Read Autumn — Chapter 10
Autumn was seven years old when she began having bladder infections. Always fanatically clean and unwilling to wet inside, she began peeing uncontrollably wherever she happened to be standing when the urge overcame her. We had purchased a dog door insert for the sliding glass door to the backyard, so none of the animals ever had to wait to go potty. Autumn couldn’t even make it to the door. She would get up from wherever she was lying and head for the pet door, then stop and squat, trying to urinate. There would be a dribble, and nothing more. I could see the fur on her back end quivering as she strained to urinate, feeling the pressure, but getting no result.
I took her to the vet’s office near our duplex. Unlike Dr. Fletcher, when this vet would examine Autumn, a technician would take her from me in the lobby and do something with her in the back room. Autumn never liked this. She would pull towards me on her leash as she was led away. The doctors were kind though, and always explained things thoroughly to me.
The vet ran a culture on Autumn’s urine and prescribed antibiotics. She would get somewhat better on the antibiotics, but then the infection would recur as soon as the course ran. I would take her back to the vet, get another culture, get more antibiotics. This went on for several months.
Finally, frustrated, I told the doctor we needed to do something more drastic. The vet decided that we should give Autumn some very powerful antibiotics and work to kill the bacteria once and for all. After the course had run, she seemed better, and did well for several months.
There was a great deal of stress going on in Autumn’s life at this time. Actually, there was a great deal of stress in all of our lives. I had begun my first term in law school, Bjorn was completing his final year of his engineering program, and we got another dog: a Jack Russell terrier we named Poppy.
Bjorn had always wanted a Jack Russell. I saw this dog advertised somewhere and chose her for his birthday. She was living in a small cage in a man’s nearly empty apartment in Gresham. Another dog was in a cage next to Poppy’s. There were urine stains under the cages because he left them there to do their business. It seemed he left them there all the time. If I could have, I would have taken both of the dogs, just to get them away from the man.
The entire time Poppy lived with us, she suffered severe skin infections. She would get fungal infections in her ears that required oozy medications. After she scratched herself bloody, I had the vet run allergy tests, and it turned out she was allergic to about ten different things, several grasses among them. We lived in the Willamette Valley, the grass capital of the world. Not a great place for a dog allergic to several varieties of grasses. Considering all the problems she had, I wondered if the man who sold her to us had bred her in some inbred puppy mill or something. We had not requested her papers, although he offered to get them for us for an additional price. Since we planned to spay Poppy and keep her as a pet, her papers were meaningless, but I wondered later if we could have seen the issues coming if we had known her breeding.
When I got Molly, Autumn was not pleased. She saw the acquisition as a betrayal and competed constantly for my attention. When Poppy came along, however, Autumn enjoyed her new friend. The two of them ganged up on Molly and had a grand time doing it. Molly seemed to suffer more stress over the transition than Autumn did. However, being Molly, she didn’t act out, but spent more time under the bed.
While this was going on, we moved from the duplex to that lovely little farmhouse on two acres in the middle of the suburb.
Autumn loved it. We fenced in about a half an acre in an attempt to provide the dogs with a large place to play and also to attempt to keep Autumn from running off.
All of the dogs seemed to really enjoy this new arrangement. We would let them out in the yard and they would wander around sniffing the bases of the trees, marking each other’s urine, and chasing squirrels.
In spite of the fabulous new digs, Autumn managed to get out and disappear for a couple of hours every week. Ever since she was a puppy living near the field in Tennessee, if she had the chance to go wandering, she would take it. Most of the places we lived had fences so secure that her escapes were not much of an issue. She would return from her adventure and bark at the door to be let in.
Escape was easier at the house in West Linn. Autumn would take off, often for a couple of hours, then back she would be at the door, barking to be let in. We diligently searched the fence for signs of escape, and repaired any areas that looked like possibilities, yet she managed to get out again. Of course.
For a while Autumn did quite well. There were no bladder infections and she seemed happy. Then Poppy starting causing trouble, urinating on the furniture and getting into things and chewing. I almost wondered if Poppy was ruined for potty training because she had been left to pee in the same kennel where she slept for the first nine months of her life.
One evening, Bjorn was in the kitchen cooking, and I was playing with Milla on the floor in the living room. Autumn and Molly were lying on the floor next to me when Poppy jumped up on our nubbly, brown love seat, squatted, and peed. I screeched and jumped up, grabbed her, and tossed her out the back door. The other dogs sniffed the spot, then Molly slunk off and hid, while Autumn looked at me quizzically. Luckily, the love seat was new and came with a cleaning warranty, so we were able to have the urine taken care of, but this was the sort of thing Poppy would do.
