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Lately—because it’s a new year—I’ve been considering canceling my health insurance. I know it sounds crazy, but I never—and I mean never— go to the doctor, at least not allopathic doctors. Whenever I have some ailment I’ll visit an acupuncturist or a homeopathic practitioner or the like, and those visits often cost less than the co-pay for a Western doctor. Plus, there’s the fact that most doctors’ offices these days seem to run like factories, with new patients scheduled every 15 minutes; you barely have time to tell your doctor what your symptoms are before the doctor has to leave the room to tend to someone else. My dog Chloe gets better medical care.
Speaking of which …
Chloe, a sweet-faced Spaniel mix, doesn’t look like a troublemaker or act like a troublemaker: she is well-behaved, well-trained and always remains within sight when I let her off-leash. But in the eight short years I’ve had her, she has troubled my bank account a bit, managing—through various small mishaps—to rack up several thousand dollars in veterinary bills. I’m not complaining; she’s worth every penny. Just don’t ask me about the time she ate a river rock and had to have emergency surgery. That procedure cost more than three months’ rent. Still—my dog is priceless.
A few years ago, Chloe and I had to make a special trip to the vet because she somehow managed to get a marrow bone lodged around her lower jaw. Yes, one could say it was my fault for letting her have such a small marrow bone in the first place. (I honestly didn’t know then that size mattered.) And yes, one could also say her torn ACL in 2009 ($3,300) was my fault, for letting her off-leash to chase rabbits (but I—a city person—didn’t know there were rabbits hidden in the brush so late in the season). And let us not forget the lacerated paw pads of 2008 from running through tide pools ($376); the epic river rock adventure of 2007 (swallowed for free, surgically removed for several thousand dollars); or even the strained shoulder, which wasn’t anyone’s fault—her boyfriend Rainbow, an exuberant English Setter whom we love, plowed into her on the play field (not that we blame him for wanting to play).
Anyway, any of these could be seen as my “fault” because I allow my dog to run in the woods, and play, and leap over fallen logs, and plow through bramble bushes, and swim in the river. And it’s not as though I ever let Chloe run around unsupervised. She, for one, never lets me out of her sight, so lack of supervision is not possible for either of us.
But off-leash recreation is obviously a larger topic. Should you keep your dog confined and/or leashed, keeping him/her safe but undoubtedly frustrated and bored? Which can then lead to destructive behavior such as chewing and incessant barking and a genuinely unhappy dog? (New sofa: $1,499; replacement for chewed-up dog crate: $189 plus s/h; irate neighbor: how does one set a price on that?) Or should you let your dog off-leash for quality playtime, stimulation and exercise? (Thus, some would argue, putting the dog at risk for injury.)
I have obviously chosen the latter approach. But does this make me, as a dog guardian, bad to the bone? Let’s get back to the bone.
Who knew marrow bones could be dangerous? And what dog doesn’t love a good marrow bone? Especially on a blustery winter day, when the winds are gusting at 60 mph and the freezing rain sounds like machine gun fire against the windows, and there is nothing to do but remain inside and stare at the hideously wallpapered walls of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., high-rise where we were staying to escape the chilly weather of New York. What dog doesn’t particularly love a bone when she has been condemned to strictly limited exercise, meaning three short pee-walks per day, because of a fairly recent rabbit-chasing incident that resulted in a re-strained ACL and two $250 trips to the vet? Chloe loves her marrow bones, and I love watching her enjoy them. Plus, it kept her occupied while I applied acupressure to her knee points. I was only doing what I thought was right.
That night, however, while I was in the kitchen making ginger tea, I heard a yelp and a helpless little whine, and rushed into the living room to see what was wrong. There, I found Chloe with the bone-ring lodged around her lower jaw. I have to admit that it was hard not to laugh—she had stopped whining and was looking at me with a completely perplexed expression on her face, the bone shaping her mouth into a goofy smile. And don’t be mad at me for laughing because everyone who has experienced this tells me they laugh, too. They take pictures. And videos. And post them online. Google it and you’ll see.
I did not take photos, however. Instead, I knelt before the dog, stroked her head and told her I would help her get the bone off. But said bone was wedged behind her canine teeth, and I could see no way to slip it back over those teeth and off her jaw. In fact, it looked as though I would have to wedge it off—no benign slipping allowed. I realized that this is why Chloe had yelped: one hard crunch had forced the bone behind her teeth.
