At the vet: Choices of economics and love

As soon as the veterinarian walked into our examination room at the SFSPCA (San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals), we could tell she was one of these modern vets who were totally into making dogs feel relaxed and loved before beginning and right through the examination. All the vets at the SFSPCA are like this, but this morning’s doctor was even more so. Almost immediately, she had Anna (our brown dog) lying on her back in position for a solid belly rub.

But the doctor wasn’t in the exam room for belly rubs. She meant business — even in her relaxed California, all-loving way. In lieu of a belly rub, Anna got a cold stethoscope stuck to her chest. But the vet did not find what she was looking for. Giving the sky a quizzical look, she moved the stethoscope around Anna’s chest several times before she settle on a spot for Anna’s heartbeat.

“What a mellow dog you are!” the vet exclaimed.

“Is everything ok?” I asked, slightly concerned.

“Yes, she just has a very, very low heart-rate for a dog.”

“Ah yes, she’s very relaxed. Quite lazy, actually.” I was relieved. After Anna’s prior year illness and surgery, I was paranoid that something else would become wrong with her.

From the moment I first picked Anna up out of her cage at the North Shore Animal League’s mobile shelter at the PetCo on 86th and Lex in Manhattan, she has wanted to do nothing but cuddle. And eat. Cuddle, eat, and sleep. That was my Anna. But it was ok. I brought her home from the shelter only a couple of weeks after September 11th. Every night, I would sleep with her in my arms, listening to the sirens of the Emergency Vehicles racing up and down the FDR (East Side Highway) as they rushed to and from Ground Zero. It was an emotional time. Far away from my family and completely and utterly single, I needed the comfort and love Anna offered.

But her weight….well, it was a problem. I took her to the dog park, but instead of running around, she would go from dog owner to dog owner hoping for a pet on the head — or, even better, a treat in her mouth. In the morning, just after sunrise, I would take her to Central Park where dogs were allowed off-leash until 9 a.m. I took a ball and one of those long plastic ball-throwers in hopes of making her play fetch. And she would, for a few moments. But inevitably, a groundskeeper would come along and Anna would run up to him, certain she could con some love out of him too.

So Anna got fat. Her vet in New York got angry at me more and more. Especially as her weight inched closer to 60 pounds. But, short of starving her, I didn’t know what I could do. She was a fat, happy dog.

Then, in the Summer of 2007, Anna developed a stomach blockage. The bills that piled up from the moment the Ukrainian and I rushed her to the emergency room at the San Francisco Veterinary Specialists (SFVS) until she was discharged almost a week later totaled $7000. I cleared out my savings to pay for what I could and then did what I didn’t want to do:  put the rest on my credit card which, at the time, had a $0 balance. I spent every penny I had for the next several months to pay off that balance.

The emotional, physical and financial impact of that death-scare with Anna made me hyper-vigilant regarding everything that went into Anna’s mouth. Not only did I not want her to develop another blockage, i also didn’t want her to suffer from pancreatitis or any other health problems to which fat dogs (and humans!) are prone. The Ukrainian and I went around and around about how much food Anna really did need. How many “treats” — both the doggy kind and leftovers from our plate — were appropriate.

“I know what we’ll do,” said the Ukrainian, seeking to resolve our canine consumption problem once and for all. “We’ll ask the vet!”

“If you want to ask her, then you can. I know what she’ll say:  Anna is fat and we feed her too much.” It was hard to resist Anna’s pleading eyes when she wanted a special treat. I was just as guilty as the Ukrainian, if not in proportion, then in frequency. Anna had a way of making you feel as if you didn’t love her if you didn’t feed her.

And so, on cue, when I called Anna “lazy” to the vet, the Ukrainian put his hand on my hard to signal, “Ok, that’s enough. It’s my turn now to talk to the vet” and proceeded to ask her:  “How much should we be feeding the dog. Because, see…we only give her 1/2 a cup of food in the morning and 1/2 a cup of food at night and maybe a few little treats during the day.”

The vet’s eyes popped out of her. Incredulous, she stared at the Ukrainian before looking down at Anna, shocked that so little food could produce such a fat dog.

“That’s not completely true, ” I countered. “That is all the dog food she eats, but we are always sharing little bits of our meals with her.”

And then came the lecture I didn’t want to hear:  “Dogs should not be eating people food,” began the vet in a friendly, helpful new-age California sort of way.