Unfortunately, there was no way to lock up just Poppy and leave the other dogs with a way to get out to go potty, so all three had to stay on the porch when we were away to keep Poppy from destroying the house in our absence.
Autumn hated this. After locking them on the back porch, Autumn would bark and bark, venting her frustration. Once she thought I was gone, she would settle down, but soon after the dogs had to start staying on the back porch, Autumn got another bladder infection.
I did not realize it at the time, but I know now that the stress of staying on the porch when she had previously had the run of the house contributed to her getting another infection. And as in the past, it took several courses and a final strong dose of antibiotics to get rid of the infection.
I will never forget the moment one sunny afternoon a few months after she had been off the antibiotics when I let Autumn out to go potty in the front yard, and she peed a stream of deep red blood, contrasting brightly with her fluffy blonde pantaloons. I learned the true meaning of my own blood running cold. I felt my face blanch, and it was as if the world stood still for a brief moment as I questioned whether this was really happening.
I went over and sought to examine the place on the ground where Autumn had peed. The spot was a mix of scrubby grass and hard packed earth. I could not see anything. I called Autumn to me. She seemed to be fine except for the desperate urge to urinate. She continued trying, although nothing came out. Whenever she managed a little, there were chunks of bloody tissue in it. It was gross and terrifying. I thought for sure my little dog was dying.
Heart pounding and choking back sobs, I called the vet. She said to bring Autumn in right away. I grabbed a towel and covered the front seat with it so if she bled again, none would get on the upholstery. I gathered the baby, diaper bag, my purse, and the dog, and we loaded into our compact, green car.
Driving to the vet’s office, I tried to hold back tears, little hiccuping sobs kept escaping my mouth. What if Autumn had cancer? What if she was going to die? Milla sat in the back seat, her eyes wide. She knew something was not right.
We arrived at the vet’s office. The technician wanted to try and get a sample of the bloody urine, so we led Autumn around out front in the strip of grass between the parking lot and the road, hoping she would try to pee. She made several attempts, to no avail. We were ready to give up when she urinated, and some small bloody chunks came out as well.
After the technician took Autumn into the back examination room, the doctor came out to discuss what steps would be taken.
“There are several possible prognoses,” she said. “It could be cancer, but this is unlikely, given the overall symptoms. It could be that she ingested some rat poison. Rat poison causes animals to bleed out. Is there any chance Autumn got into some rat poison?” she asked me.
Anything was possible. Autumn escaped all the time. She also ate anything and everything. I had tried to teach her “Leave it” when it came to food, but this had only ever worked when I was standing right above her, forcing her to leave something alone. She would sit with her head up at an angle, her eyes cast down at whatever food item I was forbidding, a gleam in her eye, licking her chops, hoping against hope I would give in and let her have it.
“Well, we will run the test for that and if she did ingest rat poison, we can take steps to alleviate any harm if we have caught it in time.”
“Okay,” I answered, unsure and worried. There was more. I could tell. The doctor had that anticipatory look about her.
“The other big possibility, and this really matches her history, is Cushing’s disease.”
Cushing’s disease? I had never heard of it. The main symptoms were increased water consumption (check), increased urination (check), accidents in previously fastidious dogs (check), increased appetite (well, Autumn was always hungry, or so it seemed), stealing food (same as hungry), a bloated tummy (check), a dull coat (not so much), and exercise intolerance, lethargy, general or hind-leg weakness (check, check, check).
I was dumbfounded. This described my dog nearly exactly, and actually illustrated parts of her that had been showing up for years, but I had overlooked. She was only a few years old when she began to refuse running with me. Could that have been the beginning of Cushing’s and I did not know it? The vet told me there were other symptoms that also showed up, but these were often the most obvious features. She said it is usually either the increased water intake and urination, or the coat changes which prompt an owner to have their dog examined by a veterinarian, because Cushing’s dogs don’t suddenly become dramatically ill. It is also much more difficult to ignore a dog that is peeing on everything, eating trash, and losing its hair.
The bad news was that Cushing’s was notoriously difficult to diagnose because there were many false negatives. In addition, the medication to treat it was prohibitively expensive. She told me we would rule out everything else first, then look at doing the primary test for Cushing’s. She also thought Autumn should have a scope of her bladder to see what was causing the bleeding.
“How much would that cost?” I queried.
“About 750 dollars,” she responded.
Oh my holy Christ! 750 dollars! There was no way we could afford that, but it seemed necessary to rule out bladder cancer and to try and figure out what was going on in there, because Cushing’s wouldn’t cause bladder bleeding, even if it did seem like all the symptoms fit my dog.
