Sunday, July 31, 2011

Out, Out, Damned Spot?

It has been a busy week around these here parts!

Since Cleo is now spending every night in her crate, I decided that the one she's grown up with was really too small for her.  When she was a tiny puppy, she slept in half of her crate; it was a Lifestages model and we closed off the back half.  As she grew, we moved the barrier farther and farther back until we finally removed it altogether.

This process reminded me of my dad’s technique for teaching me to ride a bike.  I hated training wheels and refused to use them for very long.  My sisters, several years older than I, looked so graceful, tooling around on their two-wheelers, slaloming down the street, effortlessly turning figure eights, riding arcs within arcs like a Busby Berkeley routine.   In contrast, I labored along, training wheels grinding, my bike displaying all the maneuverability of the Queen Mary.  There were times my dad truly understood my yearning to be like my sisters: older, more sophisticated, more learned, more accomplished.  In a way, this is surprising; he was the oldest child in his family.  His youngest sibling was only in third grade when Dad took a hiatus from college after his sophomore year to fight the Nazis.  Yet he was empathetic enough to understand how much I pined for my sisters when they went to overnight camp without me, so that summer, he enlisted me as his apprentice while he created a finished rec room in our basement with his own hands.  I couldn’t have been older than six.  When they entered high school and had no interest in a tag-along tike, he and I built a treehouse in our backyard.

I was always better at
riding a bike than pogo sticking.
So understanding my need to shed the training wheels was a cinch for him.  One summer week, every night when he got home from work in the city, he and I went out to practice two-wheeling.  At first, he held onto the bike seat, running alongside as I pedaled up and down the street.  Then, he held onto my shirt.  Finally, he held onto one piece of my long ponytail.  Of course this did nothing to stabilize me, but it gave me the sense of security I needed to build my confidence.  Saturday rolled around and we went outside to practice.  “Okay,” he said, “when you’re ready to ride on your own, tell me and I’ll let go.”  So off we went down the street.  As we went, I felt the courage build.  I had what it took to ride on my own!  “Okay, Dad, let go!”  He didn’t even acknowledge that I’d said anything!  “Dad!  You can let go now!” Nothing.  I didn’t feel him release me.  I glanced back over my shoulder to see why he wasn’t letting me go. 

Far off down the street, he stood with his hands on his hips, laughing with the pleasure of my accomplishment.  I stopped the bike and looked back at him.  He waved enthusiastically.  He seemed so far away, as if I had ridden miles on my own.  Thinking of it now, I realize the street wasn’t particularly long, maybe five houses on each side.  But I felt such pride in his belief in me.  He knew that I could do it before I did.

Easing Cleo into her Lifestages crate had that same incremental feeling to it.  Once, I moved a little too fast, allowing her the full crate before she was completely ready.  I paid for that with a sterilizing wash of the crate tray.  At least she carefully peed on the plastic tray and not on her bed.  Still, it seems now as though it took no time at all for her to outgrow the training wheels of the insert.  I have a fondness for that crate because it speaks so directly of Cleo’s babyhood, but it seems a little small for her now.  When we were allowing her out of her crate at night, she would often get too warm on the pad and spend some time sacked out on the cooler hardwood of our bedroom floor.  A larger crate would afford her the option of sleeping on the pad or moving it out of the way so she could sleep on the crate tray.  The other consideration is that she likes to sleep on her side with her four legs straight out in front of her (the pose that prompted one of our training classmates to say, “Oh look, your dog got run over by a steamroller”), something her original crate didn’t have the square footage to permit.

She had to duck in the old crate.
On Monday I ordered her a new crate, the next size up.  It arrived yesterday.  I unpacked and unfolded it, then set it up in our bedroom.  I have to admit, I felt a pang of nostalgia as I moved her old crate out of the way.  It’s still set up in my home office ready to be photographed and advertised on Craig’s List.  The end of an era.  My husband calls the new crate Cleo’s condominium.  I washed the pad yesterday and smoothed it over the new floor.   It’s a perfect fit.  At bedtime, because I didn’t want the crate smelling too terribly foreign, I took the shirt I’d been wearing all day and laid it over the pad, then added one of Cleo’s favorite toys.  She climbed sleepily in, spent a few minutes redecorating and nesting, then curled into a ball in the back corner.  She took up about a quarter of the floor space.  But John and I got great pleasure out of watching her stand comfortably in the crate as she prepared it to her liking, and I choose to believe that she slept stretched out at some point in the night.

Our other great adventure of the week has to do with three mysterious bald patches that have appeared along Cleo’s back. 

About a week after her last grooming, maybe a little longer, I noticed three odd looking spots in a perfect line along her spine.  Two, the size of a pair of jelly beans, are about an inch apart just at her shoulder blades and the third, slug-sized, is roughly two inches from her tail.  At first it appeared that the hair was shorter in those areas.  This seemed strange because Cleo’s groomer is meticulous and extremely proud of his skill with the Bedlington cut.  Then, the spots turned dark.  Cleo’s skin is black.  What we were seeing wasn’t the hair darkening, it was the hair disappearing.  I called the groomer to see if he had any idea what might be going on.  His response, “Take her to your vet immediately.”  I made an appointment for that very afternoon.

