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Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015

Baby hooded mergansers.

Shown above is a box full of hooded merganser ducklings. How did I come into possession of five peeping merganser babies? Listen, my friends, as I tell you the story of the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

Male and female adult hooded mergansers.
Wikipedia commons.

Hooded mergansers are relatively common on the various ponds around Cutie's house and I've seen the distinctive males, with their unmistakable black and white hoods, as I've driven by en route. I wasn't sure that's what I saw when I passed a stormwater retention pond as I drove to pick up Cutie to take her for a walk, but I gathered this much information as I passed by at 30 mph: a female duck that was not a mallard was hustling into the ditch that lay between the road and the pond with a crowd of ducklings in tow and a crow flying low overhead, clearly interested in stealing a little duckling to feed its own brood. I like crows, but I also like ducklings and I hoped that they would make it to safety. So when I passed by the pond later while walking Cutie, I approached the ditch to see if I could see the ducklings in the water where the male was swimming. I was startled when the female duck, a blaze of cinnamon brown, flushed out of a large drain at my feet and flew to the pond, her crest raised to its full height, intent on drawing my attention away from the drain. Curious, I peered in and saw her little ones swimming and peeping away below. It took me a minute to process this scenario: ducklings in a drain. I took a closer look to confirm my fear: there was no way out of that deep drain unless you could fly. These little ducklings were all baby fluff with nary a wing in sight. And so began, at 4:30 in the afternoon on the 6th of May, the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

Female hooded merganser,
© 2012 Stuart Oikawa, www.allaboutbirds.org

Well, it didn't begin instantly. I still had Cutie on the leash and a walk to finish. But I started planning right then and there. From time to time, you'll see feel-good stories in the news about police or firefighters rescuing ducklings from drains, but ducklings in a drain hardly merit a 911 call, so I formulated a plan. When I got home, I would search the internet for advise on who to call to rescue ducklings. What I found, when I took to Google, was there was no advise. So next I turned to PAWS Wildlife Center. They're the main wildlife rehabilitators around here and they took in two flying squirrel babies that fell out of a nest into our yard a few years ago. I called the center, but had to leave a message. I was coated in sweat from my walk with Cutie and desperately needed a shower, so I brought the phone into the bathroom in case they called back. They did, and I put my the phone to my soapy ear to learn that there was no designated branch of government that they recommended contacting to rescue ducklings. "Do you have a net?" asked the volunteer on the line. I was told I might as well try the fire department--"I'm sure they get stranger requests," she said--and assured me that if the ducklings had been abandoned by the parents by the time they were extracted from the drain, the center would happily take them in. I sped through the rest of the shower, than called the fire house not far from the doomed ducklings. I got a voicemail system. Rather than leave a message for the on-duty battalion chief, I called my father instead. "Are you up for rescuing ducklings this evening?"

The retention pond where the merganser couple planned to raise their family, courtesy of Google Streetview. You can see the drain grating on the lower left.

A closer look at the drain.

A baby hooded merganser in need of assistance.

After a quick dinner, my father and I pulled on our duckling-rescuing togs (i.e., clothes that could get wet and muddy) and gathered up what we figured was essential duckling rescue gear: a cardboard box to store captured ducklings and my father's answer to my suggestion that we bring some sort of stick to herd them toward the net: a small broom. Our next stop was the sporting goods store for a fishing net that would be narrow enough to fit through the grate (whose dimensions I could only estimate) and long enough to reach the ducklings, which I knew to be at least several feet down. We found the perfect net, with a bonus feature of a soft, fine mesh that the ducklings couldn't tangle their little legs in, and then it was off to rescue!

The essential equipment from rescuing baby waterfowl from a deep drain:
a duckling herding broom and duckling scooping net.
This version comes with a curious dog. (Not recommended.)

The larger pipe, perhaps five feet deep, had a smaller pipe within it.
There was just enough room for the tiny ducklings to squeeze
themselves between the two pipes and evade the net.
It's time now to discuss the drain. It takes the form of a large, upright pipe with elevated grating over it. There was a second, smaller upright pipe within it--the whole thing designed for managing and diverting water from heavy rain. The water level in the drain was fairly low, perhaps a foot deep, roughly four feet below the top of the drain. When down on his hands and knees with his arm fully extended, my father could reach the net in far enough to scoop up ducklings, but there was not an awful lot of room to spare. The second pipe within the drain is positioned as you can see in the diagram. There was just enough room between it and the side of the main pipe for little ducklings--who were only four inches long or so and could easily bunch together--to hide. And those baby mergansers had absolutely no intention of being caught! They were fast as the dickens, shooting away at unbelievable speeds, and to our consternation, they could also dive. Our strategy was for my father to position the net on one side of the ducklings' refuge between the pipes while I drove them his direction with the broom. I had to keep the broom low in the water to keep them from diving under it, but it took many, many tries to net a duckling. It was definitely a two person operation and we'd come with precisely the right equipment, but it was no easy task. However, we got lucky: there were five total ducklings and on our first successful effort, two ducklings got scooped up at once. After many more tries, my father managed to land another. And after still more attempts, with the ducklings demonstrating quicksilver evasive maneuvers, the final two got swept up in the net together. My father briefly opened the lid of the box so I could take a few photographs, and then it was on to the next phase of the rescue mission.

