The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care
(An excerpt from the expanded eBook edition of Rex and the City)
Until I brought a dog into my life, I never considered myself to be a hypochondriac. Not when it came to myself, that is. If I were, say, bleeding from the palms and the eyeballs, that wouldn’t necessarily stop me from rushing out to Barney’s for their semiannual sale. And don’t get me wrong—I like going to the doctor. I like being in the presence of someone who will listen to my problems and pretend he actually cares. But the thing is, in New York City, the doctors don’t have time to listen to you. They schedule a new patient every twelve minutes, make you wait two hours in their plush reception area for your appointment, and spend a total of ten minutes in your actual presence, during which they shine a light into your ears, tap you on the knees, and call you by the wrong name. (Once the tech with the clipboard came out into the waiting room and asked for “Mr.” Harrington.) For this you will be charged six hundred dollars, and sent away with a two-week trial sample of Viagra (even though you came in to talk about the inexplicable stigmata on your ribs). At least when I was little I got to choose between a lollipop and a jeweled plastic ring. So, needless to say, I didn’t go to the doctor much.
But then Ed and I adopted our beloved shelter dog Wallace. I guess you could say he was the sort of dog one worried about. There was the suspicion that he had been abused, and that his spirit had been broken by his previous owner. There were his lingering behavioral problems and his general fear and mistrust of humans. There was the fact that he had been and was still often quite difficult to train and manage. But, but despite the struggles, our wonderful dog was bettering our lives in so many ways. He was teaching us how to be nurturers and how to better love each other; he was teaching us how to better love ourselves, etc. And once you have that kind of love in your life, you never want to let go.
Thus, worrying sets in. And worrying is a different kind of love.
That September, tragedy struck the neighborhood. One of the Marching Band Man’s beloved dogs had died without warning, from having choked on a tennis ball. I heard the news one night as Wallace and I were walking home from a big outing to Krispy Kreme (New York City’s beloved all-night donut emporium). I remember it had been a warm and balmy evening, and the air was soft—one of those bittersweet evenings in which you both welcome the might and energy of fall and also yearn for languid ease of summer. I remember feeling very happy that, whatever the season, I had a dog.
Then, as we turned down Suffolk Street, I saw The Marching Band Man running toward me with tears streaming down his cheeks. “Ginger is gone,” he told me between sobs. “Ginger is dead. She died last night from choking on a tennis ball. She was playing one minute and then she was choking, choking, and there was nothing I could do. I tried to get the ball out with my own hands, but it was stuck. Plus I didn’t want to scratch her throat with my nails.” I nodded, so shocked I was unable to speak. He continued: “Then I hailed a taxi and told him to get me to the Animal Medical Center, but we didn’t get there in time. She died in my arms, precious Ginger. Died right in my arms.”
I started to cry as well. Ginger was his third dog, his third “child” as he called her. “I’m so sorry,” I said, touching his sleeve. I realized I didn’t even know my neighbor’s name. I only knew the names of his dogs. But I wanted to find a way to comfort him. “I guess that’s the best place to die, though, isn’t it? I mean, if she had to die. With you, in your arms.”
“Oh, bless you, yes! Yes! For that I am thankful.” He blew his nose into a worn pink handkerchief and then paused as if to recover himself. And his persona. “Listen, honey, you go home right now and get rid of all your tennis balls. Do it for my sake, for Ginger’s, for Wallace, your only child! They’re dangerous! Dangerous!”
“I will,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll tell my boyfriend Ed as well.” I was hoping that my naming of Ed would give the Marching Band Man an opportunity to tell me his own name.
“My name is Tony,” he said, blowing his nose again. “But my friends call me Antoinette, so you call me that, honey.”
I cried all the way home, terrified at the thought of Wallace choking on a tennis ball. Ed was not home when I returned to the apartment. I was so distraught over the death of Ginger I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I decided to watch a movie to take my mind off loss and death. All we had was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on Milan Kundera’s brilliant novel which tells the story of two doomed lovers—Tomas and Tereza—trying to survive during the tumultuous era of Communist Prague. Their relationship is rocky from the start—he cheats all the time—and eventually they get a dog to seal their tenuous bond.