Poor baby. As I inspected her mouth and turned her jaw this way and that, my good girl kept her head still and wagged her tail. She even tried to kiss me, but her tongue was, um, obstructed by a marrow bone.
I’m not a handy person, nor skilled at geometrical problem solving. I have difficulty with spatial thinking, too. But still, I kept analyzing the bone and its position in relation to the jaw, to see if there was any possible way it would slip off. To the best of my limited knowledge, it looked as though Chloe’s teeth were one-quarter of an inch too long to make this possible. Plus, the bone seemed to fit perfectly around her jaw— hugging the contours as though it had been custom made. There was no way I could get the bone off without causing my dog pain. And there was no way I would do that.
I went online, where I found all those pictures of all those other silly dogs with bones ringed around their lower jaws. I tried not to giggle at their goofy faces. As I read on, I realized that each of these dogs, in the end, had to be taken to the vet. I couldn’t find any solutions to the problem. Just comic descriptions of the episodes, concluding with those trips to the vet, where the marrow bones were either sawed (eek!), cut (ouch) or drilled (you must be kidding) off.
And here we arrive at another loaded subject: veterinary costs. How many of you hesitate, just for a second, when faced with a costly late-night trip to the emergency vet when you could wait until morning? Especially in a non-emergency, which you could quite possibly resolve yourself? This is what I faced that night.
It was stormy outside. The roads were icy. I was also in an unfamiliar city. I did not know any local vets on Myrtle Beach. Then there was the fact that, at that point in my life, I was financially strapped. I am a writer, after all, which means that there are many stretches of time during which I don’t get paid, and if you’re a slow writer like me, those stretches of time can get really stretched out. There was a time when I couldn’t even afford pet insurance, because my savings account kept getting drained by Chloe’s veterinary bills. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that, I am happy to say, I no longer have to play. We are all insured.
Even in those toughest times, Chloe always came first. Some people thought it was crazy that I would, for example, delay my own trips to the dentist so that Chloe could get her horribly chipped incisor repaired. I know that dog people always understand. Love is the reason. When I first adopted Chloe, and rescued her from a life of neglect, abuse and abandonment, I made a vow—an oath. I vowed to always take care of her. To keep her safe and warm and healthy and fed and happy. No matter the cost.
So back to the bone. I spent another 20 minutes trying to calculate—geometrically—if/how I could wedge it off my patient, now-drooling dog. I tried to lubricate it with extra-virgin olive oil. Nope. I tried arnica gel. Nope. Petroleum jelly (which can’t have tasted good). Still, the bone wouldn’t budge. Chloe wagged away, seeming to enjoy the attention. I looked out the window to see if the storm had cleared. Nope. Back to the olive oil.
Finally, poor Chloe had had enough, and she crawled off into the closet to avoid me, her tail between her legs. At that point, I decided to call the nearest vet I could find online. When I told the receptionist that my dog had a marrowbone ring around her lower jaw, and that I needed to find someone who could cut the bone off, the receptionist replied, “You mean you want us to cut off your dog’s jaw? Hold on while I ask the vet if he can do that.”
I didn’t hold. The next vet I called was able to comprehend that I needed to have a marrow bone removed from my dog’s jaw—that I did not need to have the jaw itself removed—so we made an appointment and I was there within an hour.
The first thing I heard as I entered the waiting room was the terrible, piercing howl of a dog in pain, but let us not talk about that, or about the fact that I overheard that the dog’s owner was currently in jail or that the poor sweet man taking care of the dog in the interim could not afford to get the dog’s nails clipped, which was why the dog was now suffering from embedded toenails. My heart ached for all of them.
Chloe, meanwhile, happily greeted the man and the receptionist—wagging her tail rapidly at first, then more slowly as she began to comprehend that she would be going to that same back room.
When I sat down to wait for a consultation, the nice man with the dog in pain whispered to me, “Gotta be careful, ma’am. They-uz here’ll try to jack up your bill here with things y’all don’t need. Ask for an estimate ’fore you let ’em do anything.”
“Thanks,” I whispered back, grateful for the tip.
“That’s a good-looking dog you got there,” he said. “’Cept for that there bone ’round her mouth.”
We laughed despite ourselves, and Chloe wagged her tail.
