"There's Something About Mary," Indeed
We noticed that our firstborn puppy was different the day she was whelped. Five puppies were black, with modest white highlights. Five puppies were brown, with similar markings. But though the first one out of the gate was mostly black, she had a white ruff that nearly encircled her neck. We called her the "attempted Landseer," and named her- temporarily, we thought- after my eldest aunt, the matriarch of the family.
Mary's head was narrow, with pinpoint eyes and a sharp, foxy muzzle, and she was by far the smallest of the nine surviving puppies. At every morning weigh-in, we'd watch the needle anxiously. How many grams has the little one gained? We gave her extra bottles and extra sessions with her mother, but she remained the runt of the litter.
Just minutes old, Mary takes her first meal
At least she seemed full of energy. When we let the gang out of the puppy room, Mary would run around the basement at warp speed, sometimes barking, sometimes whimpering; but always, always on the move.
When we began letting the puppies outdoors, eight of them would scramble down the walkway to frolic in the snowbanks, explore pathways, maybe chew on a bush. Mary would spend several minutes running frantically back and forth along the wall of the house. She'd eventually make her way to the open yard, but rarely to the spot where her brothers and sisters were playing.
For a while, her chief amusement was a game called "barking at the corner." She'd sit with her face in the southeast corner of the room, nose inches from the wall, and scold the paneling without letup. I have no idea what that spot on the wall did to offend her, but she was angry at it, for sure.
And one other thing... Mary never looked up. She'd swing her gaze to either side, she'd look down, but she'd never, ever look upwards. Not if you stood above her and called her name, not if you held a treat in front of her nose and gradually raised it past her plane of view. Not ever.
Were there problems with her eyesight? Her hearing? Was there a structural defect in her neck that prevented her from raising her head? Test after test left us all puzzled. Her eyes and ears worked, an x-ray showed her neck to be normal. Blood tests, cultures, urinalysis: they only deepened the mystery.
One thing that urinalysis did show: Mary was having kidney and bladder trouble. Though she showed no signs of discomfort, her urine contained large quantities of crystals called "struvites," showing evidence of bladder problems. Granular clumps of cast-off kidney cells were even more worrying; they hinted at a chronic malfunction in those vital organs. When the first two courses of antibiotics had little effect, we found ourselves FedExing a bottle of puppy pee halfway across the country to a university veterinarian with specialized expertise.
Seven weeks old
And the reasons for all her puzzling behavior? The most likely answer finally came from an ultrasound exam. Pushing the equipment to its limits, the radiologist finally got a glimpse inside Mary's skull. Pointing to dark blotches, he gave us the news: "That's fluid. I'd say I'm more than fifty percent sure that she's hydrocephalic."
That's not the sort of health bulletin you want to hear. Surf around the web and you'll quickly find passages like this:
Hydrocephaly results from an accumulation of fluid in the brain, and it causes the brain to degenerate. The afflicted dog often becomes disoriented or runs into objects while walking. Sadly, dogs with this condition don't usually live long. For those who survive, treatment often is ineffective. Hydrocephalic dogs often are euthanized.
Bummer, bummer, bummer.
Even before we got that bit of bad news, we'd realized that Mary was
not suitable for adoption. Whatever time she had, she'd be spending
it with us. Though we'd initially planned on keeping only Ernestine
for ourselves, what's four Newfs when you have three? Her "temporary"
puppy name became permanent.
Meanwhile, we consulted an army of veterinary specialists to see how we could provide her with the best life possible. These encounters were not always encouraging. One vet offered to operate and take an inside look at her urinary tract. "With all her other problems, if I find something wrong in there, we can just not let her wake up."
We said, "No thanks."
One snowy winter day, we drove four hours to visit a big-city neurologist. "I could operate on her, but it wouldn't do much good," he advised us, then casually added, "You know, you shouldn't feel obligated to keep every puppy alive."
It's not a matter of obligation, I thought; it's a matter of love.
All grown up, October 2006
Now here it is, four years since she showed up, and Mary's not doing too badly at all.
She's still a shrimp by Newfoundland standards, substantially smaller than her sister and her mother. But she more than holds her own in wrestling matches with the other dogs
I suppose some would say she's a bit funny-looking: her head seems small for her body- and as her coat grew in, the white ruff faded from view. I think she's cute, but I'm biased.
She's a slow learner, and she still makes more than her share of mistakes in the house. But modern carpet cleaners work very well.
Mary may never earn a "Versatile Newf" degree, but she has learned to walk on a leash. She likes to hold it in her mouth as she walks, and we're happy to let her. She knows that doing a "Sit" in her crate will cause the humans to bring out her dinner bowl.
With an adult body and the mental age of a young puppy, she's frisky and playful as she gambols in the yard. Swimming and fetching may be beyond her capability, but she's the tug-of-war champion of the family. "You want to play, Gramps? Let's get it on!"
Happily, the urinary problems are history. She does have occasional bad days marked by frenzied barking and circling, but they don't come that often, and we've found ways of calming her down. After trying several medications, we finally found that the best treatment was lots of tender loving care. Several minutes of cuddling with Grandpa works wonders, we found... for man and beast.
More than anything else, Mary is sweet.... everybody who meets her loves her. Kids take to her in particular; the youngsters who visit invariably run past Nelson, Abbie, and Ernestine to spend time with Mary.
Whatever happens in the future, we've had four good years with our special girl, and with a bit of luck, there will be more to come.
Mary's message, it's clear, is, "Don't be too discouraged when you get bad news."
And never, never, never give up easily.
After a swim, October 2007
For more about Mary, read: