A Farewell to Russel the Dog -Part 1

by Abe Cooper
(West Palm Beach, FL)

Russel and his toys

Russel and his toys

Saturday was a day that inevitably had to come but it came much too soon and much too suddenly. It was the day we put Russel to sleep.

I sit here writing this farewell late in the evening because I can’t go to sleep. I am overcome with a kind of grief that only a pet lover can understand. The somewhat pathetic thing about my grief is that Russel wasn’t even my dog. He was my daughter Alexis’s dog.

You see, Alexis decided one day in her senior year of college that her life wasn’t chaotic enough. So she convinced her boyfriend, Matt, to drive her to the animal shelter to adopt a dog. She hid the fact of her newfound puppy from her mom, Lucy, and me for over four months. We were not very happy when the news of her new, four-legged roommate was finally disclosed to us. I seem to recall that Alexis broached it very matter-of-factly one day on the phone by asking what we thought about the idea of her getting a dog.

Since we had owned an incorrigible golden retriever when the kids were very young, we advised her that while the idea was commendable, if she were to commit the act of adopting a dog it would be punishable by grievous bodily injury. It was more than just a bad idea; it was a terrible, horrible idea. Her mom rattled off at least 30 good reasons why a dog in college was a colossally lousy idea.

Alexis could barely take care of herself, let alone be responsible for another living and breathing creature. How would she feed it? How would she house train it? How would she walk it every morning, when she could barely get out of bed to go to classes? How would she pay for pet food and the inevitable vet bills? And most of all, how would she give the dog the constant care and attention that it needed and deserved, when there was no routine or consistency in college life? There were just too many “hows” with not nearly enough good answers.

As usual, Alexis had her younger sister, Lauren, also going to school in Gainesville, do the actual dirty work of informing us that Alexis had in fact found a puppy at the pound, brought him home, and then officially named him “Russel.” He was named after one of the young campers at the summer camp in Maine where Alexis and Matt had worked the previous summer. Camper Russel had apparently made enough of an impression that they lifted his moniker for this little puppy.

Russel was a mutt but an adorable one. He was mostly cavalier spaniel with some Papillon thrown in for good measure. He had most of the markings and attributes of a cavalier with a beautiful light brown and white coat and a sense of nobility, except he was much higher strung and bossy. In the few short months since birth, he had managed to urinate in virtually every corner of the small Gainesville condo unit we had purchased and renovated for our daughter and which she now occupied with this urinating machine named Russel.

Someone then convinced her that it was unfair to have a puppy home alone all day, while she and Matt were ostensibly attending classes. We never found out who that genius was, but I am firmly convinced that it was the devil incarnate. So in less than 6 months, Alexis managed to acquire not one dog but two. This time a purebred cavalier spaniel which she named “Bauer” after the character “Jack Bauer” in the TV series “24.”

With two puppies in tow, Alexis soon realized that the little condo was no longer adequate for raising her litter and she eventually moved to a full-fledged home on the other side of campus. Calling this house a “home” is really committing an act of fraud. The house was in terrible shape. It had a sag in the middle of the roof that put the back of an old lame horse to shame. It also had old knotty pine walls and ceilings stained dark brown. Stepping inside, you felt like you had entered an oversized coffin.

As bad as the condition of the house, its location was even worse. The house was located well below street level in what looked like a ravine. I later came to learn that it wasn’t a ravine but a large sinkhole. Apparently it was a dormant sinkhole, but a sinkhole nonetheless!

You may ask, what convinced Alexis to rent this rat trap? Well, it wasn’t the house nor was it the location. What really closed the deal for my discerning daughter was that it had a fenced in yard. After all, she had to have a fenced in yard so that the puppies would have a place to play during the day and not be cooped up inside. Well, to call the area behind her house a yard is to perpetrate a second fraud.

There was not a blade of grass in this “yard.” It was one giant weed patch that had more discarded, broken beer bottles than a frat house alley. We managed to clear the yard of all glass and other perils, such as giant fire ant nests, and secure the fence and gate so that no physical peril awaited the unassuming puppies. But when it rained, water from almost the entire neighborhood would make its way down into the sink hole, I mean her back yard, creating a virtual mud bowl. Almost all of that mud made its way from the yard, onto the puppies, and then into the house. She lived in one of the few places where you put on boots upon entering the house rather than leaving.

Alexis soon realized that the backyard was not all it was cracked up to be and so joined a rather expensive dog park, where the dogs could run and play with other dogs. Russel liked to hang with the much bigger dogs, always careful not to get trampled underfoot.

That summer, Alexis decided to go back to the camp in Maine again. We would by default have to take care of her dogs for the summer. I did not mind summer dog duty. In fact, I relished it. I would take them for long walks every morning before work and every evening upon arriving home. The high point of my day was hearing the two little dogs barking as soon as I pulled into the garage. As I entered the house, they would jump all over me, each one trying to outdo the other in licking me. We pampered and catered to these dogs.

