My own dogs were puppies when we got them, puppies like my husband and me. Now, 12 years later, I've begun to read the obituaries in the paper, I worry about osteoporosis, I experience occasional sciatica. Musashi, the elder of our canines, appears blessed with youthful genes, but Lila, like me, is going gray, her hips eroding, clumps of fur falling from her hide.
Until recently, I viewed Lila's decline as I do my own, an unfortunate inconvenience auguring a foreboding future that was still a way off. Then, a few months ago (it was spring then, a beautiful soft May day), I came downstairs to find my feisty dog crouched by the front door, her eyes squinted shut, her breath hot and fast. I called to her. She struggled toward me, then keeled sideways. I rushed her to the 24-hour veterinary hospital located ten miles from our house. "Why," I thought, as I waited at a series of interminable red lights, my dog panting in pain, "why are there no ambulances for animals?" While an ambulance for animals may strike some as absurd, it is likely no more ridiculous than a pet ER would have seemed to the general public 100 years ago.
Perhaps of all the 20th century's advances, veterinary medicine ranks among the greatest, not too far behind the combustible gas-powered engine. As barnyard animals disappeared from mainstream American life, so too did the barnyard vet, his primitive tools replaced with the antiseptic power-driven appliances that characterize so much of modern medicine, his sheep and goats and chickens now shampooed lapdogs and fine-boned huskies with bead-blue eyes and soap-white coats. And whereas in the 19th century "vets" had minimal education if any at all, they now are required to slog through four years of training more intense than an ordinary doctor's owing to the sheer quantity of species whose structures and metabolisms they need to master. And yet despite the difficulties of a veterinary education, the fact is that the number of vets and veterinary hospitals have, over the course of the 20th century, exponentially increased. Experts seem to agree that this increase reflects the pet's phenomenal rise in status, from a lowly creature consigned to the outhouse or no-house to honored family member with her own Eddie Bauer bed.
Or her own hospital bed, as the case may be. The hospital we arrived at that day is a 25 "bed" facility, a piece of prime real estate amid a row of biotechnology companies on a tony road just off the highway. I carried my panting puppy in through the pneumatic doors. A Burmese mountain dog lying sideways on a stretcher was whisked past me by two masked attendants. On the wall above the reception desk hung pictures of the vets, each coiffed and poised, below gold plaques inscribed with their specialties: neurology, oncology, pediatrics, psychology. The Burmese mountain dog was stalled outside the OR doors. He lay on his side, his front paws politely, precisely, crossed. His yellow eyes met mine. I had the distinct feeling he was from a fairy tale, a prince put under a spell, his carcass canine, his mind man.
A doctor ushered me into a small examination room. With thumb and forefinger she peeled back Lila's clamped lids, and I could see it then, how her normally amber eyes were filled with milk, glinting a dull bluish color, all opaque. Her eyes were oozing, and when I touched the fluid dampening her fur, it felt gluey.