Wednesday, October 22, 2014
paco: such a meagre name for one who meant so much. paco, paquito, paquito el perrito, paquito el perrito mas guapo y macho. i'm pretty sure his first language was spanish, so the little prayer the technician said over his body, in spanish, was certainly understood by him. paco always did understand far more than the rest of us anyway.
so much pain. so very much pain, and so very unneccessary. but that wasn't who he was, it was just what had him in the end--he was far more than that and he won't be defined by his last two months anymore than anyone else suffering from a debilitating, chronic disease would be. there was life, so much LIFE, before that. let me explain.
paco came to us in the late spring of 2008 via my friend, julia, while we were living in new mexico. she picked up a little brown dog that had been living on rio grande blvd in a little hole he'd dug for himself. he was skinny, tired, scared, and way too young to be living on his own. she brought him over to my house, told me directly that we needed a dog, and thus he became part of our family. i gave her a head of organic lettuce in return.
in the beginning, paco wasn't at all sure about us--astrid had just turned two and gus was so overjoyed to FINALLY have a dog that neither of them wanted to stop playing with him, even for a second. paco himself was probably 5 months old--we never really knew for sure--and it took him quite some time to decide to stay with us. he ran away every day for the first three or four months, as paco was a master of escape, but he always came back at night. we lived along an acequia that he must have known like the back of his paw and giving up the freedom of being a stray was tough. eventually, he decided to stay home and embrace becoming domesticated.
after he decided to live with us, we found he was excellent off-leash. he listened to all of us and just walked alongside us without much trouble, so we hiked all through the mountains and around the rio grande valley with paco trotting along happily. he could go outside and greet guests without fear of his bolting and running away; we could unload groceries, kiddos, what have you with the doors open and he'd just wag and watch from inside or out--his choice. i could even take him to the vet without a leash, and while he would agree to go in, rather sheepishly, the other dogs inside never quite appreciated his gift and would bark to shame him into leash-using. he looked at them like they were idiots, but we did agree a leash at the vet's was probably a good idea. he was a rockstar when it came to not using a leash.
his other natural gift? no innate fear of fireworks. seriously--we had to hold him back to keep from investigating them while they were exploding! he loved fireworks and we set off quite a few with him, but we had to make sure whatever we lit wasn't a kind that could move on its own because he would chase it. he absolutely loved them, all of them--i think the fountains were his favorite but he also enjoyed a good noisy roman candle. we burned lots of those. he was more fire dog than a dalmatian.
when we moved to iowa a bit of the running-away thing returned, but it was less of his trying to escape us and more of a hard-wired need to know his territory. there were deer and chipmunks and squirrels and mice and raccoons and foxes and groundhogs and cats and and and...they all had to be controlled right now! we had a ravine and an undeveloped section of land next to our house, and no fences. paco was confused--his life had initially been in wide-open spaces, but he'd become comfortable with his defined area of a big fenced-in backyard. in iowa he'd go outside, use the bathroom, see something move, and immediately give chase. he usually came right back as soon as whatever furry critter eluded him, but occasionally he'd stay and try to sniff out this multitude of new information. his brain was overloaded with new sights and smells--it wasn't anything like what he had known in new mexico--and he had a lot to learn. all it took was regular off-leash excursions into the ravine and eventually he understood. and we came to an understanding: he could run and chase things into the forest, but he needed to come back when we called for him. we had this arrangement for most of his life, and the vast majority of the time it worked exactly like that.
despite these crazy jaunts into our next-door wilderness, he stayed relatively clean--paco was a tidy dog who needed almost no grooming, and his natural scent was almost nil. we'd bathe him every now and them, something he resented, but usually it was because he'd found something nasty to roll in and we couldn't live with the smell. i kept him on frontline most of the year--we usually skipped winters because i'd heard ticks weren't active then--but he still managed to pick up a couple. and he'd never had fleas until he came to texas. but this tiny insignificant creature, a tick, is what eventually became the vector for paco's end.
