The Little Dog’s Big Surgery

Dipper is a rescue with a murky past. Assumptions aside, there is one thing my family knows for sure: he was not cared for. His former owner’s thoughtlessness has manifested itself in many ways over the past nearly two years, from flinching from affection to nervous urination, but it recently came to a head in a particularly painful way for me—a $3,000 veterinary bill.

I dedicate the rest of this post to the before, during, and after of Dipper’s recent cystotomy, a surgery to remove stones deeply embedded in his urinary tract. If you cringe at things like medical procedures, you may want to stop reading. But if you press on, I can promise you a happy ending.

Before: The Emergency Room

I never would have suspected anything was wrong with Dipper. All of the things that would have seemed like the signs and symptoms of an illness for any other dog were just our normal—a slow urine stream, lethargy, and a general reluctance to play or be handled. His urethra stones would have gone undiagnosed had he not spurred me to take him to the emergency room for a completely unrelated gastrointestinal dilemma at the beginning of October.

As with most things about Dipper, the reason for his vomiting remains an enigma. However, as the veterinarians in the Penn Vet emergency room looked for the cause, they found something much more malicious in his x-rays: urethra stones.

Urinary tract stones are a lot like kidney stones for us humans. But unlike us, dogs and cats can’t pass them. Rather, they need to be medically dissolved or surgically removed—otherwise, they kill. A cluster of stones can and will block the urinary tract, preventing urination and causing sepsis and death.

I never fancied myself the kind of person to drop thousand of dollars on a dog, but faced with these options, I didn’t think twice.

During: His Surgery

The ER vets urged I tackle this issue immediately. One stone was cause for alarm—the three stones clustered in my dog’s urethra and the additional three in his bladder were reason to panic. But I wasn’t so sure how the rest of my family would react.

“I can’t see myself paying that much for a cat,” my dad had said when I told him about a friend’s cat—months earlier—who’d had the same operation. When I asked him, hypothetically, if he’d do it for Dipper, he remained silent.

In my rural South Jersey upbringing, pets were just animals. I had a hard enough time convincing my parents to go along with me getting a dog in the first place, at ages six and later, 21. But when they finally met, my dad fell in love with the frightened, big-eyed dog we named Dipper. When he picks us up from the train station, he greets Dipper first.

“Do what you have to do,” was what my dad said when I told him about the surgery.

There were three ways Dipper’s surgery could go, not including the tiny but possible chance of anesthesia-induced cardiac arrest. Best case scenario, the surgeon would use a catheter to flush the stones back into his bladder and remove them there via an abdominal incision. Next best but still not great, they’d remove them straight through an incision in his penis. Worst of all, they’d simply make him a bigger urethral opening—basically, a new hole to pee out of. Yikes. And as the scenarios got worse, they increased in complications and price.

Despite Dipper’s grim outlook, I was relieved when I found out that his stones moved swiftly into the bladder with a few quick flushes—the best case scenario.

After: Our Recovery

Urinary stones are caused by a lot of things, and specific stones have specific causes. Much of Dipper’s recovery revolved around the make and model of his stones. After a urine culture, I learned that his were the ones caused by chronic urinary tract infection.

In short, my dog had a UTI for the past two years—and I had no idea.

While my ego and skills as a dog owner are still licking their wounds, he was soon cured. A quick course of antibiotics, paired with the surgery, had him peeing like champ. A dog who once took upwards of five minutes to expel all of his urine could now do so in seconds. His stream was so strong he peed all over his front legs the first days post-op. It was a bloody mess, but exciting for us both.

And improvements soon appeared in less gross ways. I noticed a change in Dipper’s whole demeanor. Immediately after I brought him home from the hospital, a single day post-op, I struggled to prevent him from jumping on furniture, a huge no-no with his stitches. Still, it was a great sign. If he felt good enough after major surgery that he was acting the way he always had, how much pain must he have been in with those stones stuck inside him?

Dipper’s surgeon echoed these thoughts. He said that the stones he removed were spiky and, in some, as large as three millimeters in diameter. Stones that big in a 10.5 lb dog! Ouch. I try not to think about it much. Instead, I focus on what at times seems like the entirely new dog I brought home—bright-eyed, bushy-nubbed, and eager for every day. We’re both learning what it means for him to be a happy, healthy dog.

Shortly after surgery, and for the first time since adopting him, he picked up a toy and invited me to play.

To everyone who has been along for Dipper’s ride to recovery, thank you!

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