Bonnie and Ben (pseudonyms) have been wintering in Mexico for over five years, and have availed themselves of the services of regular pet-sitters to watch their home, cat and dog while they enjoyed la vida buena. Those sitters recently moved east, and we became the chosen few to fill their shoes. We followed directions to the end of a quiet, leafy street, stopped and peered up a long, winding driveway that disappeared into a forest of brilliant red- and yellow-leafed maples and towering evergreens. We looked at each other and smiled. We can handle this.
We drove up through the woods to a rolling lawn and large, gabled house built from reclaimed timber. Ben and Bonnie greeted us from their wrap-around deck, along with their little dog who, in the way of all vertically challenged dogs, yapped like a Doberman. We stepped into a cozy fir and pine home, warmed by a crackling fire. A round, fuzzy orange creature, which looked like a massive caterpillar, hobbled past us and up the stairs. That would be the cat. The very old cat. Over the next several hours, we sipped white wine, noshed on turkey loaf, and traded stories of our experiences in Mexico. The next day they were gone, leaving us to care for their magnificent home and two aging pets. A cake walk, we thought. Until the vertically challenged dog began to present other challenges.
Some of the homeowners we sit for prefer that their privacy be protected, so I make up names for them and their pets. It’s usually quite easy, as the fur balls tend to name themselves just by their look or behaviour. Hence Squeaky and Scratchy. Squeaky is an 18-year-old fluffy-faced Persian (aka The Caterpillar) who is so old he can barely muster a meow when he wants something. Imagine a mouse. With laryngitis. On the outside, standing still, Squeaky looks robust and healthy, young for his age even. When he starts to walk, however, he looks like The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns in a plushy costume. Hunched with arthritis, he’d carry a cane if he could get a grip.
Further belying his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed visage are the bones that jut from his skin, concealed beneath his thick, downy coat, the result of AIDS. A long and randy life cavorting and carousing through the deep woods surrounding his home has caught up with him. Even though I’d never heard of it, feline AIDS, technically called feline immunodeficiency virus, is not all that uncommon. One in 12 cats carries the disease, according to North American veterinary statistics. An AIDS diagnosis for human or animal can obviously be devastating, but cats can live quite healthily for up to six years after being stricken. And Squeaky here is proof positive: despite his frail frame, he has a big appetite, is never incontinent, spars with the younger neighbourhood tom cat (and always wins), and, apart from some stiffness from his arthritic haunches, appears pain-free.
Turns out he’s quite the snugglepuss, too. Every morning he pulls himself up on the couch (alas, his leaping days are over) and squeaks in my face for a cuddle. I gather him in my arms and hold him close while he tucks his head under my chin and purrs against my chest. If I’m in the middle of writing and don’t notice him right away, he’ll scratch at my arm to get my attention. Then he’ll reach his front paws up, grab me by the back of the neck and pull me in for a hug, just like a kid. He’ll stay like that for several minutes, burying his head under my hair, and then he’s had enough. He’ll gracelessly fall off the couch and hobble up the stairs to his owners’ bedroom where he’ll resume his 20 out of 24 hours daily sleep.
Then I turn my attention to the Itchy and Scratchy show that has been going on at my feet while I’ve been canoodling with the cat. The Maltese-poodle-type pooch has his own set of health issues, and after our third visit to the vet in just one month, he was labeled “polypharmacy” (translation: needing a lot of meds). Bonnie and Ben had taken him in after their neighbours moved away and left him behind with the rest of their memories. So they’re not entirely sure of his breed or medical history. At 13, the mysterious maladies of an aging dog are starting to show. Or should I say, smell. The dog had apparently been diagnosed with seborrhea oleosa, which is a fancy way of saying flaky, oily skin that causes bouts of manic scratching. It’s like his skin cells rose up in an inter-cellular battle and slaughtered each other, leaving behind a killing field of dead flakes. When the skin sloughs off (more like flies off under the blur of rapidly thumping claws) it mixes with an over-production of oils that quickly turn into a rancid, fetid sludge that coats his body. Just imagine a concoction of the smelliest blue cheese, blended with chopped rotten egg, and mixed in with a jock’s socks and you’re almost there. Just a few days after a bath, he starts to reek so bad we swear we can see stink waves wafting up around him. Stink, stank, stunk! It seemed too cruel to call him Pigpen, so we settled on another cartoon character, Scratchy.
Bonnie and Ben say they’ve tried everything to banish the odiously malodorous condition, from shampoos, to meds to talcs and lotions, and nothing has worked. On top of that, he has a kind of cough-gag-retch thing going on that had us spooked. When he had finally scratched his neck raw, and coughed till we feared he would faint, we decided to take him to the vet. The good doctor said he had allergies and wrote a ‘scrip for a corticosteroid/antihistamine combo. When we asked about the cough-gag-retch, she told us he had a collapsing trachea. Sounds serious, and it can be, but Scratchy’s isn’t so bad. In severe cases, the trachea — or wind pipe — collapses in on itself and restricts air flow, sort of like a bent garden hose that blocks a full water surge. Scratchy’s trachea is only slightly bent so, while he isn’t getting optimum air supply, he is getting enough to avoid any major treatment (surgery being the only option). For now. We’d just have to live with the cough-gag-retch, and if he will, we will.
