I’m just back from the dentist’s office, where I had the usual one-sided conversation with Chris, the tech who cleans my teeth. It’s hard to be articulate with a sharp object probing your wide-open mouth, so my part of the dialogue pretty much consists of “unnh, unnh,” while Chris talks about her husband’s job and her kids’ achievements. But she tries to be polite and, as most people who have known me for any length of time tend to do, she asked how Frankie was.
I said, “He has doggie Alzheimer’s.” Not only is that quicker to say than Canine Cognitive Dysfunction — of particular use in this situation — but it’s far easier for people to comprehend.
It also has the benefit of being accurate.
Like most people, Chris laughed nervously and said,”I never heard that dogs could get that.” And then she asked how I knew he had it.
Excellent question — but not one that I could answer with sharp instruments in my mouth.
The Decision to Test for Cataracts
Last September, I took Frankie to see a veterinary ophthalmologist about his cataracts — in spite of vowing, long ago, not to subject him to surgery if they developed, as is common for dogs with diabetes. For one thing, the surgery is expensive. For another, I know that dogs generally adjust well to blindness.
But that was theoretical. The reality melted my resolve. Once I began noticing Frankie bumping into things and staring off into the middle distance, as though he could not see, I couldn’t bear the idea of not trying to help him — yes, even at age 14.
The Eye Exam
The young eye specialist I went to see was very nice and very gentle with Frankie, so I can’t say precisely why I had an uneasy feeling almost from the start of the eye exam; there was something about her body language as she went through the steps of looking at him with lights and finger tracking — pretty much the same as a human eye exam, except for not asking him to read an eye chart — that raised my anxiety levels.
After returning Frankie to my lap, she started out with the good news. Although he was largely blind in his left eye, she said, the right eye looked pretty good. She had gotten Frankie’s chart from my regular vet and praised me for keeping Frankie’s diabetes under such good control for so many years. She said his eyes were in comparatively good shape for any dog his age, and especially for one with long-term diabetes.
I adore my regular vet but he has told me repeatedly that there is no correlation between keeping Frankie’s blood sugar under control and avoiding cataracts. I was just lucky, he suggested. I thought differently. Ha — vindication!
The bad news, however, squelched any feelings of pride. The specialist believed that the problem wasn’t with Frankie’s eyes, but with his brain: He had enough vision to function normally but she thought the signals were getting scrambled, causing disorientation. These were signs, she said, of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. I brushed off her explanation of what that was. I knew all too well.
I also knew in my gut that she was right — Frankie had other symptoms that I believed fit the profile — but I wasn’t quite ready for the diagnosis.
I grabbed at the only other possible cause the specialist offered for the eyesight issues: retinal atrophy. And so I spent another $500 getting Frankie’s retinas tested to determine if this progressive disease was causing the problems.
It’s completely irrational, but my first reaction was to be embarrassed — both for me and for Frankie. The specialist said that his responses to stimuli around him in the kennel while he was waiting for the retinal test were abnormal — that he didn’t look around with curiosity at the other dogs or at the clinic staff. She took that as further confirmation of her CCD diagnosis. All I heard was that my smart terrier boy had failed an intelligence test! The shame.
And me? I’d written about CCD on this blog when Archie, the late dog of my BFF Clare, was diagnosed with it. What kind of journalist/dog expert was I?
The human kind who avoids painful situations, it turns out, and also someone who didn’t know that the symptoms of CCD aren’t uniform. But I’ll get to that another time.