My Dog Is My Greatest Luxury, In Life And In Death

Kenny Rogers the German Shepherd has a fibrosarcoma, a lump a bit smaller than a golf ball, on his snout. My dog has cancer. My big, handsome baby is dying. The vet says he has three to six months to live.

I found him last year on Memorial Day, wandering, sick. Based on the damage to his ears and the calluses on his body, he was probably neglected and abused for the first eight or so years of his life. He was in and out of the shelter seven times before I picked him up. I didn’t go out looking for this dog. But I found him, no one else wanted him, and I’ve given him a good life. I take him on long walks. I play with him. I give him treats and squeaky toys, and I rub his belly until his legs twitch. I feed him pretty good food, certainly the best I can afford. I’ve cleaned up his diarrhea more times than I care to remember. He has two beds. I let him sit on the couch. I’ve done my best. And now he’s going to die, and I’m worried I can’t do enough.

We found the tumor in January. It was a five paycheck month for me, and knowing that I’d have a little extra at the end of the month, I set aside money to get Kenny’s teeth cleaned. I took him to our usual vet for dental cleaning. They saw the lump on his snout, and that was the beginning of the end. A veterinary surgeon inspected the lump the next morning, and after I explained that I didn’t have thousands of dollars, he backed away from the idea of CT scan and agreed to do fine needle aspiration of the tumor. I spent $538 on Care Credit for the biopsy, and in a panic, I agreed to take on the higher interest, longer-term payment plan. I was prepared to spend more for surgery, so much that I wouldn’t be able to pay it off in six months. But radiation and chemo would be thousands. I knew I couldn’t afford that, even on credit.

In the end it didn’t matter that I couldn’t pay. The biopsy results came back; surgery, radiation, and chemo will not help him, not really. Extremely aggressive surgery and radiation might give him another year. But what kind of year would it be? I want to let him die a happy dog. But I’m also relieved. Knowing that there is nothing that I can do makes me feel better in a way, or at least less guilty. If I go on the internet that good feeling abates. Am I not trying hard enough, not spending enough? Someone on a poorly laid out Geocities page claims to have cured his German Shepherd’s cancer using fish oil. A couple in Minnesota spent $15,000 on surgery and radiation for their dog. Bone marrow transplants and experimental therapies. Maybe I should try a holistic cure? But I don’t have thousands of dollars to throw at this tumor.

In a masochistic move a few days ago, I read old emails I’d sent my friends about Kenny. I originally brought him home as a foster, and one of my friends who found him with me agreed to help pay for some of the associated costs. I brought him home on June 12th, and on June 18th, I wrote my friend that I’d spent $355.12 on Kenny. I felt bad asking for help. It had been less than a week, and I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be able to give up Kenny that easily. He fit into my life so well. He made me so happy. He seemed grateful for all the love I gave him, and he was so much fun to have around.

I don’t want to tally up the total since then, but I’ll start. I spent $200/month on a dog walker, roughly $35/month on food, maybe an additional $25/month on miscellaneous dog stuff. And while Kenny is a mellow, older dog and not a destructive puppy, he’s eaten several pairs of my underwear and broken a few things that got in the way of his wagging tail. Vet bills never got too out of control. I spent $160 on blood work and roughly $80 on exams when poor old Kenny was having digestive problems and trouble gaining weight, another $80 when he ate a tinfoil wrapped burrito off the sidewalk. I felt a little ridiculous spending eighty bucks for a vet to make my dog throw up, but knowing that he had a physical exam recently and there was no apparent tumor makes me feel better. If I didn’t notice the lump, well, a vet and two vet techs didn’t, either. That lump appeared out of nowhere. So it goes.

There have been other costs. $150 for pet sitting over the holidays, $60 for stairs so that he can get on my bed, $50 for a crate I bought off Craigslist. My dog has been my greatest luxury. I’ve gone from an almost totally unbudgeted, financial idiot to someone with a strict line-item for everything I want and need each month. I’d rather go out less and pay my credit card debt off slowly than not have the love of a dog. I have often questioned this decision. But I have no regrets, not the money I’ve spent, not the heartbreak I feel.

