Life With Stevie

By Teresa Garden, DVM

There is now an abundance of geriatric pets due to better veterinary care, modern technology, and the advancement of the bond between humans and their pets. Pets are considered valued family members. Getting old is not easy for us or for the pets we dearly love. Most of us will face daily physical and mental challenges in our 80s and 90s. It is the same for aging pets. Our goal as pet owners and veterinarians is to improve their quality of life. Vision impairment or blindness is a common problem among our elderly pets and an issue I deal with daily in practice. This issue affected my life on a personal level as well for 7 1/2 years.

Little Stevie Wonderful came into my life in 2002. I was working as the Director of Veterinary Services at the Humane Society of Missouri at the time. We did a large-scale puppy mill rescue in the spring of that year. Stevie was one of over 100 dogs taken out of deplorable conditions from a puppy mill in Howell County Missouri. He was a 6-8 year old Pekingese without eyeballs, matted from head to toe, with rotting teeth and a large tumor on his behind. He was emaciated and smelled horribly from years of urine and feces raining down upon him from cages stacked on top of his in the puppy mill. The teeth, tumor, hair coat, and malnourishment we could and did fix. The eyeballs, however, were another matter. I suspected Stevie had suffered many years from eye diseases. Sometimes this leads to reduced eye pressure and, left untreated, the eyeballs get so soft they can start to recede back into their orbits. In 17 years as a veterinarian I had never seen a case like it. In clinical practice I see pets that are loved and cherished and taken care of properly. Puppy mill dogs do not experience love or veterinary care. In spite of his background of abuse and neglect, Stevie was gentle, friendly, sweet, and easy going. He went up for adoption with his brethren a couple of months later.

October came and Little Stevie was still with us. The terrible 9-11 event had rocked our country a few weeks previously. It changed something in most of us. As for me, I decided to share my life with a blind dog. I had not had a dog since I was a child. This was a big grown-up move for me. I took a week of vacation to stay home with Stevie and help him get acquainted with his new environs. Our first call of action was a trip to the groomer. He came out of Dogtowne Grooming a new man….all shaved down, looking good, smelling good, and feeling great! To my very pleasant surprise he rode beautifully in my little 2-seater fancy convertible. He was calm, enjoyed the fresh air, and acted like he had been chauffeured around his entire life. Now, it was time to go home to start our little life together.

My house was one story, simply furnished, clutter-free, and relatively small at 1100 square feet. Stevie slowly sauntered around from room to room in his calm and easy-going manner. He eventually stopped in front of a cushy chair in the living room. He pressed his head against it and snorted. I pick him up and deposited him into the chair. He then claimed it as his own and took a long nap. This was all amazing to me since the poor guy had never been in a house before nor had he slept on a piece of furniture. And so it went. He would slowly make his way to the back door and snort to go out and potty in the fenced yard. He needed no house-training from me which was great for both of us since I am an inept dog trainer on all accounts.

Our first evening together he sat beside me on the couch as I watched TV. He eventually plopped his heavy round head on my lap, went to sleep, and snored so loudly I had to turn up the volume contol. Bedtime came and I thought it best he sleep in the kitchen. His food and water bowls were there along with 2 very nice little dog beds. Tiled flooring was also there for an easy clean-up in case of accidents in the middle of the night. I retired to my bedroom which was adjacent to the kitchen.

Just as I was entering into a peaceful deep slumber, I heard him pacing across the kitchen floor and snorting up against the kitchen door. I thought to give him a few minutes to settle down and settle in. But, no, it went on and on. I got up, opened the kitchen door, and decided perhaps he would be happier and calmer having the entire house to amble around. But, no, this was not to be. He slowly and methodically tracked me down, made his careful way into my bedroom and stood by my bed snorting for all he was worth. It finally dawned on me he wanted in the bed with me. I was happy he felt comfortable enough and trusted me enough to share my bed. His loud snores kept me awake the first few nights of our life together and then they became my lullaby. The problem was the bed was an antique that sat high off the hardwood floor. If he were to fall off he could suffer a serious injury and I would suffer deep guilt for being a bad dog mom. But, he seemed to understand the perimeters of the mattress and he seemed to understand he was in an elevated position. He never fell off any bed in all the time I had him. He would get next to the edge and hang his head down and snort when he wanted off. The same behavior applied to sofas and chairs.

My duty was to carry him up and down outdoor steps and to and from the car. He went to work with me everyday. He did great in my office at the Humane Society and later at my office at Animal Health & Healing. He acclimated quickly to visiting my mom’s house as well friends’ homes. He always did best in clutter-free environments and adjusted even more quickly if other dogs were present. I believe he followed their lead and there was communication among them to help Stevie. We shared two homes together, two work places, and rode in many different types of vehicles in our time together. He always amazed me with how well he did. He was the most quiet, calm, gentle, and unassuming animal I’ve ever known. He eventually became deaf in his old age but we still communicated just fine and he had a good life full of love and devotion from his mom.

On Good Friday 2009 Stevie left this world for the next. I believe in Heaven. I believe I’ll hear his little snorts and huge snores again someday. Until then, I try to help people understand that dogs can still enjoy a good quality of life even if they have visual impairment or blindness. They adjust well since they rely on their sense of smell and hearing more than eyesight throughout theirs lives.

We can do our part by leaving lights on for the visually impaired and blocking stairs for those who can no longer safely navigate them. We can affix scent markers, such as Tracerz, to walls, flooring, and furniture to help pets find important locations. Putting bells on collars of other pets in the household can help alert the visually impaired pet as to their whereabouts. If your blind pet experiences anxiety, consider a pheromone collar or diffuser, Rescue Remedy Bach flowers, or a calming herbal formula. Most of all, love them dearly, have patience, and pay close attention. Trust the bond is strong enough to help you understand, meet, and exceed their everyday wants and needs. What started out , I thought, as a challenge became a Wonderful blessing in my life.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.