9. Sheena and Spode Face Tumors

by Patricia Gail Burnham

My friend Betty Lou called with a question. She had requested blood panels for Sheena’s relatives, Spode and Lancelot, who were 11and 9 years old. It is a good idea to have a blood panel run each year on old dogs as the panel can identify problems before they are serious. Spode’s panel showed elevated liver values while Lancelot’s showed a low white count. The liver values were of more concern and the vet wanted to run a test for Cushing’s Disease.

My heart turned cold. Elevated liver values and a test for Cushing’s Disease were the first steps we had taken when Sheena’s mother died. Annie’s autopsy revealed an adrenal carcinoma. And Star Traveler had shown elevated liver values before he had been diagnosed with liver carcinomas. We had tried to diagnose his illness for more than six months, finally identifying the liver tumors by means of an abdominal ultrasound just two weeks before he died.

Since the ultrasound had shown what was wrong with Traveler, I suggested that Betty Lou take Spode to Dr. Barrett for an abdominal ultrasound to look at her liver. And since Sheena had shown raised liver values when the puppies were born, I said that she also needed an ultrasound and we could make appointments for the same day.

We Did the Ultrasounds

One bright August morning we met at the veterinary hospital. Spode’s ultrasound was done first and then it was time for Sheena and me. Some people just drop their dogs off to have ultrasounds performed, but I find it helpful to watch ultrasounds. Seeing what the problem is gives me more information than just hearing about it. Star Traveler’s ultrasound showed the entire liver white with tumors. Healthy liver is black on an ultrasound.

A technician shaved Sheena’s abdomen. I collected the brindle hair and put it in a plastic bag, unwilling to let them just sweep it away and discard it. I had never seen a large area of a brindle dog shaved before. As the hair was shaved away what emerged was black and white striped skin, brindle skin underneath her brindle hair.

Dr. Barrett came in with a student who was going to watch the procedure. As a result, we got a narrated tour of Sheena’s insides. Her liver was nice and black. And then on the black liver a white spot appeared and Dr. Barrett stopped talking and started to take still pictures. The white spot was round and about the size of a golf ball, and it shouldn’t be there. Dr. Barrett recommended doing a needle biopsy. I had talked him into doing a needle biopsy on Traveler without anesthetic, but this time he wanted to anaesthetize Sheena for the biopsy.

When I met Betty Lou out front and asked how her ultrasound had gone, it turned out that her ultrasound had not shown a distinct tumor like Sheena’s had, but showed a small spot on her liver and a fringed gall bladder. Spode was scheduled for a Cushing’s syndrome test. In order to do the Cushing’s test she had to spend the day at the vet’s office and stay calm. Spode had parvovirus as a four-month-old puppy and had to spend several days hooked up to intravenous tubes at a vet’s office. It saved her life, but afterwards she absolutely hated veterinarians. So, to keep her calm, Betty Lou moved into a spare exam room with blankets and a radio and camped out with Spode, napping through the day while they tested her. Spode stayed calm. The test was successful and she didn’t have Cushing’s Disease.

The Biopsies

The doctor recommended doing a needle biopsy of the small spot on Spode’s liver. Sheena’s biopsy was first and the night before I was in a fit of anxiety, fearful that she would die under the anesthesia. I even cast her paw stones.

I make rectangular memorial stepping stones for my dogs with their names and paw prints and decorative ceramic items imbedded in the concrete. Sheena’s had a tile that said, “A woman’s place is in control” and a heart with a red number 10 on it. She also had a tile that said, “I’m the boss,” and one with a verse about friendship.

I made two paw stones, one that said Sheena and one that said Mom. The Sheena paw stone has all four of Sheena’s paw prints on it while the Mom paw stone has one of Sheena’s paw prints and a paw print from each of the puppies down the side. That night, as the paw stones were drying on the patio, the puppies ran across them to leave additional faint paw prints of their own.

I dropped off Sheena at the vet’s office in the morning and spent the day worrying about the anesthesia, but she met me that night, bright-eyed and ready to go home. When the biopsy results came back, the diagnosis was a hepatoma. A hepatoma is an adenoma of the liver. Adenomas are considered benign tumors because they don’t spread to other parts of the body, but they will kill you nonetheless. They can grow to football size and will kill you in the process. The question was, did I want to risk liver surgery to remove the adenoma?

Next, Spode went in for her biopsy and the diagnosis was another adenoma. Spode’s liver values were much higher than Sheena’s, but neither dog was showing any symptoms. They both seemed perfectly healthy except for their blood values and the biopsy results. It is hard to decide to operate on an apparently healthy dog. Spode went in for surgery in October.

The Surgery

Dr. Carla Salida, who had done Sheena’s C-section, would be doing the surgery. When Spode’s tumor was exposed, it was wrapped around vital organs. Carla tried to find a way to remove it and finally said, “I can’t do it.” So she closed Spode’s abdomen and sent her home. Dr. Barrett said that she could live from two months to two years.

Spode stayed in the house for the next month to heal. I work near Betty Lou’s house so I would visit Spode at lunch to let her out. I was amazed at the size of the incision. She had been cut from breastbone to crotch. The skin was rolled and fastened with what looked like a blanket hemstitch. It was a very impressive incision. Spode was feeling fairly sorry for herself for the first week. At the back of my mind, while I watched her, was the decision of did I want to put Sheena through this?

Sheena didn’t look or act sick. She played hard, slept harder, and dreamed with her usual intensity. Sheena has always been one of the most active dreaming dogs I have ever known. Her dreams start with twitches of her lips, which work their way up her face and down her neck to her body. Everything on her body moves. Her closed eyes jerk and her powerful legs kick as she runs in her sleep in pursuit of phantom prey. Often the chases end with her satisfied lip smacking. It is quite a performance.

Kira, on the other hand, didn’t seem to dream at all. She slept snuggled quietly with her head on my shoulder and her heart against my heart. When the nights grew colder, she figured out that it was warmer to curl up against the back of my knees, completely under the covers.

Most Greyhounds don’t like to sleep under the covers. They overheat and wake up panting. But Sheena and Kira were exceptions. Sheena had slept for her entire life curled up under the covers in my arms. She practiced the fixed-stare technique of asking to have the covers raised so that she could slide underneath. If she left the bed during the night, I would wake up in the dark with her face inches from mine, willing me to wake up and lift the covers for her.

Kira had a much more direct approach for getting the covers lifted. Kira is extremely foot oriented. As a tiny puppy she had waved her front legs violently when I had carried her to Sheena to nurse. Now as a youngster she used her front feet to get attention, tapping on me with her toenails. Before I realized what she was doing, she had taught me to respond to being tapped in the shoulder blade with a toenail by covering her up. It was one of the neatest pieces of owner training that I have seen. She taught me that the quickest way to stop her tapping was to cover her up. So, I might as well do it at the first tap, instead of waiting for the tenth. Telling her to stop tapping was useless. She would just wait and then start again. She had a perfect grasp of the two basics of animal training: inevitability and repetition. It was easier to cover her, than to get her to stop the tapping any other way.

On Dog Love

Once under the covers, she liked to increase her salt intake by licking up my skin salt. Here, again, she had her own style. Most dogs are straightforward lickers who wash their human with simple slurps. When Kira wanted me to get up in the morning she would wash my face with enthusiastic normal dog licks. Her morning greeting was very much like Sheena’s.

But when Kira was after salt she would put her tongue gently on my arm and let it lay there for a minute for a long taste before she would retrieve it to start another lick. It was very seductive. After decades of dog licks, her technique stood out from the pack. For folks who may be horrified at the thought of dog kisses, interspecies immunity makes it safer to kiss dogs than to kiss people.

