My Dog in the Fall of her Life

On a list of things I thought I’d never do? Diaper a dog. But when your dog grows old and she’s a beloved part of your family, it’s what you must do when her bladder starts to betray her, and your carpets.

Dog diapers fill at least half an aisle at Petco. Who knew? I’d never even noticed them until I needed them early last month. They come in all sizes, disposable and washable, and in a rainbow of colors and adorable patterns for smaller dogs. We have a medium-sized dog, a Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix, and she’s in plain white diapers, which she initially found humiliating, but she tolerates now. I can’t imagine how she’d feel about polka dots, leopard prints or monkeys swaddling her bum.

Diapers for medium-to-large sized dogs cost an average of $1 each, and she goes through one or two a day. I’m about to switch to the washable kind, for our budget, and because I’ll feel less environmental guilt.

We’ve tried two different medications for her incontinence. The first helped some, but didn’t fully clear up the problem; the second made her bleed.

She’s going to wear diapers for the rest of her life. Poor girl doesn’t even know she’s dripping urine across the floor. She doesn’t even know if she’s lying in a puddle. It’s a sad thing to watch your pet grow old.

Our dog’s name is Bella. It’s the name she came with when we adopted her seven years ago during the height of the Twilight vampire fervor. We’ve met lots of dogs named Bella, all born—or named in shelters—around the same time.

She was irresistible. While her cellmates wouldn’t stop barking as we walked around the shelter cages, Bella was curled up sweet as can be on her bed. She popped her head up as we looked in, gave us a not-too-hopeful-yet-hopeful gaze, and rose to walk slowly over to see us when we called. Four hearts melted. Ours and hers.

“This is our dog,” I told the kids, who were seven and nine at the time. She seemed quiet, not a “jumper,” and already well-trained. We brought our perfect dog home.

Weeks later, as her comfort level with us increased and she could “be herself,” we learned she was not what she fooled us into believing at the shelter. She had a lot to say, a shrill bark, she couldn’t pass another dog on a leash without lunging and losing her doggie mind, and she jumped up on every person she met. But it was too late by then. She was ours and she knew it. A year of training settled most of her bad habits down, and there was a sweet, sensitive and highly intelligent dog underneath.

She turned 11 in August, or so we thought, until the leaking started. Our vet thinks she’s at least 13, which means she’s very much a senior dog. Incontinence is a common occurrence in older spayed females. And it’s actually the least of my worries despite what I’ve written here. Her appetite is also waning, she’s losing weight, and her energy is not what it was. She’s slower to get up off the floor, she has an occasional limp in her right leg, she sometimes loses her footing on stairs, and her eyes water.

We’ve done close to $1000 worth of testing (another thing on the list of things I never thought I’d do), including blood work, urine cultures, a bladder ultrasound, and a full body x-ray. All are normal.

So we go on. She’s still at my heels, following me from room to room when I’m home. Like a mother of a toddler, I can’t even leave the door open when I’m in the bathroom.  Some days she wants to go for a walk, on other days she drags her heels and tries to redirect her leash back home. I indulge her, although I insist she go for at least a short “sniffing” walk each day. We have a city park just a block and a half away that used to be not even a warm-up walk for her.

Occasionally she forgets her increasing frailty and bolts down the sidewalk in pursuit of a squirrel or a cat.* It raises my spirit when she does this, and hers too. She comes back pleased with herself and the job she’s done. Inevitably, though, the burst of energy takes a lot out of her. She’s an old dog with a young dog’s instincts.

On lucky days, we get a longer walk. Today was one of those days and it was a glorious, picture-perfect fall day—warm, with blue skies, and trees aglow in the rich colors of fall.

Our favorite place to walk is the nature preserve across the street.

It was a slow walk so I had a chance to snap some pictures of her and the beautiful fall light and foliage.

bella 1

Bella is in the fall of her life.

It’s most likely her last.

In the largest meadow today, we came across a stray black dog. He greeted us warily until I spoke to him in a friendly way, asking him how he was and where his people were. He greeted us amiably, tail wagging slowly, while I noted his advanced age, patchy hair, a limp, and the lack of a collar.

“We need to help this dog, Bella,” I said, and as I considered how to walk two dogs home on one leash, the stray started across the meadow.

I tried to call him back. He hesitated, then crested a small hill, and vanished.

Bella and I followed not far behind, at a determined pace. But when we reached the spot where he disappeared, we found he truly had. There was no sign of him at all.

I scanned the landscape, whistling and calling. He was simply gone.

Bella and I walked on through fall.


*No squirrel or cat has ever been harmed in the entertainment of Bella. If she ever caught up to one, she wouldn’t have a clue what to do. She is a herding dog.


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