We’ve been dealing a big health scare with Penny. It’s frightening because we don’t know the exact status of her condition or what is causing it, and it’s uncomfortable because it has caused us to start talking about very difficult end-of-life decisionmaking.
Penny is having gastrointestinal problems. We’ve had to buy her special food, and at times she can’t keep it down. If you know Labs, you know that is a warning sign; normally Penny would gladly eat her own weight in just about anything. Last week, things took a turn for the worse. Penny was losing it from both ends without regard for what she was doing, leaving our carpets terribly stained and the house smelling like a latrine. She also was disoriented, apparently uncomfortable sitting, and moving and wandering aimlessly.
Thursday Kish took her to MedVet, a local emergency room for pets. They concluded that she had a severely inflamed stomach and intestinal lining and was dehydrated. They kept her for two days, gave her intravenous fluids, prescribed steroids for the inflammation, and did a scan and biopsy to try to determine the cause of the problem. The fluids helped her disorientation, and the diarrhea stopped.
We brought Penny back home on Saturday, with her belly and bands on her forepaws shaved, and have held our breath hoping that she is okay. So far, she hasn’t had any accidents — thank God! — her appetite seems to have returned, and this morning she had a solid bowel movement, which was a cause for minor celebration in the Webner household. That’s the way it is if you are a pet owner.
We still don’t know why Penny had this problem in the first place, though, and we’re waiting on the biopsy results to see if it was caused by disease, environmental factors, or something else. In the meantime, Kish and I have talked about the possible scenarios. If Penny has a disease that leaves her unable to control her bowels, what alternatives do we have? She’s a house dog, not an outdoor dog, and her prior bout with this problem was intolerable. How comfortable is she? If she does have a disease, what are her prospects?
The discussion includes difficult, almost mathematical calculations. Penny turns eight next month, and Labs typically live to 11 or 12. If she has a problem that could be addressed by surgery, what would it mean for her likely life span, and what would her post-surgery quality of life be like? If it could be treated by medication, would it have side effects? And lurking behind all of the scenarios are uncomfortable considerations of cost. Penny is a member of the family, but if the news is bad how much should we be willing to pay — on top of what we will have to pay already — to give her another few months or a year?
This kind of decision-making is profoundly difficult and depressing. I don’t want to be the Grim Reaper, making life-or-death judgments about a pet. We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that the tests indicate that this was a one-time thing, and dreading what we might have to decide if we get bad news instead.