Originally published on Dogspired by Charlotte Grider, Dogspired Editor. Grider is a freelancer and dog lover who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband, Tim Morrison, and their three dogs (Dakota, Sabrina, and Kristine) and their cat (Milo). While she is passionate about writing, Charlotte’s mission is to make life better for dogs everywhere by writing for Dogspired and by writing grants for and volunteering at M’Shoogy’s Animal Rescue in Savannah, MO.
Photos and video from the last few weeks of Susanna’s life portray her as a playful—if aging—golden retriever. The vet had assured me several months prior that she was in good health, except for a mild case of arthritis. When she had difficulty walking up the stairs one July evening, I assumed that the arthritis was slowing her down.
But this evening was different. Susanna was panting more heavily than usual, and despite the cooler temperature in the house, she was unable to catch her breath. Her gums were white. My husband, Tim, laid Susanna across his lap on the couch, and she stopped panting, but her breathing was still labored, and the color had not yet returned to her gums.
Our regular vet had closed for the day, so we called my niece, Lindsay (a nurse and former vet tech), to see if she thought we should take Susanna to another clinic. She said that Susanna might have congestive heart failure and that we should take her in. Fortunately, one local vet keeps extended hours and accepts walk-ins.
When we arrived, Susanna was still panting, and her gums had not regained their color. While we waited, I tried to figure out why this was happening. Had we failed to notice other symptoms?
The x-rays revealed that Susanna’s heart was enlarged—or, to use the phrase that the vet carefully avoided—she had congestive heart failure. The enlargement of the heart was pressing the trachea against her spine, making it difficult for her to breathe. The doctor said that she would recover if she responded to the medications, and he seemed to believe that she would be okay. He prescribed two medications and told us to watch carefully to make sure that she didn’t overexert herself. Call the emergency number if we have questions.
We gave Susanna the medication when we got home, but she continued to pant vigorously. One agonizing hour passed and then another. And another. We called the emergency vet, who called in a prescription for a diuretic.
Within twenty minutes, we were able to administer the new medication.
But Susanna continued to struggle for air. Finally, we were forced to acknowledge that she was dying.
It was hard to believe that she was the same dog who had been playing in the baby pool and chasing the spray from the garden hose a couple of days ago. There must have been symptoms that we hadn’t seen.
We knew that Susanna had been slowing down over the last year or so, but we weren’t surprised because she was a senior, after all. Often, she would run the fence and bark at the neighbors’ dogs, and she enjoyed playing with our foster puppies.
I researched the symptoms of congestive heart failure. Coughing, difficulty breathing, and fluid in the abdomen are most common. Susanna had not been coughing and hadn’t seemed to have difficulty breathing. We had been going for walks, and she hadn’t seemed any more winded than the other dogs—everyone was panting in the heat.
But I thought perhaps I had seen fluid in her abdomen. Although the vet we took her to on the night of the crisis did not detect any fluid during the physical examination, I had previously noticed some swelling in the abdominal area. I hadn’t been greatly alarmed because I thought it had been there when I took her for an examination a few months ago, and the doctor hadn’t commented on it, even though we were looking for potential abnormalities in the abdominal area.
Had anything else been amiss?
Susanna had started sleeping in the hallway or living room instead of the bedroom. This might not seem unusual, but when a dog has slept in the bedroom for almost a decade, a change in location might very well be a sign that something is wrong. She had also stopped coming to the kitchen for ice cubes and had failed to show up for treats a few times. Her eyes looked tired or stressed.
Of course, I had made mental notes about these changes, but, in the absence of genuine medical symptoms, it can be difficult to persuade a veterinarian that there may be a real problem. In fact, just a couple of weeks before Susanna’s crisis, we had taken our previously happy and energetic Malamute, Dakota, to the vet because he had become listless and uncharacteristically aggressive and appeared to not be fully conscious at times. He didn’t want to go outside and wouldn’t leave his crate; in fact, he hid his face in the back of the crate, as though the light was bothering him.
Pets experience an adrenaline rush when they go the vet, so Dakota looked pretty healthy when we arrived. The doctor said, “He looks fine to me.” And thus began a diagnostic odyssey that took us to several vets and even led us to consult our former vet, who lives 300 miles away.
A medical problem can be at the root of changes in your pet’s behavior and appearance. If your dog engages in the same rituals and behaviors every day for years and suddenly loses interest in one of these activities or habits, consider a vet visit. Explain that you want a thorough physical examination, and if you can afford it—especially if you have a senior dog—ask for blood work and maybe a chest x-ray and fecal test. If your vet disregards your concern, you might want to take your pet elsewhere.