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Fionna: No Regrets
Back in 2013, we were at a nearby dog rescue shelter, spending time with an Australian cattle dog we had pretty much decided to adopt. We liked the dog, and she seemed to like us, so it was just a question of making the official decision.
The lady who ran the rescue must have questioned whether we were committed to that particular dog, however, because she asked us if we wanted to meet a couple of other dogs she had. We were already pretty sure we’d be adopting the cattle dog, but for some reason we said sure, why not? It might be fun to meet these others.
The lady returned with two small dogs. Both were dachshund mixes, but their personalities couldn’t have been more different. The short-haired one (who had been given the placeholder name “Spicy”) was energetic and playful, so bouncy that it was almost impossible to take a picture of her. She was cute and friendly, but quite honestly insane; such a dog would be more than a handful.
The long-haired dachshund mix (“Cocoa”) was a bit older, very quiet, and reserved. She was content to let us hold her, and she was like a small warm pillow. She rested passively in my arms for several minutes before spontaneously turning around and licking my face. When I eventually put her down on the ground, she walked right next to me, not bounding off and pulling at her leash like all of the other dogs were doing. As we got ready to leave, she jumped up on my leg as if to say, “Can I come with you?”
I did my best to hold a firm line. We were there to make a final decision about adopting the Australian cattle dog, and we’d reassured ourselves that she would be a good fit. But that evening as we talked, it became evident that my wife had fallen in love with “Cocoa.” And I had to admit that she’d made an impression on me too. We waffled, thinking maybe we should consider adopting the little dachshund instead of the cattle dog; but then there was also the insane idea that we could adopt both dogs. After all, the dachshund was so small and quiet we probably wouldn’t notice her. Thus ran the argument, anyway.
We told our 14-year-old daughter about this latest complication, and she said she wanted to meet this little dachshund. (“I think dogs with short legs are hilarious,” she said.) So we arranged another visit, this time with the sole purpose of introducing my daughter to “Cocoa.”
It would be an understatement to say that they hit it off. Never in my life have I seen a dog bond with a specific person so quickly and completely. No more than five minutes after they met, I took a picture of my daughter lying on the ground with “Cocoa” sprawled comfortably across her. They were already inseparable.
So, of course, we ended up adopting both dogs; the cattle dog we named Ella, and the dachshund mix Fionna. (The unconventional spelling was intentional: we named her after a character on Adventure Time, one of my daughter’s favorite TV shows.)
I’ve lived with 12 different dogs in my life, and every single one of them has had a distinct personality. Ella is a good dog; she is quite possibly the world’s laziest Australian cattle dog, smart but also an idiot in the way dogs are so good at. Fionna is a living plush toy, a quiet dog who can be a loudmouth when she wants to remind everyone who’s boss. And she has been my daughter’s constant companion through what has turned out to be a very rough decade. No matter what else has been going on, and there has been a lot, Fionna was always there. She doesn’t wear a special vest, but she definitely provides emotional support.
Now, I have always been a dog person, but I’m also a practical-minded kind of guy. I never forget that pets are not children; I hate the term “fur babies,” and I do not refer to myself as their “dad.” And on some level, I always thought it was a bit crazy when people spent huge sums of money on expensive veterinary treatments; we love our dogs, yes, but they are not people, and surely there are limits. That’s what I thought.
Last summer, I was scratching Fionna under the chin when I noticed a lump that hadn’t been there before. It didn’t seem to be bothering her, but it was new, so we made a vet appointment to have it checked out. The vet aspirated some fluid and determined that it was some kind of nerve tumor; he offered a referral to a veterinary neurologist. I hesitated briefly — won’t that be expensive? — but we had to know what was going on.
By this time of the neurologist appointment, it was obvious that something was very wrong. Fionna’s behavior had started to change; she had become withdrawn and distant, and she spent all of her time pacing around the house. She stumbled occasionally and seemed to have lost the vision in her right eye. The neurologist offered to do an MRI — again I hesitated, and again said yes — and the news was not good. It was an aggressive nerve sheath tumor growing along one of the nerves in her face, and the lump under her chin was not the worst of it: it had also invaded her brain, making it inoperable.
The neurologist started Fionna on a course of prednisone, hoping it might temporarily shrink the tumor. It was like a miracle drug. Within days Fionna’s behavior became almost completely normal again. It was a reprieve: we’d thought that the Fionna we knew was already gone, given her personality changes, and we had desperately wished for just a little more time with her. She was back, for at least a little while.
The prednisone was just a stopgap, but it suggested that she might respond well to radiation therapy. This was not an easy decision, though. The radiation treatments would not only be very expensive, but would also present logistical challenges: we’d have to drive forty minutes to the N.C. State vet school and drop her off every morning, and then make the same drive to pick her up every afternoon, every day, for two weeks. This would require some schedule shuffling, a lot of time in the car, and a lot of stress on the dog. Again I hesitated. But in the end, I realized that it really wasn’t a question.
I want to be clear: I understand that we are fortunate that it was even an option for us. Had the same situation arisen a few years ago, it wouldn’t have been. But now, we did have the money, even if we had other plans for it. I couldn’t face the idea of letting the cost be the reason we said no. We all agreed that if we had to forgo a vacation the next year, that was a sacrifice we were willing to make.