Imagine how I felt when we got to the part in the movie where the couple had to put their terminally ill dog Karenin to sleep. I’d seen this movie twice already, but that had been in my pre-Wallace days, before I had understood the vast purity of a dog’s love. Now I wept as I witnessed the death of Karenin. I wept at the death of Tomas and Tereza’s love. I wept over the fact that Wallace would someday die. That he would be snatched away, and that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to him. All this love, all this perfect love, would be taken away. I wrapped my arms around Wallace’s neck and clung to him, hugging him too tightly, my face buried in his fur. He seemed confused by my outburst, but still, he stayed. He seemed to recognize that his job was to absorb my pain, so he licked and licked my face. I sobbed until I was depleted, and silent, and then I heard Wallace’s heartbeat, just on the other side of my cheek. It was a solid heartbeat, and it seemed to tell me: Don’t be sad. I am here with you now. We are together.
When Ed came home at midnight, he found me lying on the living room floor next to Wallace, still crying and clutching him tightly. “Honey, what happened?” Ed said, kneeling next to me on the rug. Wallace took the opportunity to scurry away, having been released from the headlock that had begun to cramp his style.
“Ginger died,” I cried. I told him the story as the Marching Band Man had told me. “She choked on a tennis ball. He tried to save her but he couldn’t.”
“That’s horrible,” Ed said. “The poor guy. We should get him a gift. Or donate to the shelter in Ginger’s name.”
“You’re so sweet,” I said, breaking into a fresh round of sobs. “I don’t want Wallace to die.”
“He’s not going to die,” Ed said. “He’s not even two years old. Most setters live until they’re twelve. He’s going to live to be a tired old man.”
“But so many things could happen to him,” I said, crawling onto Ed’s lap. My voice was that of a twelve-year-old and I realized—we both realized—I was not only talking about Wallace; I was talking about my mother, too. She had died so suddenly, without warning. I went to bed one night with a mother; I woke up without one. And no one had ever really explained to me what death was all about. So I had been approaching my entire life with the latent fear that, at any moment, the people you loved most could disappear.
Now I had a dog I loved most, too.
I sat up and told him about the scene in Unbearable Lightness. “After Karenin dies, Tereza confesses to Tomas that she loved the dog more. Then she corrects herself and says that she loved the dog better.” I stroked Wallace’s soft, soothing fur. “I just thought that was so sad.”
Ed nodded. He understood. He probably loved the dog better, too. And that was okay. Really.
On the one hand, I have always yearned to be the most important person in someone’s life. But I was now mature enough to recognize that the love of a dog transcends even that.
“We have to get rid of all our small toys,” I said to Ed. “And we have to be really careful on the sidewalks. It’s not safe out there.”
“I know,” he said. “But I’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of you both.”
I slept fitfully that night, and in my dreams kept hearing, over and over again, a piercing, mournful yowl. It turned out that one of the Cat Ladies in the neighborhood had launched a campaign to trap all the feral kittens and find them new homes. But the mothers were still out there, crestfallen, heartbroken, confused. Every night they called out for their babies, and every night their cries echoed off the sides of our building and into our room. “I can’t stand to hear that,” I said, hugging Ed, in tears. “That poor cat. She thinks she lost her babies. She did lose her babies.”
“Those kittens all have homes now,” Ed said. “They’re much better off.”
The mother cat wailed. “It just seems so cruel.”
“I know, honey,” Ed said. “But let’s try to get some sleep.” But I couldn’t sleep. I was too worried about losing Wallace.
Welcome to the next phase of our life with a dog: hypochondria.
All my friends who had birthed human children swore they’d never be worrywarts like their mothers. But I witnessed their slow transformations into paranoid schizos who lay in bed at night worrying about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and obsessing over whether the trees surrounding the house should be cut down, for fear that their branches would shatter the nursery windows during a freak New England storm. And I understood this to be a phase they went through, a rite of passage that every parent undergoes with their firstborn child. But I never imagined that I would undergo the same phase with my dog.