my and paco's daily routine in iowa was pretty simple--get up, go outside, eat breakfast, walk gus to school, take astrid in the car to preschool, rest, pick up astrid in the car from preschool, walk to get gus from school. after school he played with gus and astrid until rich got home, then he'd go for a run with rich or watch him and the kids play basketball outside. paco liked knowing what to do at any given time of day. however one day, a couple of years after we'd moved to iowa, paco started limping on his walk to school. then he was limping after his runs with rich. rich cut out the runs but we kept walking him to school. the limping became more pronounced until one day he walked up the hill to school and just laid down on the ground. he couldn't get up. he was, quite literally, lame. i went home, got the car, put him in it, and drove him to the vet. lyme disease. it was common in our neighborhood, paco had had a tick in the previous two months, and there was little reason to expect it to be anything else. paco started intensive treatment for it and, after a few months, showed improvement. he had residual arthritis and had to be on meds for that, but otherwise he was functioning more-or-less normally. the runs with rich had to be shortened and less-frequent, but the walks were fine.
whenever possible, he continued to chase whatever small furry thing he could into the ravine. sometimes he even caught them, which didn't end well for many a chipmunk. he tried to do this to a downed red-tailed hawk he found one night, which didn't end well for paco. live and learn. when not outside, he guarded us from within from all the chipmunks and deer using his terrifying, rumbling growl that sounded like it came from the bowels of the earth itself, punctuated by a baritone bark that let everyone know he was a Force of nature. we heard this noise at all hours of the day and night, always letting us know paco was doing his personally-assigned job of protecting us all.
fast forward a few years to four months ago. i'm in texas, dropping the kids off at camp, when i get a phone call from rich: paco's got a mass the size of an orange under his jaw, and he needs to get him to the hospital. rich was scared--and rich doesn't scare easily about anything medically-related--which made me completely terrified. IV antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and the mass went down. paco took three kinds of antibiotics for two weeks...but the mass remained. as soon as the antibiotics stopped, it started to grow again. paco had it removed--a seven-inch incision to find it was a misbehaving lymph node--yet the vet was at a loss to explain why it was behaving the way it was. then he realized it wasn't what the expected to see; it didn't seem to be cancerous but it definitely wasn't healthy tissue.
lots more antibiotics, lots of snuggles and kisses during recovery time. we were so afraid the surgery would take his beautiful voice, but we found he could still bark and growl and whine a few days afterwards. he was tired--he'd been through a lot--but he was improving. unfortunately, our timing was off: we were soon moving to texas and he would have to leave his comfortable, sunny, inside spot next to the backdoor, where he could keep an eye on the entire ravine and anyone walking down the hill. his wilderness and his five years of accumulated knowledge about it was soon to be a memory.
we drove to houston four weeks after the surgery. he sat in the front seat of the u-haul with me and either gus or astrid--they took turns letting him lay in their lap. at 70+ pounds, paco always thought of himself as a lap dog. we moved into our tiny rental house with its equally tiny fenced back yard, and paco was instantly covered in fleas. it was incredibly offensive--for such a clean dog a flea was unforgivable, but we treated him and tried to keep it from happening again. he seemed depressed, which was completely understandable. he was sleeping 22 hours a day, and had less interest in food. he didn't like the new house in the city at all. we started to develop a new routine--get up, go out, eat breakfast, drive gus to school, walk astrid to school, rest, walk to get astrid from school, drive to get gus to school. but it was a challenge--he was having a hard time walking to school, he wasn't eating enough, he was slipping down the new stairs. i covered the stairs in plastic so he could grip better; i changed his food. not enough. i took him to a new veterinarian who looked at him and said cancer, and determined he needed a battery of tests and a specialist to consult with. she then asked if his head muscles had always been so weak? i had not even noticed that. i fell apart in a giant way that afternoon; paco just slept.
