And the hardest goodbyes
Fourteen days ago, Lars was in his element, and now he is gone.
It’s horribly depressing to write that line, but it wasn’t like the end couldn’t be seen coming. He was 12 years old with faltering kidneys and Father Time chasing fast on his tail.
Still, opening day of the waterfowl season this year found him tracking the scent of mallards through the flooded grasses in the marshes along the Placer River even as the puppy, Hugh, harassed him.
The harassment never detoured him from the task at hand, but Lars did several times toss me a look of frustration as if to say “get this idiot out of here because I’ve got work to do.” Hugh’s enthusiasm was hard to contain, but Lars managed to ignore it and put up some birds.
I missed a few. The others splashed down into the grass where Lars found them, after which Hugh showed up to try to help with the retrieving before being told to knock it off.
The day was kept short. Part of it was in consideration of Lars, whose arthritis would flare up if he went too hard. Part of it was in consideration of barely 9-month-old Hugh, who got cold spending much of three hours chest-deep in flooded grass or swimming in open water.
Part of it was me. Age catches up with all of us. The days are gone when it was necessary to keep a full kennel because I could walk a dog into the ground in a day and need a fresh one to go on the morrow.
Still, I’m fit enough that last year had been near the end of Lars’ working career. He would come home exhausted, plop down to hardly move for hours, and then get up stiff. Sometimes it took him more than a day to recover, but if I went anywhere near a shotgun he’d be wagging his tail and begging to head for the swamps.
He stayed pretty fit over the summer. We took long walks most every day, and I myself worked harder than ever by putting in another 100 to 150 miles were week on the bike.
Despite that, the opening day bog-slogging through the marches behind seemed harder than ever, at least for me. I blamed the high water after a summer of too much rain.
I spent most of the day knee to crotch deep, and even the willow and sweet gale thickets normally dry between the ponds were flooded. It was probably worst for still skinny Hugh than for a heavily muscled Lars who swam like an otter and seemed to enjoy having a good part of his weight supported in water.
When I finally decided to call it quits for the day, he appeared in better shape than either Hugh or I. But neither of the dogs seemed to object to detouring into the trees and brush along the river to find dry, easier ground for the hike back to the car.
Lars fell in behind to lead Hugh, and when we got to the car, he was able to jump over the rear bumper into the back of the hatchback, which was better than last year when the days usually ended with his needing help. I swear he was smiling at the idea he’d ended the day less tuckered than me.
It wouldn’t be long before that changed.
Within a week, he was walking around the house with his head hung. I dismissed it as nothing at first, though it was strange that he didn’t look me in the eye when he came to pester me at the writing desk.
I wrote it off as an issue of mood, but when next I headed to the marsh, Lars stayed home. A still learning Hugh was pretty much useless as a hunting dog, but did the retrieving job OK. We took a long, long hike and put up a few birds, and managed to knock down a couple of mallards before I ran out of gas.
At the end, I was dragging and Hugh was still bouncing around like a puppy. It was a serious reminder of the unstoppable force that is time.
Lars appeared both happy and irritated to see us when we got home. He sniffed the backpack and immediately knew what was in it and where we’d been. His eyes looked sad, but he didn’t seem to have the energy to make a fuss.
Things went downhill fast after that.
He was very lethargic on our walks over the next couple of days, and then one morning, he didn’t want to get up off his pad. He was clearly in disstress, his breathing labored, his gums pale.
Always the optimist, I decided to give him a day to see if he got better, hoping maybe the problem was the anxiety of being left at home or some bug or both. But it was obvious after 24 hours that this was more than that, and we headed to the vet.
An ultrasound told a story that couldn’t be avoided: pericardial effusion, a build-up of fluid in the space around the heart. The fluid creates pressure in the chest cavity that prevents the heart from beating normally.
The weakened pump means the flow of oxygenated blood to the rest of the body is slowed, and the entire system basically starts to run out of gas. An effusion can come on slowly or happen fast. Looking back at Lars’ behavior, this one had probably been coming on since the start of the waterfowl season at least.
The vet and I talked about what to do. There are plenty of causes for this condition, none of them good: cancer; heart attacks; reactions to medications; injuries; viral infections, which would maybe have been the best scenario in this situation; and kidney failure, which was the worst.
Lars had been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD) last year and put on meds to try to control it. When the disease began is unclear, but probably well before the diagnosis, given how his thirst for water had increased over the years.
“The earliest signs of kidney disease in dogs are increased urination and therefore increased thirst,” the American Kennel Club notes. “Other symptoms don’t usually become apparent until about two-thirds of the kidney tissue is destroyed. So, in the case of chronic kidney disease (CKD), the damage may have begun months or even years before the owner notices.”
With Lars now in critical condition, the vet and I discussed putting a needle into his chest to drain the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart; and remove the pressure put on the heart so it could beat normally.
There are risks associated with the procedure, but they are small. Lars would have to be in the hospital for a few days and afterward, he would surely have felt better for days, maybe even weeks. But given the CKD, the cure was unlikely to work for long.
And thus we were left as a family to make that tough decision about whether the next move would be about Lars or about us because we sure as hell weren’t ready to let go of him. He was such a sweet boy. He’d always been such a sweet boy.
In the end, that settled it, too. He deserved a peaceful exit and an end to any further discomfort no matter how hard it was for us. And it was hard. The tears are still flowing as I write this.
I’ll miss him so much.