My dog Stuart has low-grade bronchitis. Every so often he coughs in this croaking, old-man way, and he’s been doing it since we adopted him in 2007. He also has a slightly enlarged left heart ventricle, which could be the beginnings of heart disease, and if I elect to treat the bronchitis with steroids there’s a small risk he could go into heart failure. For which the vet would treat him with diuretics. He probably wouldn’t die, but once your tiny doggie heart has failed once, let’s face it: the future ain’t bright.
How do I know all this? Stu’s dog license was up for renewal, and he needed proof that his rabies shot was current, kind of like the canine version of a smog check. God knows we don’t want any rabid miniature poodles terrorizing our neighborhood, so I took him down to the local VCA Animal Hospital for a well-dog exam. A senior well-dog exam, since Stu is the ripe old age of nine.
The package included x-rays, and that’s how the veterinarian diagnosed the bronchitis and the left ventricular hypertrophy. (The good news from the workup? His trachea isn’t collapsed, which is a real danger for little dogs. And his poop was parasite free!) In the exam room the doctor and I discussed the options: I could take Stu to a cardiologist** who would assess, via ultrasound ($300 to $550), his heart function and advise on the pros and cons of a steroid treatment. The cardiology consult would also be a good idea, the vet said, because Stu should have a dental cleaning soon ($400 to $800, depending on extractions), which requires him to be intubated, and it wouldn’t be safe for him to be lying on his side for the procedure if his heart is compromised.
I thought for a minute. “He’s been coughing for years, and it doesn’t seem to bother him,” I said. “What would happen if we didn’t do anything right now?”
“You could certainly try that,” the vet said brightly. “Just track the coughing, and maybe step up with the brushing so you can delay the dental.” She patted Stu on the back. “Oh, I also noticed the tip of his penis is irritated. You can put K-Y on it — that’ll keep the irritation from getting worse.”
I scanned her face for signs of jive. None. So I tried to arrange my own features appropriately. I mean, wow. I love Stu — he’s the perfect dog, hypoallergenic and devoted to me beyond reason — but K-Y? (When I looked all this up later, I figured the vet might have been talking about something called balanoposthitis, or “inflammation of canine penis head and internal layer of foreskin.” Treatment includes antibiotics, daily irrigation with an antiseptic solution, and antibiotic ointment applied to sheath.)
It’s just odd, trying to figure out how much money and effort to spend on a dog’s health. My discomfort is underscored by the people I see in my neighborhood all the time who don’t have the physical resources they need (see “Comfort in Chaos“) — never mind the ongoing orthodontia projects in my household. Is the fact that, in my part of the world, I can take Stuart for acupuncture or naturopathic medicine or get him on antidepressants a sign of enlightenment, or a sign of something weird? Like, what’s up with a society where folks spend money on this kind of animal care but people go hungry?
It comes down to this: I want Stu to be happy and well-fed and comfy. It’s the least I can do for a creature who is dependent on me and who gives me so much delight. If he’s in pain, I will try to get him relief. I’ll even brush his teeth. But I’m not sure about the K-Y thing — I may just have to draw the line there.
** I respect veterinarians and the care they provide. But I do wonder what it’s like to be at a party, sipping some Chardonnay and fielding the typical “So, what do you do for a living?” question, and responding with “I’m a cardiologist. For dogs.”