Ode to Old Dogs

This week will mark the end of LAA Pet Talk’s series on senior pets. For the past month, we’ve featured guest posts from Hindy Pearson (host of Caring for a Senior Dog) about caring for older dogs, while I’ve covered cats and guinea pigs. For this final week, it’s my turn to write about dogs, who have blessed my life too. I’ll offer some information about our adopted silky terrier’s experience with Cushing’s Disease, and I’ll share other people’s tributes to their own seniors.

Back in December of 2012, when I became interested in volunteering with local animal groups, my husband and I filled out an application to foster for NE No Kill Canine Rescue. Because of my soft spot for seniors, largely due to an elderly dog that had been my best friend in my twenties, we ended up taking in a ten-year-old silky terrier named Gizmo. His owner loved him very much, but her health had declined to the point that she had to move into an assisted living facility. Gizmo too had his share of health issues. His eyesight was failing, as was his hearing, and he needed daily medications for Cushing’s and other concerns. Yet he had a strong zest for life, for which Andy and I admired the little guy.

KrissyThe second story I want to share is one which Ruthie Markey, of Big Dogs Huge Paws, sent me about a family in Colorado who fostered a senior dog. Krissy was dumped in an overnight box at a shelter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a note stating she was “too old”. Vets guessed Krissy’s age at between ten and thirteen. She suffered from old untreated injuries to her hips and knees, and had thickened ribs that suggested she had been hit by a car at least once. Her family described her as “a stove-up old girl” but a trooper.

In the initial months that my husband and I fostered Gizmo, we worked on building a relationship with this ornery senior. Andy took on the chore of administering Gizmo’s eight different drugs, supplements, and vitamins at various times throughout the day. But despite being old and sick, Gizmo had a tremendous energy. He just couldn’t sit still. We took him on as many long walks as we could, and I took him to obedience classes. At home, when he wasn’t following Andy around the house or wresting with him on the living room floor, he’d sit and wobble “like an excited R2-D2” as he waited for more excitement to come his way. Gizmo was quite the character! And he really wanted a friend his size. Well, as long as that friend was a dog. He tried to win over with our toy poodle, but Barnaby was stubbornly aloof. On the flip side, Gizmo hated cats with a passion. When he and our calico Lucy would cross paths, there was much barking and snapping, hissing, and batting. To help keep the peace, we invested in both feline and canine pheromone sprays, but they did nothing to calm our two mortal enemies. The animosity between Gizmo and Lucy really created a challenge at night when all of us would attempt to share a single bed. Gizmo would sometimes stumble into Lucy’s territory, jolting Andy and I awake with the sounds of World War III. Andy solved the problem by creating a partition down the length our bed using a sheet and a rope, with us girls on one side and the three boys on the other.

As is always the priority whenever a dog arrives at a new home, Krissy’s fosters tried to figure out her real personality. Was she really “a very low-key female who was generally slow to respond to most things” or was that a deception? Her fosters soon discovered the reality her fosters was that Krissy had a severe kidney infection. She was dying. It took Big Dogs Huge Paws a few days to realize that the “dullness in her eyes wasn’t sadness but physical misery”. Krissy was taken to a vet where she spent a few days on sub-cutaneous fluids and intravenous antibiotics. At home they continued the fluids and gave her oral antibiotics. “The vet told us Krissy was clearly less than a day away from death when we brought her in. Miss Krissy eventually recovered and seemed to forgive us for our obtuseness at the beginning.”

While Krissy and Gizmo are senior foster pets with few similarities, they do share one personality quirk: they are chewers. Krissy’s foster family soon learned that if they valued their magazines or DVDs, they would need to put them up out of reach of her “jaws of steel”. Likewise, one of Gizmo’s passions was ripping the stuffing out of his toys. He finally met his match in a tough-skinned toy shark designed to resist the powerful jaws of dogs like Gizmo.

The summer after Andy and I began fostering Gizmo, he injured his back. Within a few days, his rear legs progressed from strong to shaky to paralysis. We took him to a local vet who directed us to a specialist in Omaha. Gizmo was tested for deep pain to see if surgery or steroids would be the best choice. When deep pain was discovered, the vet told us this meant Gizmo still had feeling in his back legs. Steroids were prescribed but improvement, if there were to be any, would not come quickly. For the next few weeks, Gizmo moped and picked at his food, and his legs continued to drag uselessly as Andy escorted him around yard with the help of a sling under his back end. Then one day Andy noticed that his legs weren’t completely limp, but were twitching slightly as his front legs propelled him forward. Very gradually strength returned to Gizmo’s legs, until he was again able to walk on his own and ticking along like the Energizer bunny.

