I never thought I could love a Chihuahua. As a child I grew up in a family that always had pets: birds, fish, turtles, dogs, cats, snakes, and maybe a few species I don’t quite recall. My favorite animals were the cats but I was always fond of the dogs. And yet whenever I met Chihuahuas we had no rapport whatsoever. I was always a “big dog” kid.
I thought they were mean, vicious dogs and could not understand why people kept them. Whether it was your pet or mine I tried to be friends with all the animals. For a while Doctor Doolittle was my favorite literary character (it probably helped that my Third Grade teacher, Mrs. Mooney, read the Doctor Doolittle books to her classes).
Chihuahuas, as I eventually learned, are neither mean-spirited nor vicious. They are just intensely loyal, territorial, and sometimes defensive. They live in a world filled with anxiety. Being so small they are constantly on the alert and work to protect their packs (which includes you, their human family). Yoshi finally helped me see that Chihuahuas are dogs with personality, full of love, and can be just as social as any other dogs.
My wife adopted Yoshi about four years before she and I met. She described him as a “deer-faced, fawn-colored Chihuahua”. When she and I began seeing each other Yoshi’s reaction to me could be boiled down to something like, “I have places to go, things to see. You deal with this guy.”
While my wife and I were still dating I took a job in another state. A few months later she came to join me but left Yoshi in the care of her family. After he had a bad experience during a hurricane I told her he could come live with us, and so Yoshi was put on a plane and made a long flight across the country to join us.
Our first few months together were odd. Yoshi was clearly not my dog and he rarely did as I commanded until one day he ran out the door. I had to chase after him until (realizing he could not outrun me) he submitted to me. From that day forward we quickly grew closer together. He remained devoted to my wife but now he sought me out to spend time with me, to lay next to me, and he did as I told him too. At night when he was cold Yoshi would snuggle up to my wife’s back. Now he began doing that with both of us.
Over the next few years we took Yoshi everywhere with us: on vacations, shopping, to casinos, hiking in the northwest woods, etc. We never left him alone for very long and if the weather was very cold or very warm we either kept him home or someone stayed with him in the car. He ruled the car, of course. He had his “staying warm in the sun” spots, his “stare at other dogs and growl” spots, and his “give me my human food treat” spots. He loved bacon and cheeseburgers. Never in my life would I have imagined a 7-pound dog could eat a whole cheeseburger (except the pickles), but he managed to do it. We made that a very rare treat and over time cut way back on the amount of food we gave him but he loved to eat what we ate, like all dogs.
People who knew dogs, when they met Yoshi, sometimes said, “Oh, he’s an alpha. He’s got to be the boss.” And it was true. Many other dogs submitted to him, even when they were twice his size. The much larger dogs often tolerated Yoshi, but there were a few big alphas that had to teach him a lesson. Yoshi’s dominance consisted of barking angrily at the larger dogs and then running for cover (usually behind me or my wife). We became adept at pulling him up by the leash into our arms (don’t worry — we kept him on a body harness, so he was never choked).
You could never trust Yoshi to keep the peace when large dogs were around. But we loved him. He usually understood what we said to him. In fact, dogs are about as intelligent as toddlers and understand many words. Chihuahua owners will tell you their dogs are more intelligent than the dog intelligence studies claim. Don’t argue with us. Yoshi was always smart.
There was a time my wife went to visit her brother. Yoshi and I took care of each other while she was gone. I managed to get really sick that week and often sat on the floor, leaning against a wall, feeding him dog food from my hand. When we picked up mommy at the airport he jumped up on her lap and warbled in a strange tone something that we always translated as, “Now that mommy’s home everything will be okay again.”
Not convinced? Another time I was working in my home office. Yoshi came in to say hello (or sniff for treats — whatever dogs do when they enter a room uninvited). Suddenly I heard him growling menacingly. I looked over and saw him staring at his reflection in a mirror. “Yoshi!” I said. “That’s you!” He looked at me with that “huh?” expression dogs can get when you correct them. Then he looked back at his reflection, tilted his head sideways both ways, stared at himself a little longer, and moved on with his life. I could never get him to look at himself in a mirror again. He had resolved that great mystery in life and needed more challenge.