Soon, I was called into a consultation room, where a young vet, seemingly nervous, inspected Chloe quickly—looking rather than touching—as though afraid she might bite. Now, by that point, I already considered myself an expert on marrowbone removal, given that I had spent 40 minutes on the Internet reading about it. (Don’t we all consider ourselves medical experts now that we have the Internet?) Thus, I listened with skepticism as the vet recommended a complicated series of painkillers, penicillin, antibiotics and some other pills I’d never heard of but that sounded unnecessary.
“All this to clip a bone off?” I said.
“She’ll need to be anesthetized, too.”
Now, I’m not a fan of anesthesia personally, nor am I a fan of anesthesia for my dog (let alone the bills). The first time Chloe was anesthetized (see the aforementioned River Rock Incident) I swear her personality changed. But that also is another story to add to the list of other stories. “I’d prefer not to do that,” I said. Plus, instinct told me this would not be necessary. Nor would the antibiotics or painkillers.
Following my instincts (and the man in the waiting room’s advice to be prepared for overcharges), I pared the bill down to two things: office visit and removal of foreign object.
“You sure?” the vet said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay, then.” The vet said he’d take Chloe to the back room and that I could wait where I was.
But I insisted that I be allowed to remain in the room during the procedure. I am a New Yorker, after all, and we must uphold our reputation of being pushy, obnoxious Yankees. “I want to be with her,” I said. “I’m going to apply acupressure to one of her calming points so that she’ll stay still.”
“Acu- what?” the vet said.
“Acupressure. It’s a form of Chinese medicine in which you stimulate certain meridian points to relax your dog in stressful situations.” I did my best to explain what this was. Acupressure is the practice of applying light pressure with the fingertips to specific meridian points in the body with the aim of sending healing energy (or chi) to those parts of the body. “My vet at home practices acupressure,” I told him. “And homeopathy.”
Homeopathy is hard to explain. So I just said it was another form of alternative holistic medicine.
A vet tech came and led us into a treatment room. The vet went off to prepare. In the meantime, I started to think about his recommendation for a painkiller. Even though I sensed Chloe would not need it, I began to second-guess myself. Did people with unwanted wedding rings stuck on their fingers get painkillers when it came time to clip the rings off? (Or was the divorce painful enough?) And what about that poor dog I’d heard howling when I first walked in? Had that been a sign?
I put my hands on Chloe and began applying pressure to her various calming points. Beneath my fingertips, I could feel her warm pulse, and within minutes, she was relaxed, mellow and trusting.
I had expected the vet to return equipped with saws, drills, rubber gloves and a headlamp, the way a dental surgeon might. Instead, he came in with a pair of what looked like wire cutters, such as you might get at Home Depot. Sharp tool aloft, he sank to his knees in front of Chloe, who rested calmly on the floor. I, however, was not calm, and increased my acupressure on the dog, whispering “It will be all right” into her ear. Suddenly, I heard a clip and a quick snap, and the marrowbone fell to the floor. Matter resolved. Chloe did not even yelp.
“That was brilliant!” I said, truly impressed. “What kind of tool is that?”
“Just your basic pliers,” he said.
“Pliers,” I said. “Wow.” I am a single female living in New York, which means I am impressed by things like tools. I do not own a wrench. Or a screwdriver, or a hammer. My toolbox consists of eyebrow tweezers and nail files.
“Yes, wow,” the vet said, smiling. “Pliers.”
I love the way southern people say the word pliers.
“And how’d you do that Chinese acupressure thing?” he asked. “Your dog sure is calm. Lots of dogs here are afraid of the vet.”
I showed him the points I had tapped, which have beautiful names such as the Governing Vessel and the Place of a Hundred Meetings. “People can do this on themselves, too,” I told him.
“Is that right? I’ll have to try it on my wife.”
“Absolutely.” I showed him a few points on his wrist he could press for peace of mind.
“Learn something new every day,” he said. As we walked with the dog back to the reception area, I asked, “Um, where did you get those pliers?” I worried for a second that he would laugh at me. I could hear him telling his buddies later that night, “These damn Yankees don’t even know where to buy pliers.”
But he just said, “Any hardware store’ll have them. Seven ninety-nine.”
And then he surprised me by giving them to me. I was very touched. In return, I offered to pay the bill for the man in the waiting room and his howling dog.
New-agey northerner learns down-home southern ways. We can all learn from each other, I realized. And that’s what makes it priceless.
So I now have a few new resolutions: Renew veterinary insurance. Get pliers/wire cutters ($7.99). And make sure that none of the bones I give Chloe from this day forth will fit over her jawbone.
This article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 73, Spring 2013 (http://thebark.com)