Our wonderful Mikey dog passed away, way too soon from a sudden and terrible illness, on Sept. 1st, 2010. We had him in our lives for 8 months, adopting him from Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, California. We and the vets think he was around 7, and he was in peak physical shape when he passed. I jogged with him most evenings, and we took him on an hour walk/run on the beach every morning, and to Fort Funston most weekends – he had a strong heart. That strength gave him a fighting chance – several vets noted how strong his heart was, how they couldn’t believe he could stand and walk while so anemic. He also had a great string of emergency and specialist vets who were well versed and very experienced fighting this disease. But despite this, auto-immune hemolytic anemia (also known as IMHA or AIHA) took him from us in three short, terrible days and all the while we don’t know what caused it. We just knew he had a very bad case of it. This is the story of losing my dog, Mikey.
Those three days were unreal, both in how stressful and unexpected they were. They still feel like this surreal nightmare. My husband and I shared our 10th anniversary the day before, and were taking Mikey on a week long vacation starting the following day – but that day he became “not quite right” (and our regular vet who saw him wasn’t yet concerned – it was that subtle). But that night, we had him at the emergency vet and we learned about his disease, his prognosis, and that he was so sick that he almost died a mere 12 hours after his initial “things are not too bad, you can still go on vacation if you want” vet exam. Thank goodness we decided to postpone our departure!
Those days while he was fighting the disease were so sad, so horrible. How unbelievable traumatic. Nightmarish. At the end of those three days were many more horrific, sad, stressful days where I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. And my chest just hurt from the stress – strong, physical pain to go with the emotional pain. Not to mention we couldn’t see him during those days, and my greatest fear was him dying alone.
But from the loss comes an understanding. I realized that I had to “do something” from the loss so it wasn’t in vain. And I want to share what I learned in case it helps others – and from that, our Mikey can leave some kind of legacy to others in addition to the strong legacy he leaves us who knew him.
It’s amazing to me that we only had him in our lives for eight months. I can go on, and on, and on about all the wonderful things he brought into our lives. All the experiences we shared. And for that, I am incredibly grateful to that ‘medium-sized senior black dog’ we adopted, who was abandoned at the shelter for many weeks until we found him on December 23rd, 2009. An incredibly terrific day in my life.
And this is what losing my dog Mikey taught me:
1) Live every day to the fullest
Dogs live for the now, we need to as well. And we shouldn’t cop out on doing activities with these dogs – we’re all winners if we go on that walk, take that trip, buy them that bully stick and the ice-cream cone too. It’s the bestest thing EVER for them, and that look on their face “you got that for ME?” is a memory you’ll carry for a long, long time.
Some of the memories that I carry with me about Mikey are small ones: the way he looked at me one day, some reaction he had to some small event, some regular outing we made where he did something special. Mikey was a shy dog, and we had to work on his confidence so he could be happier in this world. So those small steps he made each day gave me the greatest joy (his first on-leash pee after two months was SUCH a great morning! and I almost cried with relief after he pottied after holding it for 36 hours that first day…), and I also knew I had to do a LOT of things with him to help him grow that confidence.
As such, we had a lot of work to do! But that work really filled those eight months with many great outings, and I can’t say “I wish we did more” because we did so many things! All I can say is I wish we had more time to do more. More months together, because I already had plans for this fall for therapy dog training, taking a canoe trip on the Russian River, and that trip to Oregon to run on super-clean beaches we were set to leave on the day he got sick. But even though we’re missing out on those things, we honestly had a packed eight months.
Every morning we woke up at about 6:30 to spend an hour going to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, so Mikey could run and see other dogs. We saw Frodo and Jasmina (and new pup Jasper that last morning), saw Lexi most mornings in passing, Billy a few times, and his most favorite schanuzer-mix nearly every morning but for some reason don’t know his name. But we were there, day in and day out. Rain, shine, fog. The only days we missed a walk was when there was a full-blown storm (and even those days we sometimes took a short 20 minute walk to the bottom of the street until we both realized how ridiculous it was). But we walked through thunder and lightening: Mikey didn’t care, so out we went anyway. He was all about going for a walk, and getting to smell those SMELLS. Life was all about getting to the next smell and then peeing on it.