Looking down into the Drain of Doom

My father in position to catch ducklings with a net.

The young hooded mergansers, safe in the box.

I had very much hoped that the parents would still be on the pond when we got the little mergansers out of the drain, but between the time I first spied the ducklings in distress at 4:30 and when my father and I arrived to rescue them shortly after 7:00, the adults had abandoned their offspring to their doom. Wild birds aren't sentimental. Not all babies make it and the mother had seen that there was no way out of the drain for her flightless progeny. She had no idea that there was a human being who was plotting to save the ducklings from what would have been their tomb. It was a logical choice. But that meant we had a box of orphaned mergansers to deal with. PAWS was prepared to accept them, but the Wildlife Center was 22 miles from the retention pond. They closed at 8:00. It was 7:40. And my car was almost out of gas. The math was not good. But I called the center and told them we were headed their way and could get there by 8:15 and could they please stay open? They were kind enough to say yes (I should have led with the fact that these weren't mallard ducklings, but merganser ducklings, which are apparently much more fragile and, as the person on the phone said, "That changes everything!") and so we drove off into the sunset, pausing only long enough to put a couple of gallons of gas in the car, the ducklings peeping and scrabbling in their box. My father may have gone just a little faster than the speed limit, so despite stopping for gas, we made it to PAWS at 8:10. We were immediately relieved of the peeping box, had our info taken at the front desk and made a donation toward their care, and thus concluded our part in the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

The five siblings bunch together for reassurance and protection. 

I'm still amazed at this serendipitous turn of events. Had I not seen the ducklings heading into the ditch as I drove by, I would not have known they were there. Had I not gotten slightly lost while walking Cutie, I would not have walked by the pond and thought to look for them. Had I not approached the pond so near to the drain, I would not have flushed the mother merganser and so found the babies. No one else would have known. There is a sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, but not on the side along the pond. No one else would have walked by, much less approached the drain and frightened the mother. No one would have heard their little peeping cries. Those ducklings would have eventually starved in the drain and their skeletons might have been found much later by utility crews, should that drain ever been in need of maintenance. It makes me wonder how many ducklings perish in this way. But this adorable bunch will soon outgrow their spotted baby coats for the cinnamon brown feathers of their mother or dramatic black, white, and brown plumage of their father and will be diving for fish instead of hoping to evade the net and the broom that ultimately saved their lives. 

This little cutie will grow up to raise its own brood of hooded mergansers on a local pond.

Monday, April 27, 2015

In Sickness and In Health: Pet-Sitting

It's been an interesting journey so far in 2015, one that has been marked by two major themes: pet-sitting and health issues.

February landscape.

The first health issue was mine. On the second day of 2015, I got a migraine that didn't respond to medication. While I constantly have new migraines cropping up, most do respond to my medications or, at the very least, I'm able to sleep them off. This migraine, though, didn't budge. My meds didn't make a dent. It was of the type that I call a "brain-in-flames" migraine, which feels pretty much like how it sounds. I also had a nasty black ball of migraine pain behind my right eye. Add fatigue, cognitive fogginess, and the usual sensory sensitivity, and then next thing I knew, I was spending 20 hours a day in bed, unable to do anything more demanding than read children's books.

Imagine that the light in this video of the sun is pain and you have an idea of what a migraine is like.

That went on for a couple of weeks and then I finally contacted my neurologist. You'd think I might have contacted the headache clinic sooner, but I'm pretty much at the limits of what can be done for my migraines, so I wasn't sure there was any point. But I was getting scared that this unending burning migraine with the ball of pain behind the eye was going to be my new normal, so they checked me out and set me up with three days of DHE injections and though the injections didn't really help dramatically at first, eventually the migraine sort of dribbled off. It was followed by an equal number of weeks of postdromal (post-migraine) symptoms, including serious fatigue and unusual sensitivity in my peripheral vision. While the migraine did ultimately go away, it definitely spooked me. There's nothing more alarming when you have a chronic condition to have some new (and worse) wrinkle appear!

