We live among highly-decorated old veterans, my boyfriend and I. Rather than military medals and survival tales, these veterans have medical miracles and wagging tails. They’re survivors of every near-miss that’s come hurtling headlong into their paths: cancer, fractures, pancreatitis, amputation. It’s a hard job, being an old dog, but these guys certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves.
When we met four years ago it was a bonding point between me and Glenn: sharing stories about our aging dogs, floating from misty eyes to belly laughs over stories about the puppy spirits shining out from behind their graying muzzles. His old man is a Golden Retriever named Dylan; mine is a big Black Labrador mix named Levi — now the patriarchs of our two-household clan of four dogs and three cats. Through the years, our old dogs have provided countless other bonding points as we’ve navigated sleepless nights of worry, life-and-death decisions, and many more misty-eyed moments of wonder.
Three years ago, 10-year-old Levi started limping after jogging or playing fetch. Hip and knee pain are common in old dogs, especially high-energy types like Levi who play until their tongues drag. The x-rays of his hips and knees were normal, but the limping continued even after anti-inflammatories and two weeks of rest. Sometimes he cried out while running, holding a trembling leg off the ground, but he’d recover in seconds and drop his ball at my feet, eager to resume. Eventually an angry lump erupted from his ankle, and new x-rays revealed a half-dozen fractures in a leg weakened by cancer.
This was an especially scary cancer, the highly-aggressive osteosarcoma. It’s a grim diagnosis: even after amputation, patients usually survive about a year and a half before the cancer recurs in more fatal form. Without amputation, Levi’s pain would be unmanageable and vets advised euthanasia. But would my ball-crazy athletic dog be miserable as a tripod? Wagering that any dude willing to run on a broken leg would learn to run without it, I tearfully kissed him between his lopsided ears and watched him hobble away for surgery.
Incredibly, all this happened four months after Dylan had slipped on the kitchen floor and couldn’t get up. X-rays revealed such a severe spiral fracture of the femur that doctors suspected bone cancer. After a night of white-knuckle worry, Dylan had surgery to reset his leg, which turned out to be cancer-free. Old dogs recover more slowly, taking gingerly sling-assisted potty breaks before returning to the memory-foam mattress. But soon enough, Dylan was back to his ambling walks around the neighborhood.
Having already survived severe pancreatitis as an eight-year-old, Dylan championed his way through this ailment as well, until one day he landed on the floor again, flailing and afraid. This time it was the dizzying inner-ear condition known as Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome. After a few more weeks of sling-assisted potty walks coupled with anti-nausea medication, the 13-year-old Golden Boy rebounded to his usual happy, shiny self. That is, until a rapidly-growing lump sprouted from his haunch. This time, at age 14, it was cancer.
Aggressive treatment would mean radical surgery to remove muscle along with the tumor, which might be a perfect choice for a young dog. But, for this gray-faced warrior, the right choice was a smaller surgery to remove the bulk of the tumor, allowing 15-year-old Dylan to again amble through the park.
Every time he chases his ball, I know Levi’s amputation was the right decision as well. Having far outlived their prognoses, these old boys are savoring their twilight years in comfort. The days of radical surgeries and aggressive treatments are behind them. These days it’s acupuncture for Dylan, water therapy for Levi, and arthritis medication for both.
Old dogs bring an unmatched sweetness to our lives. Dylan still greets new people the way he did when he was five, leaning his soft blonde forehead into the space between their knees. A few weeks ago Levi unexpectedly vaulted himself onto the couch next to me, which he hadn’t done since his surgery. We dabbed our eyes. “He’s just so remarkable,” we said. “I love our old guys.”