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Worried about my dog

I spent a good chunk of today worrying about my dog Jigger, which, in light of all the serious things in the world that one could be worried by, is a relatively luxurious concern. My worry wasn’t provoked by a crisis (he didn’t go missing or get hit by a car or drink radiator fluid). No, mine is a slow, gnawing worry that’s affecting the way we enjoy one another’s company – and hence it colors my days in subtle yet definitive ways.

A year ago last October he had surgery to remove a lipoma that had grown to the size of grapefruit under his left “armpit” (front leg). A grapefruit-sized tumor is a big deal for a dog his size. If a lipoma grows in a spot where it doesn’t impede the dog’s gait or other functions (like breathing: they can grow behind nasal cavities), then it’s a good idea to leave it alone. They’re unattractive, but not harmful. Surgery, on the other hand, especially for an older dog, can be harmful. Obviously, a grapefruit-sized lipoma right in the front leg’s “armpit” made walking very difficult and awkward for my dog, and so we opted for surgery.

He also had several additional lipomas on his chest and neck, which the vet also excised. There was a very loose one near the jugular, which she opted to leave, particularly as it was very close to another she excised. Incisions so close to one another seemed like a bad idea, too. The “armpit” lipoma was the worst: it had grown from marble to golf ball to citrus fruit size in rapid succession and was so huge by the time he underwent surgery that he had a shunt in place for close to a week to drain the fluid that constantly re-filled the remnant cavity (nature abhors a vacuum), until his body adjusted and minimized the cavity naturally. The shunt nearly dragged on the ground, when the super-sized cone he had to wear around his neck/ ears/ head didn’t cause him to just give up trying to walk in the first place. The surgery, which included a dental cleaning, cost somewhere around $1600 (a bit more when pre-surgery visits are added in), and aside from seeing my pet suffer, I watched my checkbook suffer, too.

And guess what? Within a year, the grapefruit-sized lipoma began growing back, in the exact same spot, with the exact same pattern: large marble, golf ball, orange, …grapefruit. I now watch him limp along again, listen to labored breathing and worry about all the other lipomas on his chest and whether they’re pressing in on his lungs, and when I’m not worrying about that, I worry that maybe his thyroid medication is no longer at optimal levels. Oh, didn’t I mention? After he was neutered, he started to fatten up like a eunuch. It didn’t matter if I fed him very little or very much, if I fed store-bought dog food or prepared special raw food. He just kept getting chunkier. And we noticed that his rough top-coat fur was far too sparse for a Cairn Terrier, while his formerly jet-black nose had de-pigmented to become a speckled pink and brown.

Then we had his thyroid levels tested, and yes he’s hypothyroid. Now he gets 300mcg of Synthroid in the mornings and 200mcg in the evening. This has now been going on for years and everyone says that we have to keep him on the medication lest he develop organ failure, etc. etc. etc.

So, to recap: I have a dog who, since he was about a year old, has had a weight problem, which, when he was about six years old was diagnosed at least in part as symptomatic of a thyroid condition (hypothyroidism, under-active thyroid). About two-and-a-half years ago (when he was 9 1/2 years old), we noticed the lipomas, but were advised simply to observe them unless they impeded his movement. Eventually, 1 1/2 years ago when he was 10 1/2 years old, his gait was so impeded that he did have surgery, but within a year the really bad lipoma had grown back and is now as huge as ever – and just as much an obstruction in his gait. He’s now 12 years old. For a terrier, that’s not terribly old – they can have a life expectancy of up to 16-18 years, but from one day to the next Jigger seems to have grown old. (This wikipedia page seems off-base: it says 12 to 15 years life expectancy, but also claims that a dog weighing 20 to 25 pounds is equal to 6 to 8 kilos: blatantly untrue. One kilo is 2.2 pounds, therefore 8 kilos top end is equal to 17.6 pounds. My dog weighs in at 10 kilos, or 22 pounds – too heavy, or else he’s too tall at the withers, which indeed he is according to the breed standard suggested in many books.)

I’m considering surgery once again for what now seems like a dog who’s becoming geriatric, which therefore is also a far riskier surgery. I’m also not in a great position to face that kind of vet bill again. And: I have no guarantee that the damn lipoma won’t grow back again in short order – in the exact same spot.

What to do? Worry. And spend time on the internet, reading about lipomas and dogs. There are lots of opinions out there about what causes these conditions in dogs.

Take food, for example. So many experts insist that we’ve buggered up our pets’ immune systems by overfeeding them carbohydrates (via pet food, which is full of grains). These experts argue that the unnatural introduction of grains has wreaked havoc with the animal’s insulin production, which in turn causes all these other symptoms (from pet obesity to joint issues to doggy fish breath to, you guessed it, lipomas).

Over the past dozen years since we’ve had our dog, I’ve been terrorized several times by dictates around feeding, and especially when he was at his fattest I was desperate to feed him “as nature intended” (raw) in the hope of making him the svelte ratter that Cairns should be. Instead, he got fatter. He trimmed down when I put him back on “normal” pet food.

A while back I switched him once again to a raw meaty bones diet, this time fretted into it by the idea that it might halt the lipoma growth. So far – six weeks in – I can’t say that there is any improvement whatsoever: not in the growth rate of the lipomas (still galloping along), or in his energy levels (depressed) or overall health. I won’t get into the details, but this afternoon various factors convinced me not to continue with the raw diet. Now I’m reading about various supplements, including liver support herbals as well as traditional Chinese herbal medicines. If I got the general gist of it, the lipomas are a symptom of a larger imbalance caused by ‘dampness’ (vs heat/ fire), and we should consider herbs or treatments to re-balance his system. I’m willing to try this, too, but who knows if we’ll have any more success with this than with any other approach. I can take him back to the vet once more, and I know she’ll put the ball in my court on the question of whether or not he undergoes another surgery. I can ask her to retest his thyroid levels. Perhaps we can adjust the dosage, but she won’t be able to reverse his aging.

Here’s my take-away from all this: if your pet is not feeling at the top of his game, you feel kind of shitty, too. There’s a close, symbiotic relationship between dogs and their owners, and the slow deterioration of a pet’s health has a subtle, continuous, and nagging effect on the humans in the family. Furthermore, it plays out in public. If you have a cat, you can hide out at home, but your dog is public, on the road. I’ve spent years with my dog on the streets, in the parks, at the beaches – the dog is a social lubricant, he (or she) causes complete strangers to stop and talk to you, because other people will do that when you’re in the company of dogs.

At present I’m not appreciative of people’s comments about my dog’s apparent tiredness or his age or that he limps or doesn’t walk very far anymore. When it comes to dogs – and sometimes children – perfect strangers (who are themselves far from perfect) say the darndest things, things they would never say to another adult. Whether it’s a comment on his appearance or an in-your-face suggestion about what you “should” be doing about your pet’s health, an overbearing know-it-all attitude becomes painful in the wake of months-long worry over decline.


  1. Hi Yule,

    Sorry to hear about Jigger. Pets are very much a part of the family, and I hope he pulls through. He’s definitely had some health challenges.

    Comment by Cindy Stephenson — June 4, 2010 #

  2. Thanks, Cindy – pets are indeed a big part of one’s family!

    Comment by Yule — June 5, 2010 #

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