Sunday, November 29, 2009

Callie Anne: Nov., 2002 - Nov., 2009

Sadly, she is gone.  Callie had a life that was far too short for an Aussie.  She was loved as much as any dog who ever lived.  I was lucky to be able to share her life with her, from 9 weeks to the end, almost exactly seven years.  While I regret that I did not make more time for agility, which she absolutely loved and which was a joy to do with her, and I regret that I worked too much and did not play enough tug of war or take enough walks with her, I know that she had a happy life with me.  She made my life far better.  Learning to live without her will be one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

Her brain tumor and cyst were killing her. Her quality of life became unacceptable, little by little. I could not justify making her go through brain surgery or radiation, spending many of her final days with medical procedures, risking becoming worse off instead of temporarily better. She was already uncomfortable. She'd been through enough.  In her final days she became more and more limited.  She could not get in and out of the car, up and down the stairs, she could not clean herself or keep her balance.  She could not run around and play, or even drink easily.  She was dizzy a lot and needed to lay still.  She had six medications a day to try and keep her going and reasonably comfortable.  She was hungry, thirsty and irritable from her meds.  She had some pain and some dizziness. She still loved being with me. She remained mentally alert, eager for treats, and longing for attention.  Given everything she had going on, she even remained in a good mood.

The kindest thing I could do for her was to chose to let her go, before things got worse, which was inevitable. I wanted her to go to sleep at home, after a good meal, in the arms of her parents, and not not in the middle of a seizure, on an operating table, or after struggling through more IVs and medical procedures.

The most the doctors could have done was postpone things a bit. The tumor itself was inoperable. The end was grim - one day she'd lose balance and be spinning and dizzy and unable to walk and panic stricken. We may have been able to buy her more time, maybe even a couple of years, but the tumor would have gotten her in the end, and in the interim she would have to go through a lot of medical procedures and endure a lot of hardship and there would be a lot of risk - she could end up worse off, not better.  I would rather the end be peaceful. I could have hung on longer, but it would have been for me, not for her.  She won't know the difference.  She has been uncomfortable, and coping and adapting to more losses every day, and now that is over.

Although I will mourn her loss forever, I will also always be happy and grateful we shared one another's lives.  She was the smartest dog I ever met.  I could not have asked for more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Another Dog Health Adventure

Callie's oral surgery to remove her fractured tooth went okay on Friday, but was not completely without complication.  She vomited during the procedure, which is dangerous for a number of reasons.  She then kept vomiting for the next 20 hours - so she had to be admitted to Westvet as an inpatient for all of Saturday.  She couldn't keep food, water or medications down so we had to go with injections and IVs.  She did eventually get stabalized and was able to keep down some food and medicines, so she came home at 8:30 last night. 

Since then, she's been stable but not particularly happy or comfortable.  Much better than she was, but I do hope she continues to improve, for her sake and for ours.  I hate that she had this complication when she did, but a fractured tooth could not be ignored and it's clear nothing will be easy with her ever again.  That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oh My.....Another Problem

Callie broke a tooth today and is in a lot of pain so it needs to get removed tomorrow.  Another surgery.  Ug.

Callie's "Seizure"" Mystery Solved

If you follow this blog, you may recall that in October of 2007, our then five year old Aussie, Callie, had a horrible episode where she was unable to get up, had a tilted head and was trembling and having neurological difficulties.  We were told it was probably a neuro toxin and that she would not make it since by the time a toxin has neurological effects, it is nearly always fatal.  But, she did not die.  She spent a week in the ER and slowly regained the ability to walk, run, etc.  So they concluded it was not a brain tumor because she got better, and it must be a neuro-toxin she had a sub-lethal dose of.

In the following months I kept a close eye on her and she did have some seizure like episodes about 6 months later where she was drooling and trembling and her eyes were dilated - but also a few episodes where she just had a head tilt and problems with her right side.  I never felt it was epilepsy.  She had seizure like symptoms but was always alert, responsive to me, etc.  She just could not control half her body, always the right side.

We went to the nearest neurologist, in Portland, OR and on March 30, 2008 she had a clean MRI that showed no brain tumor, and clean bloodwork, clean spinal tap, etc.  Nothing to explain the seizures or the week of not being able to walk.  She seemed to make a full recovery for about a year and a half.