You might say it all started with the hundred-and-one dog-related books Ed and I had purchased eight weeks earlier. You might say it was the internet, which even in the archaic year of 1997 already provided hundreds of websites containing veterinary information, and millions of reasons why you should worry incessantly about the fate and health of your dog. I did learn all sorts of practical information from the internet in those early days. I learned for instance that the bump on top of Wallace’s head was called an occipital protuberance. I learned that dogs have something called anal sacs and that anal-sac glands produce a “sour to rancid-smelling watery brownish secretion that may serve to mark your dog’s stool like an identification tag.” These anal sacs are often “emptied” explosively in stressful or frightening situations. Eww.
Even sneezing, I learned, could mean something disgusting: the presence of a foreign body, nasal mites, nasal worms. “Nasal worms?” I said to Ed. “Can you imagine?”
“It sounds like something they’d do on Jackass.” This was a show on MTV in which guys vomited, catapulted themselves into bins full of packing peanuts, and pulled other asinine college-boy stunts. (For the record: Ed liked this program.)
I read of puppies choking to death when their collars got caught on crate latches; I read of dogs dying when their stomachs got punctured by chicken bones. And finally, I learned that simply walking down the sidewalks of New York City, or interacting with dogs at the dog run, or chasing a squirrel, could lead to a number of dangerous ailments: canine distemper, infectious canine hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, peritonitis, allergic dermatitis, giardiasis, intestinal parasites, and worms. To confound it all, I learned that all the symptoms of all the above were essentially the same: scratching, sneezing, panting, straining.
At my temp job, I began to spend six of my eight working hours visiting veterinary websites and recoiling at the graphic images of cocker spaniels with eyes bulging out of their sockets, of unidentified rectal prolapses and hyperestrinism (you don’t want to know), of dogs who had been hit by cars. I’d call Ed in tears, telling him to log on to such-and-such a website for proof as to why Wallace should not be allowed out of doors.
“You’re just upsetting yourself,” Ed would say. “And you’re upsetting me. Aren’t you supposed to be doing some kind of work?”
“You know I never take jobs that require actual work. I only come to these offices to work on my novel.”
“Well, why aren’t you writing right now?”
“I finished for the day. And my boss doesn’t mind if I surf the web. Really, there is nothing to do except read veterinary sites.”
“Can’t you look at male porn or something? Something that won’t make you paranoid? Can’t you find something more constructive to do with your time?”
No, I could not.
But don’t be fooled by Ed’s tone. Ed, too, also worried about how to best care for our dog. How could we not worry? Our friends with human children could at least comfort themselves with the fact that someday their infants would be able to speak to them and communicate their wants and needs. Our friends with human children passed through the worrywart phase smoothly, and were able to tell their second children, who might be bleeding from the eyeballs, to “get over it” and “leave us alone.” But Ed and I, with our dog-child, would never have that advantage. Wallace would never be able to voice his ailments, his hopes and dreams, his pains. Sure, Wallace was smarter than the average canine, and knew, to date, twenty words in the English language, but none of those words (down, stay, sit, kiss, paw, up) could be found in my “Index of Signs” in my Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook. (It was Ed who dubbed this oft-quoted book The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care).
Perhaps now is the time to admit that I had always been kind of paranoid about the dog’s health, from the very first moment we adopted him from the shelter. In the first few months, we took him to the vet for panting, yawning, flatulence, and the weird black discolorations on the bottom of his paws.
“Those are spots,” the nice, patient vet told us of the weird discolorations. “You have a spotted dog.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought maybe it was tar. We crossed a street the other night that had some freshly filled potholes and I thought—”
“They’re spots,” the vet said. We were charged another seventy-five dollars.
