That One Time I Went on a Wellness Retreat, My Dog Got Seriously Ill

What do you do when you're away on your trip and you find out your dog is sick?


I woke up one Sunday morning in Carefree, Arizona, feeling like the name of the town. While everyone else at the wellness retreat I was attending slept, I journaled, writing down my positive thoughts about Saturday’s workshop, which was all about how a breathing practice can change one’s physiology, creating balance in the heart and mind. I went for a 40-minute contemplative walk, taking deep breaths and snapping photos of the cacti, the jackrabbits, and the golf course. I remembered my dad, who had died three years ago to the day, but I didn’t feel much sadness, just fond memories. I felt peaceful and connected to the universe. After my walk when I looked in the mirror, I noticed how calm and happy I felt.

Then I called Steve. Steve was holding down the fort at home the best that he could, while grieving the unexpected death of Eric, one of his best friends. Spike, our 11-year-old Great Dane mix, had been sick with a very high temperature a few days before I left, but she’d been treated by the vet and her condition was stabilized, so Steve and I thought it was okay for me to leave town.

“Spike is lethargic again, and she wouldn’t eat her dinner last night,” Steve said.

I took several deep breaths, recalling again the exercise from Saturday, to help me stay calm.

“You’re going to need to take her temperature,” I said. (Steve had told me before I left that he wouldn’t take Spike’s rectal temperature — the thought of it grossed him out, or scared him, or something.)

“You’re going to have to take her temperature,” I said, without emotion, as anxiety welled up in my chest.

Slowly and methodically, between deep breaths, I walked Steve through the process of how to take a rectal temperature — where to find our digital thermometer, how to turn it on, where to find the sanitary probe covers, how to cover the thermometer tip, how to lubricate it, how to insert it — over the phone, while I sat in the Arizona sun by the pool, acutely aware of my breathing.

Spike’s temperature was 105. I knew that was dangerously high, as we’d already been through this with the vet last week. So, I coached Steve all day Sunday while he iced Spike down and covered her with cold, wet towels that he changed every 15 minutes. I called every half-hour for a temperature update. While Steve stayed by Spike’s side, I worried from 1,700 miles away. And I started thinking about the inevitable: Spike is going to die. Just like my dad. Just like Steve’s friend Eric. Just like we all will. I went from bliss to grief in a matter of seconds and I kept breathing. I felt raw, just like I felt from the moment my dad was diagnosed with cancer, until he died four months later.

Steve and Spike were both troopers. Steve saw Spike through two hellish days until I came home. And Spike could teach me a lot about grace and dignity (and breathing deep). She has always been a regal girl. She was calm and agreeable while Steve took her temperature and kept the ice coming. She gently responded as the veterinarians probed, ran tests, took X-rays, and gave her an ice-cold bath. She apparently has some mysterious, incurable disease, and the vet says that if we can keep her stable with steroids, “to consider it a win.”

One week later, Spike was feeling somewhat like her old (younger) self — I knew because she wanted to hang out in the front yard that morning, and while I was on the phone she managed to escape, taking Little Shortie with her! Lily, our Great Pyrenees, came to the door to let me know her friends had gone AWOL. I felt my panic rising, as I searched for the two of them and I went to the worse-case scenario in my mind. I was breathing deeply when I spotted Spike and Shortie in our back yard (somehow they’d wiggled through a hole in the fence), visiting with a neighbor’s Pit Bull, who had jumped his own fence. Spike was enjoying the moment. I went from panic to gratitude in a split-second. Breathing deep.

In recent months, Spike’s condition is fantastic! She has put on about 10 needed pounds due to a tremendous appetite, she walks without effort, and overall seems like a much younger version of herself.

The vet never figured out what was ultimately causing her illness, other than an “auto-immune disease of some kind.” Without undergoing a battery of costly tests, like MRIs, the vet advised just accepting that Spike had this “auto-immune disease and a fever of unknown origin,” and started Spike on prednisone pills, twice daily with meals. She was on these for about two weeks, before the doctor reduced the dosage to one and one half pill per day, then down to one a day, and now Spike is on one every other day. I am just getting ready to take Spike into the vet again to determine a further reduction in the prednisone. Prednisone can be hard on a dog’s liver function, so it’s best to wean them down to as minimal an amount as needed. I am thrilled with Spike’s stability, and it’s my understanding that Spike will need to remain on the lowest dose possible of the prednisone by mouth for the remainder of her life.

About Holly Butler: While Holly currently makes her “living” as a real estate agent and landlord, she makes her “life” performing in the theater and writing songs in Music City, USA. Although she is passionate about rescuing dogs, and lives with three cute canines, she has recently discovered a passion for rescuing kittens as well — there may be a story soon about the four feral felines currently living in her backyard. She has her sister to thank for encouraging her to submit to Dogster.

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