Mary Dell Harrington, mother to two kids and two dogs, is co-author of Grown and Flown, where she writes about parenting kids between the ages of 15 and 25. She is also a certified pet therapist in the New York City-metro area with her dog, Moose. Find her on Twitter, Facebookor Pinterest.
My husband and I welcomed Choco, our first dog, 18 months before we had our son. Next in line was our little girl, who was the baby in the family for only a year before we added a new puppy, Argus. Our family expanded from two to six in as many years, and we were thrilled!
Both of our kids grew up with canine companions who enriched their young lives every day. To observe them romp around the backyard, with their two big brown dogs following close behind, was to watch happy childhood memories in the making. But, in addition to being our children’s playmates, Choco and Argus added other dimensions to their lives by simply doing what dogs do.
During the years that Choco and Argus were part of our family, they offered gifts to each of us with every tail wag and snuggle. As the dogs aged and became somewhat frail, they gave both kids additional lessons on how to be a caregiver.
At 14, Choco’s legs were weak and it was difficult for him to stand and eat. Our daughter sat patiently by his side feeding him kibble mixed with cottage cheese. He took small bites off the spoon she held out to him, chewing slowly, his eyes looking up into hers.
Years later, our son came home from freshman year in college for spring break and learned that Argus, at 13, had developed a serious breathing condition. He stayed behind from our family vacation to watch over his pup, sleeping on the couch near Argus’ bed, ready to attend to his needs.
The dogs were gentle and affectionate companions to our kids up to the very end. Along with sweet memories, what endures for our children are our family values including compassionate behavior to animals and to other people. As parents, we are responsible for teaching our children what we believe by our actions and through our words. But having these two dogs during the formative years of our children’s lives gave them daily practice in a virtue that we hold dear.
This St. Patrick’s Day, my daughter found a way to include our dog, Mr. Happy, in the celebrations. This idea sprouted from a recent morning when my daughter noticed that we were giving Mr. Happy medication to help with his separation anxiety. She asked if he was sick, so I explained how upset Mr. Happy gets when we leave, and that his doctor gave him medicine to feel better.
My household doesn’t miss a holiday, and St. Patrick’s Day is no exception. This year, in addition to making healthy green smoothies and green pancakes, crafting a homemade “leprechaun trap” out of a tissue box and dressing for the occasion, we decided to celebrate Mr. Happy.
After having our chat about Mr. Happy’s story last week, I noticed that my daughter had provided him with extra love and attention. On Saturday, after a day full of errands, she requested to go to the store to see the “birds, snakes, fish, and cats” to get “something special” for Mr. Happy and for our bird, Diva. I knew exactly where she wanted to go: the pet store. My daughter also wanted to know the name and story of each dog and cat up for adoption at the store that day.
Following our tour to see the adoptable animals, she asked if she could choose special treats for our pets. I was hoping for a quick and easy adventure, but she carefully sorted through toys to find the perfect green stuffed item for our dog and examined each shelf for the perfect food treats for Mr. Happy and Diva. I expected the stuffed toy to quickly enter my daughter’s overflowing collection of stuffed toys, but to my surprise, she proceeded to give Mr. Happy the green toy. She wanted him to feel special and loved, and in her own way, show him that we are lucky to have him in our home. This is a new St. Patrick’s Day tradition that no pin on Pinterest can capture, but is one that we will repeat next year.
About a week ago, our oldest cat, Lily, stopped eating. She began vomiting a bit and quickly appeared dehydrated. She had become very skinny over the past few months, but I chalked that up to age because she was still so friendly, happy and lively. However, one day she was rubbing up on the kitchen chair and spending time with the kids and just a few days later, she was vomiting and parched. I took her to our veterinarian, Dr. Jeff Beverly, on Wednesday.
Initial blood work ruled out a few suspected diseases, like thyroid issues and kidney failure. She was given fluids for dehydration and an ultrasound was scheduled for Monday morning. But on Friday night, she was listless and vomiting again. Dr. Beverly said to bring her in at any time if her condition became any worse, and I did so the next morning. He agreed that she should be hospitalized because she needed IV fluids and had a heart murmur, but since their practice was closed on Sundays, he quickly set us up with an emergency care hospital where they could perform an immediate ultrasound. In less than an hour, Lily was being triaged at the 24-hour facility.
A nice vet that I had never met before quickly proceeded to give Lily an exam and an ultrasound, and then informed us that Lily has intestinal cancer. There was a large tumor in her intestine, which is why she could not keep anything down. Then she said we could put her down that day. When I heard, I was overwhelmed. My brain was spinning and as the vet calmly and sympathetically explained why Lily was not going to recover from this, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it all.
My oldest daughter, Amanda, was with me, and she asked if we could talk to Dr. Beverly before we made any decisions. Just a few minutes later, she came back in the room and said he was coming right over. I asked him so many questions, but they all really boiled down to, “What we should do?” I didn’t want Lily to suffer, but I didn’t want to lose her, either. He said that we could take her home and bring her back at a later time, but I took one look at beautiful Lily and, noting her lethargic look and her obvious dehydration, I knew we had to let her go.
I have said before that Dr. Beverly is outstanding, but he was even beyond that on Saturday. His medical expertise and compassionate, thoughtful words helped us make the decision. My daughter was my rock. We cuddled and talked to Lily for hours that day, and then a little while after we made the decision, we kissed her sweet head and said goodbye.