Good ol' Mr. Gorgeous

He spends most of his time sleeping now.
As the worst of the headache was on the wane, I looked after my good friend, Mr. Gorgeous the collie, for a few days. Mr. Gorgeous recently turned 14 million years old, a major accomplishment for any dog and truly astounding for a large one. There's simply no getting around the fact that he is, well, 14 million years old and 14-million-year-old dogs don't live forever. His owners had reported that he was doing well, other than the fact that he is ancient and has degenerative myelopathy. I was shocked, therefore, when I saw him. He was skinny and the coat that gave him his nickname was lacking luster, but what really worried me was that he seemed vacant on the inside. Now, Mr. Gorgeous has never been what you might call a genius and he's only got about half a dozen facial expressions (and, I have long suspected, only half a dozen emotions to go with them), but there's always been someone home inside his eyes. This time it seemed different. And then, worse yet, to use the simplest terms, he pooped his pants in his sleep.

Mr. Gorgeous also has laryngeal paralysis, a condition not uncommon in large, geriatric dogs. As vocal cord function decreases, his bark has been reduced to a whispery "hoo! hoo!"

Degenerative myelopathy causes progressive, irreversible damage to the spinal cord, eventually resulting in total paralysis of the hind end. Mr. Gorgeous' case has progressed much more slowly than I'd initially feared it would and while he walks with a flat-footed waddle and can't swing into his old trot without tripping over his feet, he's remained surprisingly mobile and still tackles the stairs on most days, albeit with a bit of a bunny hop. But the paralysis is still creeping onward and when I saw that he'd had diarrhea without even waking up, I was worried that I was looking at the first signs of loss of sphincter control. There's nothing less dignified than a grand old dog with poo-soaked fur and the idea that this is what it had come to really broke my heart. That vacant look, his loss of pleasure in his food, his lack of interest in having his ears rubbed, and that possible sign of the relentless progression of paralysis made me fear for the worst, and when I said good-bye to him when the gig was done, I said good-bye for real, in case it was the last time I saw him.

The end of Mr. Gorgeous?

I've wondered before now how I would fare when Mr. Gorgeous' time came. I'm enormously fond of him, sure, and get a big kick out of him, but have never had that soul-to-soul connection like the one I have with my own dog or with Sweetheart the German Shepherd. I've been taking care of Mr. Gorgeous for five years, the longest of any of my dog clients, so I know him intimately, and I knew I'd miss him, but would I grieve for him? The answer is yes. I cried when I got home that evening and cried again in subsequent days as I faced the possibility of the world without Mr. Gorgeous in it. Maybe I didn't have that magical one-being-to-another connection, but this great-big, good-looking dog had clearly claimed a piece of my heart.

A time for reflection.

I was relieved, then, to learn that all this heartbreak was premature. That vacant look, the accident in his sleep? It was all the result of an upset tummy. However, when his owners took him to the vet for a checkup, the vet did find a serious problem: Mr. Gorgeous needed twelve teeth removed. I had wondered if his lack of appetite (and therefore his thinness) was the result of tooth decay, as is very common among elderly dogs, and his owners had switched him to a softer diet, but the mess in Mr. G's mouth went way beyond some sore teeth and into the realm of impeding disaster. He was scheduled right away for oral surgery, and as it happened, his people had to go out of town shortly after the surgery, so I was called in to play nurse.

Mr. Gorgeous, minus a dozen of his teeth, including all of his lower front incisors.

Feeling better.
The first few days, Mr. Gorgeous was woozy and knocked out almost all the time from his pain meds, but he took his pills well enough if they were dabbed with butter and hidden in food that I hand-fed him on a spoon. He seemed uninterested in drinking his water--I think the extraction sites were very sensitive--so I added more water to his already soft and mushy post-op food and fed him several small meals during the day. He did meander after me as I wandered around his property with a camera, but was unsurprisingly subdued. By the time a week had passed since the surgery, Mr. Gorgeous started to perk up a great deal. He was enthusiastic about his meals (especially if I included some baloney pieces--he was quite unimpressed if there weren't a few snippets here and there among the canned food and mushy kibble and would stare at me pointedly through the door until I added some to his meal) and he started licking his bowl clean for the first time in more than year. He not only wanted to get ear noogies, he DEMANDED them, shoving his head into my lap and budging my hands until I rubbed the inside of his ears with a knuckle. He even demonstrated some moments of playfulness. In his old age, Mr. Gorgeous has lost interest in playing, so it made my heart happy to see him showing a bit of friskiness. It was so fulfilling to see his spirit rekindled and to have a hand in the process. Normally, I don't much care to handle pieces of baloney made slippery by canned dog food and dog slobber, especially first thing after I wake up, but for Mr. Gorgeous, it was an honor.

