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Reframing the past

Caring for Lynn through her heartworm treatment brought up memories of my past and how my family treated the animals that we owned and loved.

I already mentioned in a previous post the MANY, MANY litters of kittens that we allowed our barn cat, Snooze, to deliver.  Looking back, I really can’t believe how little regard we paid to the fact of her continued contribution to the cat population.  I don’t think Snooze, or any of our other barn cats, ever took a trip to the vet.  Not spaying her wasn’t a deliberated decision; the fact that she was having litter after litter was just a fact of barn life. 

When I was about 11, my family visited a backyard breeder of labs to pick out a puppy.  We had recently lost our beloved lab Sandy to the perils of old age.  I sat among the litter of yellow labs, in absolute bliss.  The first one that approached me (and actually bit my hand rather roughly!) stole my heart.  I don’t know why I would have been the specific member of the family allowed to pick our newest pet and maybe my parents actually already knew which one we were getting and it coincidentally coincided with my favorite, but I believed that she picked me, and I picked her. 

We brought Maui home a couple weeks later.  She was raised at our home for the next six months. 

When she went into heat for the first time, it was quite a mess!  We tried keeping her in the garage for those few days.  Once, she slipped inside and ran upstairs, me hot on her heels.  I eventually caught her and tugged her back out, but she had left a trail of blood drips through the house and I spent the rest of the day scrubbing the carpet, hoping my parents didn’t return from work and find out what I had let Maui do. 

Each time she was in heat, Maui was a flight risk.  She frequently escaped our yard to gallivant around the neighborhood.  Likely, she was driven by her instinct to find a mate.

Maui was exiting the puppy stage, making huge messes monthly, and roaming more and more.  My parents told me that she would need to move out to the property we owned a few miles away from our home.  At the barn, we had a chain link kennel for dogs.  Inside the kennel was a large tree for shade, two dog houses for warmth, food and water bowls.  The kennel was an octagon with four foot panels.  It was spacious.  But it wasn’t home. 

Almost a month after Maui moved out to the property, my parents told me that we were having her spayed.  I was surprised as I had never considered that we might spay her.  Later, my mother told me that the decision was made when they figured out that she was pregnant.  Not knowing who the father was, nor having any interest in raising puppies, my parents chose a spay surgery as the most convenient (and permanent) abortion option.

Maui was an incredible dog.  She was always by my side when I was out horseback riding or hiking through the woods.  She was my faithful companion as I mucked stalls or groomed horses.  Maui was by my side through the many hours I spent at the barn.  She was a friend, a best friend.

I only heard her growl aggressively twice.  Once was when a man drove up the long and rural driveway and approached my mother and I at the barn.  Maui started a low, intimidating growl and lowered her body while staring at the man.  He left quickly.  My mother later told me that he had made her feel uncomfortable and that she had been nervous.  I had been surprised by Maui’s behavior, but it makes sense in the context that she had picked up on my mother’s fear. 

The only other time I heard Maui growl was when I took her to my high school for my senior pictures years later.  When the first picture was snapped, with a popping and a flashing light, Maui lunged at the photographer.  Thankfully, I had a tight grip on her leash and she settled quickly.  I think in each of these cases, Maui was prepared and determined to protect her people.

One time, my mother genuinely needed Maui’s help.  We had a new and spirited horse, Twister, who my mother was taking out on the trails.  Maui accompanied them.  About an hour later, Twister tore into the barn like, well, a Twister (though she got the name from the tornado shaped marking down the front of her face).  She was panicked…and riderless.  Worried, my father set out to see if he could find my mother while I untacked Twister.  A few minutes later, Maui ran up to the barn.  My father and I got on the four wheelers, and Maui led us right to my mother, who had been thrown from Twister’s back and was hobbling back toward the barn, ever so slowly, when we found her.  Smart pup!

I loved Maui, but I never questioned that she lived outside, year round.  I never questioned the lack of vet trips.  I knew that she was with us hours of the day.  I knew that she got ample exercise, following along on countless trail rides.  But she wasn’t underfoot as we prepared meals or did homework.  She wasn’t invited on the couch to watch movies.  She didn’t cuddle up with us as we relaxed for the night.

I left for college with a heavy heart when Maui was 8.  By this time, my parents had divorced and taking care of the barn was more perfunctory.  I knew Maui, and our other animals, wouldn’t get as much exercise or attention in my absence.  I asked a friend who lived near the barn and loved animals almost as much as me to check in on them and give them all extra love.    

When I went home over winter break, I spent many hours with the animals at the barn.  It was snowy that year (yes, it snows in North Carolina…sometimes!) and Maui seemed a little slower than usual, but she was deep into middle age and I didn’t blame her for hunching down against the cold; I hated it too.

In February, my dad called me one morning to tell me that he had discovered that Maui had died overnight.  My heart sank. 

“What happened?”

“I don’t really know,” my dad replied.  “She must have had cancer or something.   She hadn’t been wanting to eat as much as usual this week.  Maybe it was pneumonia or something like that though.  She was coughing some too.”

I fought tears through my morning classes.  I never imagined that Maui would die at 8. 

I accepted the idea that Maui had died from cancer.  While I thought of Maui often through the years, I never considered the more likely cause: heartworm.

Maui lived outside.  I can’t remember or imagine giving our dogs heartworm preventative.  They were often covered in fleas and ticks.  I am sure they were often bitten by mosquitos too.  Because they were dogs, that was just a fact of life.

Having Lynn in our home during her heartworm treatment was an impetus to research and learn more about heartworm.  So many of the risk factors and early symptoms resonated with me and made heartworm disease seem like a very possible cause of Maui’s death.

Heartworm disease is so preventable in dogs.  Please remember to give your dog a heartworm preventative.

Someday soon, I will dig through my many boxes of decades old photos and find one of sweet “Mau Mau” (Snooze and Twister too!) to update this post.  I can see her so clearly in my mind’s eye.  My emotions get stuck in my throat for a second, but ultimately I smile at her memory.  I can’t go back and invite her into my bed or give her a heartworm preventative, but I can do better with my dogs now and help educate others too.                  

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