After much hand-wringing and consternation, Bjorn and I conversed and decided we would approach our friends Debbie and Robert for a loan.
I met Debbie when I began working at Oregon State. Poker-faced with a constant smile reminiscent of the Cheshire cat, Debbie worked as a graduate assistant at the university. I worked as a general office assistant. She and I hit it off nearly immediately. We shared the same ridiculous sense of humor, and could entertain one another for hours repeating the lines of simpletons in movies or pretending to dance the river dance. Bjorn and Robert would shake their heads in consternation as the two of us spent hours on the phone laughing until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces at basically nothing at all. Most of what we found hilarious would cause most people to wonder whether we should be incarcerated in a mental institution.
Debbie and I also shared an interest in politics. We could spend hours discussing whatever was happening politically in the world. Debbie was the first person I called the morning the twin towers burned. We sobbed together, realizing the world would never be the same again.
Because Debbie became my very best friend in the entire world and she shared her life with Robert, Robert became a friend as well, and later my de facto father. I never knew my biological father, and was certainly never close to my step-father. In a sense, I had no father figure really, certainly no one had ever filled those shoes for me, so after the birth of Milla, Robert stepped in and took the job.
While I was pregnant, I decided Debbie was the person I wanted there with me as my support. Robert drove most of the time, and on the night before Milla’s birth, when we called them at 3 in the morning to let them know her arrival was imminent, Robert drove. The birthing center where Milla was born provided birthing “suites,” much like hotel rooms. Robert plunked himself down on a couch to wait for Debbie. Debbie took care of me, and Robert managed Bjorn and kept him company.
In the end, both of them were present at Milla’s birth, and forever after, she was Robert’s heart. He loved that child like she was his own. For the rest of his life, whenever he had the opportunity, Robert would tell the story of Milla’s birth and how, after the doctor plopped her up on my belly, he could see her tiny, quivering cleft chin. He then turned his head slightly and saw an identical chin, only slightly bigger, quivering on me.
Robert loved telling that story, and he utterly adored my daughter. Robert also cared for me in his own way, fighting with me when he thought I was being “dumber than a bag of hammers” (his words), or I thought he was being a “stubborn pain in the ass” (mine).
The two also thoroughly understood my love of Autumn and Molly. Debbie has a human child, and Debbie and Robert lived with the previously mentioned cat named Misty whom they loved completely. They cared for our dogs while we were in the hospital after Milla’s birth. They also welcomed our dogs whenever we visited their house. And they knew I would not have considered having Autumn euthanized for the medical issues she was experiencing unless it were the only option.
Between the two of them, Bjorn and I found emotional support often lacking in our own parents. We would have done anything for them, and in this time of need, they provided us with a loan so Autumn could have the tests deemed necessary by the veterinarian. We paid them back a few months later after Bjorn graduated and received a signing bonus at his new job, but if we hadn’t gotten that loan, I’m not sure what we would have done.
And so the tests were begun. After all the blood work and examination on the day she peed blood, nothing was found or conclusive. Rat poison was ruled out, and surprisingly, so was a bladder infection. There wasn’t any bladder infection bacteria in her urine, once they were able to obtain a sample. They also tested for diabetes mellitus, but that was negative as well. Also, based on the blood tests, cancer was unlikely, but the vet wanted to wait for the results of the scope to rule it out completely.
The vet’s office helped us to schedule the bladder scope at the specialist’s office. They also scheduled the Cushing’s disease test, which required that Autumn fast for twelve hours, then come in and leave a blood sample. She had to stay at the vet’s office all day for the Cushing’s test because first the doctor would inject her with a substance called dexamethasone, which was a synthetic steroid. She would then take blood samples four and eight hours later. In a normal dog, the body would recognize the steroid and suppress cortisol. Cushing’s dogs would not suppress the cortisol because their feedback loop was messed up.
After making all the schedules, I gathered Autumn into the car with the baby. She had stopped urinating blood because the doctor had given her something to relax the muscle walls in her bladder. The vet had also dosed her up on antibiotics, as she had the last time Autumn had a bladder infection, even though there had been no signs of that type of bacteria. The heavy antibiotic doses had worked in the past, so she figured we should do it again.
I called Debbie and Robert, and described everything we had experienced so far, all the tests, all the speculation. Then I called Dr. Fletcher and discussed what was happening with him. He asked me to keep him posted and let him know if we came up with a diagnosis.
I wasn’t as scared as I had been before because everything described to me so far could be managed, but I could hardly wait for the bladder scope that was scheduled for the following week. I was hopeful it would provide some clarity into what was going on.
Read Autumn — Chapter 12