On Saturday just gone, we had to farewell our beautiful dog, Cleo. And there ended the sweetest three years of our lives so far.
Looking for love
It all started in October 2014. We’d had a dog, our Monty boy, for a little over a year and we thought it would be good to give him some company. Besides, he was so much fun that we thought having a second dog would have to be twice the fun. So we started looking for another dog to adopt.
Some dog adoptions go very quickly and smoothly. But because Monty was a large, male Malamute (read: dominant by nature), the rescue organisations were naturally very careful about making sure the dogs we were interested in were going to be acceptable to him. We took him to the RSPCA once so he could meet one of the dogs we were hoping to adopt, but it was a boisterous two-year-old Labrador and kept leaping all over him, so Monty ended up issuing a warning growl. That was enough to disqualify us from adopting that bouncy fellow.
We started applying for dogs online. Of course, each of the shelters had a different application form. There were only a couple that would accept applications on another organisation’s form. This was very tiresome, as most of the forms were about ten pages long, and asked more or less the same questions as all the others. Rescue organisations don’t just throw dogs at you; they’re mindful that the dogs have already been surrendered at least once, so they do their best to make sure they really find forever homes for the animals. Rightly so, too. But it sure makes for a lot of paperwork.
We only ever applied for one dog at a time. It’s a matter of the heart, adopting a dog, and you have to focus your energy on the dog in question. You can’t spread yourself too thin by applying for lots of dogs at once. So inevitably, we got our hearts set on whichever dog was the subject of our application at the time. More than once, we simply didn’t hear back from the group that had advertised the dog. A lot of the rescue organisations are run by volunteers and there simply isn’t the capacity to respond to applicants who are, for whatever reason, not on the shortlist.
One time, we were invited to a meet and greet at a local dog park. The dog was absolutely adorable, and Monty liked her and she liked Monty and us. We spent about half an hour there, talking to the foster carer and enjoying the company of what we hoped would soon be our second dog. We had imagined taking her home that day. At the end of the half hour, the lady said, ‘Well, there are two other couples interested and I’ll be meeting them over the next couple of days. I’ll let you know on Thursday’. How awful! We felt like job applicants, and I guess we kind of were.
Thursday came and brought with it disappointment: we didn’t get the dog. By this time, I’d written and sent out several applications over a couple of months. It takes time to apply, wait, follow up, be ignored or rejected, and start again. And it takes its toll. It made me think of people trying to have (or adopt) a baby. It’s a roller-coaster ride. After this most recent disappointment, I was ready for a break. But my husband kept looking.
Don’t show me any more dogs!
One morning on the train into work, he turned his phone to me and there was a picture of the most beautiful dog.
‘D’oh! DON’T show me any more dog pictures! I can’t do it! If you want her, YOU have to do the application. I’M NOT DOING IT!’
‘But look at that beautiful face’, he said.
‘I KNOW! I’M SOLD! I’d go and get the dog right now, but I’M NOT DOING IT’. I just couldn’t bear another disappointment.
Despite my strenuous protests, I was hoping against hope that my husband would follow through and send in an application. To my eternal gratitude, he did. A couple of days later, the rescue organisation, Bendigo Animal Welfare and Community Services (BAWCS), contacted us for some further detail about our fencing, and then we heard nothing further for about ten days.
‘Well, I guess we haven’t been successful’, I said, after about a week of waiting.
Then on the Friday two weeks after he’d sent in the application, my husband got a call from BAWCS, asking if we could be in Bendigo by 11.00 the next day, with Monty. Sounded very much like we’d been selected as the front-runners in the race for Cleo. We were THRILLED. ‘They surely wouldn’t ask us to drive three hours with Monty if we weren’t in pole position for this dog’, I said to him.
And indeed, out of all the many people whose hearts had also been melted by that adorable photo and who had applied for Cleo, we were the ones lucky enough to be chosen as her carers. The photo you see in the header of this post was taken the day we collected her, by Debbie Edwards, President of BAWCS. It remains my favourite photo of Cleo – so bright and pretty and happy.
It didn’t take long for Cleo to settle in. She was a medium-sized dog, weighing around 27kg, but she didn’t seem to think that was any reason not to climb up into our laps for a snuggle. We eventually worked out that this was an attempt to drive us out of our chairs. She loved curling up in a lounge chair and going to sleep.