Besides playing with Yoshi and walking him around the neighborhood (or along nature trails) I fell into the habit of singing to him. It bothered my wife for a while but Yoshi and I agreed I had a great singing voice. I would make up broadway-style songs for him, sing to him like a Las Vegas entertainer belting out “Happy Birthday” to a surprised audience member, and I would sing him lullabies at night. If we had uploaded any videos of me singing to the dog I doubt they would have gone viral, although my critics would never let me hear the end of it.
One of Yoshi’s favorite tunes was the “Bye Bye song”. I’d sing “We’re gonna go bye bye, right now; we’re gonna go bye bye today; we’re gonna go BYE BYE …” It was a challenge to devise new rhymes for those first lines. The “Bye Bye Song” also became the “Pee Pee Song” and the get-him-excited-about-anything-song. Too much info? Normally I would keep that to myself, but read on.
Sometimes when he was nodding off I would sing him a simple lullaby my mother had sung to me as a child, “Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep little Yoshi. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep and dream sweet dreams.” So I sang him into frenzies and sang him into sleep.
To save on parking fees I rarely drove my car to work any more so when my wife picked me up she brought Yoshi. He was always happy to see me and would sit in my lap as we rode down the road. My wife once joked about being jealous. “He loves you more than he loves me now,” she said. “No he doesn’t,” I told her. “He’s my bud.” I looked down at him and I said, “You’re MY bud and I’m YOUR bud, Yoshi. And that makes us both buds, dunn’t it?”
That became part of our routine, partly because I said it often enough that it annoyed her in a teasing way for a while until it simply became part of our daily routine. Yoshi and I were buds. He would look me in the eye and listen attentively as I said just about anything that came into mind. But he was devoted to her. If she left the room he followed her. If she went out on an errand he had to go with her. He somehow found a way to love us both, assigning each of us a place in his life.
Over the years I may have sung less often and came up with fewer variations on my tunes but I still sang him the “bye bye song” when we took him somewhere in the car. And we were always buds. But he grew older and we left the mountains, the deep woods, and the seashores behind and drove across the country to find a new home and new work. Yoshi spent most of that trip sleeping in the back seat or on hotel room beds.
When we settled into our new home he often came and slept on my lap, or between my legs, early in the mornings. Chihuahuas are known for this behavior. They seek out warmth from other animals and people, but they also do it for companionship. Yoshi had many “hideaway” spots where he could sleep undisturbed, in total warmth, or just observe life around him. He often dug himself into the pillows on our beds. And he never lacked for blankets.
When Yoshi first came to live with us he developed “kennel cough”, most likely having become infected by something on the plane. My wife called several local vets, choosing one who heard Yoshi coughing over the phone and recognized it right away. “Bring him right in,” they told us. While we lived in the Seattle area that was our vet. I made sure Yoshi saw her on a regular basis, taking care of his teeth, shots, and occasional kennel cough. At one point she detected a “slight heart murmur”, but it was “nothing to be worried about” because “many small dogs develop these problems”.
I wish she had told us more about that at the time. While it is true that many small dogs develop murmurs, that is often the first sign of a more serious illness. Yoshi had to have a few of his teeth pulled, “but that is common with small dogs,” they told us. I wish they had told us a little more about that at the time.
Yoshi moved to California with us at the end of 2010. We tried a couple of vets, even allowing one to neuter him while treating a hernia. We were not happy about that experience, but that vet told us he had “a slight bulge on his heart”. I wish she had said more. But we had other complaints about that vet hospital. After his surgery they put him in a metal kennel without a blanket, where for almost 12 hours he cried out for attention and warmth. They obviously did not know much about Chihuahuas. My wife had to threaten to come back with the police if they didn’t let her see him. They were obviously stalling, hoping that he would calm down before she got to him. You can’t do that to a Chihuahua, even one doped up on pain medicine.
