“Hello… Are you the vet who comes to peoples houses?” the voice asked me gently over the phone. “We have a lovely old wolfhound, and he’s got a sore leg, he really seems to have become unwell very quickly. Could you come and have a look at him for us?”
My heart sank. Most old wolfhounds who suddenly become lame are not long for this world.
“Yes, I do come to your home, and I just happen to have some free time later this afternoon. Will you be home then?”
“Yes, of course…”
I worked through the day, vaccinating a litter of puppies, re-visiting one of my old friends with arthritis to top her up with painkillers, and see how she was travelling. It was wet, wet as only the tropics can be during the monsoon- sheets and sheets of rain hammering at my window, the wind screen wipers frantically failing to keep the glass clear for more than an instant. I had my gum boots on, because that was the only way to get home with dry feet. The gutters were racing torrents, but at least it was coolish, and not swelteringly hot. I wound my way through the streets, gathered up my bags, and made a run for it from the car to the front door.
“Come in, come in,” they welcomed me. “The old fellow’s on his bed. It’s his left hind leg that’s troubling him. He’s a bit arthritic, and has slowed down a little this last year, but he was fine until yesterday, when he started limping a bit on that leg. Today it’s all we can do to get him off his bed. He’s been the most amazing, wonderful dog; one in a million…”
There was a huge, shaggy mound on the king sized dog bed. A tail the size of my wrist thumped a few times as he saw me coming, and he reached out his nose to give me a sniff. His eyes were pools of suffering, and the muscles of his face were wound up tight with pain. I sat beside him, gave him a pat, and gently examined him. Nice pink gums, temperature normal. I went through the checklist, listened to his heart, avoiding the leg until last.
I gently palpated down his femur, the big bone that stretches from the hip down to the knee, watching his face very carefully as I did so, with a featherlight touch. As I got close to the knee, I felt a big bony swelling, and as soon as my fingers touched this, I saw his face tighten even more, and he gave me a look. I patted him on the head ’till he relaxed, and then, even more gently, felt around until I could work out what was going on. Below the knee, his leg was fine. When I finished, I sat there and scratched his ears while I talked to his mum and dad.
“I really don’t know how to tell you this,” I said to them both, sitting there, faces drawn with worry… “He has an osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bone. These big fellows are particularly prone to these cancers. The only possible treatment is to amputate the leg, and seeing as he’s 8 years old, and already rickety with arthritis, I don’t think you’d get a good outcome. Otherwise, the kindest thing will be to send him off gently and easily, with lots of love…”
They looked stunned, and the lady burst into a flood of tears.
“I’m sorry I’m being such a sook,” she said. “We had a feeling it was something bad, but to actually know is a bit of a shock.” Her husband was silent, pale, jaw clenched tight against his grief. “Could we give him some pain relief, and keep him going for a little while, another week or so, do you think?”
“We could try that,” I explained, “but these cancers often don’t respond well to pain relief at all, so I will give you some meds for him, but please ring me as soon as you need me to come if they aren’t helping him feel better.”
I dispensed the drugs, whacking huge doses of them, and bolted back through the rain to my van. I sat there for a moment, feeling sad. He was a grand dog, I could tell that by how he allowed me to work with him, even when it hurt. I knew in my guts I’d be back sooner than they’d like me to be too. Sure enough, the next day they called me up, because he was obviously in a world of hurt. I went back, straight away, rescheduling my day left and right on the run as I pushed the speed limit all the way to their door. The rain had dropped away to fitful showers, and the sullen gray loom of the sky suited the occasion only too well.
“He’s not doing so well, even with the drugs?” I asked.
“No, they don’t even seem to be touching the sides, really, and we can’t keep him going on like this,” a brave, grief stricken voice told me.
I had a dose of sedatives, strong ones, loaded up, and I gently eased the needle into the muscles of his rump, and squeezed it in. We all sat with him, and within five minutes or so, his staring look softened, his breathing eased, and his face relaxed as his head gently sank down onto the bed. I placed a catheter in the vein on his front leg, and then we all sent him on his way, with love. It was a sacred, powerful, and blessed privilege to help this grand old man on his way, and as his breath slowed and stilled, the room seemed filled with light and power. I could see how much love this fellow had touched his peoples lives with.
“Thanks so much,” his mum said to me around a scrunched up wad of tissues. “That was so beautiful and peaceful, how you helped him go…”