He's not what he was in his prime, but Mr. Gorgeous is still one handsome beast.

A black light revealed a flora infestation.
And then there was the paw fungus. I'd noticed Abbey was licking her paws more a while ago, but she's always done some paw licking when she's settled down and feeling drowsy, so I wasn't overly concerned until I noticed that she had developed saliva stains (which are reddish-brown) on the fur of her back paws. We went to the vet, where she was first prescribed an antibiotic to cure the crusty infections caused by her licking. She was still licking her paws after finishing the antibiotics, so we went back to the vet. This time, with the crustiness cleared away, the source of the itching was apparent: a fungal infection. Dogs carry fungi and yeasts (or "flora") on their feet all the time--it's responsible for the "Frito feet" (paws that smell like corn chips) phenomenon that many of us love--and most of them are harmless. When things get out of control and the fungi proliferate, it's a different story. Abbey picked up a new fungus somewhere and I think that during the time I was away dog-sitting in November and December and she was in her crate for at least part of every day, she probably passed some of the time by licking her paws. Dogs can sometimes get in a sort of trance-like state while licking themselves (I call it "mesmer-licking") and lick and lick and lick, spreading any fungi around, adding in bacteria from their mouths, and encouraging it all to grow with their warm saliva. Fungal infections can be difficult to treat, so the vet emphasized that our best bet was to knock it out as thoroughly and quickly as possible, which would mean that I would have to follow instructions precisely. What did that entail? Prednisone, an anti-fungal medication, daily medicated foot soaks, and preventing Abbey from licking her paws.

Overheated from prednisone and wearing socks to prevent paw-licking, Abbey tries to get some rest by sprawling flat. 

Stylish in baggies over socks.
Abbey had no trouble taking her medications (she gets them in a marshmallow and she looooooves marshmallows) and she was perfectly fine with wearing socks on her back paws, held in place by a cuff of masking tape. She readily accepted having plastic baggies put over her socks when she went outside and she actually seemed to enjoy the inflatable cone that I put on her for a few days after she started licking her lady bits instead of going after her paws. But she hated soaking her feet. All she had to do was stand in a few inches of warm, treated water for fifteen minutes, but it was horribly stressful for her. I'd set a timer and give her a treat every thirty seconds of those fifteen minutes, gently restraining her while singing to soothe her, and although she made no desperate attempts to escape (aside from scrabbling while being lowered into the tub, which she was not about to jump in on her own), she panted anxiously throughout. She hated getting her feet rinsed at the end of the bath, too, though eating peanut butter off a spoon while I throughly washed the solution off her feet made it slightly more bearable. Those two weeks of nightly soakings were miserable and exhausting for both of us!

My poor anxious girl hating every second of her daily foot soaking.

Socks? Check. Cone? Check.
Seatbelt? Check. Let's ride!
And then there was the prednisone. I understand we got fairly lucky as far as Abbey's side effects go, but there were most definitely side effects. I didn't immediately catch on to how voraciously hungry it made her because I was busy making sure that she didn't lose her appetite, a sign of a dangerous complication of the fungal medication. Abbey is fed the same amount of food every day, portioned out with a measuring cup, so with the prednisone cranking up her metabolism, it didn't take long before her spine started showing and her hip bones jutting. We weighed her and were astonished that she'd dropped down to 42 pounds! She'd seemed a little thin after she shed her winter coat, so we'd weighed her just a week or two before starting to treat her for the paw fungus, so we knew that she'd been at 45 pounds. (She usually weighs in around 47.) She'd managed to drop three pounds in just a matter of days, so I ended up doubling her food and spreading it out over three meals a day instead of her usual one. She also drank at least triple her usual amount of water and had to go out every hour or so, it seemed. She became a pooping and peeing machine! We were lucky, though, that she remained in control of those functions, so there were no accidents. However, prednisone also gave her a bit of a personality change. She was bolder, punchier, naughtier. She's never gotten in the trash before, but one day, while I was in the shower, she managed to open the cupboard door, tip over the trash can, and spread its contents all over the kitchen floor, consuming several chicken bones in the process. We had to start putting a stool in front of the cupboard door so she wouldn't go shopping! She was either amped up and pacing and panting or sprawled absolutely flat in an area with good airflow, her tail stretched out, as she tried to keep herself cool. We did a very slow taper off of the prednisone and it was such a relief when I finally got my Abbey back!

She may look like she's smiling, but prednisone made Abbey hot, restless, roughish, and voraciously hungry and thirsty.

The good news is that all that effort paid off. Between the socks and the medication and the foot baths, when the vet rechecked her paws after two weeks, she had a normal and healthy amount of flora on her feet. I still put socks on her when I leave her in her crate because if she gets to licking her paws again her feet could flare back up, but for now, the stressful episode of Abbey and the Paw Fungus is over.