The day of his surgery I sat with Yoshi on the couch and I spoke to him. He had no idea of what was coming. I told him I loved him for the first time. He understood that I was upset. I really did not want the neutering operation for him. But I said good-bye because I didn’t know if he would come back to us.
We moved to Georgia in 2012. I had grown up in the south and had many old friends here. I was able to reconnect with a few of them and I asked one to recommend a vet. Yoshi liked her and we decided right away she would be our new family vet. Yoshi seemed healthy and happy. Once in a while he would cough a little but we thought it might just be the heat. In fact, the new vet cautioned us to keep him cool as he grew older. She had a Chihuahua, too, and so we felt we had a vet who could understand our dog’s needs.
It was the asphalt that was overheating him. Little dogs overheat quickly when they are on hot surfaces, much more quickly than larger dogs. So we bought a dog stroller for him. People at the park were fascinated by the sight of a Chihuahua in a carriage. Yoshi acted like he was humiliated. He hated being “in the trolley”. Sometimes we carried him. Sometimes we made him walk on the cool grass.
We took in another Chihuahua in 2013. She was about three years old and though we never learned all the details we understand that her original owner died and the surviving family members could not or would not take care of her. My wife asked if we could adopt her (sight unseen) and I agreed. We thought she might make a good companion for Yoshi. We named our new family member “Peaches”.
Yoshi and Peaches gradually worked out some sort of relationship but they were never “soulmates”. Still, where he led she followed. We hoped they would have many years together.
And then one day Yoshi started coughing again. “Oh, it’s kennel cough again,” I thought. We took him to the vet and she examined him. No trace of kennel cough this time, but she explained that little dogs often have a problem with a collapsing trachea. It was usually nothing to worry about, she said, but she could take an X-ray if we wanted to be sure.
Pet X-rays are expensive and there are many reviews of veterinarian clinics on the Internet where people complain about spending hundreds of dollars on pet X-rays. Yoshi was too old for pet insurance and so I understood that we were taking on a new expense. My family raised me to take responsibility for pets, not to let them suffer. So we paid for the X-ray and learned that Yoshi’s heart was almost twice its normal size. He had Congestive Heart Failure.
“This is common in little dogs,” the vet told us. Her own Chihuahua had it. “Unfortunately, it’s not curable,” she told us. They could treat it for a while but eventually it would kill him.
There are two types of congestive heart failure. Yoshi had the more common type, Mitral Valve Prolapse (which is a failing vavle on the left side of the heart). By the time this condition shows up on X-rays the disease has progressed pretty far. Our doctor suggested a treatment that might prolong Yoshi’s life but to ensure he had better treatment she recommended that we see an Internal Medicine specialist she knew. She also warned us that the IM vet might refer us to a dog cardiologist.
We took the referral to the Internal Medicine specialist and she did indeed suggest a cardiologist would be in a better position to devise a therapy, but it could only be a quality of life therapy, not a cure.
Mitral Valve Prolapse means that the valve between the two chambers of the left side of the heart is leaking fluid. Instead of efficiently pumping blood out to the rest of the body the heart begins to collect fluid in the left atrium (the “upper” chamber). From there the blood begins to back up into the lungs. The heart increases its size to compensate for all this retained fluid, and in a small animal there is just not much room for a heart to grow into.
The average life expectancy for a small dog once Congestive Heart Failure has been diagnosed (assuming proper treatment is maintained) is “2 to 4 years”, which means some dogs live longer and some dogs live less than that. We were hoping for four years but assumed we would probably only have two years with Yoshi.
It has been less than a year since he was diagnosed with CHF and we had to put him to sleep last Friday night. That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.
Congestive Heart Failure can be treated with several drugs. The two most effective drugs increase blood flow through the body and/or reduce blood pressure. They also treat the disease with a diuretic to help your pet expel as much fluid as possible. The coughing may be caused by fluid in the lungs (sort of like pneumonia or bronchitis, but the patient is really just drowning in blood over a long, slow period) or it may be caused by too much pressure on the breathing passage running down the animal’s throat to the lungs.
