I adopted my first dog, a scruffy 10-pound terrier mix named Frankie, when I was an adult and fairly clueless about all things canine. I wasn’t really prepared to care for the cute but alien creature that had entered my home, and I definitely wasn’t anticipating that, a few years down the road, I would be meeting the needs of a dog with diabetes. By then, however, I was completely besotted with him.
I’d liked dogs – or at least the idea of them – since I was a kid, but had never had much interaction with them. I grew up in a small Brooklyn apartment with a mother who feared all creatures great and small. None of my childhood friends had dogs either. Our urban Flatbush neighborhood was a far cry from Lassie country.
It wasn’t until I moved from New York and settled into a house with a large yard in Tucson that I gave in to my vague hankerings for canine companionship- not to mention to the nudgings of a dog rescuer friend, who emailed me a picture of a cute, disheveled pup who had been found wandering in the streets. The local humane society estimated he was about five years old. He had the sweetest, furry face, large intelligent eyes. I fell harder for him than I’d ever done for a guy on a dating site.
I would like to report that Frankie and I bonded immediately when my rescuer friend left him with me, that as soon as his trusting little face looked into mine, I knew I’d made the right decision. I would like to, but that would be a lie. Frankie’s little face wasn’t trusting; it was terrified.
Pride and obstinacy have their rewards. Slowly, slowly, I won him over. He began shadowing me around the house, snuggling up against my armpit when we went to sleep at night. I eventually learned his little quirks. He wasn’t interested in playing ball or in most toys, but there was a squeaky chili that he loved to chase – and chew up. I began buying replacement squeakers in bulk.
When Frankie was eight years old, far from geriatric for a small dog, he began drinking more water than usual and had a few accidents in the house. We lived in the desert. Maybe the dry heat was getting to him, I rationalized. And he was still his perky, squeaky chili-destroying self.
So it came as a bit of a shock when, during an already scheduled visit, the vet told me that Frankie had diabetes. I learned that in dogs, the most common version of the disease is similar to the type 1 version in humans – that is, after the onset, dogs become insulin dependent. In what is sometimes termed insulin deficient diabetes (IDD), a dog loses beta cells and no longer makes enough insulin to keep the glucose levels under control. No single cause is known; possibilities include genetic defects, pancreatic inflammation, and autoimmune attack.
Although I’d known dogs could get diabetes, and that it was treatable, when I got the diagnosis, I feared life as I knew it would be over.
I searched high and low for a diet that would treat the condition; many friends with diabetic cats assured me it could be done. Then I finally settled down and worked with my vet to get Frankie’s blood sugar regulated. I won’t lie. It took a long, frustrating time, about seven months. But many glucose curves, switches of insulin types, and dose adjustments later, he was finally stabilized.
We fell into a routine: I gave Frankie two shots a day, 12 hours apart, right after meals. (He proved resistant to injecting himself; it must have been the terrier in him.) Some people test their dogs using blood glucose meters designed for small animals, but I opted for the less expensive – and less intrusive – urine tests with over-the-counter Diastix Reagent strips for humans.
I found that I was not only coping, but also that Frankie’s care provided surprising rewards. Advised by my vet that regular exercise was important, I would take Frankie to a riverside trail early each morning for a long stroll before the desert heat set in. The air was cool and fresh, and we made friends with other regulars. Frankie was very shy but adorable, and soon had a small fan club. People looked forward to seeing us – well, him – but learned to avoid trying to roughhouse with Frankie.
No question: With dogs, as with humans, dealing with a chronic disease is never easy. I was constantly vigilant. I learned to recognize the first signs of hypoglycemia – a drunken gait – and always had Karo syrup on hand for our walks. I had a few scares, a few hypoglycemic incidents, but no medical emergencies. I knew I was lucky to have found out about Frankie’s diabetes sooner rather than later, while it was still imminently manageable.
Frankie lived well with diabetes until the age of 15.
When it was clear that his quality of life was irreversibly compromised, I booked an appointment with a hospice vet to come over and help ease Frankie out of this world. In the last week, I gave him his insulin so he wouldn’t experience any discomfort but I was far more lax about between-meal snacks. Forget high-fiber kibble; Big Macs with bacon turned up on the menu. Frankie passed away relaxed in my arms after eating a large bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Stephen Colbert Americone Dream ice cream – a fitting sendoff for my Frankie Doodle Dandy.