Old Dog Syndrome

Our dog Tessa is fifteen and a half. That is something like eighty-five in human years. I come from a family that tends to live a long time – like up to a century or more – so eighty-five is relative to me in terms of being old. And Tessa has had enough attitude that when I say she is fifteen, people think I mean fifteen months.

I woke in the middle of the night on Valentines Day with a sore throat. It actually hurt me enough that it woke me up. As I headed to the kitchen for a drink of water, I saw Tessa huddling under the dining room table, unable to move her back legs, her eyes wide with terror, her front legs spread apart to hold her up.

I feared the worst. I thought she was having a stroke. I carried her to her bed and lay down beside her trying to comfort her. Tom woke up to see what the commotion was about, and together we stayed by her side, debating whether to take her to the emergency vet or to wait until morning where she could go see the vet with whom she is familiar. We decided on the latter.

I could not stop the tears. Were we at the point, I wondered, where it was time to let her go?

I dropped her off at the vet in the morning, and spent the day crying, waiting to hear what the vet would report.

I adore this vet. She incorporates holistic as well as allopathic medicine – she uses acupuncture as well as antibiotics, and has a chiropractor who specializes in animals (particularly horses) who visits once a month. I wish I could find a physician for myself like her.

Finally, late in the day the vet called me with good news. Tessa in all likelihood had something called Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome. In humans it’s something like Meniere’s disease or vertigo. Basically, gravity ceases to exist. The world loses its stability so there is no context for determining which end is up – or sideways for that matter.

The vet reassured me that it was a syndrome from which she would likely recover completely with some tender loving nursing on my part, and acupuncture and antibiotics on her part.

Through her recovery, Tessa relied on us in a way that she has never had to before. We had to hand feed her and give her water. We carried her to the yard so she could urinate and defecate. She would wait until we were by her side before she attempted to walk, would look back at us if we fell too far behind, letting us know that our presence helped her find her grounding.

One of the most endearing traits of dogs is their loyalty. In a way, the tables were turned as we nursed her back to health. She had to rely on our loyalty to her – our  willingness to stay by her side as she regained her equilibrium.

Tessa has nearly recovered. Her head still tilts slightly, though that might eventually change.

I was with my parents and my in-laws as their aging bodies declined. The platitude is that when that happens, the child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child. But that is not what happens. It’s a much more delicate balancing act than that. They definitely became dependent on me in a way that I had been on them when I was a child. But that did not turn them into children, or me the parent. It just created a different dynamic – one in which they had to relinquish power and control and I had to exercise it without diminishing their dignity or taking it away from them.

The dance was not always graceful. And there were many times I just wanted it to be over – and then having to face that the only way it could be over would be with their death. Guilt didn’t sweep over me so much as an ironic understanding of just how twisted life can be.

The dance is easier, but no less painful, with animals we have come to love when they age and decline. The relationship is less complicated: they don’t abandon us, disappoint us, or fail to live up to our expectations. It’s pretty straightforward.

I have always believed that the biggest agreement we need to make and keep with our pets is the willingness to let them go when they are ready to die, and then to be with them if we can.

It’s clear to me that Tessa is not ready to leave this world. But, I can see that the episode has taken a toll on her. Or maybe it has just changed her slightly. She still has attitude, but she sticks a little closer to us. In a weird way, there is less distance between us as sentient beings.

Spring has come to one of the trees outside my writing shed since Tessa lost her equilibrium. A finch hops between its branches, sometimes disappearing into the white delicacy of its blossoms.

Life continues with a little bit of old dog syndrome sprinkled in.

13 thoughts on “Old Dog Syndrome

  1. WOW! What an amazing story! I am so glad I came across the link of facebook. As I was reading it I got chocked up, smiled, chocked up and then smiled as it ended. I am so glad Tessa is recovering. I have had to let a dog go and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I spend my time on the floor comforting her and wondering when it was really “time”. I don’t envy that postition.
    Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story. It really brightened my day.


    • You are most welcome. I know letting go of a loved pet is just heart breaking. Knowing the right moment — you just have to trust yourself and your love for the the sentient being that animal is. I wept for weeks after my last dog died. It would just creep up on me out of the blue. I remember at one point I thought, “Oh, I shouldn’t still be feeling this way.” And then I thought to hell with it. I do feel this way.

      Thanks for your comment.


  2. Oh, when our pets suffer, it is so hard! I empathize so much, having gone through a couple of years with a diabetic cat who had neuropathy– often she couldn’t walk .. . what a wonderful doggie mommy you are!


  3. It’s never easy to let a pet go, no matter how old they are or how many times you do it. It’s been a few years since I did doggie hospice (followed by kitty hospice), but I still remember the anxiety, pain, and sorrow of that period quite vividly. Jenn is right. You’re a good doggie mom, Karen. And a good writer too. Loved this post!


  4. For all of us animal lovers, this is a wonderful, touching story! The unconditional love of our pets is something I value everyday! They teach us the true meaning of that kind of love.
    You and I share the same vet, and I agree, she is truly amazing. I especially love her nutritional expertise. When Rocket was really sick with Cushings disease she prescribed about 13 pills a day for him. What a chore trying to get them all down him. He figured out pill pockets much too quickly. Sadly all her medicine couldn’t save him and he died just a year ago in her office. That was the second hardest day of my life. The first was putting down our horse 3 years before as result of that awful disease, Cushings. Something about having to make the decision of when an animal dies makes it especially hard and sad.
    I am so grateful for our new dog, Taffy, who my daughter insisted we adopt a week after Rocket died. She is by my side every minute I am home–truly “Sticky Taffy”.


    • Sticky Taffy. I love it. Tessa also figured out pill pockets as well. I had to get very inventive about giving her her medications.
      I know we share an appreciation of animals. I am looking forward to when you can once again lead me to feeling comfortable in my skin around horses — I am in awe and have such respect for their power and beauty.
      Thanks for coming to my writing shed. Here’s to victories in other arenas.


  5. What can I say, my dear? I love the way you express your heart; this brought tears to my eyes. I’m glad Tessa is still with you, and I’m glad you’re writing. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with such grace and beauty.


  6. Thank you sooo much for writing. I came across your post while researching “old Dog syndrome”. Our 14 yr old ALLIE has just had an episode. I now understand why she has been keeping close tabs on me for the past few months. But, until she had a total collapse yesterday. I did not even know about this. We thought she had either a stroke or siezure. Glad Tessa is still with you and I feel better now.


    • Peggy, A year later, Tessa is going strong. I didn’t know about the syndrome before Tessa collapsed either. It was so scary. Since the episode, Tessa seems to stay closer to us. It’s almost as if she sees us as the pack that is protecting her.
      Let me know how Allie progresses.
      They climb into your heart, they do.


  7. Pingback: And Then It Was Time for Her to Go | Writing Shed

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