In Yoshi’s case it was a little of both. CHF is a progressive disease, which means it continually gets worse. In humans they treat this disease with surgery, replacing the faulty valve. In fact, I have a friend who was given a new lease on life by such surgery. But they don’t do this for dogs, especially small dogs.
The only other way to cure the condition is a heart transplant and they just do not do that for dogs. The reasons are complicated, but basically we don’t have a medical system for pets that is like the medical system for us. And while most Americans would agree we have a screwed up medical system, we have at least figured out a way to get transplants to some people. According to this article, a healthy heart would have to be harvested from a living (brain-dead) dog (still breathing). Most veterinary hospitals do not have the equipment to detect brain death in animals; they assess death by listening to the animals’ hearts and measuring their breathing.
After the Internal Medicine vet adjusted his medications Yoshi’s heart shrank about 16% in a month. This was considered to be a remarkable and rare improvement in his condition. We took hope from that assessment. But due to other unexpected expenses we could not follow up as soon after that as we should have. We did try to make his life easier, though, and we gave him medicine throughout the day.
The doctors had advised us to make Yoshi comfortable and to stop taking him on long walks. We carried him up and down stairs. I stayed up and took him out 2-3 times a night after midnight (on most nights; sometimes I fell asleep from exhaustion). His medicines were increased until he was taking maximum doses.
In March 2015 he began coughing more but we didn’t think anything was seriously wrong. The doctors had told us that the first sign of a serious breathing problem with your dog is that his gums and tongue turn blue. Well, as it turns out, they don’t turn BLUE; they acquire a somewhat bluish tinge (and this undoubtedly varies by animal and disease). Whenever I heard Yoshi coughing I would stop what I was doing and give him a long, gentle massage up and down his back, around his shoulders, and very gently around his throat.
He often sat up for these massages. His coughing and breathing usually improved and he seemed to enjoy the massages. But we noticed (and the doctors warned us) that the coughing became worse when he laid down. That was because his body was compressing itself and the heart was pressing on his breathing passage.
It was very difficult for Yoshi to sleep, and he often changed sleeping locations in the middle of the night. Simply getting up and walking around no doubt relieved the pressure he was feeling, but he could not stay on his feet for long. He often slept more restfully in a pet bed where he could rest his head on the edge.
In early April the IM doctor suggested we try a new medication. My wife picked up the prescription, about 2 weeks’ worth, to test with Yoshi. She normally gave him half a dose of any new medicine. This new prescription was accidentally filled with 1 mg pills of Xanax. He began acting erratically and when I researched Xanax poisoning on little dogs I was reassured that he had not taken nearly enough to be of serious concern (it’s very, very hard to poison yourself on Xanax).
But we called the vet anyway and they said “Bring him in.” So my wife took him in. They replaced the Xanax with the right medicine, gave him an ultrasound, and offered to let my wife stay there with him for as long as she wanted so they could observe his condition. If anything, being on Xanax appeared to make him feel better. When she brought him home he even played with his toys, chasing a tennis ball, something we had not seen him do for over a year.
All the doctor said about his heart was “it looks bad”. Nothing more. But she didn’t charge us for the prescription, the ultrasound, or the visit. And she said we could bring him back if we noticed any other symptoms.
The next day Yoshi was a little less active and we just assumed it was the Xanax wearing off. But the coughing returned. I went over to visit a friend in the evening and my wife called me around 10:30. “Yoshi’s screaming,” she said, “and he can’t breathe. We need to take him to the emergency room.”
So we did. The ER vet knew our IM specialist and said he would call her but could not guarantee he would reach her. He said he’d like to take an X-Ray but he wasn’t sure it was a justifiable expense. When my wife pressed him about Yoshi’s symptoms the doctor said it sounded like he might be at the “end of life” stage, where he could only gasp for air from that point forward. Only an X-ray would reveal that for sure. I had to know what was wrong, so we agreed to the X-ray. It showed us that Yoshi’s heart was three times normal size. “I’ve never seen a heart this big,” the doctor told us.