Every evening we would go out again as soon as I got home from work, although we varied these walks depending on the amount of daylight and how tired I was! Sometimes it was a jog, sometimes a brisk walk, sometimes out on the avenues, sometimes around Lands End trails. But it was always relaxing, nearly an hour, and I was so happy to be with my guy. Afterwards, every night we would eat dinner together and then relax on the couch, him splayed out between my knees or right across my body – lounging. Nothing better than ending a day like that.
But the best part of the day, every day, was getting home to see my dude… hearing that thump as the recliner hit the wall as he jumped out of it to come to the door as I was opening it and calling to him “Duuuuuuude!!!!”… his tail wagging and usually a little pine from his throat.
On weekends we would take him on other outings, farther away from the city or to Fort Funston since it was his favorite place in the world due to sand dunes. He adored running up and down the dunes.
We also took him to several open areas in North Bay for off-leash hikes (such as under Mt Tam), to East Bay to hike off leash on the hills around the cows and he could roll in cow pies (not to our delight, but he was immensely happy), and to various areas down the peninsula and Santa Cruz. We took him to eat lunch multiple times at Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay, where they’d give him a bowl of water, kids would marvel at the weird people sitting in the hallway outside the restaurant, and he would make a wide berth around the odd-sounding heater they have in the lobby. And we took him on an adventure to Utah, via Yosemite. It was our first and last vacation, but he did wonderfully in the car, hotels, and rental unit.
It was only 8 months, but every day we spent all of our free time together, growing together. Me learning to de-stress and relax, him growing in confidence. We trusted each other, and learned boatloads in the meantime.
2) Remember the small things
I seem to remember small moments more than the overall “large picture”, and I’m not sure if that’s because we had Mikey for such a short period of time comparatively speaking. But so many things between us were so striking. I remember that first moment seeing him in his dark kennel at the shelter, walking up to the gate with that look in his eyes. I remember watching him for ages, and him probably wondering about that crazy woman at the other side of the gate. I remember frantically rushing back to adopt him, hoping no one had beat us (despite him being there for nearly 2 months!) Then we had to goto Pet Food Express and Costco, picking up “dog supplies” (we had no clue what size of dog we were getting… so now that we knew, we had to go pick that stuff up). He was so scared, so we hung around the grass outside as the smells relaxed him. That car was packed to the gills, but he was totally happy to squish in between it all with me!
But above all, I remember that moment of nervousness the second that leash was handed to me at the shelter - “oh my gosh, I’m a dog parent!” That was soon remedied with this feeling of joy, as Mikey ran into our living room after the stress of Costco and Pet Food Express -- and he wagged his tail for the first time. He knew he was home. Then went over to my husbands floor-cushion, and turned it into a dog bed. So long ago, but I can feel those moments like they were yesterday.
The life-changing moment came weeks later, as Mikey lay between my legs on the bed as I read a book, and gazed up at me with a look of “I trust you now, you are my person”. I couldn’t believe he didn’t have a family. At that moment I knew I had to do more for dogs like him, and that’s when I knew I had to volunteer and do something better with my life. Dogs like him die in droves – older, black, larger, shelter dogs. And dogs like him are way too life-changing-awesome to die in the numbers they do. Listening to that small moment was important, that I learned.
But there are so many small, happy moments on a day-to-day basis. The sun on their face, a happy dog smile, a hop in their step, a wag of their tail when you call their name (this especially for the rehab shy dogs, at least!). The happiest memory came from our vacation together to Utah. We took Mikey out for ice-cream on a wonderful, warm summer night. We had never given him ice cream, or human food from a table for that matter. Peter bought us a cone to share, and on a whim I passed it down to Mikey. He looked at me as in “you made a mistake, you never give me people food”, but took a lick. And then another. And then started gulping down the ice cream as fast as his tongue would allow. I passed it back to Peter, then me, and then I glanced down at Mikey… he was standing there with the biggest sloppy dog grin I had EVER seen on his face, his tail wagging like crazy “My turn!!!” We repeated passing it between the three of us until the ice cream was gone, and he was the happiest dog in Kanab that night I’m sure. Eating that ice cream was possibly the happiest I had ever seen him, and that memory is etched into my head forever.
3) Take pictures (and video!)
I only have one video of Mikey on the dunes in Fort Funston, but I am forever glad that I took it. I also have a video of what he was like when I arrived home each day (or an approximation – he was a bit shocked to see the camera in front of my face that day!) And tons of photos. But I wish I took more, in hindsight, being the sentimental sap that I am.
