Lisa, our oldest working border collie, had a stroke last Thursday morning. It unfolded as I watched, beginning shortly after I came downstairs for the day, and it slowly took away many of the functions we tend to take for granted. The first thing I noticed were the tremors in her eyes, which brought on nausea and motion sickness as her compromised brain tried to steady her world. Not long after, Lisa lost her ability to hold her head level and then to walk. This dog, who has been so much a part of my life for the past thirteen years, slowly but surely retreated into herself, unable to do even the most basic things. She urinated where she lay unless I moved her outside periodically so she could relieve herself in a more appropriate place. I was truly worried that she would not have enough cognition left for any quality of life.
Yet my vet assured me at the outset that if I could keep her alive through the weekend, she would most likely bounce back. It was this thought that kept me going, hoping that Lisa would find her way back to us. Thankfully, by Saturday afternoon the eye tremors had ceased — the milestone my vet said to watch for as the first sign that things were turning around.
Since then, Lisa has made steady progress back to us. Before we knew it, she let me know that she needed to go out, and she stood in place to urinate outside. By later on Sunday, Lisa was walking fairly well on level ground, still a bit wobbly but getting from place to place on her own. Due to her arthritis, Lisa had long ago given up going downstairs; afraid of falling, she allowed me to carry her on the stairs. But by Sunday evening, she was going up a short set of stairs. That was certainly more than I had expected. On Monday morning, she followed me from place to place as I went about my chores and even got excited about playing frisbee with the other dogs. And the improvements have kept coming!
In fact, Lisa now appears to have awareness of herself and her surroundings. She has been drinking well throughout the week, but eating has been a problem. She refused to eat early on, seemingly afraid that she might choke — but that no longer seemed to be the issue. A visit to the vet Monday afternoon brought a diagnosis of pancreatitis, which might be the cause of her aversion to food. She is now on three additional medications to reduce the pain and nausea of this illness, but she has yet to eat a bite on her own. Her last free-choice meal was a week ago today. We brought home some low-fat dog food from the vet’s on Monday, which should help reduce the inflammation of her pancreas — but Lisa won’t eat it. She simply turns her head away when I set the bowl in front of her.
Lisa has several times in the past refused to eat for long periods, but this time I cannot allow it. There is too much riding on this one. Her health is at stake, and she will be in the care of others this weekend. If I can get her to eat each meal through Friday, skipping a few meals over the weekend won’t be as big a problem.
Despite my misgivings at pushing the issue, I’ve begun to hand-feed her — perhaps force-feeding would be more accurate. I pry open her mouth and smear the well-ground canned food onto the roof or sides of her mouth. She closes her mouth quickly once I release her and then sits there, drooling, trying not to swallow. Eventually, the drool in her mouth mixes with the food paste I’ve spread inside, liquefying it, and forcing her to swallow it as it slides around her mouth. As soon as I see her swallow, I pry her mouth open again, and repeat the process. I’m hoping that at some point she will begin to eat on her own, but until then, we are playing this game where she tries to either spit out her food or hold it in her mouth while I’m doing all I can to make her swallow.
As an odd aside, post-stroke Lisa has become a kinder, gentler version of her former self. She used to be a killer. All small creatures — cats, ground squirrels, birds — were in danger if she was free in the yard. She decided many years ago that our youngest dog, Chance, was among her targets, and over the nine years he’s been with us, he’s had multiple sets of stitches due to Lisa’s aggression. Yet since the stroke, Lisa is a new dog. She leaves the cats to wander the yard; she comes in alongside Chance without so much as a grunt. She watches the chickens with a calm and contented look on her face. Is this really my Lisa? I’ll admit that I like this new and improved version of my old friend; it allows me to leave her free in the house to wander where she likes and to interact with all of us as she desires.
I don’t know how this will all end up for Lisa or for us, but we’re taking it one day at a time. Lisa enjoys watching TV with us in the evenings and spends time outside watching the chickens or hobbling along after the frisbee as I do chores. It’s obvious that she has joy in her life, and in the end, isn’t that what is most important?