Yoshi could not breathe properly because he had fluid in his lungs AND his heart was pressed up against both his breathing tube and his lungs. He would extend his head and neck out as far as he could in order to relieve that pressure, but he had begun gasping for air and just could not get enough oxygen.
He improved when the vet put him on oxygen but they did not offer to send an oxygen tank home with him. Our only two options were to leave him there overnight on oxygen or take him home. “Either way,” the doctor said, “I don’t think he’ll make it through the night. At best he may last a few more days.”
“Is he suffering?” my wife asked. “Yes,” the doctor said. “You can see he is because his gums are blue and he is struggling to breathe.”
He brought Yoshi in for us and showed us his gums. They were not really BLUE, as I said above; but they were darker than normal, and we had completely missed that. If you deprive an animal of oxygen long enough brain damage will set in, but he was basically drowning and unable to get enough air into his lungs. His heart was also pressing into his lungs, leaving them less room to expand.
I asked about all sorts of crazy options, such as trying to drain blood from the left atrium. But there is just no treatment for this stage of Congestive Heart Failure. At least not any that this ER vet could offer. It was either let him die gasping for breath or put him to sleep.
My wife had suspected for a couple of weeks that Yoshi might be near the end of his life. And she had read Websites where people complained about how their pets were euthanized. The animals sometimes seem to suffer a little bit before they go.
We wanted to spare Yoshi anything like that. We asked if he could be sedated so that he was asleep when he was euthanized. The doctor said he could sedate Yoshi but he would still be awake when the fatal dose was administered. Only later did I realize that what people are probably asking for and expecting is anesthesia, which is administered for animals going into surgery. A sedative does not necessarily make you fall asleep.
We decided on euthanasia but I wanted to be with him at the end. They had a special room for this kind of procedure, where families gather around their pets. Yoshi looked at us and we knew he didn’t want to die, but he was struggling for air. We watched as the doctor sedated him, and after a minute he screamed again because he could not breathe. I should have asked if they could have brought him in on oxygen, or if I could stand next to him in the back where the oxygen was.
My wife had Peaches with her and was trying to leave the room because she didn’t want to see Yoshi suffer. I began massaging him and singing softly to him, as much as I could, “Go to sleep, go to sleep, little Yoshi …”
He looked me in the eye as I sang to him. He calmed down and the doctor administered the second dose. My last words to him were: “You’re my bud. You’ll always be my bud.” And then the doctor, who had been listening to his heart with a stethoscope, said very quietly, “He’s gone.”
It all happened so quickly. We were both still standing there. Nothing prepared us for that moment. Nothing we had heard from the time he was first diagnosed with a murmur warned us of what it would be like to see the life fade from our dog’s body.
I think the doctor was very sympathetic. He has gone through this with so many families, and he mentioned he had to euthanize one of his own dogs. But we were just not ready for that final moment. We hadn’t prepared ourselves for it. We had not said our good-byes, not the way we wanted to. My wife thinks he would have been better off on oxygen when they administered the last dose. I don’t know. I just didn’t want him to be alone, surrounded by strangers when he left. I just wanted him to know we were there for him.
Writing this article was not easy. I had to wait two weeks before I could finish editing it. It’s still way too long but I didn’t want to break it up into two articles. The Humane Society recommends writing about your pet to help you deal with your grief. I’m not sure they mean write an article this long but it was important to me to include so much detail because I want Yoshi’s death to mean something. I wanted to share what we went through with other people who own small dogs. Congestive Heart Failure is very hard to detect.
I reached out to a veterinary doctor I know, Marie Haynes, and asked her to answer some questions. She graciously agreed to do so. I will publish that interview in a few days and hopefully we can help other families. (Read Pet Euthanasia: How to Prepare for the End of Life) Meanwhile, we appreciate all the sympathy and support our friends and family have expressed to us. It was also very touching that all three vets who last treated Yoshi sent us condolence cards.