When he abruptly started pissing blood, or what appeared to be blood, we obviously freaked out immediately and took him to the emergency vet. He did not perceive the urgency of the situation. I took him for a short walk before we left, to verify absolutely that what I saw was really the horror that I saw—and it was, dear reader, oh god, it really was—but other than the cable-horror-movie texture and quality of the purplish-black emission in question, he was exactly as excited as he always is to smell every single tree, shrub, and bush, and piss on it. (Even in the depths of my concern, I still found the presence of mind to wonder: would the neighbors be upset that our dog was spraying ink all over their sidewalk?)
When we arrived at the veterinary clinic at the worst time of the week for a dog to start pissing blood, I wondered what he might think of this place. It probably smelled of distressed animals, and sickness, and injury. It probably stank of fear, including ours.
And yet it was striking how few of the animals we saw were in obviously critical condition. There was a small dog whose shoulder wound had apparently been bleeding and needed to be stitched (as its owner explained while we tried to prevent it from jumping into our laps and licking our faces); the dog in question was not bleeding now, and so the entire situation seemed not… desperately critical? But here they were, waiting with us, for hours. Another dog’s immediate need was difficult to distinguish from the overall disabilities of age—she had difficulty getting up, difficulty walking, and just difficulty in general—but the specific acuteness of her current distress was not obvious. She just seemed old. One small black dog had a cone of shame, for example, and an Australian woman (or was she South African?) explained that her cat had apparently been sneezing (too much?). But she cheerfully admitted to us that this was probably fine and she was probably overreacting. She was in a very good mood. Other dogs just seemed… normal. A big brown poodle hopped up to put its paws on the counter, the way they do; a tiny chihuahua mix was sitting alertly on its snoozing owner’s chest, its gaze darting hither and yon, as the vet techs discussed how nice it would be to just fall asleep like that.
(The cats were, as always, the hardest to read: there were a variety, but mostly in carriers. One of the carriers was a box made of metal and looked sturdy enough to contain dangerous wildlife; I joked that it would be a mean trick to play on the vet techs to put a bobcat in a metal box.)
I don’t mean to say that these people weren’t bringing their animals for a reason. There wouldn’t, after all, be any obvious sense of why we had ditched our dinner plans to take this animal to this place to be catheterized, have blood drawn, and be forced to wait back there, scared and alone and confused, while some very expensive tests were done on his blood and urine. He seemed basically normal; he seemed to think he was. This did not seem, to him, like a good place to come to.
We came because we were terrified and wanted someone to help us understand what we had seen. But for the animals, I’m sure, this decision made no sense. They were hurting, all of them, in some way; today was not their best day. But what had that to do with this place? How would coming to this place help?
On some level, dogs are always playing us. They know how to get us to give them what they want; they know how to make us want to give it to them.
We don’t always, of course; their disappointment in us is long-running, profound, and well-earned. But they persist. And the fact that nothing interrupts their hopeful need—their sense that we have what they want, if only it could be explained to us in language we understand—is as good an explanation for why dogs are family as we’re likely to find. They anticipate our ability to help; they use gestures and sounds and actions that they’ve either received instinctively (from the genetic pool of canine-human manipulation) or have established over the course of however many years of familiarity with you they’ve developed. Insofar as our psychology is relevant to them, they have mastered it.
It’s not usually anything that complicated, of course. It’s being fed, going out for a walk, filling the water bowl, chest-scritches, throw a toy, or going out to pee, or poop. It’s a very small range of need, for very small creatures, with small worlds; to take care of an animal is something within your capacity, even when it seems like nothing else is. You can fail at everything else—and the world will make the question of success or failure something outside your control—but a dog is a person whose needs you can meet. And to see the expectation in their eyes that you can and will help, that whatever it is can be solved by you, is to realize that you can be this person. You can take care of the situation. You can take care of a dog.
Until they get sick. Our ability to care for animals depends on them knowing what they want; if they know they want to be feed, you can make them happy by feeding them. If they know they want water, or a walk, or a play, these are things you can easily do. But the terror of illness is that they don’t understand, don’t know what to do, and can’t possibly cope; when they’re sick, they can’t tell you that you need to give them a transfusion or an antibiotic. They just hurt, and they’re scared, and anything you do will only seem, to them, like you’re making it worse.
A veterinary hospital is built to render animal pain invisible, if I may extrapolate from this example of one. The building was divided in half, long-wise: on one side of the dividing wall that runs the length of the building is the waiting room, where you enter, talk to the front desk, the triage tech, and wait; on the other side of that dividing wall is the place where the animals are taken to be tested and treated. In between are the examination rooms, which have two doors: the door you enter and exit from, and the door that goes back into the veterinarian side of the building.
It’s a simple but effective architectural screen. On the waiting room side, the animals are all doing their best to explain that everything is fine, honestly, what we really need to do is go home. On the other side of the dividing wall, they are struggling to understand why they have been abandoned to these people trying to kill them, these merciless sadists with needles and cages and terrifying machines that make terrible sounds, these cruel people who grab their faces and poke them and twist them and make it hurt more.
Their pain is invisible, but not inaudible. The entire time we were there, we could hear dogs screaming or yelping or whining; at some point, we knew, they inserted a catheter to extract some of the vile black urine which caused us so much distress, and at that point, I’m sure he yelped and screamed and whined. I’m sure we heard it when he did. But how can you tell which dog made which sound? You don’t have to know what’s happening when it is, but then you find yourself tensing at every yelp or bark; it could be him. You just don’t know.
In those moments, the comfort is all yours, except that knowing better isn’t nearly enough; I knew that running tests on his urine would be the west way to determine whether the situation was as terrifying as it seemed to be, and that the best way to get a clean sample would be to insert a catheter. He would not know that, of course. He would not understand what was happening, or how it could possibly help; to him, it could only be an attempt at murder. He must have felt terrified, abandoned, utterly shaken in his confidence in the world’s safety; I had walked back to the edge of the division with him, so that he would go—so that he would let the vet tech lead him back there—but they had closed the door and left him alone with people who inserted things in his penis. It must have hurt and he must have been very scared.
He’s fine now. His urine is the normal color. When we left the veterinary hospital at about midnight, he had spent around three hours in the back, probably most of it in a cage, alone and terrified; they shaved his leg to take some blood and took urine through a catheter and only he knows whatever else they did. None of it indicated anything specific. The results, though abnormal, left the situation as murky as his urine used to be. But a lot of terrifying things that it could have been—those visions of cancer or infection or stones or poison or anything else—it turned out not to be.
Our theory is that he ate onions and beets in the compost pile; it’s not a very good theory, but it might explain what happened. So I keep the area around the compost pile clean.
I don’t know what his theory is. But I suspect the walls did their work. I suspect he does not know that we told the vet to insert a catheter, to take blood, and to place him in a cage for several hours.
At the end of the night, when we took him home, he had his crazy eyes; he was exhausted and adrenaline spiked and utterly confused and discombobulated. He did not relax for a long time after that. We gave him treats and affection, and that helped, but the things he relied on had been taken away from him, and he lacked the ability to make sense of that. He was suffering a lot more after the ordeal than he had been before it. It was hard to see that.
But the other day, he whined at me. He had already had a walk, he had been fed and there was water in his bowl; he didn’t want to play, nor did he want to go outside. But he stared me in the face and whined and whuffled and pouted. Then I figured it out: the night before, I had taken his rawhide bone away from him, when the dogs were fighting over it.
He had remembered it and wanted to chew it, and wanted to tell me this. I got it down for him, and he chewed it.