By Dr. Mary Fuller l vetstreet.com
Juno the summer she dipped her paws in three of the Great Lakes.I didn't meet Frances and her dog, Juno, in an exam room. It was on the shores of a city lake, where she cradled her Border Collie on a park bench.
Something about the way Frances held her dog wasn't right. When I asked if her dog was tired, she shook her head, and I could see the tears pool in her eyes. "Juno is 14," Frances whispered, "and I think she had a stroke last night because she can't stand. I have an appointment to put her down in 15 minutes, but I wanted her to see her favorite place one last time."
The tears came hot to my eyes, too. I explained that I was a veterinarian and asked if I could take a closer look at Juno. If there was any comfort I could offer Frances, then I had to try.
Juno struggled to stand and then collapsed on the ground. With a closer look, I realized she had all the telltale signs of Old Dog Vestibular Disease: the head tilt; the dizzying loss of balance; the rapid, uncontrolled eye movement from side to side.
With this condition, an older dog can seem perfectly normal one night but lose all sense of coordination by morning. While the signs can mirror the devastating effects of a human stroke, the cause of the disease remains unknown. But with care, most dogs recover some, if not all, of their function in a few days.
I rubbed Juno's head and said, "I don't think you'll need to say goodbye today. Keep your veterinary appointment to make sure there's not something else going on, but I'll bet she's feeling better in a few days." I wished Frances and Juno well and went on my way.
A few days later, a neighborhood dog walker called to say that I needed to visit the lake and look for a sign. He wouldn't explain but just repeated that I needed to go look.
Frances spends time in the great outdoors with her dogs, Fina (left) and Juno.At the lake, near the park bench, I found a sheet of paper taped to a wooden post. It was from Frances. It explained what happened the day we met and said that her veterinarian had confirmed the diagnosis. She wanted me to know that Juno was getting better every day. Frances had included her email address and a beautiful color photo of Juno. There I was, crying again.
Two weeks later, I got out of bed to find Lily, my 14-year-old Shiba Inu, on the floor, unable to stand, head tilted to one side with one crazy eye focused on the floor. All my clear-headed veterinary training disintegrated, and I assumed the worst: a brain tumor, which meant I would have to let her go.
As it turns out, though her signs were a little unconventional, she had Old Dog Vestibular Disease, too. And like Juno, she recovered little by little over the course of a few days.
See Also: The Right Time to Say Goodbye to a Pet
Frances and I met a few times to compare notes on our dogs. We agreed that neither of us was prepared to say goodbye when our dogs first showed signs of what we thought was a life-threatening condition. It was out of compassion on their part, we thought, that they gave us a practice run for when their time eventually came.
For Lily, that time was about a year later. Juno kept making friends at the lake for a few months after that. Both Frances and I were grateful for the gift of an extra year to hold our dogs close, and for the time to gather the grace to let go, even if it was just the tiniest bit at a time.