When the health issues of pets and their humans mimic each other

A columnist reflects on all the 'pet-human parallels' she's witnessed

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by Helen Baldwin |

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Sunday afternoon’s dreary skies and light rain tempted me mightily to crawl onto the recliner and drift right off. I doubt I could’ve counted to 10 before unconscious bliss took over — momentarily, anyway.

It was also a dreary day for our older dog, Maple, a boxer whose mobility virtually ended Sunday afternoon. She’s never indicated that the increasing difficulty from hip dysplasia was painful. After a relatively uneventful week, however, she stayed put Sunday in her comfy orthopedic bed under the soothing lull of multiple fans. It was almost easy to ignore the fact that her back legs had given out.

At her age (12 in October), there was really only one option to consider.

Two boxers, one a dark brownish-gray and one a light brown, lie next to each other on a large gray dog bed. The older one sleeps while the younger one looks at the camera.

Maple, left, and Honey share the cozy bed, even though there’s another bed right beside it. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

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Adding pets to the family

I don’t remember a time growing up without a cat, dog, or both. Shortly after my husband, Randy, and I married, he continued the furry trend and surprised me with our first pet: Ethyl, a tricolored Abyssinian guinea pig. Ethyl provided a new experience and so much fun! He led the life of royalty, with a huge glass aquarium for his great room and a separate bedroom at one end with a cover for privacy. Spoiled rotten, he’d waddle down the hall to snag a slice of tomato from the kitchen, squealing the whole way.

Ethyl was eventually joined by Jacob, a gorgeous keeshond puppy bound for the pound, and Maude, a goofy English springer spaniel found beside a dumpster. The three got along admirably. When Ethyl quietly slipped across the Rainbow Bridge, Jacob and Maude came to tell me.

By the time Jacob’s and Maude’s earthly times ended, our family included two children, Matthew and Katie. We paused briefly from pets until we had a fenced yard at our new home and then visited the local animal shelter, where we adopted two siblings, Nellie and Duffy. They were adorable, destructive fluffballs, leaving teeth-mark souvenirs on Sheetrock and linoleum inside and gaping holes on the new doghouse outside.

They moved with us to an old farmhouse in the North Carolina mountains a week before a blizzard dumped 2 feet of snow. Their joint skunk introduction came mere weeks later.

When warmer weather finally arrived, Nellie couldn’t plunge fast enough into the pond behind the house. She loved hunting fish and frogs, and staying cool and soggy in general. Duffy dared to get in water up only to his knees to show the visiting ducks who was boss. With zero trepidation, the ducks would swim almost right up to him, mocking him with their taunting quacks.

It was an eventful adjustment.

There was plenty more to come.

There was once a dog and a baby …

Seventeen months after moving to the mountains, our family of four was joined by a beautiful dark-haired baby named Jeffrey. He was exceptionally easy and quiet; the lack of a newborn’s typical ear-splitting wailing surely eased Nellie’s and Duffy’s adjustments to the new addition.

On July 7, seven weeks after Jeffrey’s birth, Duffy was struck by a car. He died at the veterinarian’s office. In shock, I discussed heaven and death with Matthew, then 10, and Katie, 7, for perhaps the first time. The subject hadn’t come up.

A week later, as I jotted notes about Jeffrey in the wee hours before his scheduled appointment later that morning, panic struck. My physician brother, Paul, had examined him the day before, finding no reflexes and a dull lung. I suddenly feared Duffy’s death held significance.

Boy, did it. Seven days after Duffy’s death, Jeffrey was diagnosed with SMA. An unthinkable prognosis of probable death long before kindergarten knocked our props away.

Almost before we fully realized Duffy was gone, so was Jeffrey.

Pets and my parents

The pet-human parallel of sorts continued with my folks. As my father’s health rapidly declined a few years after Jeffrey’s death, Nellie’s health likewise took a nosedive. Dad took his last breath at the end of June; Nellie took hers less than three months later.

Blink, blink.

At age 80, my mother declared she wanted to adopt Mitty, a gentle cat who had been hanging around our house. Mitty’s right eye had been blinded at some point by our cantankerous cat, Sami. I felt awful for Mitty, but it didn’t bother him.

Meanwhile, Mom lost all but minimal shadow vision — in her right eye.

Maple and me

Fast forward through numerous memorable pets to Maple.

As my own left hip has inched closer to needing a replacement, Maple’s hips likewise began balking. She figured out a few tricks to get to wherever she was going, but the dysplasia worsened over the past few weeks.

She refused her joint chews and pain medication for days.

I spent a dreary Sunday inquiring about mobile veterinarians. Keeping Maple cozy at home in her bed until she could cross the Rainbow Bridge sounded almost like a win.

Meanwhile, I may have to wait in line for the recliner.

A light-brown boxer is curled up on a recliner that's entirely covered by a white bedsheet. A gray cat steps from a nearby table onto the chair's armrest, as if thinking about curling up next to the dog.

Mitty tries to figure out how he can join Honey in the recliner … or push her out. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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