These early episodes with the reassuring yet dismissive vet did not dissuade me from continuing to imagine the worst-case scenarios in terms of Wallace’s alleged signs and symptoms of ill health. In June, I worried about heartworm and ringworm. In July, I worried about him getting fleas and the irritated skin conditions resulting from fleas. In August, I worried about the threat of foxtails and burrs. By that point I had read all about foxtails and other barbed seed-heads, even though they were rare in downtown New York. Foxtails, I read, could easily penetrate the skin and travel down the ear canals or up the genital tract, causing “irritation, abscesses, serious tissue damage, and/or infection.” In extreme cases, I read, foxtails have been known to puncture the organs, including the brain.
Puncturing the brain? This was not an image I could easily forget, and it didn’t help that the warning signs of foxtails—excessive sneezing, scratching at the ears, pawing at the nose, shaking the head—were gestures that Wallace, or any dog for that matter, made with a regularity that could drive someone like me insane. Especially because Wallace sneezed all the time.
“Ed, look! He’s doing it again!” I began to say. My voice got screechier each time. “That’s like the tenth time he has sneezed in the last two hours.”
“We live in New York City,” Ed said. “In a ground-floor apartment. We like to keep our windows open, under the guise of getting some fresh air. Our apartment is full of dust and car exhaust. Of course he sneezes.”
“We need to take him to the vet now! He could have a foxtail embedded in his nostrils.”
Ed rolled his eyes, because he knew by then about my odd obsession with foxtails. “Are you sure a foxtail hasn’t punctured your brain?” Ed said.
His biggest paranoia was the rising cost of veterinary treatments. But I noticed that he started to get a bit more sensitive to Wallace’s physical fluctuations too. Perhaps I was rubbing off on him. Once, Ed called me at my office to tell me that Wallace’s stool smelled funny. “I noticed on the late afternoon walk,” he said.
“Doesn’t poop always smell funny, when it comes down to it?”
“This is different. It is unlike any smell I have smelled before.”
I did a quick search on the Merck Manual online while I kept him on the phone. I found a description of giardia, which can be caused by drinking from “fetid puddles of water,” and New York City had no shortage of those. “Giardia is a parasitical infection,” I told Ed. “It’s contagious and requires antibiotics.”
The more I became convinced that Wallace had giardia, the more convinced Ed became that it wasn’t. Even though he was the one who had brought up the smelly stool in the first place. He always seemed to change his mind whenever we came close to agreeing on something.
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” he said. “We don’t need to take him to the vet. You probably just fed him something he wasn’t supposed to eat yesterday. Am I right? Some of that midnight Dulce de Leche, for instance? That carton you polished off while I was asleep?”
I thought about this. Yes, we’d had some ice cream, the dog and I. “All right, I won’t feed him ice cream anymore.”
After that, I tried to get more relaxed about the home diagnoses. Many websites advised a “wait and see” approach on such matters as sneezing and smelly stool.
Then Wallace began to lick himself obsessively. Well, okay, he was always licking himself. (We have all heard the joke that starts with the question “Why does a dog lick his balls?” and ends with the punch line “Because he can!”) But Wallace’s behavior seemed unusual to me. Like, kind of obsessive/compulsive. Plus, Wallace didn’t have balls. He was licking something far more pointed.
I rushed to my Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care.
“If your dog begins to lick himself excessively,” I read, “and has a purulent, foul-smelling discharge coming from the prepuce, he may be suffering from balanoposthitis.” My eyes widened and I looked over at Wallace, who sure enough was licking himself again. I read the sentence a few more times, trying to figure out exactly what amount of licking constituted “excessive.” It didn’t say. So then there was the matter of the discharge. I hadn’t noticed any per se, but then again I hadn’t looked.
Ed walked in the door as I was conducting my prepucal inspection.
“What are you doing?” he shouted. His voice was screechy.
I was positioned much like an auto mechanic under a car. Wallace was busy with the task of cleaning out the inside of a peanut-butter Kong that I had given him to keep him occupied during the physical exam.
“I’m trying to smell his pee-pee,” I said. “For a purulent, foul-smelling discharge. I have no choice but to do this. Come here, do you think it smells funny?”