The tumor doesn’t seem to bother him yet, but it will. His wonderful veterinary surgeon has talked to me about the future—about end of life and knowing when it’s time to let him go. The cost benefit pet analysis questions go all the way up to the end. I don’t really want to think about this now, but I’d rather have Kenny put to sleep at home—maybe on his favorite spot on the couch or in his bed—than at the vet’s office. I also know that I will regret not springing for cremation. It would be cheaper to have him euthanized at a vet’s office and cremated with other dogs, but I’d rather spend the money, put it on credit, pay the interest. I am prepared for these end of life costs, but the questions hanging in the back of my mind—Is this really necessary? Can I afford it? Can I not afford it?—make me feel terrible. How much do I love my dog? A million trillion dollars of love. How much money do I have? Not that much. But maybe just enough.


Jordan Kurtzman lives in LA. // photo by Jordan Kurtzman
// More pet stories on The Billfold


10 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

Holy cow, thank goodness I am alone in my office right now. This is very sweet and heartbreaking.

kbn22 (#1,414)

I’m so very sorry you’re dealing with this. But as you already know, you are doing a GREAT thing by doing everything you can to make him happy and comfortable. Even if you had a million dollars, it might not be worth putting him through all the treatment just to buy a few extra months – after all, the dog doesn’t realize all the treatments are in the service of a longer life; they just know they’re unpleasant and involve a lot of trips to the vet. I foster and volunteer at an animal shelter, and sometimes the animals have to be euthanized and it’s very sad for all involved. But another volunteer said something once that made me feel a lot better – unlike humans, animals have no fear of death at all. A dog has no idea when he wakes up that it will be his last day. So as long as they’re not in pain, they’re happy all the way through; we can only hope ourselves to be that lucky when it’s our turn. Keep doing what you’re doing, and giving Kenny lots of love and treats. When it’s time for him to go, I know how sad it will be for you. But maybe it will make it a bit easier to think that it won’t be sad for him.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@kbn22 I’m not crying YOU’RE crying

themegnapkin (#444)

So heartbreaking! I’m so glad you’re giving Kenny a happy and wonderful life. My dog is 11-13 years old, and every day I think about how lucky I am to have him, and how I want him to be happy and healthy and my little best friend forever. I would do *anything* for him (donate a kidney, jump in front of a car, take a bullet), but I’m with kbn22 above – when my little guy’s quality of life goes down, I’m not going to make him go through painful treatments in the hopes of eking out a few more months with him.

honey cowl (#1,510)

This. Breaks my little heart.

reggie (#3,302)

Just think of how happy you have made him. He has known nothing but unfettered happiness since he found you – he has been played with, fed, warm, taken care of when sick and above all, loved. You have been there, for better or for worse. He knows it. I know that all pets are same, bought or adopted, but I do think adopted ones are forever more grateful & happy to love and be loved. Im with kbn22 – when his time comes, it will be super sad & and you will miss him forever, but try to console yourself knowing that he was happy until the end. Not many humans can say the same.

jessie (#446)

I had a cat whom I loved very much, and in the last couple of years of his life I spent a lot of money on his vet bills. More money than I possessed—I put it on my credit card. I looked online and saw a lot of people declaring that they would never spend as much as I had, and I felt kind of foolish. But I decided in the end that I’d rather be a caring person than a coldly practical one, and that I’d racked up debt for a lot less worthy causes. Of course, everyone has to make the decision that’s right for them. Anyway, now that he’s gone, I don’t care how much I spent.

After my cat died I got a dog. She came from the shelter, and she seems like she’s had a hard life. No one else wanted her, so I brought her home. She’s not the most effusive dog, and I often feel like we haven’t really bonded in our 14 months together. I fret a lot about how much money I spend on her—just the basics (food, routine vet care, occasional boarding) cost so much. But reading this article reminds me that it’s worth it. She’s a good girl and she deserves a good life, and I know once she’s not here anymore I’ll be glad that I tried to do that.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@jessie Thank you so much! I volunteer at a shelter and sometimes it breaks my heart to see sweet but shy dogs with hard histories get overlooked. Really, thank you.

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

This is lovely. Our old dog was a shepherd mix (the best kind of dog!), and the debate over when to put her down was agonizing because she never got deathly ill, just gradually declined. My family now has a 9-year-old pitbull who got his first real home in late 2011. I think he once had abusive owners based on his fear of certain things and his age, but when the shelter got him, he’d been a stray for who knows how long. It makes me so happy that after so many years of neglect (he has scars and missing teeth), he gets to live out the rest of his days in a warm home with people who love him. What you’re doing for Kenny is priceless. And now I’m getting a bit teary, dammit!

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