Earlier this summer my son, Max, took Sparky on a long walk and noticed our beloved Norwich terrier was limping. By the time he arrived home, Sparky had completely retracted his right, hind paw and was walking on three legs.
“Sparky should go to the vet.” Max said.
“Let’s wait a few days and see if he gets better.” I reasoned. “Remember the last time he had a limp and it went away?” Max’s love for his dog knows no financial limits. “We spent hundreds of dollars at the vet for an issue that resolved on its own.”
“This time it’s different,” my son insisted.
Max called the vet, who told us it would be safe to observe Sparky a while before we brought him in. The Elisofon family waited, watched and hoped Sparky’s furry hind quarter would heal. But two weeks later Sparky still walked with most of his weight on three legs — much like his nemesis, a three-legged greyhound next door, whose uneven gait seemed to frighten and annoy him. Despite the fact that Sparky and the greyhound now shared a debilitating limp, Sparky had no sympathy. Instead of friendly barking, or wagging his stumpy tail as he did with most dogs, Sparky growled and tried an ungainly leap, with the injured hind leg collapsing as we restrained him. It was obvious Sparky needed medical attention.
The vet gave us the bad news: Sparky probably had a torn ACL, but would need an x-ray to confirm it. The vet prescribed doggie pain killers, rest and minimal walks. We were sent off to wait, watch and hope for another week or two. Occasionally, the vet said, these injuries heal enough on their own, sparing dogs and their owners the pain and expense of surgery.
Back at home we administered the pain pills, carefully disguised as treats. Although Sparky has a voracious appetite and tries to devour dead pigeons, face cream, and bubble gum indiscriminately, he was spitting out the pills unless we covered them in peanut butter. But Sparky still limped. Our terrier seemed especially pathetic when rising from his nap like a stiff, arthritic old man. With the help of the pain killers, Sparky improved enough to walk on all fours. But he could no longer jump onto our bed—and more heart-breaking— he had stopped trying. He mostly lay on his doggie bed and looked up at us with sad, soulful eyes.
Despite his inactivity, Sparky’s appetite continued to be enormous. In fact, it seemed like our 11 year old terrier was crying for his food earlier each day, as though maybe we were running an early bird special. Like an alarm clock, Sparky whined for his meals half an hour before his usual 8AM/8PM feedings. But no matter how much he howled or nudged us with his furry, red paws, we would not be bamboozled into feeding him earlier than 7AM and 7PM. Even Max’s sympathy for Sparky did not extend to sleep deprivation.
Finally, our son brought Sparky back to the vet, who suggested an x-ray and offered a referral to a doggie orthopedic surgeon. “Are you sure we need to do the x ray?” Max was becoming savvy about vet bills.
As it turned out, Max was right and Sparky never needed an x-ray. The doggie orthopedic surgeon examined our strawberry blond terrier and immediately declared that he would need surgery for his torn ACL .
“How do you know for sure without an x ray?” I wanted more certainty. What sane human would agree to have orthopedic surgery without an x ray and an explanation?
“I see dozens of dogs with this injury every week,” the orthopedic vet explained “Sometimes I need an x ray if I’m not sure. But with Sparky it’s obvious. However, if you’d like, I’ll be happy to offer as much additional testing as you’d like….”
“That won’t be necessary. Is it possible Sparky could still heal on his own?” I inquired hopefully.
“Definitely not,” the vet answered.
If we decided to go ahead with the surgery, it would cost about $3000.
“What happens if we don’t do the surgery?” Max asked.
“Your dog never will walk properly again. In addition, he’ll develop arthritis as he ages. Further, there’s also a good chance Sparky will tear his other ACL because he’ll be favoring that leg.”
“But Sparky is 11. Is that too old for a dog to have surgery?” I wondered aloud.
I did some quick calculations. Norwich terriers—like other small breeds—can live to be 16 or 17. The doggie surgeon assured us that Sparky was in good health and had plenty of life ahead of him. Our family mascot would enjoy his remaining years a lot more with 4 healthy legs and without becoming a gimp. Besides Sparky had no empathy for disabled canines, judging from his response to the 3 legged greyhound next door. How unhappy would Sparky feel if he had to hobble around for 5 years? We wanted Sparky to have a good quality of life, but the surgery was expensive. The Elisofon family had to consider the budget our four humans were living on, and what we would to sacrifice to pay for Sparky’s surgery.
Henry and Max were strongly in favor of surgery. I was less enthusiastic. “Sparky is your baby, your responsibility,” I told Max. “If Dad is willing to pay for the surgery and you’re willing to be Florence Nightingale and nurse your baby back to health, go ahead. You call for the appointment; you drop Sparky downtown in the hospital at 8:30AM, and then you pick him up the next day. You’ll have to remember to give Sparky his painkillers and tie on his cone to make sure he doesn’t lick the wound. Are you prepared to watch him carefully and prevent him from jumping up or down and re-injuring himself? Will you schedule Sparky’s follow up visits and take him to those appointments?”
Max agreed to everything, but I already knew I’d end up reminding my son to administer the doggie painkillers, make the follow-up vet appointments, not to mention negotiating my role as back up nurse. But Sparky had been a loving family member since Max was 11, and he deserved the best care and quality of life we could give him. I also figured that taking care of Sparky through his surgery would help Max learn to appreciate the time and effort that always goes into nurturing another life.
Sparky had the operation five days ago and came home in a fashionable leopard cast. The damaged tissue around the ACL and meniscus was successfully removed, and our terrier was stitched up with the medical equivalent of fishing line. Coming home, Sparky looked like a sad but adorable piglet, with his pink-skinned hind quarter entirely shaven except for his tail. Max reported that he was a great favorite with the medical staff. But they couldn’t believe how much he ate.
Some things never change. Sparky’s legendary appetite is one of them.