This week we’re delighted to welcome back foster mom Amber Kizer. You’ll remember her because of the wonderful tribute she wrote in June to her ODH dog Max. Amber is going to take us on a journey that will take several weeks to complete so look for Part 2 on December 3 and Part 3 on December 17. The blog is longer than usual, but each word is important so sit back and enjoy the story of Sweetie.
Anyone who has fostered will tell you that unlocking the secrets of an animal’s past and puzzling out their personality—or building their resume—can be both the most satisfying and most challenging parts of the process. With old, sick, or injured dogs this is especially true—the puzzle is the puzzle. It can be a scary thing opening to unknown wounds and traumas, and as we readied for our third ODH dog since January, I was looking for a couple of specifics that would fit our family best. The dog needed to be okay with cats, as the three in our household are family members. And since I’d gone back to work recently, we’d need a dog who could probably-most-likely-possibly be okay being left alone (after a couple months of settling in). Both of these can be tricky to pin down given the backgrounds and situations ODH dogs come from—everyone makes their best guesses. Including us, of course, but they are just guesses and gut feelings.
The end of June her picture and bio popped up in the ODH feed. “Pit Mix Girl.” She was fine with cats at the shelter. Maybe reactive to some dogs. Best guess was she’d be fine by the end of August for the times humans weren’t home for company. She had a large mammary tumor that would need to be removed, or the cancer may have already spread—which meant we might have her for a few days, or we might have her for a year. If the cancer was already in her lungs, she’d have a great few days in a home with us, and lots of love before her send off. She might be a short-timer or a Final Refuge with more time. It could go either way and there was no way to know ahead of time.
Now, full disclosure: we had absolutely no idea what the mammary tumor looked like—it’s a bump, right? Maybe a large lump, but only a lump.We were warned it was large. Maybe in other circumstances I’d have Googled images, but it really didn’t matter. She’d been picked up wandering the streets of Bremerton, obviously had litters of puppies in her past, but the rest was blank. Within a few hours of asking about her, we found out the tumor was “opening.”
Opening? Like a curtain? Like a flower? In hindsight, like a horror movie. But this change meant her time at the shelter was short. Very short. The shelter vet wouldn’t subject her to recovering from the extensive surgery in the shelter environment, so if we were taking her we needed to move quickly. But it seemed she’d be a fit (for however long we had her) and we weren’t saying no. Bring on the opening tumor.
This was Monday before the Fourth of July and we live on Whidbey Island. Ferry lines can be brutal around holidays. Fantastic volunteers drive great distances to deliver dogs from shelters to their ODH homes, but this was a holiday, had fantastic weather, and might prove a tough sell. We didn’t want her sitting in ferry lines at Mukilteo, and walking her across might work, but her tumor was large enough it would garner attention. Other passengers might think we were cruel in letting her tumor get so large and call us out, or call the police before getting the full story. Remember, at this point we really didn’t know what shape she was in, or what exactly this tumor looked like. Could she tolerate walking across with lots of people and traffic? Maybe. Should she? Not if there was another way.
A sweet friend was coming to the island to visit and with a quick check on ferry reservations to Coupeville from Port Townsend (thankfully there were plenty available) Alex could pick her up in Silverdale, drive north to get right on the ferry, and come down the island. Averting Mukilteo ferry lines and getting her to our home as quickly and as trauma-free as possible. We were a go for pick-up and transport.
Alex picked her up bright and early on July third from the Silverdale Humane Society and “Winnifred” quietly and sweetly rode in the backseat as if they were old friends. She didn’t need to wear the satellite dish because she was more interested in looking out the window than licking her tumor.
They arrived around lunchtime with a file of paperwork, medications, and an “OMG-that’s-a-mammary-tumor?” Picture a black and white dairy cow with a painfully swollen udder. Now, conjure up scenes from Sigourney Weaver’s Alien movies where there’s clearly something trying to break inside-out. Now, overlap those images. I’ll even admit I wasn’t sure if I was seeing intestines in those wounds, or just the inside of the tumor itself. It was gross. And it looked freakishly painful. The tumor dragged her belly so low to the ground her teats brushed the earth and sitting required her to carefully position her belly. But she wagged her tail as if conducting a symphony of gratitude. Mostly black she had a spill of white down her face, front and toes, as if she tipped the cereal bowl up too high. A straight white line runs down the middle of her neck—perhaps her name should be “skunk?”She didn’t respond to the name Winnifred at all. Maybe she’s deaf?
This tumor had to be emergent, right? It oozed and left bloody prints behind her. Not terribly much, but enough that I didn’t feel comfortable waiting through the Fourth to get her seen by our vet. Judith was all hands on deck via email—ODH sees a lot of mammary tumors. Girls who don’t get spayed have a high rate of incidence and the tumors can progress rapidly. Often once tumors are large, the cancer has metastasized to the lungs and operating doesn’t prolong life. We’d need x-rays to find out if her lungs were clear—if not, no surgery.
