I went to visit Gothic Eleanor of Aquitaine today. Ellie is an eight-year old English Mastiff with a significant underbite and a tongue too long for her mouth. With a golden coat and a huge body and head, she always reminds me of a lioness, hips and tail swaying freely, hand-sized paws shuffling across the floor. She’s normally a goofy, happy girl with copious amounts of slobber ready for smearing on unsuspecting visitors.
But today, Ellie isn’t doing well. She’s limping badly on her right rear leg. Her eyes are sunken deep into her furrowed brow, dark, so dark, with little spark. Is the limp indicative of Valley Fever or an osteosarcoma on her tibia? Films and blood work can’t decisively confirm or dismiss either. All we know is that she’s not well and she’s not eating. When a 140+ pound dog won’t eat, you try anything. Including SPAM.
Felice, Ellie’s mom and a good friend, asked me to give Ellie a massage or to just come and hold her for awhile. I was ready to do both. When we scheduled the appointment, I mentioned SPAM as a food source for her now very picky eater, she was surprised. As a one-time caterer and long-time foodie, Felice didn’t have SPAM on her radar. She was more focused on bison, buffalo, salmon, organ meats and turkey thighs. After a funny laugh on the phone, she agreed to pick some up at the store.
When I arrived today, Ellie was just getting her 4:00 tramadol in a strip of Velveeta soaked in bacon grease. Felice was pulling out all the stops now, pancreatitis be damned! It worked and Ellie took the pills.
Ellie remained reclined in her cushion the size of a twin bed, but wagged and brightened noticeably. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months, but she recognized me immediately, for which I was thankful. We all relocated to a second twin bed cushion on the floor in the living room, she got comfortable and I started the massage.
She seemed to appreciate my soft touch and gentle kneading of her stiff back muscles. The illness has taken its toll on her coat. Once strong and coarse, it has been depleted—dry, broken and fragile. Fur was flying everywhere and leaving her body in fistfuls. Running my hands down her long back, I just left handfuls of whitish gold fur at the base of her tail, tufts flying through the room as the fan oscillated back toward us.
During parts of the massage, Ellie leaned back and rested her head on my lap, letting that long tongue drip from her mouth. Many times, only the last rounded inch of her tongue peeked from between her teeth, hanging dry and cracked from the desert air. She would bend her head backward, look at me, pull that tongue back in and then reposition her head. Her eyes were still dull and tired.
When Ellie told me she’d had enough, Felice announced that because I thought SPAM was a good idea, I should try to feed it to her. Ok, I can do that, but I’d like a Wet-Nap to go with it, please. In this case, it was a wet dish towel for both of us for when this got messy. And it got messy.
Have you ever fed a Mastiff? Have you ever been at face level when the slobber production hit capacity? It’s not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But I didn’t care. I grew up with a St. Bernard, so I know about slobber.
We started with the SPAM. Ellie had refused homemade turkey stew with carrots and red potatoes earlier in the day, so Felice wasn’t hopeful that this would go down either. I took a few chunks in my hand and squeezed them until SPAM juice ran through my fingers and most of the pieces were reduced to mush. She examined them closely, then the tongue flicked out from between those teeth. One lick. Not too bad. Let’s try more of that. I fed her piece by piece, letting her lick my hand then quickly going back for more, not wanting to slow the momentum.
Encouraged, Felice moved quickly to the kitchen and came back with a bowl of yogurt, turkey stew and more SPAM. I slowly introduced a new menu item every few bites, describing its flavor with increasing enthusiasm. Ellie took each bite purposefully, occasionally rejecting turkey or half-heartedly trying a potato. I reached my fingers into the yogurt bowl and came out with a large dollop. I lifted it to her lips and after repositioning my hand with her tongue, she lapped the yogurt lazily.
As I sat on the floor in a growing pile of slobber, half-chewed SPAM bits, mashed carrots, smeared potatoes and yogurt puddles, she started to brighten. The food was lifting her spirits and, for the first time, she smiled and a light came back to her eyes. Felice thanked me. This is the worst part, she said, trying to get her to eat, knowing how important the nourishment is to her recovery, if there is to be one.
After she’d had her fill—a shockingly small amount for such a large dog—and Felice had cleaned up both of us, Ellie sat contentedly on her bed. Occasionally, she’d lift her paw onto my arm or into my hand. I can remember my grandmother doing the same thing when I’d go to visit her. As if by touching my arm or holding my hand, she could convince herself that I was really there. Or perhaps she wanted me to feel her love.
That’s what I got from Ellie. This wasn’t an insistent, “Pay attention to me” paw slap. This was a “Thank you for stopping by to see me and share a meal with me. It means a lot” kind of affectionate touch. We sat paw-in-hand for many minutes at a time. Her paw, nearly the size of my hand, occasionally gently squeezed my palm to remind me she was still there and still enjoying my company.
After about half an hour of sitting quietly with Ellie, Felice asked if I was ready for her to release Ellie’s baby sister, Daisy. Of course I was. Daisy, all 165 pounds of her, trotted into the room and barreled slowly into my chest, nearly knocking me backward. After she helped clean up any remaining scraps from Ellie’s feast, she settled down beside Ellie and me. A typical little sister, she wanted to be in the middle of any petting. She maneuvered herself up onto my lap, leaning across Ellie and on HER front legs as well. Satisfied that she wasn’t going to miss anything, Daisy put her head down on our laps, contented.
We stayed that way for another hour or so while Felice and I talked about other food options and how to keep Ellie’s appetite momentum going. I was covered in fur, caked with slobber, and marinating in bacon grease, SPAM and turkey stew. And none of that mattered. I felt loved and appreciated under that 300-pound pile of Mastiff bodies. Ellie had eaten more than she had in five days. Her smile was proof enough that I’d made a difference today.
My joy with the SPAM experience was short lived. Ellie is rejecting SPAM and the turkey stew but still eating the yogurt. As I experienced with Kallie, our senior Calico cat, foods that work once rarely work twice. Many medications have negative implications for the gut, including pain relievers and anti-fungals which Ellie is taking. If an animal eats something that she thinks is good but ends up with stomach discomfort soon after, she won’t eat it again. That’s just good survival instincts — but it makes feeding a sick dog or cat challenging. Kathy and I went through 40-50 different kinds of cat food and human food before we lost Kallie. Felice is going to need all her catering experience to keep up with Ellie’s changing tastes.
If you’ve faced a similar situation, we’d love to hear how you handled it. What worked for your dog or cat?
Update, August 2, 2012: Elli crossed the bridge today. She’s running hard and fast. Godspeed, Ellie. You will be missed.