“Stop it! You’re acting crazy.”
I sat up. “But I seriously think something’s wrong with him. He won’t stop licking himself.”
“Nothing’s wrong with him.”
“What exactly does purulent mean, anyway, do you know? If we knew I could–”
“I have no idea what it means,” Ed said. He sat cautiously on the analyst’s couch. “Wallace, come over here. Stay away from your mother. She’s nuts.”
“Ha ha.” I stood and walked over to the bookshelves.
“What are you doing?” Ed asked, hugging the dog protectively.
“Finding a dictionary. I’m going to find out what purulent means.”
“Would you stop it? You’re driving us crazy.”
By “us” he meant himself and the dog. Many women gauge the progress of their relationships by the first time the man says “we.” Ed now said “we”—about Wallace.”
As I searched through the shelves for a dictionary, I suggested Ed and his partner go for a walk. Of course, as soon as Wallace heard the word he launched into a tizzy of barking and spinning, and Ed had no choice but to take him out. End of discussion. Thus I could continue more internet research in peace.
Over the next few days, Wallace kept up with his licking. And I kept up with my research. I discovered that “a small amount of cloudy, yellowish discharge is not unusual in mature males,” but that “an excessive purulent discharge is associated with overt infection.”
“Well, there’s the word excessive again,” I said to Ed that night. “And purulent. What constitutes a normal amount of discharge?”
Wallace settled onto the sofa and began to lick, lick, lick himself again. “Don’t look at me,” Ed said.
Then I read: “‘If the puslike discharge is dripping directly from the penis opening, the condition is probably more serious. You should look for foreign material, such as foxtails, inside the prepuce of affected dogs.’” I put the book down. “Foxtails!”
Ed grimaced at the thought. History books are rife with references to Achilles’ heel, but they never discuss a man’s real vulnerable hot-spot: the urethra. “He does not have a foxtail stuck up there,” Ed said. “It’s impossible.”
“How do you know?”
“Because we haven’t been anywhere near foxtails. A foxtail couldn’t survive in East River Park.”
“Well, there could be something else stuck up there. It’s clearly irritated? Why else would he lick it so much?”
“But nothing is dripping. You’re overreacting here.”
But at that moment, I swear, something green dripped from Wallace’s privates.
“Look!” I shouted to Ed, pointing. “Did you see that?”
Wallace ceased his licking for a moment and stared at me, a somewhat guilty look on his face. Then he looked over at Ed, rolled his eyes, and lapped up the evidence. He buried his snout in his crotch and resumed with the licking, making a lewd snuffling sound.
“Something is wrong,” I said. “I know it.” I produced a diagram entitled how to expose the penis, which illustrated how you were supposed to seize your dog’s privates with both hands and push one part forward (the penis) and pull another part back (the prepuce). Having been raised Catholic, I had a hard time even reading those words.
“Here,” I said to Ed, pushing the book toward him. “You do it.”
“But nothing’s wrong with him. He’s licking himself. He’s a dog.”
“But he has a discharge! And when the discharge is excessive, perhaps greenish or odorous, and the dog licks at his prepuce excessively, these are signs of balanoposthitis.” I was now waving the Hypochondriac’s Guide in the air like a preacher with his Bible. “So someone is going to have to extract that prepuce and it’s not going to be me!”
Wallace stood, belched, and then lumbered off to the other room.
For reasons I can no longer recall, it was Ed who had to take Wallace to the vet the next day. This is what transpired, secondhand:
DR. MARTER: So, what seems to be the problem today?
ED: Well, my dog is licking himself a lot. On his penis?
DR. MARTER: (raising his bifocals to look at chart) He’s a male dog, right?
DR. MARTER: Well, that’s what male dogs do.
ED: Yes, but my girlfriend said she saw—
DR. MARTER: Girlfriends (pauses to regard Ed over bifocals) know nothing of licking.
