Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Trying to articulate some of the ways I feel.

When I was 12, I got a baby goat for my sixth grade graduation present. My mother asked me if I wanted a ten speed bike or a goat, and naturally I chose the goat. I am not sure of the date I got her, but I know it was in the Spring when she was several weeks old. I named her Heidi, and she was a cross between a Nubian and a Toggenburg. We didn’t have a fenced area near the barn for her, she was extremely mischievous, and when she was loose, she would attack the bushes near the house. She could devour an entire large shrub in minutes. So when I couldn’t closely watch her but didn’t want to lock her in her stall, I would tie her in the yard.

One day in August, I had her tied so I could swim with my friend in our pool. During that time, she managed to stretch her collar and the rope so that she could reach some brush at the edge of the yard and the woods. A small branch slipped through her collar. She was very smart, could untangle herself. So she tried to get loose by going ‘round and ‘round. Her collar became a tourniquet, and she strangled. She was still warm when I found her minutes later. I will never forget the sight, or the horror I felt. I yelled for my mother. We rubbed and rubbed her, trying to revive her, but it was too late, she was gone. I was devastated.

One result of that trauma is that since then, I have never felt comfortable with leaving a collar on an animal. I much prefer harnesses for walking, and I never tie my dogs. I take their collars off whenever they are inside, and they don’t wear them at all in the yard (which is fenced). I always took Ande’s collar off, too. He wasn’t free-roaming, and he was always closely supervised when outside. Edna didn’t wear a collar at any time. (I know their collar-less states create risk of them being lost without ID tags, but I am just as neurotic about being sure the animals don’t get lost.) The other outcome of that horrible experience was that at the time, and for 36 years, I blamed myself. I still do today.

My mother said it wasn’t my fault. Whether she said this because she believed it to be an unpreventable accident, or because I was a child and couldn’t be blamed for that reason alone, I am not sure. But I didn’t agree, and still don’t. It most definitely was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention, and I didn’t properly assess the risk.

I’m not saying that it was intentional, or even that I could have been expected to know it could happen. I’m also not arguing that there is a need to place blame for accidents, or for when someone dies.

But I do believe in learning life’s lessons, taking responsibility, and being careful to not repeat mistakes.

I am (not clinically, but self-diagnosed) to some degree OCD. I have to check certain things, and there are triggers: in particular, fire risk or the animals. I lock the doors more to be sure someone doesn’t open one and inadvertently let the dogs out, rather than because I am afraid of burglary. So I have to make extra sure that the door is locked when I leave. I always unplug certain appliances, am sure the oven and stove top are off, and close all windows when there is a thunderstorm. I don’t let my dogs stick their heads out of the car window both to protect their ears, and to be sure they don’t jump or fall out. (They never would, as they take on the beliefs of their owner eventually, and so they always bark at all dogs they see who have their heads out of the car windows – warning them of the dangers, perhaps? This has been true for all of my dogs.)

I worried over every minor health problem that my first dog Howie had, or any tiny change in his behavior. He seemed sickly, always had skin and digestive issues. But he lived to the age of 15 ½ with few major sicknesses and little need for veterinary intervention. The same is true for Sophie, although she has had more illnesses than he had, and as a result has needed more trips to the vet over the years. But despite her various issues, she’s never been seriously ill. She is now 11 ½, which is quite old for a Bassett Hound. Doesn’t matter, though. I worry still.

Howie's start in life was a good one, though. You could tell his mother had a fabulous home. Sophie's is unknown, but I assume she is the product of a puppy mill.

I never worried about Penny. She ties with Edna as the easiest pet I’ve owned. Never sick, no issues, behavioral or otherwise, no need for constant fussing. Both proved there was no reason for concern – Penny lived to be 16 ½, and I had Edna for over 16 years. (I don’t know her age, but she was an adult when I found her.) Penny had been born in a home, although the family clearly didn’t have a lot of money, and were sort of running a backyard breeding operation. But she had no papers, so they weren’t really cashing in. And they did seem to adore her mother, and even cried when I took Penny home. Edna was a stray, so who knows what her life was like before. But she was a Main Coon Cat, and Penny was a Poodle, so maybe the breed had something to do with their robustness.

Similarly, I didn’t worry over Rudy. He, of all my pets, was the picture of health. Shiny, handsome on the inside and out. High energy, and blessed with a winning personality. I was so proud of him. Then he got Lyme Disease at age 7. I am not sure if that was the cause (maybe), or if it was his beginnings – born at the shelter to a stray mother. But he got cancer when he was 9 years old, and died a week after his 10th birthday.

I am not sure why I didn’t worry over Ande. Certainly the pillow paw should have always been in the back of my mind. Although I didn’t make the connection, his eating habits (not good), small size, and docile temperament should have been red flags. And his beginnings were even worse than Rudy’s – Ande was born in a feral cat colony. So why didn’t I worry more?

I don’t worry much over Sam either. So far he seems very healthy. I got him at the shelter, but he was owner-surrendered. I assume his mother was not a stray.

All of these pets have eaten homemade diets. I was doing it before it was “cool,” when people said you were wrong to not feed commercial food. They all drank spring water. Some have taken supplements. The vaccination / flea control history is different with each pet – in some cases, I followed the vet’s recommendations (which have changed over the years), in others I was more cautious. But generally, I have erred on the side of caution. I can't make any generalizations about whether it has had an impact, though, or if I should have made a different decision.

None of these dogs and cats succumbed to accidents – Heidi’s sad death taught me to be mindful. However, the reason I accept blame for Heidi (I wasn’t paying attention, and I didn’t properly assess the risk) is true for Rudy and Ande, also. Of course they did not die from a sudden accident, but there were occasions, before and during their final illnesses, where I should have been as mindful as I am about making sure stoves are turned off and windows are closed. I ask myself, why didn't I notice? Why didn't I do some things differently?

Leaving out Heidi's very different circumstances, my worry over all of my animals' health has been warranted in two cases where I didn’t worry (so I was wrong), unwarranted in two cases where I did worry (so I was wrong again), and unwarranted in two cases where I didn’t worry (I was right for a change). Sam is still young, so the jury’s out, but my track record says that I am neither a good nor a bad judge of risk.

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