One of the Greyhound rescue organizations used to sell a T-shirt with the message, “Alors. Je Suis Embrasse Ma Levrier, Sur La Bouche,” which translates into, “Warning, I kiss my dog on the lips.” Most of my dogs know the word “kiss.” Visitors who playfully say ,”Do you want a kiss?” are likely to get kissed before they realize what is happening. In Sheena’s case, it is a good idea to keep one’s mouth closed, since she has been known to French-kiss people, which can be quite a surprise.

On Dog Lovers

Dog lovers are a special breed. I pulled into a service station with the puppy pack along, and a middle-aged man at the next pump looked at my passengers and the bumper sticker that said, “I love Greyhounds.” He then asked, “Do you love dogs?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Actually, that is a test. It is a way to tell whether a person really loves dogs. If you say, ‘Do you love dogs?’ and the person does, they will answer yes without hesitation. But a person who doesn’t love dogs will qualify their answer. They will say something like, ‘Of course I like dogs,’ or ‘Doesn’t everybody like dogs?’ Try it. It never fails.” I haven’t tried his question on anyone yet, but I also never forgot it. It was my most memorable gasoline stop.

The truth is, a fraction of the human race considers dogs to be dirty or dangerous animals and not fit for human companionship, and we will never understand those people. Because, to people who value dogs, they are highly-evolved social beings with virtues that most people should envy. They are loving, intelligent, and in some cases, beautiful creatures who have evolved over millions of years and have been selected over thousands of years to be our companions.

Dogs are undervalued because we are used to them. We see them everywhere and familiarity breeds contempt. If we found a species of their sophistication on Mars, it would be the news of the century. It would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize. As it is, we slaughter them thoughtlessly. It is not one of mankind’s finer moments.

In the language of native Americans, dogs belong to what are called, “Other bloods.” These are the creatures who share the world with man. And they have strengths of their own that we lack. Hawks and eagles have the power of flight and have better eyesight than we do. Bison and bears have greater strength. Wolves and dogs are faster runners than we are, can see better in the dark, and have a sense of smell that we, in our scent-blind state, can barely comprehend.

The Kiowa identify things that happened long ago by saying that they happened, “When dogs could talk.” But this is a misnomer because dogs talk now. They talk with their eyes and their tongues, with their tails, and their speaking paws.

Kira was the most paw-oriented dog I had ever met. When she was less than a week old and I was carrying her in to nurse, she would flail wildly with her front legs. And now when she wants something, she taps me with her left paw. Usually what she wants is to be covered up but she will also tap for a particularly wonderful treat, or to make me pay attention to her when I have been sorting through photos or papers for too long. Greyhounds are indeed “Other bloods.” And those of us who appreciate them have contact with a larger world than the limited one of mankind alone.


To add to her range of expressions, Kira learned to smile. Actually, she might have been smiling all along, but I didn’t learn to recognize it until she was seven months old. Partly this was because her smile was unusual. Not all dogs smile, but the smilers usually do it by lifting their lips all around their mouth to expose their teeth.

Smiling is a genetic trait in a happy dog who is greeting someone. It lifts its lips to show all its teeth. Subordinate wolves do this when they greet their pack leader. Smiling is basically a subordinate grin. Sheena’s sister is a big time smiler and I warn people who are about to meet her that she will smile at them and that it is not a snarl or threat. It can be a little shocking to meet a big, fast-moving dog that is displaying all its teeth.

I was playing tag with Kira one day when she lifted her head, pointed her muzzle at me and lifted just the lips in the very front to expose her pearly white incisors. I suddenly realized that she was smiling. I had never seen a dog smile without lifting the side lips to expose all the teeth. Once I had learned to watch for her little grin, it was easy to spot, mainly because she would always point her incisors directly at me before lifting the lips to show them off. It is the smallest toothy grin in the world.

CG W 99

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This article and any photos or artwork contained within may not be reproduced or reprinted without express written permission from the author, artists, and/or photographers. 

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