Over two years ago (actually, it was the day after my truck got stolen), I was standing around in my kitchen when I noticed both of my dogs — Zebbie the Beagle and Tiger the English Springer Spaniel — were sitting very still and staring at me very intently, their tails wagging excitedly. This meant that they wanted something, because when they’re content, they mostly ignore me.
“Do you want to go outside?” I asked, and they both howled excitedly that yes, they wanted to go outside. I started toward the stairs and they followed, in fact, they cut in front of me and darted down the stairs simultaneously. About halfway down the stairs they collided, and I heard Zebbie, who is about 20 pounds lighter than Tiger, yelp in pain. That had happened before, but this time he seemed particularly distraught, and sure enough, he refused to put weight on his left rear leg for the next week. I knew I’d have to take him to the vet, and I remember wondering if, at some point down the road, this would end with him losing his leg. It seemed like an extreme worst-case scenario, but still.
The vet confirmed, as I suspected, that Zebbie had torn the ACL in his left knee. He said I could fix it with surgery or just let him try to ‘play through it’, which would leave him limping and never properly heal.
I went with the surgery. It cost over $500.
After the surgery I was told to keep Zebbie on a leash at all times, even indoors, so he would avoid trying to run, jump, extend it or whatever (you can’t just tell a dog, hey, you have a torn ACL, sit still for a month).
Two days after the surgery, Zebbie was lying on the floor, and when I stood up to go into the other room, he stood up, and yelped in even more blood-curdling fashion than when he hurt his knee the first time. I knew immediately he’d re-torn the knee and essentially flushed that $500 down the toilet. It was kind of a fluke thing, and the vet had warned me that this was a possibility, and that it was pretty much impossible to go back in and fix it so soon after the first surgery. So Z was pretty much screwed.
Over the course of the next few months Zebbie limped around on three legs, only putting his bad leg on the ground when he was in a full sprint or when he was standing completely still. But gradually he used the leg less and less, and just within the last few months, it started to swell up pretty bad. I hoped it was just scar tissue in the knee, and while his hip had kind of atrophied and his range of motion had become less and less, I hoped that would be the worst of it.
Then a couple months ago, just before Christmas, I was in the kitchen when I saw blood on the kitchen floor. I assumed at first that one of them had lost a tooth or a toenail or something, but as I looked closer I saw that the trail of blood led into another section of the kitchen, where there were pools of blood. As much blood as I’ve seen before. In a panic, I grabbed both of the dogs and ushered them out on to my patio to inspect them, and I saw that blood was literally spraying out of Zebbie’s swollen knee. He was completely unaware, obviously feeling no pain at all, but a bright pink blood was leaking all over the patio (the stain is still there). By the way, it was a Sunday night, so taking him to a vet wasn’t really an option.
Me and the lady friend did our best to wrap his leg and tie him down, and the next morning we took him back to the vet. They gave him some meds to treat what appeared to be an infection, and eventually the wound mostly healed.
But it was apparent that without a constant supply of the (very expensive) meds, the problems would continue, and when I took Zebbie back for a second visit, the Doctor feared that Z might have cancer in the leg. His recommendation was amputation. My original fear come to life.
I need to point out here that the vet, Dr. Todd Carr of Prairie Creek Pet Hospital, is a really good guy who’s been very good to both of my dogs after I had a bad experience with another vet earlier, and he never sounded the least bit worried about Zebbie’s well-being through any of this. He assured me that a rear-leg amputation isn’t really a big deal for dogs, especially small ones, and that Zebbie would probably eventually be more comfortable just being rid of the painful, infected leg.
But once I made the appointment, it was really hard to not be pretty well freaked out about it. Still on the meds, Zebbie had more energy than he had since before he got hurt in the first place. He was (very gingerly) using his bad leg for support. Every time I looked at him I looked at his left leg and thought about the fact that he was days away from having it totally removed from his body.
And I felt terrible about it. I felt like it was somehow my fault, that I had failed as a dog owner/parent by not being able to properly ‘fix’ his leg.
Yesterday morning I woke up at 7 to take him back to the vet. Of course, as if to make me feel even worse, he seemed as happy and energetic as I’d seen him in months. He barked excitedly when I grabbed his leash, and raced a couple laps around the back yard. It seemed like he was using the bad leg a lot, but that might have just been my guilty imagination. I felt guilty that he was in such a good mood and had no idea what was about to happen to him.