Pan to close-up of Ed’s face, burning with embarrassment
It took several years for me to live down this story, and for Ed to get over the humiliation of having brought the dog into the vet in the first place. And of having to pay two hundred dollars for the privilege. In his opinion, when it came to dogs, there was sense and then there was nonsense, and in Ed’s opinion I was full of the latter. He vowed never to listen to me again.
I soon noticed that they seemed to have the same opinion of me at the veterinary clinic. From that point on, every time I brought Wallace in for an appointment we got the New Vet, the one who had graduated from Cornell like the week before. And this is not to say Wallace got inferior treatment; it’s just that I started to wonder: Was I not being taken seriously? Did they see me as a Crazy Dog Lady? How could this be possible when I was only twenty-nine?
After our first visit to the vet shortly after we adopted Wallace he, unbeknownst to us, had received a written warning of sorts. Ed and I weren’t even aware of this until July, when we discovered on a subsequent visit that someone at the vet’s office had written the word “caution” in black magic marker at the top of Wallace’s chart. We’re pretty sure we know why he had received the caution warning (it’s a long story involving a muzzle and a Bordetella shot that I don’t have the room to describe here). But I also began to wonder if that caution referred to me.
Not even Wallace took me seriously. If I, say, admonished him for eating his food too quickly, he’d eat even faster, attempting to finish off his breakfast before I had even placed the dish squarely on the floor. Like many dogs, Wallace gulped down his food as if at any moment, six adolescent wolves were going to burst forth from the kitchen cabinets and try to steal it away. (Thus the verb to wolf.)
But wolfing down food, I had read, could be dangerous. “Wallace, slow down!” I’d shout. “You might get volvulus.” He ignored me and continued to wolf. Clearly, volvulus was not one of Wallace’s twenty-three words.
“If you eat too quickly,” I continued, “your stomach could bloat, and then distend, and then twist on its axis, and that’s life threatening, and we’d have to rush you to the vet. Do you want to have to go to the vet?”
In two more swift gulps he finished his food off, lapped up some water, and then delivered a solid belch. He knew the word vet but pretended that he didn’t. The belch I took as an insult. And a secret signal that he sided with Ed.
Ed suggested I join a support group: Women Who Love Their Dogs Too Much. But first of all, there is no such thing as too much love, right? It’s just that for some of us, love translates into worry. And I wanted Wallace to stay healthy and vibrant for a long, long time.
In hindsight, I realized that a hypochondriac is simply a person who constantly needs reassurance that everything is okay and that no one is going to die. I am not trying to make light of this, but back then I used to experience great feelings of relief from hearing a vet say that Wallace was a happy and healthy dog. And then there was Wallace himself, whose very presence reminded me that he was a happy healthy dog. I’d go so far as to say that Wallace seemed to go out of his way to communicate this fact to me. Every time he ran up to kiss me, every time he placed his paw on my knee, every time he looked at me and barked or muttered or ah-wooo’ed, he seemed to be saying: I am here and I am happy and I am well. And so are you. So let’s celebrate and seize the day!
That’s the thing about dogs—they are so vibrantly alive every second of every day. They live with gusto and run with gusto and eat with gusto, seizing joy at every opportunity. Life, to them, is a series of non-stop adventures, offering both new and familiar ways of seeking pleasure. And another magical and inspiring thing about dogs is that even an unhealthy dog finds ways to be happy. All the worrying in the world would not change that fact.
Plus, I realized that worrying takes you out of the present moment. Worrying brings you into an indeterminate future. And dogs, as I keep saying, constantly bring us back into the present moment. Where there is only joy. I chose to return there with Wallace, again and again.
And so, like most new dog parents, I eventually passed through that phase of being a full-time hypochondriac and became more of a part-time one. I began to accept that not every sneeze on Wallace’s part meant doom. And that—yes—males do like to lick themselves. I even learned to accept—at some unconscious level—that Wallace would someday die, as we all would. This wasn’t something I could control. The only thing I could control was my attitude. And stay mindful and vigilant. And approach every moment with love.