Russel was the real mischief-maker and the leader. He loved to play fetch with his many toys that squeaked when bitten. He loved to chase after Bauer in the backyard and play cat and mouse with him. He knew we would scold him if try to take a piece out of the more docile Bauer so, instead of a direct frontal assault, Russel would run rear-end first into Bauer, knocking him over and then Bauer would reciprocate.

Russel also loved to go for long walks through the neighborhood, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. After walking a few blocks, he would just sit down quietly, ever alert, soaking it all up. In the hot summer evenings, he would make a beeline to any home that had the sprinklers on and just roll around in the spray until he was soaking wet.

Cats and squirrels made him go absolutely bonkers. He could spot a squirrel at 50 yards. He would chase the squirrel up the tree and then leap up against the tree as a squirrel taunted him by staying always just out of reach. Soon Bauer learned this technique of stalking squirrels. Russel was always on the prowl for cats. He would look under every parked car because he knew this was a favorite haunt for these mysterious felines.

By the end of the summer, I knew where every dog, cat, and squirrel lived or habituated and the garbage cans to avoid that usually had errant chicken bones lying around. After a long summer walk, upon returning to our yard, Russel would step down onto the first step of our swimming pool and sink into the cool water and take a long drink. Bauer, as always, followed Russel’s lead. I would then lie down on a chaise longue and Russel would hop up and nestle at my ankles. We were best buds. The dogs would also sleep on an ottoman at the end of the bed and upon awakening, out we would go again for the long walk and start of another day.

In the fall, the dogs returned to Gainesville. But Russel was just not himself after the summer. He was sluggish and had this hangdog look. He was also throwing up fairly often. The Gainesville vet could not find anything wrong with him and chalked it up to the “stress” of returning to Gainesville after spending a relaxed and carefree summer with us.

None of us knew it at the time but Russel was developing pancreatitis, which is a debilitating disease of the pancreas that strips a dog of the ability to digest food and which can lead, as it did in Russel’s case, to type 1 diabetes. Type 1 is where the pancreas is incapable of producing precious insulin that metabolizes blood glucose - the fuel that runs the body and brain....


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Farewell to Russel the Dog -Part 2

by Abe Cooper
(West Palm Beach, Fl)

Over the course of the next year or so, Russel’s digestive problems persisted. The following summer, Alexis moved back home for a summer job, with her dogs in tow, who by now were inseparable.

Russel‘s physical problems were becoming more pronounced. He would be ok for a week or two and then he would have terrible pain in his stomach where he would hide under the bed for most of the day or two and wimper. When he would come out, he would lift his rear end high in the air and drop his front end down like a cat stretching but he would stay in that position for quite a while. He could never find a comfortable position to rest and just looked like he was in agony. He wouldn't eat for a day or so until the painful bouts of gut pain subsided.

We brought Russel to our local vet who found through x rays and ultrasound that Russel had full-fledged pancreatitis. He was placed on pain killers and antibiotics. After doing further research, we found that pancreatitis results in the pancreas becoming enlarged and inflamed with the digestive enzymes of the pancreas eating away at the pancreas. It is extremely painful and life-threatening. Some dogs, especially young ones, are just genetically predisposed to the illness.

Through a course of extreme diet control, feeding him smaller portions of very low fat food multiple times during the day, his symptoms abated somewhat.

Fall was approaching and Alexis would be returning to Gainesville. She decided to move again to a house near the law school. She would be saving us money by living in a small house with three other roommates but four girls in the tiny house along with two dogs, one sickly, just wouldn’t cut it. Not to mention that the lease prohibited dogs.

So again, we accepted the two dogs for the fall. Alexis returned to school and kissed her dogs goodbye in between tears. The dogs and we settled into a nice routine. Besides the ritual morning and evening long walks, we would also take them some weekends to a dog beach where they could frolic and play in the sand and surf and then return home for a outdoor shower and well-deserved long sleep.

Early in October, Russel started losing weight. The more food we fed him the more weight he seemed to lose. Meanwhile Bauer, who was always skinnier than Russel, was starting to pack on weight since he was also eating three plus meals a day but smaller portions than Russel. Russel was also starting to lose his fur. By mid-October, Russel starting urinating in our back room. We started him on an even lower fat diet and added a digestive enzyme to mimic the enzymes his pancreas no longer produced.

By November, Russel had lost almost five pounds from his small 18 pound frame. You could feel every bone in his body. He was not only losing fat but muscle as well. Russel was no longer the happy, carefree dog we had come to love. He no longer played fetch or played cat and mouse with Bauer. He slept an inordinate amount of time and when he wasn’t sleeping, he was drinking large amounts of water to satisfy an unquenchable thirst and eating large quantities of food to satisfy an unquenchable hunger. We were concerned about diabetes and had the vet check his blood glucose levels and were told they were in an acceptable range.

