Sick As a Dog

This is more than a story about how dogs bankrupt you and drive you crazy. It is a story about the damage that can be done to any of us when we do not get what we need.

It begins, though, with the dog. Willie, adopted at fifteen months of age. Silky black curls and a little white on his chin, like he dipped it in cream. As animated as a cartoon, skidding down our long hallway after his ball, leaping over the end table onto the loveseat, tearing up and down the stairs as if to say, “Mine! All this is mine?!”

He stayed for months at the breeder’s kennel, we were told. His hips were malformed. Except, they were not. They straightened out beautifully once he came to live with us and got to run and play every day. After the breeder, he had gone with his brother to a young family who soon gave away his brother and eventually gave him up, too. By then he had hookworm, so he had to go live at a grooming salon (no wonder he barks at blow dryers).

By the time Willie came home with us, he was underweight and nervous. The groomer had at least taught him to sit, but walking him on a lead was like putting a bouncing ball on a string. He was harum-scarum but so, so happy. He packed on weight, and his antics kept us laughing through the first lockdown.

Then he started vomiting. No, regurgitating. I, who am phobic about any reversal of the digestive process, had to learn the difference. Then came vomiting. Then diarrhea. Also an ear infection, green goo in his eyes, a weird dry nose that crusted at the corner, frantic itching, and once we got all those under control, an infection in his most private place that required my husband (I recused myself) to syringe antibiotic solution into the prepuce through a little rubber hose.

Willie’s willie improved. As for his wonky tummy, we tried organic bison-with-ancient grains kibble, then gentle canned food. (This was supposed to be the dog that would be easy to feed, just kibbles, no fuss. Ever notice how resolutions like that backfire?) The diarrhea was now marathon: all-night sessions in which he anxiously roused us every hour or so for a trip down the steep stairs and outside. Andrew hand-fed him to make sure he ate slowly enough. I cooked up some bland chicken breast and white rice, and when that exploded his gut, I tried quinoa (are you bored yet?), boiled ground beef, lentil pasta, peas…. Finally we gave in and spent a thousand dollars (I wish that were hyperbole) on special allergen-free food.

A week later, he collapsed on a walk and lay on his side on a busy city sidewalk, which was not only worrisome but shockingly unlike Willie. Delayed shock after his first elevator ride? Ah, the psychoanalytic theories I was drumming up.

Meanwhile, all the diagnostic tests were coming back negative. The vet suggested an allergist, so on a cold, bleak day, I drove ninety minutes to sit in my car for two hours in Wentzville. Vet visits are drive-up these days, so I treated myself to White Castle jalapeno burgers and onion rings (cheating on the dog, who could eat nothing but bland) while I waited. Finally my cell rang. The allergist wanted to send a blood sample to Cornell University’s lab.

Three weeks later, the results came back: Willie was short of two key antibodies. In other words, his immune system was not properly equipped to fight bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Mucosal surfaces were getting hit by allergens or microbes and had no defense against them. Which neatly explained, in a single Theory of Everything, all his problems with eyes, ears, nose, skin, penis, stomach, and intestines. Maybe he was yanked away from his real mom too soon. Maybe she had been bred too often or was stressed.

This was on my mind when I interviewed Dr. Damien Fair, a Washington University Medical School alum and recent MacArthur Fellow who directs a new institute for the developing (human) brain at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

“Most of the making of the brain occurs before you are even born,” Fair told me, emphasizing the way stress, environmental influences, diet, and inflammatory responses during pregnancy affect the fetus, launching a trajectory that often does not show symptoms until much later. By that time, a genetic predisposition has been triggered, and the consequences are trapped deep within the structures of the brain.

We absorbed, with a little hyperventilation, the cost of Willie’s diagnosis and treatment. What if society could do the same full-scale? If we made not just gestures but serious improvements in prenatal and postnatal care, environmental stresses and toxins, and early childhood education, children’s brains would be different, their structures more robust, the synapses sturdier, the connections faster. How many kids are alive right now who never formed a vigorous immune system—or an emotional immune system that allowed them to be resilient when stressed? If they had what they needed early, some genetic predispositions might never get turned on. Some mental illnesses and debilitating learning disorders could be warded off. The impulsivity that fuels violent crime, drug use, and just plain lousy decisions could be tempered.

Science no longer allows us to shake our heads over these problems as though they are insoluble, the consequence only of bad character or bad parenting. There are physical and environmental variables that make a difference, and now we know just how early that damage is done.

In an ideal world? We would, all of us, throw time and money, and energy into protecting pregnancies and the early months of life. Not just with prenatal vitamins and a few checkups, but by removing toxins and easing stresses and shoring up nutrition and sleep. Taxpayers might hyperventilate, but it would sure spare us a lot of detective work later, and a lot of rude surprises. Instead of slapping on labels and using remediation and rehabilitation to patch up minds and bodies that were never structurally sound, we could start from strength.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.