“Even chicken?” I challenged the vet. The Ukrainian is a huge fan of chicken and it’s quite often that Anna (and her sister Sophie) con him out of some. I wanted the vet to tell me how a little bit of white meat chicken breast could so some harm — because I really didn’t believe it could.

“Only if it’s boiled and there is no fat on it, nor any sauce or anything.” I didn’t bother explaining to her the Ukrainian’s careful examination of *any* chicken he buys as he doesn’t want any fat on it himself.

“And bananas?” I asked. “What about bananas? She gets very upset if we don’t share our bananas with her.”

Again, the vet looked incredulous. Your dog likes bananas? her face read. And then she recovered and returned to her peppy, positive bedside manner. “Ok! So you have a vegetarian doggie.” Yeah, a vegetarian doggie who eats chicken, I silently replied in my own head.

“But no grapes!?!” the vet asked hopefully.

“No, no grapes,” I replied knowing their toxicity to canines. Also no avocados nor anything else that has been considered dangerous to dogs. Google has been our friend every time we have introduced a new food into her diet.

“What I’d like to figure out, ” the vet said returning to her duty, “is why she’s so fat when she eats so little.”

“She’s lazy,” I answered. “She wants to do nothing but lay around and have her belly rubbed all day.” She’s also a pig, but I didn’t say that. Anna is a pig that will eat anything in her sight. She’d be fat if we didn’t feed her a single morsel of food ever. On many occasions, I’ve had to cut our trips to Dolores Park short and leash her up, because all she would do is seek out garbage to eat. This is what caused her stomach blockage the year before in the first place.

“How long has she been fat?” the vet asked, applying her best clinical skills.

“Since she was about a year old. Maybe younger.”

“Well, if she is eating so little, she could be hypothyroidic. But dogs usually don’t develop hypothyroidism until 3 to 5 years of age. If she’s been this fat since, she was one, she probably doesn’t. I’d still like to test her though.””

“How much is that?”


Ok, not so bad. It could be a (relatively) low-cost test to give our dog better and fuller life, I thought, weighing in my mind if such a test was truly necessary.

“And what happens if she tests positive for hypothyroidism?”

“She would have to take a pill twice a day for the rest of her life. But lots of people report their dogs being so much more energetic and active.”

If you want to see Anna energetic and active, simply open the refrigerator door. She will be by your side before the inside bulb lights.

“I don’t know. How much did you say she weighs again?”

“55.8 pounds.”

“That is actually much thinner than she’s ever been. At one point, she weighed in the low 60s. What do you think honey?”

I turned to the Ukrainian. Was I rejecting what could be a vital-test but didn’t seem all that necessary. I wanted some validation that I wasn’t neglecting our dog, or a wake-up call that I should just go ahead and give the test to Anna just to make sure.

But he was no help. “It’s up to you.”

I turned back to the vet…still undecided. $120 wasn’t so bad. But how many tests do you give a dog? And the vet said so herself that Anna didn’t fit the proper stereotype of a dog with hypothyroid.

“Here’s what we can do. We can wait until her next checkup and see if she’s lost any weight. If she has then great, but if not, we can do the test then.” The three of us humans in the room were satisfied with this answer.

“Ok then, now let’s have a look at her teeth!” The peppy vet put her hand into Anna’s mouth to open her lips for a close look. “Ohhhh….she has some tartar.”

Oh dear, I knew what was coming: the lecture on the importance of canine dentail care.

“Do you brush her teeth?” asked the vet.

“No.” I answered unabashedly. I love my dog. I’ve dragged her around the world on all my travels. I have broken up with men who didn’t love her as much as I. I feed her, walk her, lay down next to her and rub her belly, and share my bananas with her. Whenever we rent a car, we line the back seat with blankets and take both the dogs for a joyride — often to Ocean Beach. There is little we don’t do for the day-to-day care and love for our line.

But I draw the line at brushing their teeth. Half-the-time, at night, I am so tired I can barely drag myself to the bathroom sink to brush my own teeth before sleeping. The other half of time, I wake up at 1 a.m., realize I have fallen asleep with all my clothes on, my face unwashed, and my teeth unbrushed. And then I drag my sorry self off the sofa, put my pajamas on, and do my nightly hygiene regiment then, before finally joining the Ukrainian who is fast asleep in our bed.

No, I do not brush my dogs’ teeth.

