Sticking with Your Dog

Looking Past a Label
By Nick Trout, December 2010, Updated February 2015

The word “lemon” feels all wrong.

It might work for a car or some other inanimate object that comes with a warranty, but when applied to a cheerful and innocent puppy, it makes me wince. Yet, every week, another fourlegged heartbreaker hobbles or bunnyhops into my examination room and I’m forced to confront this distressing label.

It turns out that some 20 states have so-called “lemon laws” for purebreds — laws that give people the right to a refund, a replacement or some level of reimbursement for treatment of a puppy with a health problem — but in my experience, they’re moot. Whether the dog’s a purebred (who’s covered) or a mix (who’s not), the sentiment is pretty much universal: “It’s too late. She’s part of the family. There’s no way I’m giving up on her.”

I know Bronwyn and Keith — an attractive professional couple and the proud owners of a Mastiff mix they’d named Ben — would agree. And yes, realize I’ve used the word “owner,” which reflects convention, not my philosophy. To be honest, I rather like the approach one of my clients takes; she considers her Puggles to be her “roommates,” a label that nicely captures the canine spirit of independence and defines a relationship in which individuals enjoy sharing their lives and space for whatever time they have together.


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But I digress. On this, their first visit, it was just Bronwyn and Ben.

“Keith isn’t here,” said Bronwyn. “He just couldn’t come back to your waiting room … to relive the scene and the memories.”

Bronwyn explained that their first dog together had been Cole, a rescued five-year-old Mastiff/Shepherd mix. Within 36 hours, Cole had gone from a dog suffering from a simple bout of vomiting and diarrhea to one in fatal kidney failure secondary to leptospirosis. “Keith and Cole had an amazing connection. At the end, I had to physically pull Keith away from him — it was so hard for him to let go.”

It was eight months before they could consider getting another dog. This time, they turned to “Ben was six months old, in Vermont at a rescue facility. Keith picked him up — yes, I worried that Keith might be a soft touch, prone to falling for a big dog with a black mask and sad, expressive eyes, but it felt like the right time.”

“And when did you start to notice Ben’s ‘Marilyn Monroe’ wiggle?” I asked, referring to the movie Some Like It Hot and Ben’s fine impression of Monroe’s exaggerated hip sway as he walked away from me.

Bronwyn smiled. “At first, Ben seemed afraid and clumsy, a nervous scaredy-cat. He didn’t want to go up stairs or jump in the back of our truck. Keith and I have been online and there’s some frightening stuff out there about puppies and hips. I’m not sure how we’ll cope if we have to go from one heartbreak to another.”

I examined Ben, and he was everything he should be: clumsy and goofy and adorable. But when he walked, the balls of his bony hips jostled too far up and down in their shallow sockets. His hocks resembled a cow’s, his feet turned way out to the side and he threw most of his weight forward onto his front legs. I could feel some abnormal joint thickening around both of his knees, and he was slightly lame on his right front leg as well. Where to begin? So much could be going wrong, so many ways for Bronwyn and Keith to be overwhelmed.

I ordered X-rays, and they confirmed the hip dysplasia we both suspected. As we stood together in front of the blackand- white image, Bronwyn said, “Do I need to be emotionally prepared for how long I can have this love affair with my dog?”

Good question, I thought, but in this instance, it was an easy one to answer.

“No. No, you don’t,” I said. “Sure, Ben has some significant orthopedic problems, but nothing we can’t manage. And I’m not talking about some temporary or gratuitous fix just to keep him around. Right now, he’s happy, loves to play with other dogs and so what if he looks a little clumsy on his back end? If he gets sore, I can give you something to make him more comfortable, and if things change, we’ll rethink the plan.”

Bronwyn’s eyes filled with relief.

“So, you can fix our orthopedic lemon?” she said.

I shook my head. “Orthopedic challenge,” I corrected. As I led Bronwyn and Ben back to the reception area, Bronwyn thanked me and said, “Like I told Keith, what else are we going to do? We’re already in love!”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 61: Sept/Oct 2010

Nick Trout is a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.