If it’s true that in this world there are cat people and dog people, I am most definitely a dog person. I cannot remember a time when I have had fewer than four dogs. Most of my like-minded friends think that this is normal. My chosen breed is the Scottish Deerhound. This is a very old breed, used in Scotland to hunt the red deer even before the advent of firearms. These powerful hounds were able to keep pace with the fleetest of foot, and are pictured in old etchings going for the neck and throat, or for the hamstrings of the unfortunate deer. It has been said that the deerhound is the “Royal Dog of Scotland”, that no one ranked lower than an earl could own them, and that a “leash” of deerhounds was the price whereby a convicted murderer could buy back his life. My friend Richard, historian of the breed, says that these stories are likely apocryphal, but they please me nonetheless. Lately, my husband has taken to calling himself “The Laird”, while three or four of them lounge about his feet as he watches Monday night football on the giant screen tv. Sir Walter Scott’s monument sits in the heart of Edinburgh, his deerhound Maida at his side, whom he called “the most perfect creature of heaven.” I couldn’t agree more.
And so it was only natural, that when the veterinary specialty clinic in our area was looking to partner with human radiation oncologists for the purpose of delivering stereotactic radiosurgery to dogs with brain tumors, I was chosen to forge ahead with the alliance. As part of the bonding process, I was invited to tour the veterinary cancer center with my staff. The facility was clean, bright and airy, the staff cheerful and obviously skilled, and the linear accelerator used to treat the animals was state of the art. Stationed outside the linac was a white board schedule with the names and treatment times of the dogs under treatment. I was surprised to see that the schedule was full, morning to evening. Both the medical oncologist and the radiation oncologist greeted us, and we discussed ways in which we could collaborate to improve the lives of both dogs and humans affected by cancer. As we were leaving, a sad eyed basset hound, held tightly in the arms of a vet tech, gave a low whimper as his IV was started for his chemotherapy. To my amazement, my office manager, who has seen EVERYTHING in the human spectrum of suffering over a 15 year career working in cancer centers, burst into tears and exclaimed, “It’s just so SAD!”. And she is not a dog person.
What is it that drives human beings to spend thousands of dollars treating their pets for cancer? People who swear that they would never under ANY circumstances themselves undergo chemotherapy or radiation change their minds abruptly when it comes to their beloved pet. People who become apoplectic when faced with 20% co-pays on their own insurance will cheerfully re-mortage their homes to give their 11 year old dog a chance of cure. What is it about the human-animal bond that compels us to never give up, to fight the good fight for our cat with lymphoma? Especially since that animal cannot tell us that yes, they want that amputation and they want that chemotherapy and radiation. Scottish deerhounds are particularly susceptible to osteosarcoma, a nearly always fatal bone cancer very common in large to giant breed dogs. I asked the veterinary oncologist, who has since become a good friend, “Why do people amputate the leg of a giant running hound, and give intense chemotherapy, when on average the dog lives only a year?” I tried not to sound judgmental but he knew what I meant. He said, “Miranda, you must stop thinking of the dog as a human being. The dog doesn’t look in the mirror and say, where did my leg go? Look at how deformed I am! The dog says, I am so grateful that the horrible pain is gone.”
I have been very fortunate. I have never had to make the decision to amputate the leg of a dog who lives to run. But I have corresponded for years with a British couple, Marc and Bev Doyle, who made that decision for their deerhound Darcy, who lived happily as a “tripod” for four more years before dying of other causes. Marc and Bev have used Darcy’s example to raise a huge amount of money for osteosarcoma research and have likely benefited countless other Darcys in the process. Marc is a photographer, and one of my favorite images of his was taken out on the moors, when Darcy ventured out for a walk for the very first time after her amputation. It is a purposely grainy black and white photograph, taken from behind as the day is waning. Darcy has become tired on her walk and pauses for a few minutes to lean on her deerhound brother Duffy, who stands very still to support her while she rests. There is a gentle breeze reflected in the dogs coats. They are both looking ahead to the horizon. I call this picture “Lean on Me”. Marc calls it simply, “Hero.”
The odds are that one day, perhaps soon, my luck will run out and I too will face the decision of whether to pursue aggressive cancer care for one of my dogs. When that time comes, I don’t know what I will do. Do you?