As for Krissy, living happily with her Big Dogs Huge Paws foster family, she had her own back leg issues. She couldn’t bend her back legs, which made it difficult for her to stand up and lie down, but she managed just fine as long as no one asked her to tackle any stairs. “She’d tilt herself backward until gravity took over and she would plop her butt on the ground with her back legs sticking straight out in front of her, in a near-perfect imitation of a rag doll. Then to get up, she would lever herself up with her front legs until her back legs were under her enough to hold her weight. I’m convinced she had the core strength of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat.”

Krissy’s back legs were, “in a slight A-frame configuration, with the pressure on the outside of her back feet, so she abhorred solid surface floors that might make her slip”. This comment made me recall Gizmo’s own struggles with our wood floors as (this was before he hurt his back) he would race about our house. Again and again his legs would slip out from under him and he’d go sprawling. While he never seem hurt or deterred by his tumbles, we knew we had to do better by him. Andy found a co-worker who had some old unwanted rugs, which we laid down along Gizmo’s common routes through our house.

Even with all of her ailments, Krissy’s family never felt as if her musculoskeletal issues had a negative impact on her enjoyment of walking and being outside. “When we picked up her harness she would happily walk right into it and wait patiently by the door to be given permission to go out. We didn’t go far, and we didn’t go fast, but she loved her walks just the same.” For that reason, they had felt the right foster family would come along for her.

Similarly, Andy and I had taken Gizmo in with the intention of looking after him until a forever family could be found. Unfortunately, he had a couple strikes against him. First, sometimes the ideal match for a senior pet is a senior owner. In Gizmo’s case, this wasn’t necessarily true. An older couple who for a month considered adopting him decided that his energy was too much for them. Second, even though Gizmo could often be seen with a happy spark in his face, some viewed him as a “heartache” waiting to happen. Those strikes against Gizmo won out. No one expressed any interest in him, other than offers to short-term foster. We didn’t want him to spend the rest of his life bouncing from one home to another, or worse, living his final years in a kennel. One year after fostering him, we signed his adoption papers and became his forever family. He brought a quirkiness to our lives that we treasured.

Krissy lived with her foster family for over two years. In that time, there were only two potential adopters who talked to them. Her family said that although Krissy could live with other dogs, both potential adopters decided against her “when they heard about her ability to be a crabby old lady who zealously guarded her personal space from other dogs”. But that ended up being okay with them. “I told Krissy over and over that she was welcome to stay as long as she wished, and we would do our best to make her as comfortable as possible and as happy as possible for as long as possible. It turns out that two and a quarter years with us was all she wanted.”

In January of 2015, Gizmo’s health issues intensified. He began to suffer monthly attacks of pancreatitis. In addition, he again lost use of his legs. Those who knew Gizmo’s zest for life and stubborn determination often joked that he’d outlive all of us. I think it was that indelible spirit that initially kept us from seeing how month after month and then week after week, Gizmo was losing his battle. In his final days, we were changing his bedding regularly and desperately searching for foods that would entice him to eat without causing a flare-up of pancreatitis. In May of 2015, not responding to treatments for his pancreatitis and having refused for days to eat, it was clear that Gizmo was no longer happy. It was time to let go. We gave him one last special morning, sitting outside while we held him in our laps. Then we made the worse trip one can ever make: to the vet to say goodbye to a beloved friend and family member.


Krissy also recently passed. One Sunday her family found her dead in the garden, one of her favorite places. It appeared that she’d gone quickly, perhaps by heart attack or stroke. Their wish for Krissy in the afterlife is for her to run free “with legs that bend and a body that doesn’t hurt”. Andy and I would second that sentiment for Gizmo, as well as this one: “you were dearly loved and you will be deeply missed”.


2 thoughts on “Ode to Old Dogs

    1. You prompted me to search online to see if any kind of senior dog sanctuary already does exist in Nebraska. I know NE No Kill Canine Rescue, where we adopted Gizmo from, tends to take in a lot of older dogs. So does Hearts United for Animals, where I used to volunteer. The website for K9 Haven Rescue in Broken Bow says it focuses on seniors and special needs.

      However, I didn’t find any organization dedicated solely to providing sanctuary to old dogs. Pets in Omaha apparently feels a need, as they wrote a post about the issue: A Model Sanctuary for Senior Dogs.


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