A pretty Pyrenees.
After a little bit of downtime, it was on to the next dog! Cutie's owner had to have a hip replaced, so I was called in to walk her and entertain her in the afternoons. While we're now down to a twice-a-week walks-only schedule, for much of the last couple of months, I've seen Cutie nearly every day. It's been something of an adventure, in part because Cutie is smart and sassy with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes and quite a lot of energy for a big four-year-old. She's less go-go-go than she used to be and will settle while at home, but when she's on the go, she is on the GO. At 90 pounds and with four feet for traction, you'd better be ready to go, too! One day, while we were at a park, she started doing zoomies , a popular name for when a dog tucks its rump and runs around in a wild and crazy manner. And they weren't just any zoomies, they were mud zoomies. We'd been walking across a damp field and hit a patch where the mud was several very squishy inches deep under the grass and she went nuts. So not only was I being yanked this way and that, I was being yanked this way and that through the mud. She was quite a mess when I finally got her moved on, so I decided our walk would take us to a nearby creek where the two of us could rinse off a bit. Well, Cutie found the creek even more exciting than the mud and had a wild session of creek zoomies. In the creek! Out of the creek! In the creek! Out of the creek! And all with me being jerked along behind. It's fortunate I was wearing my hiking boots, as I would have likely fallen and been pulled about face first if I'd had any less traction. Oh, Cutie! It's always an adventure.

There's mischief in those eyes.

A wide angle lens has distorted Cutie's size as she stands on the console, but she really is huge! 

Trying to rub off her head halter.
I should add that I'm never walking this big, powerful, playful dog just on a regular collar. Cutie walks best on a head halter, but she hates it, so as long as she's behaving well, I'll walk her on a front-clip harness. It reduces the pulling enough that she's manageable unless she sees something really exciting (or wants to have mud zoomies). Even though I sometimes make her wear the hated head halter, Cutie is always very happy to see me. She has the most ridiculous little bared-teeth grin when I first come in and she's given me the guard dog's ultimate compliment: she doesn't bark when my car pulls into the driveway, just stands at the window and wags her tail! I also love how she'll stand on the center console (looming enormously) when we first get in the car to go somewhere and gives my ears little licks of affection and delight. My own dog does a similar thing and I find it most endearing.

A happy, tired Cutie after a walk.

Of course, it's easy enough for a dog to like you when fun stuff happens every time you come over, so I'm actually very excited about a new client of mine, where the investment is going to be very different, but very rewarding.


The tiny poodle.
I'll call her Pipsqueak. She's a teeny tiny, five pound, five-year-old poodle who is smaller than Cutie's head. My natural preference is for medium to large dogs, but I have to admit, Pipsqueak is adorable. And therein lies the problem. Her owners like to say that she suffers from Too Cute Syndrome. People see her and they go into a frenzy of cooing and touching and getting in her personal space. They want to treat her like a baby, a little living doll. The thing is, while Pipsqueak may be tiny, she's every bit as much of a dog as Cutie is. She's intelligent, well-trained, playful, sweet, mellow, and affectionate. The big difference is that Cutie can knock you over if you infringe on her personal space. Pipsqueak has no such defense: she is physically outsized and overwhelmed by every human being she encounters. She's also a naturally private and rather submissive dog, so is it really a surprise that most people send her hiding under the couch? As someone who has dealt with anxiety myself, I can sympathize. My job, then, as her dog-sitter, is to respect her boundaries and earn her trust in addition to making sure her needs are met. Fortunately, Abbey's leeriness of strangers has given me an education on how to approach an anxious dog: namely, don't approach. After a decade of telling visitors that "when she's ready, she'll come to you," I get to put that into practice with Pipsqueak.

Imagine being swept up and squeezed by a squealing giant standing more than 50 feet tall and weighing more than a ton and a half: that's what it's like to be Pipsqueak. No wonder people unnerve her!

