Today is kind of a big deal around the Webb house because today is Charlie's birthday!
Now before you roll your eyes are the crazy pet parents who celebrate their dog's birthday (I know we aren't alone in this!), this birthday is extra special.
If you've been following our story, you'll know that about a year ago, Charlie started coughing (a lot). After it persisted for a few weeks (because we were convinced it was simply allergies, the coughing became so intense that he would wake himself up in the middle of the night, coughing so long and hard that he would start gagging.
At that point, we decided the vet needed to intervene. And after taking him for a check-up that we assumed would result in antihistamines and steroids, we instead found out that the heart murmur he had had his entire life had progressed to congestive heart failure. The coughing was caused because his heart wasn't pumping out all of the blood it was taking in, and the blood was getting absorbed by his lungs. And as the fluid built up in his lungs, it put pressure on his trachea, causing him to cough and choke.
We were told that most dogs with CHF typically live 1-2 years after their diagnosis, and with Charlie's age, it probably wouldn't have a huge effect on his lifespan. But still, we were devastated. We have always been infatuated with Charlie, and he is 100% our fur-kid.
At first, it wasn't terrible. He was started on a couple of medications to help regulate his heart, and a diuretic to keep the fluid from building up.
But then the "episodes" started. We're still not 100% sure what they are, as CHF can causing fainting due to lack of blood flow, but our vet was convinced that they were seizures.
The first time it happened, it was around midnight. We were asleep, and Charlie had taken himself downstairs to go outside (via his dog door). We heard him come upstairs and crawl into a laundry basket full of clothes to sleep. And then, it the pitch black darkness of the room, he let out the most horrific sound that can only be described as a blood-curdling scream. Terrified, we lept out of bed and dove to the floor next to him. As we turned on the lights, we found our sweet boy, completely limp and lifeless. And we were terrified that we had lost him. After the longest 30 seconds of our lives, he suddenly came to and slowly lifted out of a fog.
But this wasn't the last time. And over the next few months, the episodes ranged from a couple times a week to a few in a month, each just as terrifying as the one before. And though to some it may seem crazy, we stopped leaving Charlie at home by himself. The thought of something happening while we were gone was too much for us to handle.
The winter was the worst. The periodic seizures continued, and he started losing interest in food (which for Charlie, was unheard of). Little by little, his weight decreased and he became lethargic. There were a couple of times we weren't sure he would make it through the weekend.
We started making mental benchmarks that we hoped he would reach, knowing that we might have already experienced his last.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years.
Desperate for him to eat, we decided to break his low protein, low sodium diet and give him chicken, hoping that he would eat even a little. Slowly, he began to regain his appetite, and his new diet became a homemade mix of chicken and pumpkin. The weight started to come back on, and his energy was back. We were shocked, but our old Charlie was starting to come back to normal, and the episodes, though not completely gone, had decreased in frequency.
And then February rolled around. Though he still acted normal, we noticed his stomach had started to look bloated, as though someone had filled up a balloon. When it didn't return to normal after a few days, we took him back in. After a slew of additional testing, our vet discovered that not only was the other side of his heart failing, too, but he had developed pulmonary hypertension (which is extremely rare in dogs) that was causing the fluid retention in his stomach. We added a few additional medications to his list to try to manage it, but then came the news that while treatment would help, it was a short-term fix.
The vet estimated that he had about 6 weeks to live.
We were devastated. We had grieved so many times in this process as we'd received bad news, but we thought we had more time.
We passed Valentine's Day, hoping that he would make it to see warm weather and sunbathe on the deck again.
The next 6 weeks felt like a ticking time bomb. We were terrified that at any moment, we would lose him.
At the 6 week mark, he went back to the vet for a checkup. Despite his initial prognosis, the vet was impressed by how well he had been doing. His belly had gone down a little, and he was still acting normally, so we continued on with treatment.
Our benchmarks continued. Easter. Warm weather. The return of the farmers market on Saturday mornings. The 4th of July.
His belly had disappeared, and our vet still has no explanation as to why he continued to do so well.
The next two benchmarks were recent.
The return of Del's caramel apple season (we have a tradition that I eat the apple, and he cleans up the leftovers on the plate).
And his birthday.
The last year has been hard. We have been on a crazy emotional roller coaster filled with countless vet visits, twice daily rounds of medication, and a lot of tears.
A lot of tears.
But this little brown dog means the world to us.
And so today, we did some of his favorite things to celebrate: the Richland Student Farms farmers market, a puppucino from his favorite baristas at Decatur Starbucks, an assortment of treats (and supplies for cake and ice cream) at Millie & Bo's Pet Barkery, driving through the neighborhood with his head out the window and ears flying, napping and cuddles on the couch, and a party with our family tomorrow.
Through all of this, we've learned not to take Charlie for granted. We've done several photo shoots with him to make sure that we can always look into those big brown eyes, see his one white toenail, or that adorable snout that has changed from brown to white. And one day, hopefully far, far away, those will be absolutely priceless to us. And that’s why I launched dog portraits. Because we aren’t the only ones with dogs as loved as Charlie, and we know that our time together isn’t as long as we’d like it to be.
So today, our sweet boy is getting completely spoiled.
Because for him, turning 11 is a huge deal.