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A Gift from Nikki:


What My Dog’s Final Months Taught Me

by Shigeko Ito

The last three months were an especially difficult journey for me as I watched our beloved Golden Retriever, Nikki, lose her battle against cancer.  Losing animals (particularly dogs) has always beenNikki after surgery one of the toughest things for me to go through and to cope with, and this was my first experience to lose a dog to cancer.  But this heartbreaking experience taught me invaluable lessons, and I feel that I have developed more compassion and have grown stronger emotionally and spiritually for it.

Last October we discovered that Nikki had developed two types of cancer (mast cell tumour and sarcoma) simultaneously.  For ten days following this initial diagnosis (on 10/10/07), I cried off and on throughout each day even before finding out how bad her case might be.  Then more bad news followed.  It was the final straw to discover through an X-ray a week later, on the day one of her mast cell tumours was surgically removed, that the cancer had already metastasised to her lungs.  Her cancer was so advanced that there was not much we could do to save her life.  Aggressive Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy at that point would have been just palliative at best while severely compromising her quality of life, so we made a conscious decision not to seek the cancer treatment.  We knew tNikki and my son.hat her cancer was bad, but didn’t know her exact prognosis, such as how long she would live.  It was an agonizing situation, but we decided just to let her enjoy her remaining time with us.  But this was easier said than done.  As I dedicated my heart and soul in hospice care for the last three months of her life, I didn’t realize until then how excruciating and stressful of an experience it was to live with and care for a dying dog.  As I became preoccupied with caring for her, I put my entire life on hold.

Shortly after her diagnosis, I gathered information on cancer in Golden Retrievers, and found that a staggering 60% die from cancer, and that it is their #1 cause of death.  Cancer is on the rise among dogs in general, but this genetic predisposition seems to be particularly prominent among Goldens.  As common and popular as Golden are, surprisingly most people seem to be unaware of their high cancer risk. I tried to learn which environmental causes (diet, lack of exercise, over-vaccination, microchip, etc.) might possibly have contributed to her metastatic cancer, but there appeared to be very little research done in this area.  Through an internet Canine Cancer support group, however, I felt supported and comforted to know that there are many others who had been, or were going through similar heartbreaking experiences.

I passed through at least three of the “Five Stages of Grief” in a very quick fashion.  First I was shocked and devastated, and then I was angry at life thinking that it was conspiring against us.  I also blamed myself for not being able to detect her cancer sooner.  As I grieved, I felt many regrets and started to beat myself up by saying, for example, “I should have taken for more walks and given her a better diet.  I am unworthy of her love, I did not deserve her.”  Every morning I would wake up to be relieved that she was still breathing.  It was sad to see a vivid contrast between the incision from the removal of a tumour that was healing beautifully, and signs that her cancer was progressing rapidly, such as bloody urine, difficulty walking, vomiting, etc.  At times I was reluctant to touch her, afraid to find more new scary looking bumps spreading and growing throughout her body.  It was so very hard to witness this entire process of her deterioration.

Nikki at windowOne day when I saw her taking things in amazing stride, being in the moment, and living each day to the fullest and with dignity, I suddenly realized that it was NOT OK for me to get stuck in this distraught and grief-stricken state of mind.  I had to be strong for her and my family so that I could take better care of them, especially of her.  This awareness helped me shift my gears to start embracing this very intense, fast-moving “spiritual training” journey.  As I immersed myself into the moment, I became more mindful of daily experiences, and accepted them for what they were and then let go of negativities (i.e., shouldas, wouldas, couldas).  I started to feel less guilty and hold fewer regrets, and stopped clinging to or blowing things out of proportion by ruminating and dwelling on the drama, which I was so accustomed to doing in the past.  I then remembered what an acquaintance told me before: “Don't’ try to figure out why “bad” things are happening to you, nor see each experience as neither good or bad, you are just living life.”  Indeed, when I attach meanings or interpret life events based on my preexisting memories of “negative” experiences, I allow my conditioned mind to control over me.  Then I start ruminating, lose perspective and fail to be in the present moment to experience things for what they are.  I thought, “aha! So this WAS a sure formula for despondency and depression!”

Each day was bittersweet, but still I tried my best to live in the present so that I could savor and cherish each and every moment I had with her.  I immensely enjoyed spending lots of time cuddling up and spooning with her while giving her favourite gentle tummy rubs.  And oh, how I loved her smell that was so earthy and comforting—her ears smelled like roasted mushrooms, her paws slightly burnt aired popcorn, and her fur just like hay.  As I snuggled up to her, her calm warmth and gentleness instantly vanished any negativity, and uplifted me.  I took her for many walks and car rides everywhere I went.  I switched her to a cancer diet (high protein, low carb and no grain), and provided homemade gourmet dog meals each day with all kinds of high quality meat, along with supplements and Chinese herbs (prescribed by our veterinarian) to strengthen her immune system with the hope that she might be able to fight off the cancer.  As her appetite steadily declined, I bought at least two dozen kinds of special dog treats for her to try, as well as regular people food and just about anything else, desperately trying to entice her to eat something.

Although she had been very stoic and did not communicate to us how much suffering she was enduring, her physical body manifested many signs of distress.  There were metastatic tumours all over her body.  Her laboured breathing indicated dysfunction of her lungs, and swollen legs that her heart was not pumping her blood properly and perhaps a lack of protein for she was not eating much.  Her appetite steadily declined and she ate almost nothing at all during her last weeks.  Then sadly, she was no longer interested in going for a walk—an activity that she used to love so much.