Pipsqueak and I hit it off right away when I consulted with her owners, so much so that she did me the honor of letting me pet her belly before I left. Apparently, I'm only the fourth person she's ever bestowed that privilege upon! She was much more timid when I came by the first time to spend a day with her, just the two of us, but she stayed in the room and on the couch (versus under the couch in a different room), which was a great start, so I just let her be. She pretended to ignore me and I pretended to ignore her. Eventually, she fell asleep. At one point, I looked up and saw that she had edged closer to me. I knew that this was a big display of trust on her part, and honored that trust by continuing to work quietly in her vicinity. She never felt quite comfortable enough to get off the couch during that afternoon, but we did progress to the point where she was wagging her tail when I offered her a treat (and eating the treat, too) and she did solicit some petting, including another offer to let me rub her tummy. I'm going to continue to do some short visits with her before doing overnight work, but I have confidence that as long as I take it slow, respect Pipsqueak's autonomy (and minute anatomy!), and move the relationship forward at her pace, we'll come to be good friends. As much fun as it is to be around a dog that loves everybody, meeting the needs of a dog that is scared to trust anybody is, to me, an honor. It's something that I can do that not everyone else has the patience or know-how to accomplish. Just as I felt is was a privilege to hand-feed Mr. Gorgeous slimy pieces of baloney if that's what he needed in order to recover from his surgery, I feel it is a privilege to work with Miss Pipsqueak and I hope to do right by her.

Pipsqueak rewards me for my quiet patience by licking my hand while letting me rub her belly.

During all this time, there was more migraine chaos. Some of it was caused by turbulent spring weather. I was driving out to Cutie's one afternoon, storm clouds looming and nausea rising, when I thought, "If I don't pull over RIGHT NOW and take some nausea medicine, I'm going to be pulling over in a mile to throw up." After stopping and taking the meds, I thought, "You know, if I'm going to be in danger of puking and likely get a nasty, weather-induced migraine to go with it, I'd prefer to be puking at home." So I hastily cancelled my walking duties, drove home with gritted teeth, paused to dry heave when I got in the door, and then went to bed for three days while the thunderstorms continued. Thankfully, Cutie's owners are very understanding and didn't expect me back until I was fully recovered.

Thunderstorms bring rainbows and migraines.

Some weeks later, I developed swelling in my neck around my throat. I was sure that it was related to a nasty too-much-blood-in-the-head migraine and stiff, sore neck I'd been having, but it was definitely weird. The swelling was sufficient enough to be visible and to put uncomfortable pressure on my throat when I swallowed. I was checked out by a nurse practitioner at my primary care doctor's office, where it was determined that my lymph nodes were fine, which seemed like the only other possible culprit. In the end, an injection of DHE, an erogtamine vasoconstrictor used to treat migraines, cured both the migraine AND the swelling, so I felt vindicated in my belief. I've had it thrice since. I'm thinking that exercise is an important contributor, because after doing research about histamine (an antihistamine helped bring the swelling down the second time it occurred), I realized that I've long had what is known as an exercise-induced histamine response. It's what causes my exercise-induced asthma, makes my nose run profusely when I exercise, and causes occasional episodes of itching. In simple terms, I'm allergic to exercise. Histamine, though we think of it as being solely associated with allergies, is actually what is known as an inflammatory mediator and is at work when there is swelling associated with injury and infections, too. In an effort to bring more white blood cells to an area where there is a legitimate injury or infection, or, in the case of allergies, when there is not a legitimate injury or infection but the body thinks there is, it causes blood vessels to dilate. Migraines also cause blood vessels to dilate. I think there is some interplay going on here when I exercise while I have a migraine, especially one with a lot of swelling, so my body is swarming with histamine and all those great big blood vessels in my neck get the message that they need to expand. I could be wrong, but my hunches when it comes to migraines have a pretty good track record. I'll be discussing all this in detail with my neurologist when I see her in a few weeks.

2000-2015

And finally, a very old, very sick cat that I looked after for a few month passed away. It was his time, but he was loved dearly by his family and will be missed.

So, between collies with oral surgery, paws with fungus, owners with hip replacements, poodles with anxiety, and some migraine weirdness, it's been a very busy spring. Undoubtably, there are more of all of these things to come!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Decade With My Dog



It's hard to believe, but October 12th marked the 10th anniversary of Abbey's adoption, making this her 10th & a Half Adopt-a-versary.* That's right, my sweet mutt has been my boon companion for more than a decade now! Ten years. TEN YEARS! I can't even begin to express how important her support has been for me during the early years of depression and anxiety, the middle years of excruciating medication withdrawal, that one really great year when we went on lots of walks and hikes, and five years of migraines. I hit the canine jackpot when my family decided that Keta, the "brown" dog sitting so patiently in her kennel at Seattle Animal Shelter, should be our new family pet. And while she loves and is much loved by the rest of my family, for ten years it's really always been about the two of us, Dog & Girl, two lost souls in need of something to love.

* I started this blogpost back in October in hopes of posting it on her adopt-a-versary, but then life happened. Better late than never, right?