In June of 2009 she again had an episode, followed by one three months later in September.  They seemed to be getting worse, lasting 45 minutes or more and not wanting to stop.  At that point, still not thinking it was "idiopathic (unknown origin) epilepsy," which was all they could come up with, we put her on a human anti-seizure medication called Zonisamide, which is supposed to have not many side effects except gastro-intestinal and to work in 60% of dogs.  We had no problems with it.

However, a month later, in early October, she developed a permanent head tilt to the right and I observed one of her eyes was not tracking with me properly, and that she had balance/ataxia issues on her right side persistently. I again took her to the vet and this time they thought it was peripheral vestibular disease, an ear issue that would  clear up in time and was causing loss of balance and dizziness.  After another month, it was much worse - a much more severe head tilt and more ataxia.  Callie was also clearly unhappy at that point, so it was time for another trip to the Portland to see the neurologist.

This time the MRI, November 9th, 2009, revealed a brain tumor which is thought to be a meningioma or a trigeminal nerve tumor. It is not small, and there is a fluid filled cyst adjacent to it three times the size of the tumor.  This was causing severe pressure in her brain and resulting in dizziness, loss of balance, etc.  It means that she has a few months left absent treatment.  She is seven next week.  A rather poor copy of an image from the scan is posted above.

A course of steroids and a daily medicine called Meclizine that works like Dramamine to help the dizziness have made her temporarily feel better and hold her head normally.  She can get in and out of the car most of the time again, for awhile she could not.  But it's temporary.

We have an appointment with the nearest neurologist who might be able to operate on her brain to reduce the cyst.  The tumor itself is not operable as it is too close to the brain stem.  But reducing the cyst could buy her some precious time.  They recommend a course of radiation as well, to reduce the tumor and possibly buy more time.  Maybe another 2 years before the tumor comes back, maybe less, maybe more.

It's hard to tell.  I know someone who was supposed to die of cancer in three months and ended up cancer free, someone who was to die within 2 years and is still here after nearly 10, and someone who was to live up to 2 years and made it 14 days.  Callie's case may or may not be cancer, but either way it kills her due to pressure in the brain.

I want to make the best choice for her quality of life, not for my own selfish desire to have her with me.  That is very hard to do.  We will get more information - much more - on November 30th when we go to Pullman, WA to the vet school for a consultation with neurology and oncology.  There is one clinical trial program in the country at U of Minnesota but Callie didn't qualify for any of their current research.  If treatment is elected, it is very, very expensive, likely $10,000 to $20,000.  This is one pet I should have bought pet insurance on I guess.  Too late now though. Perhaps that was an error, though I bet after the first episode of anything it would have been a pre-existing condition" battle.  Anyway, money will never be the deciding factor in animal care for me, because the animals are truly my family and deserve the best choices for their health, not only the affordable ones.

I started taking Callie to work with me two years ago and I have appreciated every day I have with her.  If we do elect surgery it will be December 1, my dad's birthday.  There is substantial risk, so we don't know yet what we will choose.    All the vets I have spoken to so far recommend it as a chance to buy her more time that should, in theory, be of good quality.  Radiation buys more time as well.  Eventually it comes back and kills her.  But surviving to 9 or 10 instead of 7 is not insignificant, especially in dog years.  If she can still go camping, go for walks, play tug of war and be with me, I think she would say her life is worth living.

The news was obviously devastating and I still have a lot of mixed emotions.  The best path is not clear.  The only thing I can say for sure is that I don't regret having this awesome dog in my life, she is a huge part of every day since she came home at 9 weeks old, and life without her, whenever that comes to be, will be very hard for a very long time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Arctic Fox

It's been a very chaotic week and I haven't gotten photos up in awhile.

We were lucky to see an Arctic fox one morning, interacting with a polar bear. A prior post has some photos of the interaction between them, but here are some shots of the fox itself. 

The Brave Arctic Fox and the Young Polar Bear

One morning we came across a young polar bear who was digging and eating something out of the ice.  There are small fish that actually freeze over the winter and then thaw back out and keep swimming in the spring.  Perhaps the bear was after one of those in the newly formed ice.  In any event, he or she was busy for some time digging at the ice.