Mostly, though, I realized that it wasn’t for the dog’s sake that I was willing to go to such lengths. It was for my daughter. Of course, I’d always known that someday we would lose Fionna; it’s part of the deal you make when you adopt a pet, and there’s no avoiding it. But this illness had come on so suddenly that we just weren’t ready to let her go. We didn’t know how much time the radiation treatment could buy us, but we wanted that time.
Fionna weathered the treatments well. She hated the ride to Raleigh every morning, and she complained impatiently all the way home; but she suffered no serious side effects. And it seemed that the treatment worked: even after we discontinued the prednisone, Fionna’s personality remained intact. She was still herself.
But the right side of her face was paralyzed, which meant she could no longer blink her right eye. This led to an ulcerated cornea that surely would have been very painful if she had had any feeling on that side. It also meant she had to learn new methods for eating and drinking, since her mouth didn’t work quite right anymore. Then she began to suffer from balance issues — probably from the tumor pressing on her brain — which meant that she adopted a permanent head tilt.
Eventually, the tumor under her chin, as we knew it would, started to grow again. It didn’t seem to bother her until it began to ulcerate through the skin, and she had to start wearing an “Elizabethan collar” cone full-time so she wouldn’t scratch at it. Her balance issues have worsened, eating and drinking have become more difficult, and the lump under her chin has occasionally started to bleed.
All the while, Fionna just adapted to whatever came her way. OK, I have to wear this cone now. Fine. Oh, my tongue doesn’t work right anymore? I can work around that. Wait, now the whole world is tilted 45 degrees? All right, I can adjust. She has had to put up with two different eye ointments and five different pills administered multiple times a day. She has suffered the indignity of frequent trips to the bathtub to clean her up after episodes of bleeding.
And gradually, it all took its toll. She started falling down the stairs to the yard, so we started carrying her. Then she started stumbling and falling while walking across a level floor; more often than not she just stayed wherever she fell, deciding she didn’t really need to go wherever it was she was headed.
It has worn her down, and now she’s done. Exhausted. Today she refuses to eat, and she hasn’t had any water; she has spent the day lying motionless, her eyes open, seemingly not in pain but just waiting for it all to end. And that is the one thing we can still do for her: one last difficult decision over which I hesitate before doing what I know has to be done. The vet agrees that it’s time, and so tomorrow afternoon he will come here so we can say goodbye and let the poor dog rest.
Like I said, every dog I’ve ever known has been unique. But Fionna is one of a kind, and I wish I could tell her how much we appreciated her accepting us and coming to live with us for the last ten years of her life. I hope we made it worth her while.
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Yea, that decision is a terrible one to have to make but it’s just a part of the loving life you have given that dog. We have enough room that there is a small dog cemetery up in a fenced garden. We agonized over the end of life decision for every one of those dogs and I know we will do it again for the two living with us now.
That is the only fault of dogs, I have learned. They just don’t have a long enough lifespan.
I’m very sorry for your loss of Fionna.
I am so sorry, you describe your girl so fully and lovingly I would know her on the street. Your pictures of her are perfect. I believe Heaven has room for all of our canine friends – what would eternity be without them? I’m sorry.
I’m sure from the love expressed in your post demonstrated that you made her life very special. It is so painful to lose a dog; I’m so sorry.
Having a dog or a cat put down is always a painful act, if you have anything like a human heart. My sincere and appropriate condolences. Your did well by Fionna in your post here.
I’m so sorry . . .
Doggo lifespans are just too damn short.
Click on this for one of the great tributes (there is some swearing):
My Dog: The Paradox
Awful dusty in here . . .
It’s so awful to have to make an appointment, isn’t it? To know the exact time your heart will be torn apart. To make everything until then the last time. I hate this part so, so, so, so much. Sometimes this needs to happen, and we know we mustn’t lose courage because it right and we know it. But for a long time afterwards, we agonize about whether it was too soon or too late. Either way, we can’t win because no voice comes down from heaven to say we got it exactly right. But when I said good bye to my beloved Gossamer a few months ago, she kept purring even after her heart stopped. I know it was an autonomic reflex, but I also know that it must have been such a relief when those drugs hit-the first time in a year where she was free of pain and discomfort of that awful cancer. So I like to think she went into the great beyond in peace and that her last thoughts were lovely and maybe even of me…
I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow. God bless you both.
When it was our first set of dogs slowly aging people kept assuring us that we would know when the time was right. I’ve come to believe that it’s impossible to be confident that you have made exactly the right call. Like all important things in life, we stumble through and do our best and that should be good enough.
Beautiful story; thanks for sharing it.
We’ve had 6 previous cats and had to make the decision on 5 of them. Dana always said she wished she didn’t have to make that call. Then the 6th one, Nick, we found last October gone on his favorite chair at only 10. Now she says that was worse than the others.
Thanks for this heartwarming story. Been there. Tough but time.
I have no words.
Ah, gee, ke, just rip out my heart. . .
Always such a hard decision. Thank you for sharing.
I deal pretty much exclusively with cats, but it’s the same story and I get tear-y just posting it again.
I’ve gone through this too. It’s always tough and it’s heart wrenching. My sympathies.
I hope that you and your family are doing OK.
I won’t lie, yesterday was brutal. Today less so, but I continue to be amazed at how a little 12-pound dog can fill a whole house with her personality. It’s a big hole to fill.
But we’ve been down this road before, and I know in time it won’t feel like an open wound anymore.
Praying for you and your family as you come to terms with life without Fionna. You made the right decision at a very tough time. Know she was blessed beyond measure by your love and care.