Archive for January, 2011

Otis (bottom) and Zoie

Otis (bottom) and Zoie relaxing on their couch.

 Otis and Zoie had it all – doting owners, their own couch in a loft condominium in San Francisco’s Mission District,  even an acupuncturist. But Otis also had trouble walking and breathing. His owners, Steven and JR, faithfully followed a demanding regimen of diet, vitamins and exercise recommended by the vet. But when they wanted to take a two-week vacation, they couldn’t find anyone they trusted to maintain that regimen.

Luckily for me, they got my name from relatives here in Gary, Indiana who had boarded their dog with me. Their recommendation was good enough for Steven and JR, so I was hired.

They flew me to San Francisco, where a limousine driver met me at the airport and drove me to their condo. They spent that night and the next day doing whatever they could to ensure my comfort in their absence. They introduced me to friends, neighbors and their favorite local restaurants. They took me to the grocery store and loaded up a cart with enough food and wine for a month. They took me by the dogs’ vet. They arranged for one of their best friends to look in on me and show me around. They even left a couple of hundred dollars in cash, unasked, for extra expenses like cab fares.

Otis’ needs were exacting, but not overwhelming. In addition to his medicine and vitamins, he and Zoie ate nothing but fresh chicken and rice, made in batches every other day. They were walked four times a day, and Otis needed little red booties put on his back paws to help him with traction. The sight of him waddling along in those booties never failed to elicit smiles from everyone passing by.

In between walks, meals and medicine, I explored San Francisco on foot or by using its excellent BART subway system. My visit coincided with the city’s annual Gay Pride festival, one of the biggest in the country. It’s grown into a multi-day event that includes family activities, as well as a parade led by a contingent of lesbian bikers on the biggest, noisiest motorcycles available. Lots of people brought their dogs to the parade, many of them adorned in the rainbow colors symbolic of the gay pride movement.

At the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco

This kind of pet-sitting job seemed like a miracle, but lightning struck me twice. The next year, through friends of relatives, I was flown to San Diego to watch over two adorable Yorkies. They lived in a beautiful, sprawling home near the little town of Jamul in the hills east of the city. In addition to the pool, the enormous flat-screen TV, gourmet kitchen, fresh herbs from the garden and gorgeous scenery, I had my own quarters – a one-bedroom studio cottage just up the driveway from the main house. A big, round trampoline sat outside the cottage, and on warm nights I slept on it. It gave me a great chance to quietly observe the wildlife that became active after dusk, including coyotes, rabbits and raccoons.

The picture on the right shows a view from the patio, with me hard at work!

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 In a back yard that abuts mine, a large dog lives isolated in a small area confined by the high walls of a chain-link fence. It contains a dog house sitting on a raised wooden platform. A narrow strip of grass surrounds the platform.

 Like most prisons, this one was built in a remote area, a corner of the owner’s back yard that is as far from the house as possible. As dog prisons go, this one would be described by people inclined to use one as nice. It probably was expensive.

Naturally, the dog barks at all hours of the day and night, but nobody ever responds. Far worse is when he yips, whines and yelps, pleading for attention he doesn’t get. I’ve never seen anybody play with him, walk him or even speak to him.

The pleading tends to happen when the owner lets her other dog outside to run around in the yard. It must be especially hard on the prisoner to watch this other dog, who is allowed to run free several times a day, then return to live inside the house to enjoy the company of someone who obviously cares about him.

What possible reason could this person have for keeping an intelligent being, a social animal eager for affection, in a condition of deprivation inflicted only on the most dangerous criminals of the human community? The cruelty and waste of it are appalling.

The dog isn’t able to protect anyone, and isn’t kept for companionship. What benefit does the owner get from ignoring the lonely creature caged outside in all types of weather?

This dog’s owner spurned friendly attempts to engage or educate her about how to bring her dog indoors. But sometimes, such owners can be convinced to improve conditions for their dogs or even surrender them for adoption into a better situation. For help exploring these possibilities, check the national nonprofit, Dogs Deserve Better at www.dogsdeservebetter.com. If you can do nothing else, consider sending a little money to any nonprofit working to eliminate neglect and cruelty to pets.

Whenever this dog barks or whines, I imagine a special hell for its owner and all those like her. It consists of a small, outdoor prison, where the woman would be isolated and confined for her entire life. No company, no comfort, no appeal. And whenever she pleaded and hollered for attention, no response at all, except for the deep satisfaction felt by neighbors at the sound of justice being done.

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Ziggy liked to hang out on the back porch


One of my two cats, Ziggy, died unexpectedly recently. It was not an easy death.