Across the pond there came a very small, very cute, little white Arctic fox.  About the size of a housecat, the fox came up on the bear from downwind.  When the bear looked up and saw the fox approaching, to everyone's surprise, it ran off.  The fox immediately began to eat whatever the bear was after.  The bear seemed to have second thoughts after looking back and seeing the small fox, so it circled around in a large arc, taking time to roll on the ice a bit, and then re-possessed the meal.  The fox didn't just leave though - it stayed and came closer several times so the bear kept having to defend it's spot.

The fox was sooooooo cute.  It scampered about, it's tail was always blowing in the wind, and it was a very clever little creature.  I was thrilled not only to see an Arctic fox in the wild, but to see one interacting with a wild polar bear as well!  It was my trip highlight!  We stayed with them about 30 minutes, which I will certainly never forget!

In these photos, the fox is in the lower right corner, looking at the bear.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Polar bears at play

We had the chance to see some young male polar bears sparring and playing with one another, which was really fun.  I always love to catch animal interactions in the wild.  These bears have nothing to eat and nothing to do while waiting for the ice to freeze so sometimes they play - but not often, as it burns energy.

We could see these bears from the lodge.  It was really amazing to be able to look out the window during breakfast or mid-afternoon and see polar bears!  Needless to say, we were never allowed to leave the lodge unless on the buggy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Proximity to Polar Bears

I wasn't sure how close we'd get to see the polar bears, but they are curious, and so we actually got to be quite close in some cases.  Bears that had just arrived to the area were skeptical of tundra buggies, but once a bear had been a round for a day or so they ignored them or came right up to them.  It was actually pretty amazing to be standing on the back of a tundra buggy on a grated platform and have a polar bear come underneath, smelling, putting his or her nose against the grate, along with huge, huge front paws.  Several times I was able to look right into the eyes of a bear.  Many times bears walked very close to the buggy but did not directly approach. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Polar Bears in the Wild!!

I have always wanted to see polar bears in the wild.  In recent years, with fear of increased global warming and changing ice patterns, there is growing concern about how long the polar bear can survive.  This has made polar bear trips even more popular, and most of the ones I was interested in book up a year to two years in advance.  So, back in 2007, I decided to plan a 2009 trip to see the bears.

I researched all the available trips and determined that most of them take place in either Churchill, Canada or Spitsbergen, Norway.  It's cheaper for me to travel to Canada than Europe and takes less time, and I prefer to see the bears from land vs. sea.  Also, I wanted to have as much access to wildlife as possible and as little non-wildlife as possible - no shopping, looking at totem poles, cultural presentations, etc.  And, I always aim for a small group (teeny tiny if possible) and a company that is environmentally responsible and supports eco-tourism and animal conservation.

In the end, I chose a trip to Churchill, Canada with Natural Habitat Adventures, called the Tundra Lodge Adventure.  Of all the Churchill trips, it had the most time on the tundra out with the bears.  Instead of staying in a hotel in town, you get to stay in a lodge out on the tundra - where bears can be viewed of course.  The company is endorsed by World Wildlife Fund, and very eco-minded.  I felt it was the best value and experience.  The challenge was to find the funds and get a good time slot - it was not a trip I wanted to take on a shoulder season and risk not seeing bears or only seeing a couple.

The timing is tricky.  Bears gather at the Hudson Bay near Churchill waiting for the sea ice to form over the Bay so they can go hunt seals.  Come too early, and there may be no bears yet.  Come too late, and all the bears may be gone already.  The bears typically go out on the ice within 24 hours - so you could see them all or see none.  Time it right, and you will have lots of waiting bears with nothing to do but pose for photos (unknowingly of course) as they wait for the ice to form.  We went Oct 28th - Nov 2, mid-season.  It turned out to be perfect timing - we saw about a dozen or so bears a day and the ice was just beginning to form as we left (still a couple weeks to go I would guess).  The ice changes each year and since we booked a year in advance, we were very lucky.

I LOVED the trip and got some good photos, a few of which I will share in the coming days.