As her breathing became even more laboured, my husband and I finally made the agonizing decision on one weekend in January to put her down and scheduled the appointment at a vet’s within five days.  However, she quickly deteriorated over that weekend, so we decided to put her to sleep sooner, on Monday.  I was undecided whether I would accompany her to the vet, but my husband suggested that I should say good-bye to her at home, because it would be too traumatic for me otherwise.  On Sunday night before going to bed, I sat next to her and caressed her.  Tears kept falling onto my hand as I gently stroked her head.  Then all of a sudden she lifted up her head and started licking my tears away fervidly, showing me her affection and more life force than I had seen in a while.  I tried to keep my tears in check while kissing her and whispering into her ears, “What a sweet dog…   I love you so much.  Good night…”

On Monday morning, I thought that she might be awfully uncomfortable for not having peed since Sunday afternoon despite having drunk a lot of water, so I pushed her to go outside even though she was very reluctant.  It took her a while, but I helped her get up and she finally went.  But perhaps because she was so close to the end, it must have used up all of her remaining energy.  As soon as she came back inside, she plopped down on her bed in the entryway and gasped for air.  I helped her lie down, but could not remain with her then as I had to get ready to take my son to school.  I asked my son to stay with her in the meantime and say good-bye to her because she would be gone by the time he returned from school.  I was gone for less than 5 minutes, but by the time I came back to check, her eyes and mouth were wide open with her tongue drooped onto her bed.  She was very still and quiet: I heard no more hard breathing, and her chest was no longer moving.  She was already gone.  Apparently my son didn’t know what was happening, but nonetheless looked sad, scared and startled as he stared at her.  I rested my hand on her chest, and then shouted, “Nikki!  Nikki!

Oh, my God, she…  she has just DIED!!”  I trembled as I picked up the phone immediately to call my husband at work to let him know about her passing, and he said that he would come home right away.  My son had stayed with her for the whole time and had even taken the very last pictures of her.  He was on the verge of crying.  “She opened her mouth real wide, and then her tongue just hung down on one side…”  Tears filled up in his eyes as he described her last minute.  We both gazed at her body lying down lifelessly in her bed for a moment, and then gave her a hug, and to each other crying uncontrollably before heading out to his school.

While driving my son to school, the idea crossed my mind briefly that I might have actually accelerated her passing by forcing her to go out and pee.  But soon I realized that it was in a sense a blessing that she did not have to go to the veterinarian’s.  She was always terrified to go there, and I did not want to see her being traumatized until the last minutes of her life.  Besides, who knows, even just the sight of the office might have shocked and killed her.  It would also have been much more traumatic for us to end her life with an injection.  I was deeply saddened, but was at the same time somewhat relieved that her suffering was over. 

Later I saw flashbacks of her quirky adorable habits that used to make us laugh: her signature style of sitting totally flat like a bear skin rug with her hind legs totally relaxed looking like a run-overNapping with her snow goose frog’s, and of sleeping with a stuffed snow goose held in her mouth like a pacifier.  It was her favourite toy, so beat-up and stained that it looked more like a dirty imposter chicken in the “Foster Farm Chicken” commercial than a snow goose.  It was a bittersweet moment, and I started to miss her terribly already.

 I believe that there is something mystical about animals, and Nikki was certainly no exception.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew what might happen to her next, and if she might have even chosen her own timing, where and how she wanted to die.  She fought very bravely to the end.  It was almost surreal when she exited so quietly and peacefully while lying down in her own favourite bed at home, surrounded by lots of love, one day short of her eighth birthday.  There was something about the way of her passing that seemed so serene, sacred and gentle.  And somehow, the way she went with grace and dignity was quite fitting for her, who shared with us her devotion, love, joy and compassion.

The three months since her diagnosis felt very short, but long at the same time.  As difficult and heartbreaking as it was, I am grateful for the period that she gave us—a gift and opportunity to show how much we loved and cared for her.  The time also helped us prepare emotionally to say good-bye to her.  I can still burst into tears at any moment whenever I see other Goldens or pictures of them at grocery or pet stores, and am reminded how much I miss her.  (The problem of this breed is not only their genetic predisposition to cancer, but also their popularity that I can’t avoid seeing them everywhere.)  Some friends and relatives sometimes tell me, “That’s why we don’t have pets.  We don’t want to go through the type of agony you’ve been going through.”  But I always respond, “It’s better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all.”  I can only hope that this tremendous sense of loss will become a little easier and less painful to bear as time goes by.

We couldn’t have possibly asked for a more perfect dog than Nikki.  I am forever grateful to her for helping us raise our family.  Some might say, “What?  Dog?  Raising a family?”  But yes, she truly did, simply by her presence.  She provided a tremendous source of comfort and joy at a time when I needed it most.  My husband had just begun the most challenging phase of medical residency training, and I was struggling with my first time motherhood and my son’s health complications in a totally new environment in which I knew no one to turn to for help.

Since her passing, I’ve been displaying a shrine with a large picture of her in our front hallway where she spent her last weeks (because she had no longer been able to climb up and down the stairs).  Underneath her picture is an urn containing her ashes, along with flowers, candles, water, dog treats, her favourite toys and a statue of St. Francis.  I keep candle lights burning to honour her spirit.  In early November I hired a professional dog photographer to take pictures of her, and those pictures, too, have been displayed throughout our house as a remembrance of her gentle and loving spirit. 

Nikki with her favorite toy.


After all, through this experience I realised once again the importance of savouring and cherishing each and every moment by immersing myself into it—a timeless message of life Nikki showed me simply by her way of being.  This was a gift from her. 


Godspeed, dearest Nikki…  Thank you for all of the wonderful memories.  I will always love you with all my heart.

Copyright © 2008 Shigeko Ito




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