She was friendly to every dog and every person, and was every bit as sweet and gentle as her photos suggest. We were utterly smitten with her.
She was 9 years and 3 months old when we adopted her, and she’d just been desexed. We don’t know much about what her life was like before she came to live with us, but we understand she was deeply loved and only surrendered very reluctantly. I often think of the people who had to give her up and how awful that must have been for them. It was awful for us to have to let her go, but at least we knew she would be at peace. They had no guarantee she’d be treated well. They could only hope, I guess.
We did everything we could for both of our dogs, to make sure they were getting everything a dog could want or need in life. And they were two happy dogs, for sure. Monty’s original owner had remained in his life, and is a good friend of ours. So he got to see her often. When Monty died, well ahead of his time, I wrote a book about him. I’m thinking to publish it on this blog before too long. It’s quite a yarn.
In May 2015, we hired a holiday house down at Cape Paterson and took Monty and Cleo down there for a long weekend. They had an absolute blast and that trip is one of our best memories. Monty died later that year, so Cleo was an only dog for 2016. In January of that year, she became seriously ill. We were beside ourselves because we’d just lost Monty. We couldn’t imagine losing Cleo so soon after. There followed a couple of weeks of investigation into her digestive system, and the vets’ best guess was that she was allergic to beef and/or chicken. So we avoided giving her either ever after. She remained well for the rest of that year, although her arthritis worsened. Still, she was chipper and was always up for action.
We often took her up to the old Olinda golf course for some extended off-lead time. She loved it there, and so did we. She would mooch about in the shrubbery, trot along sniffing all the smells, greet other dogs and people, and then, before we could do anything to stop her, she’d drop to the ground and roll in wombat or deer poo, smearing it all over the pure white patch on the right-hand side of her face and down her shoulder! She would always get up, smiling widely, clearly delighted with herself. The first time she did this, the girls at Silhouette Grooming and Pet Supplies very kindly managed to fit her in for an unscheduled bath – on a busy Saturday, too. We’d recently made their acquaintance after someone had recommended them to us.
Until we started going to Silhouette, Cleo was no fan of the bath. Absolutely hated it, actually. But the proprietress of the place, a young woman called Caisha, is what I and others believe to be a dog whisperer, and I’m not kidding. She worked her magic on Cleo the very first time and Cleo’s terror of the bath evaporated. Astonishing.
A new friend
In late January 2017, we adopted Little Lenny, a fluffy white fellow who we think is a cross between a West Highland Terrier and a toy poodle. The picture below was taken just a week after he’d joined our household. He’s a very sweet little man, although quite anxious. Cleo was the very soul of calm, and I like to think she helped him settle in. He had a few issues to begin with, but with some expert help from a veterinary behaviourist, and, I believe, with Cleo’s calm presence, he’s calmed down a lot.
The weekend we adopted Lenny, we took him and Cleo to the beach. Cleo had an episode of weakness in her hind legs and just sagged to the ground after our time on the beach. It scared and saddened us, as we realised she was getting weaker. We later suspected that that episode might have been a side effect of some medicine she’d been started on for something or other, because it didn’t happen again until just a few weeks ago, after her muscles really had been in decline for some time.
The first half of 2017 went smoothly for Cleo, but in July, she was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis, a condition that meant she could no longer protect her airway when she swallowed. So she was at risk of choking and of aspiration pneumonia. About a week after this diagnosis, she came down with the worst-case scenario – aspiration pneumonia. Thankfully we were home the day it struck, because she suddenly went into respiratory distress, having had a perfectly normal day up to about 4.00pm. She spent a total of ten days in hospital down at U-Vet, the University of Melbourne vet school, a facility I can’t recommend highly enough for their incredible skill, caring and compassion, and it was a few rough weeks after that before she was back on anything like an even keel, but the illness had weakened her.
For the five months after her illness, she required hand feeding three or four times a day, as she needed to be fed in meatball-sized pieces of moist food so there was no risk of crumbs breaking off and going down into her lungs as she chewed. She also couldn’t eat very large meals, in case she regurgitated the food and aspirated it. Drinking was a big risk, too. The vets explained that a small amount of water going into the lungs, while uncomfortable, is not dangerous as long as it’s clean. So we changed the water bowls four or five times a day – pretty much every time we saw that they’d been used, we replaced the water. This all makes it sound like she was an invalid at this point, but she wasn’t. She’d recovered enough to be as demanding as ever for pats, walks, treats, and trips in the car. She was bright and well; she just had these very specific dietary requirements.
