Honey was a gorgeous golden greyhound, whom we first met in November, 2011, on a visit to the Greyhound and Lurcher rescue kennel. We saw several lovely dogs that day, all so deserving of a forever home. But Honey put her white paws up onto the mesh when we approached, and her eyes lit up; we were hooked, and Consuelo, my partner, said “I’m in love”. So we opened the car, and Honey leapt right in, as though she had done this many times before.
Right from the beginning, she was a character, carrying her food bowl around in her mouth to tell us she thought she hadn’t had enough to eat; stealing food from the kitchen; opening doors (we needed a large bolt on the kitchen door); running at full pelt around the farm. Honey seemed to have boundless energy: we joked that she should give us a tiny bit of hers. Once, she and her pal Dora were chasing around a field and collided at top speed – resulting in emergency surgery on poor Dora’s elbow.
In the summer of 2013, I signed up to do a hiking marathon, in aid of Alzheimer’s research (my Mum had dementia). While dogs were not allowed on the marathon itself, Honey came on every one of my training hikes. If I walked 17 miles, she ran 30 – up and down, in and out of woods and field edges, sniffing everything, chasing whatever dared to cross her path. She had incredible muscle tone – “ripped”, as the bodybuilders say: every inch an athlete.
So it was with horror that I realized, one day in the following February, that her heart was erratic, and she was walking, not running. She had become somewhat anaemic a couple of weeks before, after a severe tummy upset, but we all thought that would get better. This time, however, the vet confirmed that her red blood count was extremely low – “can you bring Dora in immediately, as a donor?”, he asked.
Honey picked up a bit after the transfusion, but the next blood test revealed another decline; the vet suggested a bone marrow biopsy, and that she should take prednisolone and azathioprine (as well as something for stomach protection) as he thought it was immune-mediated.
To make matters worse, at around this time, we had to have our elderly lurcher, Meg, put to sleep. Meg had made it to 17 years, even recovering after a major stroke 4 years previously, so she had done well; but she decided the time had come and gave up eating. We were heartbroken, but knew we had to carry on taking care of Honey (we still feel bad that we weren’t able to really grieve properly for Meg at the time).
Then, the following week brought another crisis, as Honey’s incision site became abscessed and burst, leaving her with an open wound, which could not heal while she was on immune suppression. Thus, every day we had to administer a cocktail of drugs, take care of her wound – and cook her delicious meals to stimulate her appetite – our vegetarian household suddenly had a fridge full of steak!
The biopsy confirmed that it was Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia, and was affecting the precursor cells in the marrow. There was no obvious cause: perhaps she had got into something toxic, though we couldn’t remember anything. Perhaps, the vet suggested, there was some underlying problem, such as cancer. But nothing was obvious, and we kept on with the treatments.
We watched despondently as her lovely muscles disappeared and she seemed to transform into skin and bones before our eyes (largely the effects of the steroids, but also, probably the disease itself); we watched despondently as the vets said, yet again, that there was no evidence of regeneration in her bone marrow; we watched despondently as she went in for yet another transfusion (she had eight altogether) in efforts to save her life. Some of these bought a little respite, and she was slightly bouncier; others seemed to get nowhere, and we (and she) felt hopeless.
Meanwhile, I was on the internet at every available opportunity, researching what I could find about this ghastly disease. From that, I learned that adding in low-dose aspirin would be a good idea, to reduce the risk of blood clots forming. And also from that, I found the “Second Chance” website, where at last we felt less alone in our anguish: there were others out there who had battled this, and who were generous in their support and advice. We felt a little more hopeful: perhaps it was possible to win the battle? We changed her drugs, and started to include cyclosporine, in the hope that it did a better job than azathioprine in stimulating her bone marrow.
By now, we had been riding this rollercoaster for two months. From hope to despair, and back again. She was still losing weight, looking skeletal, and there was no change in her PCV. All the time, she was fighting so hard; she knew we all loved her, and she wanted to be able to get up and play with her remaining pal, Dora.
But then, one day in early May, she developed swellings on her face, that seemed to be red inside her mouth, like a haematoma. Next day, she seemed a bit worse, but was due for another transfusion. She came home that night a tiny bit better in herself. But, overnight, the swelling got bigger, and so we asked our vet to refer her to the hospital, as Honey by now was feeling quite poorly.
So, we took her up to Leahurst, part of the University of Liverpool, and saw the duty internal medicine specialist. She reiterated what we already realized – that it was by now pretty serious, and that non-responsive IMHA is a terrible disease to control. We drove home that Saturday feeling down, but hoping beyond hope that the hospital would be able to do something for her.
The phone call the next morning was guarded, but the vet said she had wondered if Honey’s swellings were a drug reaction, so she reduced the dosages; she also told us that she thought there were signs of an underlying leukemia, as her white blood cells were persistently high, and her platelets low. But, she implied, that could potentially be treated, leaving me with a tiny kernel of hope.
That hope was dashed, however, two hours later. My mobile read “unknown caller”, and my heart sank. I knew who it would be, and what the news was. Honey had, in those two hours, declined rapidly and gone into DIC – a disseminated intravascular crisis, where there is both clotting and uncontrolled bleeding. DIC represents the body’s usual balances going completely haywire, out of control, and it is notoriously difficult to reverse.
So once again we made the trek to Liverpool. I held it together to drive, but collapsed sobbing outside the hospital building: I knew that by now there was no hope. When we saw her, Honey had lost even more weight, she was bleeding from her mouth and into her eyes, and all her spark and hope had gone. We all agreed that there was no option but euthanasia. Our beautiful Honey went to sleep in our arms.
We have had many moments of “what if?” – what if we had given her cyclosporine earlier? What if we had found signs of leukemia earlier? What if we had tried some other treatment? What if, what if, what if. It is an appalling disease, and it broke our hearts to watch her decline, but we must not to beat ourselves up too much.
There were two reasons for us to get on with life. The first was that we wanted to honour her memory – even though it nearly broke us completely to see two caskets, Honey and Meg, sitting side by side in our summerhouse. The second was called Dora. Whoever thinks that dogs do not grieve knows nothing about animals. She was distraught: she had lost two pals in two months. A week was far too little time for us to get another dog, but we felt we had to (and Dora came too, to help us choose: we came home with Shona – another story).
On September 8th, 2013, I completed the marathon for dementia research that I (and Honey) had trained so hard to do. The following day, Consuelo’s dad died, then a day later, my mum lost her battle with Alzheimer’s. Thus began a terrible few months.
But I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, Honey’s destiny was tied up with my mother’s, through the process of training for that marathon in mum’s honour. They never really knew each other (Mum’s dementia was too advanced by the time Honey came into our lives), but mum loved animals. Somehow, I think they are together, joyfully playing on the Rainbow Bridge.
In loving memory of the wonderful Honey, and Meg – and all the other animals who have enriched our lives. They are waiting at the Rainbow Bridge: they know we will come.