The meds for the scratch and stench, however, did little to alleviate the problem. At first we thought it was because he was “cheeking” the pills. We had started off tucking his tabs in little treats called pill pockets, which he greedily gobbled down. But after he actually chewed a few and tasted the bitter pill, he became hip to the trick and refused to eat them. So we started mixing his meds in with his meals, which worked until one day I noticed a soggy pill on the floor. Another day I spotted one hidden under his water dish. Yet another day, when I started to wipe his breakfast from his muzzle, I frowned at what appeared to be bright pink lipstick. Turned out it was a pill clinging to his chin, its neon coating leeching into his white furry lips. Was he actually snuffling around in his food, picking out the pill and spitting it out somewhere else? Dude! From that point on, we crushed the drugs and stirred them well into his kibble. Worked like a charm, until it didn’t work for the ailment.
We phoned the vet for an alternative treatment and, suspecting a yeast infection (which she said would explain his offensive tang), she prescribed an antifungal to be used in conjunction with the antihistamine/steroid combo he was already on. The two meds together brought Scratchy’s itch down by half, and more frequent baths masked the musk. Problem solved. A week later, he nearly died. We noticed he was breathing rapidly — a whopping 72 breaths a minute, at rest. We called the vet and she told us to get him in a-sap; apparently normal breaths for a dog his size should be between 24 and 28 breaths per minute. Yikes. We bundled him up and off we went. Chest x-rays showed he was in full-blown heart failure. On the film we saw his heart was so enlarged it was pressing up against his rib cage. Plus, his lungs were nearly filled with fluid. He had apparently been walking around for years with a heart murmur, a ticking time bomb that chose now to detonate. The stink about the stench suddenly seemed trivial. The vet gave him an emergency injection of Lasix and sent us home with more in the form of tablets.
The good news was, a follow-up the next week showed the meds were working; his heart size was reduced and his lungs were clear. Phew. The bad news was that his new course of heart meds didn’t interact well with his skin meds. So we were back to the nose-plugging pungency of his scratchapalooza. Desperate for some relief — not just for him, but for us — we hit the pet store. The clerk, a self-professed female Dog Whisperer, ran through the tinctures and tonics, lotions and creams that may or may not help with Scratchy’s itch. We loaded up on oatmeal shampoo, “hot spot” spray, a vial of holistic drops, a bottle of lotion that was supposed to be soothing but smelled like kerosene (we kept him away from the fireplace, just in case), a can of sheep tripe (I’ll get to that in a minute), and a bag of dehydrated duck treats if all else failed. Well, of course, all else failed. He scratched through the spray, chewed through the drops and stunk through the lotion. He happily gobbled the dehydrated duck, though. So we turned to that abyss of useful and useless information, the internet.
After reading until the sun slid from the sky and the room grew dark, our heads were spinning. Wait a minute, maybe he doesn’t have seborrhea, we see no evidence of “…increased scale formation … characterized by faulty keratinization or cornification of the epidermis…” as noted in a top veterinary manual. OK then, it really is allergies! Nope. None of the usual suspects lurk in his environment, no dust, no pollens, no grain. The vet was wrong! Then it’s definitely a yeast infection! No, that’s not it. We observed no “…disruption of mucosal integrity, indwelling, intravenous or urinary catheters…” Or did we? What was mucosal integrity, anyway? When did yeast get so honourable? We finally tossed the laptop aside and poured a drink. It’s a mystery to us whatever it is he’s suffering from and, we began to suspect, to the vets as well. Like typical people doctors when they’re stumped, they tend to throw a bunch of pharmaceuticals at you and hope something works. So we kept to his course of heart meds and introduced a half dose of the antihistamine combo, mushed into the vile-smelling tripe. The pet store clerk assured us dogs love the stuff, and sure enough Scratchy did. Well, she was right about one thing . . . Or maybe he was simply attracted to something that out-ranked him, if you know what I mean.
The low dose of antihistamine barely scratched the surface of this dog’s woes so, interested to see what kinds of holistic treatments were out there, we contacted a naturopathic vet. When she wanted a litter of cash to give him a full work-up before hinting that acupuncture would do the trick we said, yeah, no, won’t be doing that. A super-scratchy dog stuck with pins could only equal disaster. The dog forums we perused spewed all kinds of wacky advice but two suggestions that kept popping up were yogurt and cider vinegar. So that’s what we’re doing: yogurt for a possible yeast infection (treatment starts from the gut, with good probiotic bacteria), and cider vinegar rinse for the stink. If nothing else, at least he’ll smell of fish and chips instead of blue cheese and jock socks.