spencer, but not for myself.”
Lapham has articulated the line of demarcation between dog owners and dog lovers. Somehow, without knowing it, sitting on the floor in front a lab full of needles and electricity, I’ve fallen into the latter category.
The bars on my cell phone are getting taller and taller, indicating that I’m finally able to make a phone call. I pull over just south of Kalispell and call my vet to get the latest lab work before his office closes for the weekend. This is when I find out if I’ve got an episode of ER on my hands.
Yes, there are kidney problems. The vet is going over the lab work, meaningless numbers that correlate to words I don’t understand and can’t spell, but I’m getting the gist of it. The vet says the kidneys need a flushing to wash out waste she’s not processing, and we need to start on Monday. Something involving a constant I-V drip, a procedure I never thought I’d associate with veterinary medicine. But now—thanks mostly to the needles poking out of Spencer’s scalp—I’m harder to shock.
Thanks to the wonder dogs of sick dog world, I have a different perspective. Cancer can claim a leg, but not a dog. Total hindquarter paralysis can be turned around. The fear remains, but it’s tempered by hope.
Again, owning a dog has turned into making a list. But this list has a strange Lance Armstrong-meets-the Bionic Man feel. It’s riddled with human clichés twisted to fit dogs. Fight for life. Never give up. Give it your all (even if you have to borrow someone else’s). Be fearless.
I’m not really a fearless type of guy, so I resolve to manage my worry, remembering that dogs have overcome far worse than a kidney flush.
Diamond dogs: How to spoil your pet on $50 a day
The difference between Go Fetch and Le Petit Outre is so subtle it’s hard to pick up on. Don’t believe me? OK, which one am I describing: Behind the clean glass are baskets full of delectable ginger cookies, pumpkin muffins, garlic bagels, and power bars. So the power bars gives it away—a classic French bakery would never have power bars.
Go Fetch manager Goldie Nixon sees every day the type of people who buy gourmet snacks for their dogs, the type who use words like “dogoggles” (doggie goggles). And she sees how a store like Go Fetch can succeed.
“Everybody that comes in, we chat about dogs and share stories,” she says. “I think it’s pretty clear that the owner and the people who work here are really jazzed about dogs, and most specifically dog health.”
Touring the tiny store, Nixon points out some of the high-end dog wares. Piled to the ceiling are dog foods made with brown rice (USDA human grade brown rice, naturally), potatoes, apples, carrots, cottage cheese, alfalfa sprouts and eggs. In the freezer are three-pound bags of “complete dog meals” for $12 a pop.
“There aren’t a lot of people who eat this well,” she says.
In another corner of the store are the money-back-guaranteed indestructible rubber balls and bones. They aren’t actually indestructible, but a dog can go through a dozen tennis balls before they’ll go through one of these, says Nixon. There are also puzzle toys and organic snacks and British Columbian hemp ropes (this is Missoula, after all).
While Go Fetch may be the latest and hippest, other local stores have been moving toward the high-end products for decades. Sue Neff, owner of Neff’s pet store, stocks all the hot, must-have toys, including the Wiggly Giggly, which squeaks and beeps at your dog as it rolls it across the kitchen floor, and the puzzle ball, on which you can record your own voice, so even while you’re at work you can egg your pooch on: “Get the treat Fido, come on boy, get that treat!” Neff’s store has been around since 1975, and she’s seen the change in toys and diet.
“There’s a lot of dog food out there that people think is good that isn’t so good,” she says. “When you become a label reader, you learn.”
Even in the beginning, Neff never stocked Puppy Chow—she even winches when she hears the brand name. She says she always stocked the best food she could, which in the ’70s was Science Diet.
“It definitely is not the food it used to be, even though they haven’t changed it,” says Neff.
Once you’ve got the organic diet and Wiggly Giggly, you’re ready to take your dog to the next step. You need professional grooming in what is essentially a spa for dogs. Nothing against Dog Logic’s great free-range kennel, but Shannon Lynnes’ Havre kennel is simply unbelievable. Lynnes’ primary occupation is director of the Montana School of Professional Dog Grooming. She’s one of only 17 certified master groomer test administers, but on the side she runs a small kennel.
“All of the guests [dogs, that is] that stay in our resort have their own color TV and daybed to sleep on, and we have two suites, the Cowboy Cove and Victorian Suite, where they eat out of crystal dishes,” she says. “The price is $26 a day, so you could actually check your pet into the Days Inn for cheaper than what we charge.”
Lynnes is also a certified pet massage therapist who does deep tissue and pressure point massage. And who doesn’t enjoy a good soak after a rub down? Her whirlpools can accommodate anything from a Chihuahua to a Newfoundland.
So why aren’t you treating your pooch right? Maybe your excuse was that you didn’t know what was available. Well, now you do. And how can you possibly deny your best friend a pumpkin muffin and deep tissue massage?