Chub-Chub’s Tragic Death

Chub-Chub died a horrid, preventable death.

A spry, 8-year, 7-month-old springer spaniel of world-class pedigree, prowess, and stamina, he uttered his pathetic death groan at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 30, a Saturday, ending a tortuous, 3½-day ordeal that I believe could have been avoided.

We buried him noontime the next day. Grey skies, an extended snowstorm approaching to blanket his final resting place and cover up a troubling case of what I view as veterinary malpractice. Poor Chub-Chub suffered mightily, and rode it out to the end with dignity. He deserved better.

Now, with heavy heart, hot fury and dry eyes, let me recount this horrid tale of an incredible gun dog that left this world before his time – coincidentally on the final day of the 2019 pheasant season. He had another incredible season before suddenly taking ill overnight and shunning food. Three days later, he was dead.

Though I will not reveal names or places, I will present the facts of this case as a warning to all that you are never immune from medical error and misdiagnosis. Doctors are human. They make mistakes, some unfortunately attributable to physician arrogance. You know the drill: “I’m a doctor and you’re not. Trust my diagnosis.” Well, this one didn’t pan out.

I suppose tears have been absent because I have become hardened to death and dying. That can happen to a man who’s watched two dear sons fade away in hospital beds three years apart at age 28. True, it gets no worse than that, but this in many ways rivals it because Chub-Chub would have survived to hunt another day with the benefit of attentive listening and quick, accurate diagnosis. Timing was, in my layman’s opinion, crucial. The faster poisoning is discovered, the better chance of survival.

If only this doctor had listened to me, who had been with the animal from the womb, instead of relying on blood work that revealed positive readings for two tickborne diseases – Lyme and anaplasma – I think we could have found a way to beat the poison that killed Chubby, a swamp-busting dynamo that in adulthood never ran a covert where he was less than king.

“Why do you call him Chubby?” wondered a medical assistant who treated him, already in decline, and knew a physical specimen when she saw one. He was in top shape at the end of pheasant season.

“Well,” I explained, “I’ve had him since he was born, and he was a little butterball as a pup. I’ve called him Chubby or Chub-Chub ever since. His registered name is Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser, more apropos.”

Why couldn’t the vet have respected my opinion, based on many credible factors, and my own insights into the animal himself? I think then we could have saved him, spared him the cruel death he was forced to endure. Finally, his tedious torture was mercifully terminated with two strained, audible breaths and that final death moan, a soft whine, that signaled the end for me and my stoic animal. Curled up beneath the leg rest of my leather recliner, he was exhaling a farewell gasp to me that said, “See you later, Buddy. I gave it my best shot and must now leave you.”

I had slept for three restless nights in that same leather chair, observing my dear four-legged companion, trying to nurse him back to health with medicine, food, water and tender loving care. The problem was that the dog was not suffering from Lyme disease, which he was being treated for with doxycycline and an anti-nausea drug. Chub-Chub had tested positive for both tick-borne diseases 18 months earlier and had never shown a faint glimmer of the lameness, lethargy and appetite loss symptomatic of the diseases.

Better still, he had over two pheasant seasons displayed exceptional agility and endurance while burning up punishing wetland cover that separates the men from the boys. He was a man, built for such cover, and he attacked it with extraordinary athleticism displayed by only the finest of his flush-and-retrieve breed.

A day or two before Chubby took ill, a field-trialer friend who’s seen the best and often hunted often over him marveled in the field that, “He’s still running like he did at 4. He’s in his prime, never seems to tire. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing him breathing hard.”

Then, less than a week later, the animal is dead from Lyme disease? No freakin’ way. Find me an expert witness who’d testify that dogs can die that quickly from either tickborne disease for which he tested positive and showed no symptoms.

“I wonder if [our vet] would have picked up on the poison?” my wife pondered after Chubby’s death, referring to my longtime vet, whose office was closed for the holiday.

“Good chance,” I answered. “We’ve known each other for almost 50 years and, although we may not agree on everything, I think he would have respected my opinion and looked for poison.”

My previously mentioned hunting buddy, who was once married to a doctor, had another take. “What happened to you has happened to many,” he said. “Doctors often see what they want to see. This one didn’t listen to a word you said. Lyme it was, period. You should have challenged the diagnosis more vehemently.”

The problem was that when I articulated my opinion that Chubby had “gotten into something” that upset his stomach, I never dreamed of deadly coyote bait, which may well have been the culprit, given the old-stand-by site I had hunted for the first time this fall on November 25. I was thinking of rotten carrion, farm garbage, or something else that would upset a dog’s stomach and curb its appetite until it passed in a day or so. I had seen that scenario play out several times with different dogs over the years.

As soon as I realized this wasn’t that, was likely more serious, I called the vet – just before noon on the day before Thanksgiving. Talk about bad timing. I knew I was up against it. The rest is history; sad, sordid history that cost me an extraordinary gun dog and companion.

To me, there is no question that Chub-Chub died from poisoning, something insidious that quickly shut down his system. Trust me, it’s no way to go. The average dog would have likely curled up into a fetal ball for three days and died. Not Chub-Chub. Though impaired and emaciated, he displayed noble spirit to the bitter end, still trying to get out into the backyard through the woodshed door to greet wood vendor Blue Sky no more than 20 minutes before exhaling his death moan. What an indomitable spirit he had. He was hurting badly at the time.

Prior to that, he had followed me from room to room and out to the brook two or three times a day until his horrid death. Out back, he’d walk gingerly to check out the brook, head high to detect the scent of overnight intruders. His nose was good as it gets.

As for the Lyme debate, I readily admit that the doctor who treated Chubby knows much more about the disease than I do, and that some of his symptoms did indeed suggest Lyme. But the tickborne disease did not kill him. The first time he had tested positive for the two diseases, I invited my vet to accompany me on my daily walk to watch him romp. He was healthy and robust, I implored, showed absolutely no signs of illness.

He didn’t doubt me, admitting that only five percent of dogs that test positive show any symptoms. When I disclosed this prior positive test during my recent medical crisis and asked if it could finally be rearing its ugly head, the doctor said no. Chubby had been a carrier that showed no symptoms. Not unusual. This was new. He was showing symptoms of a more recent tick bite. What could I say?

On my way out the door after the six-hour, pre-holiday office visit, this doctor assured me that “Your boy will be back to normal in a couple of days.”

When Chubby didn’t seem to be responding to the antibiotic by noontime the next day and still wasn’t eating, I called the office to report my concerns and was talked off the ledge by the doctor, who called at midafternoon. “Give it time,” the vet said. “It can take 48 hours or more for the appetite to return. What I’m concerned about is fever. Take his temperature, and bring him in if he’s feverish.”

I took his rectal temperature. It was 101.6 Fahrenheit. Normal is 99.5 to 102.5. I forced myself to be patient, even though I thought a dog in peak condition like Chubby should respond to antibiotics quicker. I didn’t want to be a pest, wanted to trust the doctor. But in the end, I knew I should have been more forceful and, even more importantly, had failed Chub-Chub.

Oh well… live and learn. I got burned, big time. Let’s just say my opinion of veterinary medicine has forever changed. Call me a skeptic if you will; maybe even a cynic. Yes, they took my check, and I took their medicine. A bitter taste lingers. That, and the sound of Chub-Chub’s pathetic farewell death whine, which will forever haunt me.

Medicine betrayed him.

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