the cancer diagnosis didn't sit right with anyone except that vet. she and her office called a lot trying to schedule immediate testing and biopsies, but i wasn't ready to concede. the head muscles were concerning, though--his look was changing. and he had pretty much completely stopped eating, and he wasn't able to open his mouth more than an inch or two anymore. he no longer made any sounds--no barking, no whining, no growls. he was down to 60 pounds, a weight we hadn't seen on him since he was a puppy. we blamed all of this on depression and the move, but things were becoming critical. i took him to a different vet at a different office a few days later for a second opinion. paco received a much worse diagnosis, but it was, sadly, an accurate one: masticatory muscle myositis.
the big question then, after WHY (and the why is still pending), was HOW? how did a dog that was more mutt than the biggest mutt imaginable come down with an autoimmune disease that usually affects pure-bred german shepherds and king charles cavalier spaniels? the shepherd might have been in his bloodline, but there was so little of any identifiable dog in his lineage that it seemed unlikely he could have been born with this. i'm not even sure he was a dog--we've suspected a coyote/dog mix for a long time. and, he was more than twice as old as the average age of onset for the disease. but, have it he did and he had to start treatment immediately. more antibiotics, 60 mg of prednisone every day for three weeks, stomach drugs to keep the prednisone from eating through his gut, and 10 days in the animal hospital where gus and astrid visited him daily with their grandparents (more bad timing--rich and i were away).
after the prednisone kicked in, he was awake and better, for a while. his mouth opened, his appetite and thirst returned, but he was still unwell--shaky, gaunt, no sound. we tried to rebuild his muscles with walks to school, but after weeks on such a high dose of prednisone his liver started to fail. he developed an abscess that spread from his upper jaw into his orbit and sinuses. more meds, more antibiotics.
the vet wasn't happy with paco's progress. MMM is an unusual disease about which very little is known, as most dogs starve to death from the inability to open their mouths fairly early on so there are few test candidates. paco could eat, was eating, but was still wasting, and the myositis had spread to his back, hips, chest and limbs. something else was wrong. on the advice of a colleague, paco's vet ran a tick panel to see if there could be a tick-based disease at work. we'd told him about the lyme diagnosis and that he'd been treated aggressively and recovered, but we'd never actually done any blood work to make sure. he ran the test: it wasn't lyme, it was rocky mountain spotted fever.
whether paco had been carrying rocky mountain spotted fever for several years or whether it was a new acquisition of his, we'll never know. what we do know is that it triggered the MMM and the polymyositis that accompanied it. the vet put him in the hospital for two more days of IVs and on 600 mg of doxycycline for 14 days--enough to treat an elephant--but it wasn't enough. the disease had gone too far; his liver was too damaged. he had developed severe enophthalmus and was no longer able to see well; he was infected throughout his head and body, and it was all, finally, just too much for medicine and his body to fight. we finally made the decision to give him the ultimate freedom all suffering on october 21, 2014. he was in his bed, with his favorite toys and a pile of rich's clothes that he enjoyed sleeping with, and gus, astrid and me holding onto him. words cannot express the difficulties that we had with this decision, but it was the only decision we could make for one we loved so much. our hearts are broken, but paco is finally running free and strong throughout the forest and the ravine, in the mountains, along the iowa and rio grande rivers, and even splashing through the shallow waves of the gulf of mexico--something he discovered he liked later in life. he is always with us.
paco meant the world to us. he made our lives happier, richer, fuller...better. he made our lives better. he slept in gus' room every night for more than six years, he ran with rich every other day when he could, he kept me company during the day when everyone was at school or work and made me feel far less alone, and astrid can't remember not having her built-in playmate paco in her life--i think she thought she was a dog for a time. he did all of these things for us, with us, without complaint. he was a happy soul--he smiled a ton--and, for the most part, he had a strong, healthy body. that a terrible disease got him in the end is not who he was, it is merely what brought him down physically.
i hope we did enough for him; i hope he knew how much he was adored. i hope i get to meet him again someday, and i hope he remembers me. goodbye, sweet dog paco. we will always love you.
Posted by lost in the triangle at 3:55 PM