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The Gus Diaries: The End Game?


The nights are worse than the days. Last night, he was obviously in pain, although he didn’t yelp or yowl, except once: a short, sharp cry, which awoke me just as Gus was jumping off the bed and headed for the bathroom. I got up, stroked him, comforted him, picked him up and brought him back to bed, because I know that he prefers being with me when he’s distressed. Once back in bed, his pain must have continued, because instead of dropping quickly off to sleep as he usually does, he constantly shifted position. He seemed to want to be as close to me as physically possible; it felt like he would have burrowed into my body if he were able. He finally took up a position—for the first time ever—atop my head. His little body was draped over my skull (I was on my side), his front paws in my face, his rear paws cupping the base of my neck. It wasn’t the most comfortable position for me. I have various forms of arthritis, and I, too, have to frequently shift around to relieve my own pain. But Gus finally seemed comfortable, and there was no way I was going to force him to move. So fifteen minutes, maybe, were spent in this way. With his head, chest and belly literally touching my head, I could hear his internal grunts and sighs. My poor little darling, I would do anything for you, just tell me what to do.

In the morning I called the vet where he has the oncology and surgery appointments this Thursday. It had occurred to me that I don’t fully understand why our regular vet had me make the specialist appointments before we actually have a diagnosis. (I should have asked her at the time, but I was too shocked and confused to think clearly.) The oncology receptionist agreed. “Normally,” she said, “we’d need the results of a test.” Will we get the biopsy results back before Thursday? I don’t know. The receptionist suggested keeping the two appointments. I can always cancel if the results aren’t back yet, and there’s no cancellation fee.

I also Googled “bone cancer in dogs” and found many results for “osteosarcoma,” which is the term his vet used when she said she suspected he has bone cancer. Such tumors are “highly aggressive,” another term she used. Osteosarcoma apparently most often strikes a dog’s limbs, but cases in the skull are not unknown. Then I Googled “bone cancer in dogs, skull,” and there were many hits. From my reading of them, it’s not good news. The cause is unknown. The cancer can metastasize to other parts of the body. It’s extremely painful. You can always amputate a dog’s cancerous limb and the dog will do quite well afterwards, but you can’t amputate a dog’s skull or snout. The most common treatment is radiation (chemotherapy is not recommended). If the dog responds well to radiation, it might live for as long as a year.

My greatest fear, in fact, is of Gus having a severe pain attack in the middle of the night. If you’ve been through something like this, you know the feeling of helplessness and panic. Your dog is suffering; it’s 2 a.m. and there’s no one to call except for the vet’s emergency number. I think our regular vet was thinking of all this when she advised against “any further treatment” if in fact Gus’s diagnosis is osteosarcoma in the skull or nasal passage. Because it’s “highly aggressive,” even though Gus might be relatively okay today doesn’t mean that in twelve hours things will not go rapidly downhill. This raises the possibility of putting him down this week, as soon as the diagnosis comes in (assuming it’s osteosarcoma). Putting down an animal that still has a pretty good life quality is a lot harder than putting down an animal that is obviously in the painful end stage of disease. I had Mr. P. put down when he had zero quality of life, was shitting himself, not eating and could barely stand. That was a no-brainer. Gus still wags his tail, loves going out for walks, inhales food, has very proper, even dainty sanitary habits, enjoys belly rubs and is curious about his environment. To put down a dog under those circumstances goes against every fiber in my body.

I’ll call his regular vet later this morning when they open. I know it won’t be easy getting through to the office; I’m just as likely to encounter a busy signal, or be put on hold for a long time, as for someone to actually answer. I want to ask the vet when she expects the biopsy result, and what should we do if it comes in, as feared, with osteosarcoma as the diagnosis. I want to ask her, too—and this is hugely important—what I’m supposed to do if he’s in pain at night and I can’t get through to the office, or, even if I can get through, they tell me they’ll all booked up for a week. That is the nightmare scenario. Is it legal to put your dog down by yourself if things get bad enough? How? Could I actually do it?

This is all happening fast—three weeks ago, there was no problem—but in a way, it’s unfolding slowly enough for me to begin to get used to the idea of Gus dying. Well, not that I’d “get used to it,” but at least, I’m mentally prepared for that possibility. I’m playing all these scenarios out in my head, which means my brain is starting to adjust to the reality of his demise. It won’t come as a complete surprise, which means it won’t be a complete shock. The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away.

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