May 11, 2011 by Leah
Earlier this week, I did something I’m feeling a little conflicted about. I spend $380 on a checkup and prescriptions for our dog. Not just any prescriptions, either – powerful drugs. He’s currently a couple of days into courses of cyclosporine (an immunosuppressant), Cipro (an antibiotic), and fluconazole (an antifungal).
Maybe I should back up. When we adopted Duke from one of the nastiest shelters in our vicinity, it was a hurried affair. We inquired about him (he was lying in his cage so sweetly with his cellmate, a German Shepherd puppy), and were told he was six months old and his owner had died and went up to the desk to start paperwork. Then we were told he was actually five years old, but he had been at this same shelter as a puppy, which is why their records got mixed up – did we still want him? Well, yeah! Because he was an older dog and had already been microchipped, neutered, and vaccinated the adoption fee was something like $35 and they just let us walk away with him. No home visit, but not a lot of information, either.
Long story short (and an almost-sleepless first night for Aaron when he discovered the raw, hairless state of Duke’s underside and some now-known-to-be-harmless skin tags), Duke has severe allergies. To several different kinds of grasses, trees, pollens, insects, etc. When he inhales any of these particles, he gets severely itchy (this is a common reaction in dogs – they don’t have the same kind of sneezing, throat-closing allergic reaction people do). Then he licks his belly raw and chews his paws bloody. It’s not pretty.
We got him stabilized last summer with the help of short courses of low doses of steroids, antigen injections (a carefully prepared serum of the things he is most allergic to that was administered in gradually increasing doses in an attempt to teach his immune system that these substances did not actually need to be attacked, thanks all the same), fish oil capsules, lots of bathing and foot-rinsing, and eventually this miracle drug called cyclosporine. Which is what they use to keep people from rejecting transplanted organs. The side effects are actually much milder in dogs than in people, and this drug is considered safer than steroids by vets – in addition, it doesn’t lose its effectiveness over time the way steroids do. (It’s also way more expensive than steroids.)
Then winter came. We kept giving Duke his injections and oil capsules, but he went off everything else and seemed fine. We were lulled into a false sense of security by the relative lack of antigenic activity during the chilly, rainy season that passes for winter in SoCal.
How quickly we forget.
The last four to six weeks (aka “spring”) were pretty bad for Duke, but the last week and a half or so were completely unbearable. He was so intent on licking his belly or chewing his paws or scratching his chin or his butt on whatever he could find (our legs, the coffee table) that he wasn’t interested in meals, marrow bones, or playtime. The only thing he still seemed to like was going for his daily walk – during which time he was exposed to all the things that harm him. I’d like to think I was a good dog-mom for giving him some exercise and one bright spot in a day that was otherwise a haze of itchiness, but I have my doubts. It didn’t help that half of our interactions with the dog morphed into “hey, stop it!” He knows he’s not supposed to lick or chew himself but when it’s bad enough, he does it anyway.
On Monday I dragged dog-boy to the dermatologist. He was found to have two different bacterial infections – one of which was staph – and a fungal infection in his leg pits and on his paws (from them being constantly wet and in contact with his mouth and the world in general). I was willing to do whatever it took to give the poor guy some relief. So now he’s taking all these powerful drugs, thanks to which he is extremely low-energy; however, he is not trying to chew himself into oblivion and I’d like to think he’s getting some much-needed rest.
Duke has obvious signs of having been treated with steroids on a regular basis for the first half of his life (like lack of muscle tone in his head), and from everything I’ve been reading lately, throwing steroids and antibiotics at an already compromised immune system is a terrible thing to do. Granted, that was written with regard to people, but immune systems are immune systems, right? Actually, I have no idea. Dogs work differently from people. Human doctors still have to take their pets to vets; I met one on Monday who was mystified by his dog’s symptoms and admitted to feeling as frightened and powerless as the rest of us pet parents in the face of scary illnesses.
I’d already been thinking a lot about the role of the dog in the family. We refer to ourselves as his “mom” and “dad” but I’m not one of those people who overly anthropomorphises a pet, either. He’s his own creature who needs exercise and a loving family, but he doesn’t need me to be spewing baby talk at him all day or carrying him around like an accessory. (That may or may not be commentary on some other people I met in the vet’s waiting room on Monday. Also, I have no knowledge of a mysterious person named Duke Bailey who has recently appeared on Facebook.)
Over the past few months I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals as well as some books by Cesar Millan and I have my eye on another one called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog. It seems to me that Aaron’s and my stance on not eating factory-farmed meat and our role as pet parents should be a little more connected than they currently are. If we’re trying to eat only high-quality meat, shouldn’t our dog, as a four-legged-but-important member of our family, get the same consideration? And, similarly, shouldn’t our ban on buying meat from factory farms apply to all of our spending, not just the money we spend on people food? Should I be making food for Duke? (Aaron’s answer: “Oh, my mom’s been doing that for years.”) Should I be grinding up pastured meat for Duke? (Aaron’s answer: “That sounds expensive.”) I’ve made fun of people who cook burger for their dogs, but I’ve also made fun of people who buy free-range eggs and are concerned for the welfare of chickens. Oh, the smugness of youth.
What if I started making high-quality food for Duke? It’s a growing trend, according to the New York Times. He already eats a pretty high-quality dry food with no soy, but it has grains in it and I doubt the meat is from pastured sources. Some people would tell you dogs aren’t supposed to eat grains, but vets recommend a cooked hamburger-and-rice diet for dogs with digestive issues. Is the canine immune system also located in the gut? Would giving him pastured meat help his allergies? (He had to go on a food trial for a while and eat only hypoallergenic prescription food, so we know he doesn’t seem to have food allergies, at least.) Is there a tiny chance that spending more on Duke’s food would alleviate some of the need for fancy drugs and visits to the vet?
I don’t know the answers to any of this. For now, especially as I’m embarking on a weird diet myself, I think we’re just going to continue on as normal. It’s such a relief to know that these drugs, however nasty, are giving Duke some relief. I’d rather see him exhausted than so itchy he self-mutilates – at least we can cuddle, and cut down on the reprimands, and spend nights free from random alarums of chewing, licking, and bed-shaking.
If we do end up moving to the Northwest this fall, as is the tentative plan, Duke’s dermatologist thinks there’s a chance that the change in climate could provide him “significant relief,” although we’d still have to contend with grasses. We’d also be in farm country where I have a feeling it will be easier to source pastured meat. The list of “awesome reasons to relocate” just keeps growing, it seems.