I recently treated an extremely sick dog owned by a couple. California’s El Niño winter had retreated into memory, and for one week in the Bay Area spring was a forgotten concept. The clouds opened, the sun was bright, and it was hot.
The owners of the Beagle reacted to the change in the weather in a reasonable fashion: They had a barbecue. It sounded like quite an affair. Sausages, burgers, and ribs all had graced the grill. Goodness knows what types of sides they served. There was little doubt that the craft brews and wine had been free flowing.
By the time the trio landed in my office, however, the party was over and the finger pointing had begun.
“She left the patio door open.”
“He was the one who insisted on ribs. They drip more grease.”
“I asked you to cover the grill while I put away the leftovers.”
“If you had cleaned the grease trap last fall this wouldn’t have happened.”
The bickering continued for a while despite my efforts to guide the conversation to the dog’s problems. At first I had quite a bit of trouble. There were other patients waiting to be seen, so I let the couple fight it out while I examined the dog.
She was a middle-aged, spayed female. She was miserable. The corners of her lips were turned down in a pitiful frown. She was horribly nauseated — she drooled continuously, she licked her lips and swallowed hard every few minutes, and she was very uncomfortable when I gently palpated her abdomen.
But those findings were just the tip of the iceberg. The dog’s gums, which should have been pink, were a muddy brown color compatible with severe dehydration and impending shock. Worse still, I didn’t like the way she was breathing. It was subtle, but she was using her abdominal muscles more than she should have.
Finally the arguing stopped, and I got the rest of the story. After the party, the patio door had been left open, and nobody had replaced the cover on the barbecue. The dog had snuck outside and sniffed her way to the barbecue’s grease trap. She then did what most dogs — especially Beagles — will do in such a situation. She cleaned out the trap.
Everyone went to sleep feeling fine, or perhaps better than fine. But at 3 a.m., the dog got sick. While she was asleep. She vomited and then started coughing. She did not go back to sleep — instead, she spent the next two hours vomiting. The owners pieced together what happened and brought her to my office. They argued some more in the exam room, then consented to my treatment and diagnostic recommendations. They left, and that was the last time I saw them together.
Diagnostic tests confirmed my suspicions. The dog’s dietary indiscretion had been more than her pancreas could handle. The pancreas is an organ that helps to digest food. Dogs who eat massive quantities of rich foods (and grease certainly fits the bill) can suffer inflammation of the pancreas. That can lead to protracted vomiting. The dog had pancreatitis.
Worse, the dog had gotten into major trouble when she vomited in her sleep. She inhaled, or aspirated, some of the vomit. That led to pneumonia.
Treatment included intravenous fluids, oxygen supplementation, anti-nausea medications, gastrointestinal protectants, pain killers, and aggressive antibiotic therapy for the pneumonia. The dog received nebulization (water vapor therapy) and coupage (gentle agitating of the chest) to break up respiratory secretions at regular intervals. She got much better over the next 48 hours.
Speaking of regular intervals, both of her owners visited the dog regularly during her hospital stay. They both very clearly loved their girl. But they never visited together. It was obvious that they no longer were on speaking terms, but the owners did not settle for letting it be obvious. They made it more than obvious. This was more than a quarrel, and I found myself in the middle.
The owners would visit in sequence. They asked essentially the same questions and fell over themselves to profess equal levels of love for the dog. Then the maneuvering would begin: Each was trying to recruit me to his or her camp for the impending pitched battle over the affair.
I chose the course of Switzerland and stayed neutral. In this case, I could do it with a clear conscience. They both seemed equally at fault, which in my mind was not at all at fault. Accidents happen. Mistakes occur. Why do humans have an instinct to blame someone else for everything bad in life? Had the couple never heard the cliché that sometimes sh*t happens?
The dog went home after two days. Lord knows what sort of custody battles lie ahead. Although the owners were at war with each other, they shared a love for their pet.
On his last visit, one of the owners spoke frankly with me.
“This is the last straw,” he said. “I’m leaving her.”
I said nothing, but a lot went through my mind. My first thought was, “Buddy, I’m not your therapist.” But then another thought came to me: “It’s for the best.”