After she’d recovered from the pneumonia, which was like a miracle given how ill she’d been (literally at death’s door), our local vets did some investigations into her kidney function and found that her kidneys were in the early stages of disease. She couldn’t go onto the usual prescription diet for that because those products contain beef or chicken, so they started her on some medication for it. We cooked and mashed potato and pumpkin for her every second day, putting big dollops of coconut oil in it to help her maintain her weight. She also ate some meat, but I mostly tried to fill her up with carbs and fat so she’d have the protein reduction her kidneys needed while still having enough energy. It was probably about 55% vegies, 5% oil and 40% meat. It wasn’t very scientific but she seemed to remain well on what we were giving her. She eventually went off tinned meat so for the final few weeks of her life, we cooked fresh meatballs for her every second day, as well as the vegies. It was a lot of work, but it was keeping her well and happy. Like many elderly people, she didn’t have much appetite and needed a lot of variety to keep her interested.
So, she had some fairly typical geriatric problems that we were managing, but she was more or less well for the past five months. But then, a few weeks ago, the strength in her legs took a precipitous dive. She was able to get up and move herself around, but she was no longer very stable. Over a very short time, maybe two weeks, she declined to the point where, last Thursday evening, it became clear to us that she could no longer get herself up if she fell, which she’d been doing with increasing frequency in recent weeks. We dreaded the idea that she could go outside during the day while we were at work, fall, and be stuck out there in the blazing heat. For those unfamiliar with Melbourne summers, they’re no joke. We can get days of over 40 degrees. Just deadly heat for a dog.
So with very heavy hearts, we had to prepare ourselves to let her go. It was just awful. Her face was still bright and happy, and her mind was still as good as ever. It’s just that she could no longer rely on her legs. While she was lying in her bed, with a full tummy, nice cool air blowing on her, and her people nearby giving her pats and snuggles, she was as happy as any dog could be. To end her life when she was still capable of enjoying some parts of it was gut-wrenching. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would have given my life to protect her from harm, so to have to make the decision to end her life just felt grievous. But how could we put her through the painful decline that she was already going through, falling on her poor old bones several times a day and now unable to get up?
A good friend of mine once said of euthanising an incurably ill pet, ‘Better a week too early than a day too late’. That was ringing in my ears all weekend.
Friday, 26 January, was a public holiday in Australia, and we were so grateful that it was. Normally, my husband and I would both have been at work. But this day, we woke up and the first topic of conversation was the inevitable decision about Cleo. We hadn’t spoken of it the night before, when we’d both had to help her get up. So on Friday morning, we resolved to give her the best day we possibly could, given her frail condition, and then take her to the vet on Saturday.
Bittersweet is the word for that Friday. As I said, she was still well: well enough to enjoy a short walk at Olinda, a lounge in the front yard (until it got too warm and muggy), and a day spent with her people right beside her, loving her and feeding her all her favourite things, when she felt like eating anything. Then there was movie night on the couch and a restful sleep in her comfy bed.
On the Saturday, almost as if to reassure us of the rightness of our decision, Cleo seemed a bit off. She seemed more tired than she had been, and didn’t want to eat much. She spent most of the morning in her bed in the loungeroom, being patted and snuggled and gently brushed. She always loved a brush. She ate a small meal at around 10.00, but no more after that. We took her to the vet for the last time in the early afternoon.
I’m not going to go into the grief associated with losing Cleo. I’ve written extensively on that topic in my Monty book, which as I mentioned, I’ll publish here soon.
Meanwhile, I’ve made the following video as a tribute to Cleo. It won’t be the last, as I’ve got maybe a thousand photos and videos of her. She was so beautiful, and we loved her so much, we just filmed or photographed her all the time. I’ve used a very moving piece of music on this one, because it fits how we feel about losing Cleo.
For those who knew her, I hope you enjoy remembering her via this video. For those who didn’t, I hope you enjoy meeting her.
Slight amendment made to text on 31 January 2018.
Header photo by Debbie Edwards, Bendigo Animal Welfare and Community Services. Used by permission.
All other photos by the author or her husband.