From Abbey's perspective, the highlight of 2014 was the Disintegrating Christmas Reindeer. Of course, it wasn't disintegrating yet when it showed up in her Christmas stocking as her annual soft toy gift. What usually happens is that the soft toy is vigorously played with, gets a bunch of holes, and after a month or two, when it can no longer hold together, we give Abbey permission to pin and rip it to her heart's content, and the soft toy fun is over until next Christmas. Right from the start, though, it was clear that this year's reindeer was something special. My mom even went to Petco to get a backup within a week, but by then, all of the Christmas toys were gone. Fortunately, Abbey was determined to make this toy last as long as possible, the Disintegrating Christmas Reindeer is still with us! This is especially impressive because 99% of all games played in 2014 centered around catching and shaking and fetching her reindeer. Abbey makes playtime look so FUN and we all get such a kick out of watching her build extra bounces and zigzags and twirls into her reindeer antics. The reindeer loses another piece of stuffing during every game, the squeaker fell out long ago, and the body is limp and full of holes, but it has demonstrated an impressive tenacity. It made it all the way until Christmas, when it was finally retired in favor of the Christmoose, which was this season's variation on the same toy.

Chewing on my reindeer!

Reindeer game, anyone?

C'mon, chase me!

This is the best toy ever!

Proudly posing with her favorite friend.

Abbey and the Christmoose, the reindeer's successor.

"Whee! You're home!"
Of course, it isn't just when she's playing with her reindeer that Abbey is acts like a Big Silly. While most of the time Abbey is as mellow as they come, she does have that little bit of a twinkle about her, and nothing unleashes her goofiness like me coming home from dog-sitting. I didn't used to think of Abbey as much of a smiler, but taking photos to post daily on Pack (more on Pack later) has made me realize that she does have a little smile and it is perfectly ridiculous! She's not above acting undignified and I definitely like that in a dog.

This is Abbey's goofy grin. I can't help but crack up whenever I look at this picture!

Another very silly smile.

Rolling around hoping for belly rubs.

Making some joyful noise.

"Yay! Pet me!"

Of course, from Abbey's perspective, there is so much about life to enjoy. Things to celebrate are not limited to her reindeer stuffy or my comings and goings; other fun things include dinnertime, car rides, petting, squirrels, and snow. (There are, of course, great many quiet pleasures to be enjoyed, too, but these are the kinds of things that can make a girl romp and bounce and spin for joy!)

We seldom get much, but you can see how happy playing in the snow makes Abbey feel!

Also fun is getting a chance to chase her blue squeaky ball in a big field.

Better yet is going swimming with your squeaky ball!

Abbey greatly enjoys chasing squirrels, though once the rascally rodent has scrambled up a tree, Abbey will sit nicely in hopes of being rewarded for being a good girl. It appears we trained her well! Pity the squirrels don't understand that good dogs get treats for sitting...

While Abbey may be an old dog, she definitely disproves the old adage that you can't teach an old dog a new trick. This year she has learned "spin," "tip it," and "find it." With Rice Chex as a reward, Abbey has shown us that two training sessions are sufficient to master a new command. I usually associate intelligence in dogs with a propensity to get into trouble (ya gotta keep those active minds busy!), but mellow Miss Abbey has quite a few more smarts than I give her credit for. It's just that usually she's busy applying them to looking after me!

Abbey demonstrates her mastery of the command "spin"!

Besides new commands, there were other things for Abbey to discover this year...

"By Jove! I do believe there's a dog on the other side of this fence!" Abbey's known about Licorice, the Dog Next Door, for years, but there are, in fact, TWO other Dogs Next Door that she's never really noticed. This summer, she and Georgie chased the same squirrel on opposite sides of the fence and now she's always hoping for a repeat. Don't tell her about Leo, okay?

"What IS this thing?" Abbey carefully investigates a caterpillar crossing the deck.

"And what's this?" I spent the early days of summer making sure Abbey didn't chase baby birds, especially the baby juncos before they fledged, but it was some other force that felled a little kinglet that she found dead in the yard. She sniffed it very carefully, but made no effort disturb the tiny body.

Abbey now has two food puzzles: a Wobbler and this delightful Tornado! She loves the challenge of tipping the Wobbler just so and twirling the towers of the Tornado to get at the concealed treats. More than just fun, food puzzles are a great way to engage a dog's brain.