“Does she need a cleaning?” I asked — this time trying to be proactive about my dog’s health. I tried to recall what, if anything, about any sickness a dog could get from dental neglect.

“She could use one.”

“How much is it? $300?”

“Actually, more than that. We’d have to sedate her and stuff.”

Ouch. We could be talking $500 for a dog’s teeth cleaning. $1000 if we did our other dog’s teeth too. I mentally went through our budget for Q4 2008. $1000 for anything but a true need or emergency simply wasn’t there.

“What would happen if we wait a few months? Is is truly necessary right now?” Again, I didn’t want to neglect my dog. I just wanted to keep a control over our budget. In these uncertain economic times, I’d be putting off my own dental care if I didn’t have dental insurance. I wondered how often the veterinarian clinic was seeing clients put off non-emergency medical care for their pets these days. Surely, I wasn’t the only one these days trying not to spend any money on anything that wasn’t essential.

“The amount of tartar is actually not bad for a 7 year-old dog. And there is no decay. So no, it’s not an emergency. The cleaning can wait.”

I didn’t even need to look at the Ukrainian. I knew he would think it’d be silly to spend so much money on a dog’s teeth cleaning. I’ve spent more money on the dogs than many people in the Former Soviet Union (oil-rich Moscow aside) have spent on their own care. It hadn’t even been a week since we argued over how much it would cost to hire a dog-sitter when we finally made the trip to Kiev to get married and have our Russian Orthodox wedding. I had calculated the cost to be close to $1000 if we were to have a dog-sitter for 2 full weeks for our 2 dogs.

“What? I have to work for a month to pay for dogcare?”

“No, no, I’ll pay for it. You don”t have to pay a thing.”

“It doesn’t matter. $1000 is too much for dogcare.”

I understood his concerns — both at the vet and in discussing dogcare for our future travels. According to him, in Kiev, if you can bring home $1500/month after taxes, you are doing very well. But also there, you can rent an apartment for $300/month. Also, after his mother retires in a more provincial part of Ukraine, she will be expected to survive on a $200/month pension plus whatever she’s managed to save over the years. Here, in San Francisco, she’d barely even be able to eat on that.

But I also knew there was a deeper issue:  We have not even conceived our theoretical baby yet. But already the idea of its existence is already affecting the choices we make. How can we spend less money so we can have more money to afford a baby? Can I give up my chocolate habit? Can the Ukrainian give up his Red Bull? Our subtle mental conception of a baby is already changing us.

I am aware of the stories of dogs being left at shelters after a baby is born. The attention and finances required for the dog are often too much for new parents. I had once considered adopting such a dog from the SPCA in New York before I finally decided on Sophie, our second dog.

But that will not be us. We often joke that any human baby we add to our family will be the 3rd baby, not the first. I intend to keep it that way. I know we will love a human baby more. But still, Anna and her sister Sophie have been my most loyal buds for the past 7 years. I could never abandon them — not just physically at the shelter, but nor in my heart and attention.


3 Responses to “At the vet: Choices of economics and love”

  1. Update on the vet story « Learning Russian (and love) in San Francisco Says:

    […] @ 4:15 pm For the 5 people who visited this blog overnight, they may have seen the “At the vet” story with a “to be continued” line at the bottom. I yanked it, finished it, and […]

  2. janna Says:

    Oh Michelle…you know I feel you on this one– The money I spent on Coco this summer literally knocked me out…all my savings…gone and all my fun money…gone

    but seriously- its worth it…oddly enough I feel like it made me even closer to her…

    get the test, I always thought that there was something like that wrong with Anna (who you know i love)….

  3. puigirl Says:

    I am slightly suspicious of this vet for some reason. Anna runs everytime she hears the refrigerator door open. She’s the lightest weight she’s been since she was a puppy! (*Way* skinnier than her Warner years — even skinnier than a year ago.)

    Mr. Ukrainian made it sound like Anna was getting only 8 ounces of food a day. Simply not true. Until recently, he was feeding her huge slabs of butter on very large loafs of bread in addition to her regular food.

    The vet and I agreed to monitor her. If she doesn’t seem to lose more weight, we will test her. I want to do what’s right, but just something about this vet made me suspicious.

    Anna has been fat and lazy since birth. Puppies with hypothyroidism don’t live to adulthood. It just doesn’t all add up. But again, I will be monitoring her. On her next check-up, maybe we will do the test.

    But no teeth cleaning for right now!! We truly don’t have the money for it.

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