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I’ve been crying a lot recently, and kicking myself, and cursing and drinking, only to wake up and start it all over again. But today, I woke up and decided enough was enough and I was going to stop crying and put on my big girl panties and go to work and come home and cook dinner (without wine or beer) and play with my dogs and stop sulking. That was going really well until about noon thirty when I went to lunch and decided to do some more research and started to feel myself breaking down again.

Why all this misery and self-loathing you ask? Well, on Thursday, we took Panzer to the vet. He has been experiencing increasing degrees of ataxia (falling over, trembling limbs, loss of coordination, ataxia is its own problem but can also be a symptom of something deeper). He’s also whining more often, for what seems like no reason. He’ll be lying on the floor, for example, and whine at us. He is falling down and having a harder time getting up, his front feet knuckle over and stay that way for extended periods of time, every time we try to put his leash on him to take him outside he pees on the floor. When he falls down, he sometimes cries out in pain and pees on himself. He is yelping after only a few short minutes of vigorous exercise, and he’s becoming increasingly despondent, choosing to lie upstairs by himself over lying with us, which he never would have chosen before.

Panzer has always walked funny and limped after semi-intense exercise. He’s always been pretty uncoordinated and run into things on occasion. But recently we’re seeing these things creep in more and more. At first it was just a funny face plant in the snow. Then it was him tripping over the blankets in the bed. Next it was going ass over teakettle while pursuing Shelby through the mud. Finally, it was falling down the steps and hitting the wall. That was when I knew we had a problem that most likely went a little beyond “klutz” and called the vet to get him an appointment the next day.

As it turns out, our vet believes that Panzer has a neurological problem. What that means, well, we don’t know, enter the crying. The vet listed possibilities: meningitis, diabetes, acute organ disease/failure, disc problems, pinched nerve, scar tissue expanding or pushing on his spine, cancer. Never before did I imagine I would be in a position where I would be hoping my dog had diabetes, but that one sounds the most pleasant and the easiest to treat.

While we sat in the vet, stroking our dog and wandering what we were doing here, dollar signs flashed in my mind. Neurology consultation – $200 – $400. Average cost of an MRI – $1,500 to $2,500. Surgery – $3,000 – $5,000. Post operative recovery – more money, more surgeries, more treatment. Chance of recovery – unknown. Amount of pain – lots. Amount of stress for a dog that can’t even be in the same room with a stranger for longer than 15 minutes without reacting – even more. Time gained – who knows. Quality of life – debatable.

This is the third time in less than 18 months that we’ve been in this position. You’d think I would be better equipped to deal with it by now. I should really post on my refrigerator a list that looks like this:

When you Find out Your Dog is Probably Dying:

1. Don’t immediately go onto Pet MD, seriously

2. You want to tell people about it, don’t, really, just don’t

3. Stop crying and ignoring Joe and the dogs, you’re not the only one who is stressed out

4. Put the booze down, it’s not helping anything

5. If you have broken rule number 2 (probably while pursuing breaking rule number 4), listen to yourself first, no one knows your dog like you do, not even people who know him

6. When Carolyn asks you if you want to go herd – get up off the couch, turn on the lights, take a shower (you’re disgusting), get Shelby and go herd, it will make you feel immensely better than sitting alone in the dark, crying and drinking

7. Stop being overdramatic, you don’t know if your dog is probably dying yet or not

Boy do I wish I had a list like this in October of 2011 when Dusty died or in August of 2012 when Smokey died 9 months to the day after Dusty or back on Thursday when I found out the news about Panzer. But I have one now. And I intend to stick with it to the extent I haven’t already broken every single rule on that list (to my credit, I did actually go herd with Shelby on Saturday and it did make me feel better even though she absolutely sucked at practice because she took the winter off, she went into heat later that night and she’s dealing with the stress of two crazed humans and a sick best friend).

Honestly, as much as I am interested in what others have gone through and as much as Pet MD does help me to make the right decisions and know what questions to ask my vet, sometimes those opinions get in the way of me just really evaluating the situation with my own brain, pulling on my own experiences and my personal reality. And that personal reality is that Panzer is in pain, and we are not rich people, far from it. We don’t even have cable because it’s just another bill we really can’t afford. We give our dogs the best that we can, I spend more money on them than I do on myself, they eat the highest quality dog food you can buy (I’m considering going raw), they have expensive trainers to help with their behavioral problems, they have all the toys they could want, they are never, ever denied routine and emergency veterinary care but when it comes to this, money is a factor. It’s not the only factor, but it’s one, and it’s an important one at that. If I didn’t have health insurance I wouldn’t be able to afford some of these things for myself (nor would I necessarily want to go through them, especially if I had no concept of what was going on) – MRIs, CT Scans, spinal taps, blood panels, XRays, surgeries.

Does that make us bad dog owners, because we don’t have an extra $5-10k sitting in the bank patiently waiting for the day that our dog may need a crazy ridiculous surgery? Does it make us bad dog owners to say we can’t max out credit cards and accumulate debt that we can’t repay for something that may not even improve Panzer’s quality of life, that may, in fact, help him live longer but make him more miserable? Or not even that?

If that’s what it says, then so be it. Really, I’m at the point where I can’t even imagine having another dog, at least not for a while, a considerable while, so at least those who think we’re bad dog owners don’t have to worry about us taking in a rescue who was huddled in the cold, found on the street starved and abused, and giving him a better life up until a point where we say no more.

Woah, there I am, getting overdramatic again. That’s not to say that we won’t pursue Panzer’s treatment as aggressively as we can with what funds we have or can drum up. When Smokey got sick we had a yard sale to sell as much stuff as we could (including some stuff we didn’t want to sell) to raise as much money as we could for his treatment. We will do nothing less for Panzer. I’m already looking into acupuncture and hydrotherapy; we have the neurologist appointment already lined up. Mainly, we have a game plan. But the game plan ends at this: When his quality of life deteriorates so far that he can’t chase his ball anymore, we have hit the end of the road. Panzer is a simple soul, and his happiness is directly correlated to something very tangible – a ball. When he can’t chase his ball anymore or he doesn’t want to, we will know it is time to send him off to the Rainbow Bridge where he can chase as many balls as he wants, all day and all night, without sickness or pain or sadness, and one day, we can only hope he’ll greet us there, ball in mouth, ready for another game with his family. After three dogs in eighteen months, maybe that’s the only thing I’ve learned that really matters – chase the ball until you can’t anymore and then smile and say goodnight.