When we walked in, two little dogs were standing together in the waiting room.  Cleo, who has recently discovered a social butterfly streak, eagerly touched noses with both of them, all tails wagging furiously.  I exchanged some pleasantry with the woman on the other end of the pair’s leash, then looked back at Cleo.  She was in a characteristic posture that was, to say the least, ill-timed.  “Are you peeing?!” I asked her.  She stepped away to reveal a sizeable puddle.  May I just add that this was inches from my feet.  It has been a long time since she has just let fly indoors and she has never, never peed right next to my foot. 

“Oh,” exclaimed the other mother, “my dog just peed in exactly the same spot!  He’s twelve and hasn’t had an accident in years.  How funny!”

Not really.

The receptionist, who was carrying a wad of damp paper towels over to the trashcan, stuffed them in,  then picked up the roll and headed back to the foyer.  As she did, she said, “Yeah, a dog peed right there this morning.”  She sopped up Cleo’s pee, swished the paper towels around a bit, stuck the wad in the trashcan and went back to her desk.

Well, no wonder!  Every dog who comes in must be squatting first thing.  I’ll bet she used up that roll of paper towels by the end of the day.  But no matter, the cleaning crew would take the place back to neutral before the next day’s clientele could get involved in the deluge.

Now we confront the Mystery of Cleo’s Spots.  The first thing the vet noticed is that the hair is not falling out, it’s breaking off.  It is interesting, obviously, that the spots are so perfectly lined up along her back, as though someone new to Morse code were practicing on my dog: dot, dot (hesitation), dash.  That’s a “U.”  Unusual?  Unparalleled?  Urgent?  Uh-oh.

“Did something get dripped on her?” the vet asked me.  “Some kind of chemical?”

I have no idea.  It’s possible.  Cleo loves to tag around after our housekeeper who was here a week and a half ago.  It’s very possible that a wet rag with 409 or Ajax or something passed over Cleo’s back: drip, drip, slop.  But if it were chemical, wouldn’t you expect some skin irritation?  There’s absolutely none.

“It might be a fungus,” was the second theory.

Except that the hair is breaking off, not falling out.  Except that there’s no skin irritation (once again).  Except that Cleo shows not the slightest sign of itchiness.  In fact, she doesn’t even seem to be aware that something is amiss with her back at all.

We decided, the vet, the vet tech and I, that the best course of action was to culture for fungus.  To get a result takes two weeks.  We checked for phosphorescence with a black light, but since this is accurate only about 25% of the time, we weren’t surprised not to see anything.  After that, the vet plucked hairs from all three spots and popped them into the vial of medium.  “If there’s fungus there,” she explained to me, “the medium will start to turn red in a little over a week and from there we can determine what kind of fungus it is.”

She began to explain to me what course of action we might take while we waited for the results of the fungus test.  The vet tech reappeared at her side holding the vial in front of her.  “Look,” she said, “It’s turning red.”

“Well, that’s not possible,” said the vet.  Turning to me, she explained, “The medium turns red when it comes into contact with waste product that the fungus produces.  The only way it could be turning red that fast is if the hairs were completely clogged with waste.  If that were the case, she’d be just overrun with fungus and we’d expect to see hair falling out all over Cleo’s body.  She’d be scratching herself raw.”  Her brow furrowed.  “Is there a chemical that would turn the medium like that?”  No one seemed to know.  “Maybe the forceps were contaminated.”

New forceps arrived from the storage room.  A new vial of medium.  Pluck, pluck, pluck all three spots once more.  Into the vial they went.  Within less than a minute, the medium began to turn red.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” said my unflappable, extremely knowledgeable, highly rated, and now completely flummoxed vet.

To be proactive, I’ve now bathed Cleo in an antifungal shampoo and sprayed her with anti-fungal medication.  Her hair is starting to grow back.  That could be because a fungus was killed, but it could just as easily be because bathing her removed the chemical that was drying her hair to the breaking point.  We might know in another week and a half when the fungus test is completed.


When we go to the beach, the park or just for a walk on the street, people still stop to exclaim over her cuteness.  I find myself saying, “Her back isn’t supposed to look like that.”  Cleo, obviously, couldn’t care less.  She is without vanity.  She is simply happy to greet a fellow traveler, to celebrate the joy of living.  She is the quintessential fool—innocent and untroubled herself, while provoking the rest of us to confront the mysteries of existence.

1 comment:

  1. how cute, please play ball with me. I must tell you when the hair comes back it will be dark like when she was born. Sterling was attacked by by daughters big dog while she was keeping him, required stitches and a year later he has black spots. I was coloring a friends roots and decided to color his spots blonde, the color ran and now he has blonde streaks, coming back black again. She is precious can't wait for school to start and get to read the student stories. Let us know what the vet decides. jan