Last Saturday, we celebrated a wonderful event in our lives. Lucy’s dad, Phil, had turned 90. Lucy had been planning a party at the house for many months and had invited friends and family from around the country to celebrate Phil’s 90th birthday. Lucy’s older sister, Cindy, came in from Seattle a few days early and stayed with us. After watching Russel for a while and seeing his insatiable drinking, Cindy concluded he was diabetic. She knew because she had once had a dog that was diabetic that displayed the same symptoms. She implored us to take Russel to the vet as soon as possible since it was a matter of life and death.

Saturday morning, before the big afternoon party, we took Russel back to the vet and they confirmed that his blood sugar level had more than spiked dangerously high. The vet recommended that, because of Russel’s other complications and now with full-fledged diabetes, we consider putting him to sleep on Monday.

Alexis and Lauren drove down from Gainesville for the weekend to celebrate Grandpa Phil’s 90th birthday. They were to return to Gainesville on late Sunday. During a lull in the activities, we explained just how serious Russel’s condition had become and the vet’s recommendation. The idea of putting him to sleep in a couple of days was just too much for the girls to handle.

I personally could not bear the idea of putting Russel to sleep so soon so it was decided that we would seek a second opinion first. The girls said tearful goodbyes to the dogs and headed back to Gainesville Sunday afternoon.

We found a specialist, a vet internist, and he confirmed Russel’s condition Monday morning. A dog ophthalmologist at the vet clinic also explained that Russel would go blind since cataracts were already forming from the extremely elevated sugar levels in his blood. Expensive cataract surgery was available but the ophthalmologist was also worried that the eyes were inflamed and could lead to permanent damage to other parts of the eye. He prescribed steroidal drops as a stop gap measure. We started Russel on low-dose insulin to maintain him until the girls came home for Thanksgiving.

Part of our concern was that even if Russel could be stabilized with insulin therapy and even if he was a candidate for cataract surgery, and if he did not develop other complications or infections from the pancreatitis, in the best of outcomes, which was not likely, how could Alexis take care of a dog who, for the rest of his life, needed to be on an austere diet of multiple feedings a day and on a rigid insulin injection schedule. Not to mention the expense and many visits to the vet that would likely be needed.

Russel no longer slept on the ottoman at night. Instead, he would crawl on his belly under the bed as if instinctively to hide from any predators in his weakened condition. We knew that the decision on what to do with Russel really had to be made by Alexis. She felt too guilty about putting him to sleep and that in her mind the responsible thing was to do whatever it took to keep him alive, even if it meant saddling her life.

Sadly, Russel never made it to Thanksgiving. On Saturday, he woke up and after crawling out from under the bed, he couldn’t even open his eyes. I accompanied him outside very slowly and then watched him as he walked right into one of our huge flower pots near the pool. He was totally blind and his eyes were again inflamed. Bauer immediately sensed that things were terribly wrong and he walked along side Russel, shielding him from banging into other objects as Russel tried to walk in the yard to find a place to pee.

When I lifted Russel up, I could feel his body trembling and his life energy just seemed to be flowing out of him. A decision could no longer wait until Thanksgiving. It had to be made now.

We called the girls and explained the dire condition that Russel was in. Alexis wanted to drive down with Lauren from Gainesville to say goodbye. But the last thing we wanted was to have our two distraught daughters driving all that distance and then drive all the way back. We all came around to the reality that it was unfair to prolong Russel’s agony. After two long emotional phone calls with our daughters, they accepted the inevitable. We would call them when Russel was put to sleep.

We gave Russel one last meal of all the dog foods he had been deprived of these many, many months. He ate ravenously. We called the local vet and drove to his office shortly thereafter. We took Bauer along as well because Cindy had recommended that Bauer needed to see and smell that Russel had died for his own peace of mind.

I held Russel in my arms as Lucy drove to the vet. Russel was calm as I told him that everything was going to be ok. We arrived at the vet and I carried Russel into the office. We went into one of the examining rooms with Russel and Bauer. I placed Russel on the examining table in a sitting position, as I had done many times before. I held my hands around his body so that he would not fall.

The vet came in. Lucy and I said our last goodbyes. I cupped Russel’s head between my hands as I had often done when playing with him, as the vet administered the injection. I said, “We will miss you, sport.” The drug took effect almost immediately and Russel slumped down and was placed on his side. He looked so peaceful. We brought Bauer up to the table so he could see and smell Russel one last time. Lucy ordered a beautiful box for Russel’s ashes. We called the girls to let them know that Russel was finally at rest.

Sunday morning, we took Bauer to the dog beach. It was a beautiful morning, the air was crisp, and the ocean was riled up from the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Surfers had turned out in full force to take advantage of the November waves.

Bauer and I went for a really long walk. It was the kind of long walk Russel used to love to go on before he got sick. At the beach, we would run along the shore, Russel chasing shore birds. Then Russel would flop down and stick his head deep into the sand sniffing and then pull back up with a face full of sand and the biggest smile.

Russel, we will miss you, sport!

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