One of the most surprising things that happened  in the past year is that Abbey reversed her policy on guests, WANTING to meet them instead of warily viewing them as intruders and possible threats. It has been our position for years that Abbey doesn't spend much time with company when we have people over because she can be doing okay and then something a male guest does--gesturing, blocking an exit route, reaching down--will spook her and if you spook Abbey...well, there's a risk of getting bitten. We don't like guests to get bitten, so we limit the circumstances when she can circulate with company and she always wears a muzzle. While she still is wearing the muzzle (much to her disgust), Abbey has decided in the past year to become social. She now is eager to come down when guests arrive and is, in fact, quite put out about being shut in my study with me. (The thing is, I'm not usually up for spending a full evening with company, so I typically don't come down until the meal is served and Abbey waits with me.) Nowadays, instead of surreptitiously sniffing guests around the perimeter of the table, Abbey is sticking her head in laps and nudging hands to request petting! Her biggest test was when my aunt and uncle came to visit. In the past, big gestures and excitability during conversation were triggers for her, and my uncle is a tall, wonderful, enthusiastic man much given to big gestures, big laughs, and excitable story-telling. When Abbey first encountered him, she lay some distance away with her back turned for half an hour. Then, she made an excuse to sniff under his chair. Soon he was petting her. I knew that all was going to be well when my uncle was petting her with one hand and gesticulating widely with the other while telling me a story and she cared not a whit. Abbey remained rather fascinated by my uncle for the whole visit (she immediately included my aunt as part of the family and in fact interacted with her very little, aside from the occasional nose-bump acknowledgement) and often sought him out. There was only one time when I called her away from him: my parents, my aunt, and I were having an animated conversation involving much laughter in the kitchen while my uncle dozed in a chair in the adjacent family room. I looked over and saw that Abbey was going over to wake him up so he could join us. Since he is not in the habit of being woken from a nap by a wet nose, I thought it was possible he might act startled or jump, which would scare Abbey, and all the great work of the visit would be undone. That possible crisis was avoided and by the time my aunt and uncle departed, my uncle could stand in Abbey's path and reach down directly toward her to fondle her ears and she was loving it. I was so proud of my girl for taking the risk of being social and learning that the reward was lots of extra affection.

Abbey puts her head in my uncle's lap to ask for petting and is well rewarded.

While she's much more amenable now to new people than she's ever been before in her life, because I don't socialize much, Abbey doesn't socialize much, either. What she doesn't realize is that she has an online following! Abbey is a bit of a rock star on Pack, the dog photo social media site. I post photos of Abbey there almost every day; I don't want to test the patience of my Facebook friends by posting endless Abbey images, but I am taking pictures of her all the time, so having a site just for dog photos is a great outlet. She has some great fans (one made Abbey her very own doggy quilt!) who always comment on her photos and I've enjoyed getting to know their dogs in return. Abbey is also trying hard to make #doghaiku a thing--a recent health issue was documented almost entirely in daily haikus. I was extremely flattered to be asked to do the inaugural "Meet My Mutt" interview for the Marvelous Mystery Mutt Pack and I highly encourage you to check it out, as I put a lot of thought into my response. Abbey also shows up a couple of times on Pack's "Best Dog Photos of 2014" honor roll. Outside of Pack, Abbey has also made an appearance as one of BADRAP's "Game Changer Dogs" where I share how Abbey changed my life for the better, and in a book (made by a dog I follow on the internet) called "Paw Wisdom" about lessons that old dogs have taught us. Her lesson for me? That the greatest joy can be found in the simplest things.

Abbey has a new guilty pleasure: snatching mouthfuls of ornamental grass.

Abbey loves marshmallows!

Noms aloft! Abbey enjoys catching airborne morsels.

And don't forget about peanut butter!

Basking in the sun has long been one of Abbey's favorite pursuits.

And of course you must stretch after a nap in a sunbeam!

There's nothing better than sleeping away the day on my bed.

Abbey is at least twelve by now. That's old for a dog. I was mighty pleased when she had her yearly checkup this past summer and the vet said that if he hadn't known how old she was, he never would have guessed. She's got her "old dog warts" and her dozen lipomas, white on her muzzle and a blue haze in her pupils, but she is otherwise in good health. The most significant sign of her age that has manifested in the past year is that she is getting somewhat hard of hearing. If she's asleep, she'll no longer hear her name being called from another part of the house. It has progressed to the point where she will not always hear me enter a room she's in and during a recent thunderstorm, she didn't hear most of the thunder. She battled a paw fungus in February (prednisone turned her into a hot, panting, restless, hungry, thirsty little stinker!), but otherwise her health has been very good and the vet thinks there are likely many years left in her yet. I sure hope so.

My dear old mutt.

Dog kisses are slimy and tickle!
Ten and a half years... They've flown by so quickly. I know I'm unlikely to get another ten and a half with my precious pup. Even if I do, that still won't be enough time. But I've been so lucky to have known her love. The two of us: it's likely one of the greatest bonds I'll ever know. It's going to be heartbreaking to lose her. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Right now she's lined up beside me, asking "Where to next, my friend?" with her ears and her eyes and wagging tail, ready to go where I go, do what I do, for as long as she can follow.




To see my photographs of things other than dogs, check out my photography Facebook page.