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FIRST PERSON

Pets Are Using Up Owner's Nine Lives

June 08, 1997|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES SCIENCE/MEDICINE EDITOR

As medical editor at a large metropolitan newspaper, I thought I immediately recognized the classic symptoms: lethargy bordering on coma, frequent urination, vomiting and diarrhea, lack of appetite, high fever.

It seemed clear that Snowflake, our 8-month-old flamepoint Siamese cat, was dying.

His condition triggered a flashback to 1987, when our 17-year-old cocker-lab mutt, Woody, was succumbing to old age. Each night, I would carry his fading, 40-pound body from our bedroom down a flight of stairs and deposit him outside our suburban Washington, D.C., house so he could do his business.

It was sad, but there was something about Woody--some crafty, diabolical streak--that gave me some hope for Snowflake.

Woody, to be blunt, was a con artist. Every time my wife and I would go on a trip, we would get a call from the housesitter to the effect of: "Hi. Um, I think your dog is dying. He keeps collapsing during our walks, and he won't eat."

The first half dozen times this happened, we would catch the first plane home, only to be greeted by a curiously rejuvenated Woody--leaping, tail wagging and, I swear, chuckling. After a while, our returning housesitters (and those were becoming a rare breed), shunned the bleating canine mass at their feet as if he were trying to steal their beer while saying, "I love you, man."

Woody's Oscar-winning performance was yet to come, however. In September 1987, I was on an ill-conceived golf vacation in Florida. My wife, none too pleased about my trip to begin with, called me with the standard housesitter line: "Your dog is dying," she said. "Maybe you'd better get off the golf course and come home." Having good reason to be skeptical, I called Woody's longtime vet, who had much less reason to ruin my vacation than did my wife or dog. "It's true," he told me. "This really seems to be it. We can keep him alive till you get home, but then I think it's time to. . . ."

So, as soon as my plane landed, I rushed to the vet. Woody was carried from his cage on a type of platter. When he was placed before me in the examining room, he wasn't moving--he hadn't in several days, I was told; his eyes were cast down. I leaned down to say my last goodbye: "It's me Woody," I whispered in his ear. "I love you, man."

Slowly, his eyes lifted toward me, he sniffed and then abruptly sprang to his feet, leaped off the examining table and peed on the floor. Then he barked, loudly, wagged his tail and walked to the front door. "I've never seen anything like this," said the vet. "I guess you can . . . take him home."

Woody would die two months later, but with the satisfaction of knowing he'd gotten the best of us one last time.

A couple of months ago, as Snowflake lay motionless on our dining room floor, I found myself hoping he was "pulling a Woody." But there were several things working against this: He was young and had never been out of the house, whereas Woody was world wise. As a young dog, he ran away from home and eventually showed up at a police station 40 miles away; he also disappeared any number of times with the female of the species before sauntering home when he felt like it. Poor little Snowflake could never dream of such things.

The Flakester, as we call him, also has a lengthy medical history that has brought him close to death more than once. Part of a litter of a dozen, he and three siblings were discarded shortly after birth by their mother, who wanted to concentrate on feeding the hardier of her babies. Only 'round-the-clock hand rearing and bottle feeding by my wife and son and daughter kept Snowflake alive.

So, when we brought him to the vet in his recent condition, it was natural to think this chronically sick kitten just might be finally succumbing to his early-life traumas. But what came next was nothing short of a plot line for "ER."

The vet's diagnosis was a surprise: diabetes. And so began the twice-daily insulin shots and special diet. Still, there was little improvement and our worst fears returned.

After a string of lengthy and expensive hospital stays, Snowflake's enigmatic condition drove our vet to cyberspace. He consulted, via the Internet, a noted Cornell University expert, who said that Snowflake's was a special--possibly transient--case of diabetes and that we needed to switch to a different kind of insulin.

It worked wonders. The Flakester began bounding around the house (a la Woody), eating and keeping down his food.

Then, about a week ago, the vomiting and diarrhea returned. By phone, the vet prescribed Pepcid AC. It didn't work. Snowflake was getting worse, and once again, we prepared for the worst.

Another visit to the vet, though, brought yet a new diagnosis: irritable bowel syndrome, a condition so prevalent among humans that it's almost chic.

The Flakester has apparently dodged another bullet, and is on a new regimen of anti-diarrheal medicine and prescription food.

Last night, as he hopped up on the bed and settled between my wife and me, he purred for the first time in a while. And I could have sworn I heard him chuckle.

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