But I dropped him off (for the fourth consecutive time, he left a present on the tile floor just minutes after our arrival), and again, the nurses (is that what they call veterinary assistants?) were very nice and reassuring, not sounding at all worried or upset about the fact that they were about to put my dog to sleep, chop off his leg and throw it in the garbage.
I came back to get him several hours later.
“How is he?” I asked nervously.
“Oh, he’s fine,” one of the nurses told me. “He took a painkiller so he’s pretty well knocked out, but he’ll be OK.”
Then she went back to get him. When she returned, the sight was, well, horrifying. I guess I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it was worse. They shaved the back half of his body, of course, which just made him look more sickly, and the entire leg was gone. They didn’t just remove it above the bad knee, they took off the whole leg. Being that he’s kind of a long and skinny dog, he sort of looks like a seal now. And also, he’s a male dog, and with a rear leg gone, his, um, maleness is now even more exposed than it was before, which is kind of gross (I thought about posting a picture, but you really don’t want to see it).
He was barely awake when we picked him up (and the cost brought the grand total of treating Zebbie’s injured knee to over $1,000), so I carried him to the truck and into the house. When I set him down on the floor it was hard for him to walk. Before, when he had been limping on a bad leg he still walked straight, but now that his bad leg isn’t even there his equilibrium is totally thrown off — that leg probably represented 10% of his body weight. So now instead of walking normally with one leg held up off the ground, he tries to put his one hind leg in the middle, tripod style, which twists his knee in a manner that frankly makes me nervous. It looks like he’ll figure it out eventually — he was able to walk up and down the two steps on my front porch to go to the bathroom — but it’s still really hard to look at him. It’ll be better when his hair grows back, but for now he kind of reminds me of a zombie that had one of his arms ripped off and just keeps walking around without it.
It’s pretty horrible, but I’m just glad he’s alive, and that hopefully his troubles are over. Zebbie will be 10 in August, but I never considered putting him down. Aside from the bad leg he’s very healthy and happy, for any dog, let alone a 10-year old. But it’s still surreal and depressing to see him with three legs. Three-legged dogs have always been kind of a sad joke to me, something you only see in freak shows and movies, and now I have one. I don’t think I’m going to get used to it anytime soon.
My other dog, Tiger, has no idea what the hell is going on of course, so it’s going to be a constant struggle to keep him away from Zebbie and his stitches. Again, you can’t just explain to a dog what’s going on, and it’s not Tiger’s fault for being curious about what’s going on with his brother’s body, or not being able to understand why he’s suddenly not allowed near him.
This has been long and rambling but I would guess anyone with a dog can understand. It’s easy to think, Oh, they’re just animals, if they get hurt that bad you just put ‘em to sleep and get a new one (or not), but it’s never that simple. Not only do you eventually get far more attached than that, but you also come to feel very responsible (I’m aware that all of this probably sounds silly to anyone with children) for them. Even more so than kids, dogs depend on their owners for absolutely everything. You are literally all they have. My dogs and I are close — there are few things I enjoy more than spending an evening watching TV or playing video games with them at my side. When I went through a divorce three years ago, they helped me get through it. They knew what was happening and they did their best to be there for me. If you’re rolling your eyes at that, you’ve never had a good dog.
Zebbie is 10 and Tiger is 9, but they still get nervous and afraid and panicky once in awhile, because they are dogs. The mere sight of me or the sound of my voice is all it takes for them to know everything is going to be OK, and I think that’s why this whole amputation thing affected me so much. When you think about it, that’s a bigger responsibility than you probably realized you were signing up for in the first place, and when you have to take one in to get his leg lopped off, it’s easy to feel like you failed.
The next month or so is going to be awful, trying to keep Zebbie and Tiger both from chewing on his stitches, and trying to reteach Zebbie to handle himself in the back yard while his perfectly healthy brother runs circles around him and occasionally tries to play rough.
With any luck, a year from now Zebbie will be happier and healthier and I’ll know I did the right thing, and Z will be well on his way to several more years of health and happiness.