Normally, I’d get a dog settled before the first vet visit, but we were on a tighter timeline with this tumor, and the holiday, and nothing about it fell in my “normal” category. Our vet saw us quickly at the end of the day for meds and supplies to help us get through. Whidbey doesn’t have a 24 hour vet so holidays and late nights can be tricky. And if I’m honest, I needed our vet to reassure me that Winnifred’s tumor wasn’t an emergency and could wait until the following Tuesday for the surgery. The tumor was massive enough, so the vet needed quite a block of time set aside for the x-rays and to operate. Winnifred took another car ride and a vet visit all in stride. I, on the other hand, had lots of questions. How do we keep it clean? Is it normal to ooze? Doesn’t it hurt?
Armed with answers and instructions on how to make a bra/girdle to help carry the tumor and keep it clean, we left the vet’s office feeling less like extras in a sci-fi thriller. At least I did; I’m fairly sure Winnifred thought aliens had taken over her body. The weight of the mass was probably more annoying than painful as the tumor didn’t have nerve endings to signal pain. Yay that.
The next biggest challenge became Winnifred’s name. She didn’t respond to it at all. She didn’t even seem to acknowledge the sounds. Winnie. Fred. Win. Ed.We tried every combination, not sure if she’d start to listen to it once she knew us, or if this name just wasn’t a match. Or was she deaf?No, she responded to voices and she wanted to bond, but not to Winnifred. Maybe she’d never had a name.
Over the next few days we tried every dog name on every Googleable list and it was the “S” and “T” sounds that seemed to resonate the most. Of course, she was sweeter than a candy factory and the endearments were easy. She’s such a sweetie.A couple of times she responded to “Spot” but not with real enthusiasm. Sweetie, however, rang bells for her and we said it so often that weekend we quickly learned she was “Sweetie.” It worked for her. Why keep trying others?
The ace bandage girdle slipped off the tumor when she laid down. Trying to keep it covered with a standard wrap was nearly impossible. The ace bandage wasn’t wide enough for staying power. She didn’t seem to notice but we sure did. Here let me put that back on you, Sweetie. Again.
Sweetie didn’t have much (if any) infection, and though on antibiotics, things would get dire very quickly if infection set in. An old cotton nightgown was conscripted. If Victoria Secret knew the things that nightie and an Always pad did! Though padding might be more comfortable, thick pads caught when she moved and flipped the tumor out of her girdle, so ultra-thin Always were the next try. Through all of it, she patiently waited for us to tie her tumor up against her belly. It seemed as though she was more comfortable—as comfortable as anyone might be given the size of the mass. She didn’t mind us handling her, or the tumor, though we wouldn’t have blamed her a bit if she was grumpy about it.
Sweetie went to bed early and slept through the night. But when the sun came up she didn’t move. We waited another hour. No stirring. She was still alive, but deeply asleep. Her tongue hung out of her mouth and stuck to the bedding. We’d never had a dog who didn’t need to pee the moment our eyes were open. Usually before human eyes are open. Sweetie on the other hand, was fearful when we tried to coax her. She didn’t want treats. She didn’t want to be touched. She didn’t want to get up. Fourteen hours since the last time she’d pottied and she wanted nothing to do with it. Or us. Total shift from the day before.
Eventually around ten thirty, Sweetie crawled along the floor. Not rising. But tentatively wagging her tail waiting for us to do something she was afraid of. We gave her room. Our backdoor opens into a fenced dog yard so she could have access to potty when she was ready. Noon. She had to be ready, right? If two of us neared her, stood over her, or even appeared to be moving toward her, she’d cower. So lots of space and a single human were the adjustments we made. Filling in the blanks in her past as we waited. Once she was fully awake, she seemed to orient, but this morning routine took weeks before she wouldn’t cower and crawl first thing.
Once Sweetie ventured outside, she loved lying in the sun. She slept with eyes closed and one ear tipped to the birdsong. Deep breaths and deeper sighs. July provided a lot of rays for her to soak up. She adored being able to go from the outside fenced area to heat up, head to the inside to cool off, then go back out again. Over and over again.
If Sweetie rolled around on her back, nothing kept the tumor covered and that mass picked up grass clippings, dirt, bits of rock, and even a bug. Bath time. Is bathing okay in this situation?Reassured that bathing her wouldn’t make anything worse and she’d probably feel better washing off, we placed her in the tub. Her head was covered in pockmarks and scars. Her ears had no visible ear canal and felt like scar tissue. One ear was ripped. She licked at our arms and hands, wouldn’t make eye contact or lick our faces. Pieces of her puzzle began to take shape.
Her tongue rarely stayed in her mouth and seemed to have a mind of its own—it might lick left, then go wide right. No teeth. She ate with gusto and the dribbling mess of kibble in a toothless mouth. We found out later she does have teeth but they were all mostly filed down to the gums. So of course she wasn’t into chewing on the toys and bones available to her. Of course her tongue hangs out when sleeping.
Those days before the looming x-rays felt vitally important. They might be her last. Lots of time in the sun, treats and love, space to just be. Those were the things we focused on. But when we dropped her off that morning we knew we’d done right by her. If this was all we could do, it was enough. The vet would put Sweetie under, take the pictures, and proceed to surgery if her lungs were clear.
We waited to hear.
Lungs clear. Surgery moving forward.
Sweetie would be coming home that evening tumor free and the next chapter would begin.