Even though I know it was the right thing to do, we are all still so very sad. We miss petting her, feeding her and even talking to her. I greet our pets every morning, and it feels strange to leave out Lily’s name. But I also feel slightly relieved because I don’t see her looking incredibly lethargic or trying to get her to eat when it was the last thing she wanted to do. I want to remember her as a healthy, bright-eyed, loving, happy cat. The photo above really shows the true Lily, and that’s the way I’d like to remember her. It is never easy to say goodbye to a beloved pet but hopefully the memories of the good years outweigh the suffering at the end. Lily had a wonderful and happy life and that’s what I try to keep reminding myself every time I miss her. A condolence card from our vet summed it up so well: “Some friends come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave paw prints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same.” We’ll always have Lily’s paw print and we are definitely better for it.
Here at the ASPCA, we believe that spay and neuter procedures should be a priority for pet parents. In honor of World Spay Day, which takes place every year on the last Tuesday of February, we’re taking a moment to focus on this important area of our work. And, while it may be a bit challenging to do so, it’s a good idea to introduce the concept of spay/neuter to your kids as they learn to become responsible animal caretakers.
Here are a few ideas from our Spay/Neuter Operations team for starting the conversation:
• Use a script. It can be hard to find the right words to discuss spay/neuter with young children. Try saying, “Spaying and neutering are surgeries (or operations) performed on dogs and cats so that they can’t make more puppies and kittens. This is really important because there are so many animals who live outdoors without homes and owners. There are also many more animals living in animal shelters who are waiting to find families to take them home. It is important to help reduce the amount of dogs and cats without homes in our neighborhoods because sometimes the animals outnumber the people who are able to care for them.”
• Keep it age-appropriate. Depending on your child’s age, you may or may not want to go into too much detail. If your kids are older, you could consider mentioning that during a spay/neuter surgery, the animal’s reproductive organs are removed so that they can’t mate and produce more puppies or kittens.
• Paint a picture. Either literally or figuratively, it helps to illustrate how quickly animal populations can expand without spay/neuter procedures. One way to do this is to explain that one pregnant cat can have up to six to eight kittens in her uterus (or belly) at one time. When those kittens reach puberty, they too can produce litters of kittens. What starts as one cat can exponentially lead to hundreds of cats and kittens out in the street or placed in the shelter looking for homes. Spaying and neutering our pets is essential to breaking this unfortunate cycle.
Does your pet support spay/neuter? Post a photo of yourself (or your pet!) on your social media networks with a sign that reads “I’m Into S&N” and use the hashtag #ImIntoSN. Then, sign our spay/neuter pledge and you could win an ASPCA prize pack.
James Mikel Wilson resides in Houston, Texas with his wife, Kathy. His son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren live in Manhattan, for whom his book, “Paw Tracks Here and Abroad,” was written. Jim's wisdom and insights were gained over the 65 years during which he owned six dogs. He wrote “Paw Tracks” about his family’s many adventures with their dog, Snickers. His family’s dogs and the many others he knew through his friends enabled him to write this story with sensitivity, humor, and appreciation for the unique role canine companions play in the lives of humans. We spoke to Jim about “Paw Tracks” and his love for animals.
Why did you decide to write Paw Tracks?
My career necessitated many family moves. When Snickers, the heroine of the story, reached twenty years old, the thought occurred that I could write a diary about our joint adventures.
I hoped that the diary might serve two purposes—to provide a family memory book of raising our son in a variety of geographic locations and to give our grandchildren a window into the past to know and see their father and grandparents differently.
Family and friends convinced me to transform the diary into a book. That shift of focus created an opportunity to address the joys of adopting pets, moving with them, wondering at their adaptability, and creating a teaching moment on living with geriatric animals.
What do you hope parents and children learn from Snickers’ story?
I hope the book facilitates discussions about the joys of adopting a pet, the responsibilities of caring for a pet, the many ways in which we learn from animals, and how these relationships touch our human experiences and emotions. I wanted to convey these topics in a manner that pet lovers of any age could relate to and enjoy.
My editor Meghan challenged me to find Snickers’ point of view. What did Snickers want us to know, and what was she thinking and feeling? And, Tod, my illustrator, captured her big heart and equally big personality through his wonderful drawings.
What do you believe made Snickers so special?
First, her age! She lived to be almost 22. She took advantage of her time to the fullest. There are many sides to Snickers’ personality that endeared her to us: survivor, comedian, clown, watchdog, show dog, tramp, explorer, diplomat, cuddler, friend, eager pupil and teacher.
In your book, Snickers has quite the adventure. Please tell us a little about life and travels with your family and Snickers.
Snickers did not like to be contained. After leaving a past life of abuse, she had temporary diversions including escaping a travel crate in JFK Airport, digging out from her kennel in Switzerland to join the St. Bernard in an adjacent pen, and wandering briefly into the lives of an Irish couple while we were on home leave. But, she never really intended to leave—only to seek new adventures.
This story offers considerations for families traveling or moving with pets. I wanted readers to hear through Snickers’ voice that, yes, we leave things near and dear to us behind when we move, but the opportunities open new doors to rewarding and, sometimes, life-changing events of which we had never dreamed.
Why did you approach the ASPCA to help share Snickers’ story?
My wife and I both felt that the underlying themes in Paw Tracks—promoting adoption, preventing animal cruelty, and offering a variety of educational materials on pet selection and care—paralleled the ASPCA’s mission. We have always been aware of the outstanding work the ASPCA has done for so long. We were, and are, right on the same wavelength!