(I just made this one public… our house was such a mess! But my gosh did I just bawl watching this…)
I think the biggest “mistake” I made was never taking photos of the two of us, until the bitter end. Sure we had a couple at a distance, but none of the photos were of the two of us looking at the camera. So the only such photo I have like that is when we took him from the emergency vets to the specialists. And it’s sad! I know it was the last time I held him, walked him, the final car ride. But… I’m so thankful I even thought to take the camera and get that photo at all, or I wouldn’t have had any.
So I have now learned to take lots and lots of photos to capture the good times.
4) Think about what they’ve inspired you to do, or can inspire you to do
As mentioned in section 2, Mikey inspired me to volunteer with dogs and promote adopting dogs in general. Mikey also inspired me to make some changes in my life after his death, highlighting what’s important in life (family, friends, some form of real support). And also that time is important, just not to waste time. Life is very short.
I’m also amazed at the wonderful effect Mikey had on kids. It was wonderful how patient and gentle he was with kids (and also how their parents just let their kids run up to him and touch him while at off-leash parks without asking if he was OK with children – thankfully we were responsible owners and he was a gentle dog!) Mikey would stand there and just let kids pet him, he would sit down if they sort of “kid-handled” him. One toddler slapped him on the back, and he just sat down and stayed there for a good five minutes. The most he would do is lick their hands or face (I always had to warn parents “He might give kisses!!”) He was such a testament to patience, he was a born therapy dog for children. He was naturally a shy dog, not really born to be a therapy dog for the elderly (he didn’t have that “happy to greet everyone” personality), but he had this quiet, zen patience that seemed to be a magnet for children. And be perfect for children who were nervous about dogs – and he wasn’t a small dog, either! If you ever have a dog like this, consider therapy work. I’m crossing my fingers our recent adoptee may be like this. To teach children how to properly interact with dogs is one of the most important lessons you can teach, knowing the percentage of dog bites that involve children due to a lack of education.
So thinking about what he inspired during his lifetime, to volunteer and inspire future therapy work, and motivating me to spend more time with friends and family, is something that will change my life forever. Mikey’s lessons will be with me until the day I die, and I will forever thank him for that.
5) Remember what did they bring into your life, and you to theirs
Knowing the vast amount of positive change that Mikey brought into our life, in itself, made his passing not be in vain. Mikey gave me life, a life that was worth so much more than it did previous to having him. It gave me a clear sense of meaning and purpose, to look after this dog, and to help other dogs that are presently less fortunate than he is (now having a family).
We adopted Mikey because I had desperately wanted a dog for so long, and I was going through a sort of health crisis that left me feeling desperate for change. I also had a lot of work stress, and felt the urgent need for change. So we got our life in order, fixed our work-life balance, and were ready for a dog. So we searched Petfinder (after being rejected for an elderly greyound because our fence was too short), and made a shortlist of dogs to go visit.
Not long after Mikey entered our life, I found a new sense of calm and the stress just melted away. Not only did I notice, but others made random comments at the office about the change, without knowing it was because of a dog. Even my mom noticed. Yes, dogs can be miracles, and fix so much. You don’t just give them a chance at life, they give you a chance at life too.
But even when you do succumb to the stresses of life, Mikey was there to help. I remember one day that was simply horrible. I was angry for whatever reason, and just had to ‘leave’. I put Mikey on a leash, and we stormed into a grey, rainy, horrible day. We sat at the bottom of the block, him quietly at my side as I sat there steaming mad at whatever it was. It quickly lost all importance. We continued on a walk, and he slowly cheered me up. He fixed that day, just like he fixed my life.
But as much as he brought to my life, I do also accept that I brought some quality to his. Mikey was in the shelter for a long time before we adopted him – partly because he did fit a profile of a less-adoptable dog. He was shy too, and barely paid us any attention during our adoption counsel. But we took a chance, betting on him. We put some elbow grease into his rehabilitation – making him more confident, giving him a bunch of experiences. And together we all won.
(And by the way, in the above photo he is COVERED in cow pie. I think he thought he was sooooo clever to bring us that smell...)