 He was having trouble breathing, gasping through his open mouth, his sides heaving like bellows. His lungs sounded “horrible,” the vet said. An xray showed them to be almost entirely filled with fluid.

We can try drawing some of it out, the vet said, but it’s dangerous. He might not make it.

At that point, my only thought was to relieve Ziggy by making it easier for him to breathe. I didn’t think beyond that. He needed immediate action, but the one I picked probably wasn’t the best.

 Go ahead, I told the vet. See what you can do.

 Waiting alone in that little exam room, I could hear a cat yowling in distress. I told myself it wasn’t Ziggy (although it almost certainly was). Then I told myself if it was Ziggy, the procedure would not take long and would help him. When the yowling stopped, I told myself he was surely feeling better.

After a few more interminable minutes, the vet gave me the bad news. I handed him Ziggy’s cat carrier. The thought of bringing it home empty was unbearable.

Naturally, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back and wondering what could have been done differently. What did I miss? How could he get to death’s door without me even noticing? Hindsight suggested a few answers:

1. His behavior had changed. For several weeks, he had been spending most of his time in the basement, lying in the same spot by a window. Now I wonder if that was because he had a hard time with the stairs.

2. I had noticed his sides seemed to be moving in and out more than was usual, but wasn’t sure. He had just been to the vet for his annual checkup and vaccinations. Nothing seemed amiss.

3. The night before he died, he let out a couple of loud yowls like I’d never heard before. I called to him, but he didn’t appear. That was strange, I thought, then decided it didn’t mean anything important mostly because I had no idea what it meant. He made the same commotion the next afternoon, prompting me to take a close look at him and then rush him to the vet.

What I most regret now is the decision I made in the vet’s office. It would have been far kinder to Ziggy to quickly give him the shot that would euthanize him. It’s hard living with the knowledge that his last moments were filled with pain and fear that he could have been spared. The vet’s warning that he might not make it through the procedure didn’t overcome my unwillingness to realize he was fatally ill.

After an autopsy, the vet speculated that another animal must have punctured Ziggy’s chest during a fight, and the unseen wound got infected and festered beyond repair. This sounded plausible, since Ziggy (despite being neutered) enthusiastically picked fights with other cats.

Despite this, the only thing I’m still sure of was my decision, made years ago, to allow my cats to go outside. Of the seven cats I’ve had during the past 25 years, one disappeared, one survived a rattlesnake bite but was mauled by a neighbor’s chow and one got hit by a car.

They all enjoyed lounging in the yard, stalking prey through the grass, delivering the remains of their catches to my doorstep and exploring the neighborhood. Ziggy befriended a neighbor’s cat, alternately scrapping with him and hanging out with him on the front porch. That cat still comes around, and I wonder if he was the cause of Ziggy’s illness.

 A lot of people, including my mother, think it’s too risky to allow cats outside. The same argument could be made for children, as well. They’d certainly be safer if confined. 

But they’d never become fully human if they couldn’t experience the larger world, and confinement wouldn’t guarantee they’d avoid a painful, scary death.

Ziggy enjoyed almost every moment of his life. The only times he experienced boredom, frustration or loneliness was during confinement in a kennel while I traveled. 

I don’t expect to change my mind about this, but I would like to hear from other cat owners about their decisions. Have you ever changed your mind about keeping your cat in or letting it out?

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On my very first pet-sitting visit to Hersh and Samantha, two big, old, black labs, I found a chewed-up pill bottle next to their food bowls.

The label, ripped and sodden, was mostly unreadable. I didn’t know what kind of pills they were, how many had been in the bottle, who had eaten them or how long ago.

Naturally, it was late on a Saturday afternoon, so their vet was closed. Neither of the owners answered their cell phones.

Hersh and Sam stood by, grinning and wagging their tails, while I called the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline. A consultant looked up what I could read of the medicine’s name, then told me it was a highly toxic medication for bone cancer, which was afflicting Sam. Get them to an emergency vet immediately, he said. Watch for vomiting and convulsions.

During the half-hour drive to the North Central emergency vet in Westville, Ind. I kept a nervous eye on the two dogs in the back seat, hoping I wouldn’t see vomiting or convulsions. Each happily had their head out of a window on either side of the car.

After a $500 visit at the emergency vet, the two dogs were sent home with instructions to keep a close eye on them. We were all greatly relieved when neither dog showed any signs of distress during the next several days. They had dodged a bullet.

I went on to make many more visits to Hersh and Sam before old age claimed them. But I’ll bet they thought the very first one was the most fun of all. They got to go for a long car ride, were fussed over by lots of people, then brought home and fed dinner. From their point of view, it was a great visit!

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