Ruff Cuts

A dachshund’s health care crisis convinces our writer that we have turned to our pets to replace our lost sense of community.
I knew something was wrong when I put on my tweed sport coat and there was no right sleeve.

I had draped the leather-patched coat over a kitchen chair the night before, a careless act I would regret. Bewildered by the sight of my shirt cuff, I ruminated on the situation for a moment before realizing what had happened.

The dogs had eaten the sleeve.

I surveyed the floor, where pieces of my coat lay in a mean mess. The devastation had been wrought by two creatures who peered up with innocent brown eyes and tails wagging in apologetic anticipation.

At this moment, in my eyes, the 11-month-old miniature dachshunds, a long-hair named Daisy and a shorty named Sophie, ceased to be dogs. The sisters morphed into trolls, those pesky creatures that hide under bridges and harass passersby with pranks and shrill noises.

I felt wrath, indignation and frustration. But which one had mutilated my Harris Tweed? I rained anger on both. Their tails drooped, and their eyes cast downward.

I threw the amputated sport coat aside and cursed my stupidity for the loss. Blaming it on two unreasoning creatures was hardly cerebral.

A day later, Sophie the troll was not eating and was lying on her blanket with a forlorn look. My wife, Pat, and I offered Sophie appetizing morsels. Nothing. The dog was losing weight rapidly. Something serious was at work.

Pat took the dog to our veterinarian for an exam and X-rays. They showed dark shadows in her abdomen that suggested a blockage. The vet sent us on to the Veterinary Referral Clinic & Emergency Center in Bedford Heights, where the waiting room teemed with cats and dogs of every variety and size. Sophie quivered and eyed the menagerie suspiciously.

Ultrasound revealed a serious blockage in the dog’s intestine. Surgery, a nearly 8-inch incision into the abdomen, yielded cloth, a button and dental floss wrapped around a piece of leather: the remains of my sport coat sleeve.

The good news was that the dog would recover. The bad news was the hospital bill: $3,488.75. I staggered, gasped and sought a medicinal drink.

No one in the waiting room seemed fazed by my plight. They were all preoccupied with their own pets’ conditions.

At that moment, it dawned on me how differently we view our pets compared to when I was a child. Back then, you never paid money for a dog. Someone always seemed to be giving you a mixed breed. Veterinarian visits were rare. Dogs did not have special diets, boutiques, spas or personal trainers. They were just dogs.

Now they have become designer dogs, like a sports car, jewelry or art. They are expensive, and today we tend to value expensive things. Wealth and technology have made us more mobile and distant from one another, so our pets fill our natural need for community. Their presence is more important than it used to be, and losing them is far more painful.

Sophie came home in a strange cone collar to prevent the licking of her wound. A zipperlike scar ran nearly the length of her body. She appeared weak and thin but wagged her tail at the sight of Daisy.

Before long, Sophie recovered, a happy little thing that barked when Omar the cat wanted to come in from the cold. Fearless, Sophie charged a herd of 10 deer, scattering them like dandelion seeds. She breached the electric fence and explored the neighborhood with a puffing master in pursuit, issuing hapless epithets.

Then, exactly one month later, I walked into the kitchen and was horrified to find a pair of shoes destroyed. Large pieces of leather were missing. This time, X-rays showed a large object lodged in Sophie’s intestine. The tail stopped wagging.

I was furious. I ranted, warning this was it for the dog. I was not going to pay for another surgery. The dog could just die.

This upset my wife and the vet. My friend and eminent attorney Robert J. Rotatori listened to my story then warned the dog was in need of legal counsel and that he would provide the representation. Surgery was cheaper than his billable hour.

The veterinarian eventually said if I were unwilling to go ahead with the surgery, she would perform it and keep the dog. It was clear I did not understand the new culture of pet ownership. Now I was feeling the weight of guilt, and it would be lifelong if I did not acquiesce. It was Sophie’s first birthday and second major surgery.

That bill was $2,364, but out of sympathy, and knowing there was a good chance of recidivism, the surgeon discounted it to $1,864. Again, Sophie recovered nicely.

From then on, we took special precautions. The trolls were restricted to the kitchen, where nothing was left within their reach — except the power cord for my wife’s computer. It was chewed through one night, ruining the machine.

Next, the heavy-duty grill gloves turned up with fingers chewed out. Big chunks were gnawed out of the wooden bookcase. Rubber and leather bones were but minor diversions. The troll was all jaws.

A couple of years slipped by, as did our vigilance. The little animals settled into routine: breakfast at 6 a.m., dinner at 5 p.m. and endless excursions to the outdoors, where they chased butterflies, squirrels and each other. They took pleasure in harassing Omar, interrupting his stealthy efforts to pounce on unsuspecting birds by sounding warning barks.

Then, one Sunday this fall, I stumbled across Omar’s stuffed catnip mouse. Absentmindedly, I threw it into the kitchen near the cat, who ignored it.

The next day, the toy was strewn in pieces on the floor. In the corner sat the dogs, with the nonchalance of the truly guilty.

On Tuesday, Sophie sat sadly, not remotely interested in her bowl of food. I offered some kibbles, and she turned her head away and vomited. Pat said we needed to go to the emergency room. I steeled myself for the worst.

This time, X-rays only showed a slight shadow, no foreign objects. Sophie was put on an IV and hospitalized for two nights. It was touch and go whether another surgery would be required. Finally, after 36 hours, the dog began to eat. She was fine. I wasn’t. This visit cost $1,200.

Pat suggested we seek spiritual intervention. She learned of a blessing of animals at the Church of St. Dominic in Shaker Heights and said we ought to attend.

There, amid other dogs, as well as birds, lizards, frogs and fish, the trolls were anointed. As the Rev. Tom Fanta drizzled holy water onto them from a palm frond, I watched anxiously, fearing the priest’s vestments might draw Sophie’s interest.

My wife fears that this tale of woe will cause some readers to question our sanity. Clearly, the emerging pet-ownership culture has affected us: We’ve spent $6,552.75 on the dog.

I hope the holy water works.
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