6) Remember what they make you realize when they pass
Because Mikey got so sick, so fast, “time” was what I thought about the most, and still think about. We only had eight months together, which made every moment that much more precious. It also meant that I quickly realized how fleeting time is – how short our time can be together. And how we just can’t delay doing things.
I lost my “childhood” dog only 3 weeks before Mikey died, and I had been putting off going to see him. I meant to, but I kept delaying the trip. And then it was too late. Fate took my own dog only 3 weeks later, and very unexpectedly. I barely got to take a photo of us together, and I only had 8 months with my soul dog. Thus, time was the biggest take-away from losing both of them, and I began applying this to other areas of my life.
I also realized the importance of being close to good vets, emergency facilities, and specialists can also be very important.
Knowing your dog, and what is abnormal for them (breath rate, energy level, appetite) is incredibly important. And knowing to check their gums whenever something seems not-quite-right, and get their blood checked with immediate results, is of the utmost importance. Do not accept any compromises if you encounter lethargy (even the slightest) combined with anorexia (loss of appetite) and pale gums. Please please please get someone familiar with AIHA to check your dogs blood test results. But long story short: know your dog, and if something seems wrong, listen to your gut and have everything checked out if something seems wrong. Don’t worry that you’re overreacting.
Research everything. There is a lot of information online, so research what you can and take it up with your vet. Don’t necessarily be that “patient who googles”, but instead be the patient who researches so you can ask the right questions, and interpret the information your vet tells you. And if you aren’t happy with your vet, change offices or get a second opinion! Don’t settle – you pay a lot of money to visit the vet, and your companion is too valuable for settling.
Question drugs. Knowing what I do now about the horrible toxins we subject our animals to, I will never apply another dose of flea medication even if it is recommended. I gave a few doses to Mikey at the advice of a vet after he suddenly began scratching incessantly and the “most likely culprit” was flea dermatitis (even though he had no evidence of fleas). I don’t know if the Frontline killed him, but knowing how many dogs it does kill, and that it probably causes AIHA in some, my dogs will never get another dose of those horrible toxins again. It doesn’t make sense to apply medications that I am not supposed to get onto my skin – that is simply way too frightening, given there are so many safer alternatives.
The same will go for other overly prescribed medications (steroids, worming medications, and so on) and vaccinations, and we are now going with holistic vets, titers, and home-cooked meals for our animals. The thing that angers me the most is I knew this long ago with my cat, and somehow lost my way. Mikey helped us get back on track – we are (again) considering everything that goes on or into our companions.
But most of all, Mikey’s passing taught us to take the difficulties of our lives and instead of letting it get us down, to let it propel us to something positive. I am taking what he gave me, and putting it to good use: improving the way I care for myself and for my companion animals.
7) Consider adoption, including needy dogs who need an extra helping hand.
As noted earlier, Mikey was a “less adoptable” dog – and proved to be the best possible dog-friend in the world. I couldn’t imagine not adopting, being as I am in the shelters on a regular basis and meeting so many wonderful dogs I want to take home with me. But it has made me only want to adopt dogs who need an extra helping hand, either “less perfect” temperaments or discriminated breeds. I tend to gravitate towards the shy dogs, which is why our current companion caught our eye (she had the "Mikey look" in more than one photo – but is actually much shier than he ever was and failed her temp test poor thing).
I don’t think this, by any means, should be “try to adopt the least desirable dog” or someone with major issues. Definitely not – it’s terribly tragic that healthy, adoptable, friendly dogs are put to death every day, there are many dogs in terrific shape who desperately need homes. And many dogs may simply be too much to handle unless you’re a trained professional (I’m certainly not by any means!) I simply feel that Mikey inspired us to look at dogs who are terrific that still get passed over on first inspection – such as “big black dogs”, older dogs, shyer dogs, some dog who isn’t quite as “cute” as the others. These guys make terrific pets, have many quality years (typically!), and shy dogs often just need a bit of patience and proper handling to turn into soulful, wonderful, loyal, and eternally grateful companions.
8) Love them every day like it may be their last.
The one thing you learn so quickly about AIHA is that it strikes swift and hard. The symptoms are so subtle that they’re easy to miss, and it can almost be “too late” when you finally pick up on something being wrong. There’s a chance you can be too late, with this and every other sudden form of death. And from that I learned to make the most of everything that you have, every day, with your loved ones both two-legged and four-legged.
Now go kiss your dog, and give them the best walk ever.
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