For Travvy, the malamute I share my apartment with, breakfast and supper are the high points of the day. Supper usually comes around five o’clock, sometimes before and sometimes after our late afternoon walk. If I’m working at my laptop, he starts reminding me at 4:30 or so. He sits in front of me with expectation in every fur follicle and maybe a little drool coming from his mouth.
Monday I was still working at almost six and Travvy was sacked out on the rug as if he’d already eaten.
Hmm. This was unusual. Not alarming, just out of the ordinary. I gave him his supper, he scarfed it down, and we went for our evening walk. Normal. All normal.
In cool weather I often wake up with Travvy’s backbone aligned with mine, his head pushing mine off the pillow. In warmer weather, he usually listens for my waking-up stirrings, then he jumps onto the bed, curls up next to me, and waits.
When I throw back the covers and yell “Breakfast time for the puppy!” he springs to life, 80 pounds of wriggling fur, leaps off the bed, does a play bow, then goes over to the little rug I feed him on so he and his bowl won’t slip-slide on the linoleum.
Tuesday morning he jumped onto the bed — but he didn’t make it in his usual clean leap. He had to scramble.
When I yelled “Breakfast time for the puppy!” he roused himself slowly, jumped carefully off the bed, and padded sedately over to the rug.
Big hmmm this time. He snarfed his food down almost as usual, but something was not right.
On our morning walks, Travvy usually trots ahead on his Flexi lead, plumy tail waving, alert to everything, sniffing the bushes and the air to see what’s new since he last passed that way. Tuesday morning he lagged behind. I looked at him as if to say Get a move on. He returned my gaze with Do I have to?
We continued on our way, he did his business — which looked normal — but he didn’t work out of his reluctance, though he did show some enthusiasm when I lured him with a cookie.
Back home, he climbed the outside stairs to our second-floor apartment like an old man. Trav turned seven at the end of February. He’s moving out of “prime of life” and into middle age, but he’s not old. Besides, old age generally doesn’t come out of nowhere and hit you overnight.
I called the vet. I was about 90 percent sure we were dealing with Lyme disease or some other tick-borne ailment. Martha’s Vineyard is tick central. Ticks are everywhere. If you spend any time outside and especially if you’ve got a dog, you’ve got ticks on your mind even when you’re thinking about something else.
The late Rhodry Malamutt introduced me to tick-borne diseases (TBDs in the trade) when he was not quite two years old. Overnight he went from healthy active young dog to geriatric case. Turned out he had Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Travvy wasn’t as lethargic as Rhodry had been, but I was already thinking that he might have it too. Rocky Mountain is carried by wood ticks, also known as dog ticks, though they sure aren’t the only ticks that prey on dogs. Spring is heavy-duty wood tick season on Martha’s Vineyard. I scrape them off Travvy’s legs whenever we get back from a walk. You don’t want to see my tick jar.
Our vet could see us at one. We arrived promptly. Travvy isn’t quite a veterinarian’s nightmare, but he’s no dream either. The prodding, poking, and sticking that goes with a routine exam he takes as a threat to his well-being. I take his teeth, his instincts, and his reaction speed very seriously, which is to say we use a muzzle when he needs to have blood drawn or his temperature taken.
He was running a fever. The blood test for Lyme showed the same low positive it had been showing ever since he had Lyme as a youngster. The other tick tests were negative. However, the veterinarians of Martha’s Vineyard know dogs, ticks, and TBDs very well. They’ve got plenty of day-to-day experience as well as book knowledge and test results.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever, my vet suggested. We might have caught it soon enough that the antibodies weren’t showing up in Trav’s blood yet. My thoughts were running in the same direction.
We talked it over. Rocky Mountain, like Lyme and the other TBDs, responds to doxycycline. It also responds to another antibiotic that only has to be given for 21 days (the usual doxy course is 30) and is somewhat cheaper. Whatever was ailing Trav might not be tick-related at all. The only way to determine that was with further bloodwork, which might run as high as $500.
One thing I like about my vet is that she lays out the options but never acts as though cost doesn’t matter, or as though it shouldn’t matter. It matters big-time. So we weigh most likely against possible, with least likely hovering in the background. We play the odds.
In this case the odds were good enough to inspire confidence. It was almost certainly Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but Lyme was enough of a possibility that I decided on doxycycline rather than the more specialized antibiotic. Least likely was a very long shot, but we could hedge our bets: freeze Travvy’s blood sample so that if he didn’t respond to the doxy, it could be tested for the more remote possibilities.
Doxycycline is not cheap, but lucky for my checkbook, my vet had an ample supply of the 100mg capsules in stock. The 100mg pills cost almost twice as much. (Here we took a brief time-out to cuss the pharmaceutical companies.)
The good news is that by Wednesday morning Trav was about 95 percent back to normal. I’d almost swear that he was showing improvement after his first dose of doxy. Rhodry had the same overnight response 19 years ago.
Trav, need I say, is still sleeping on my bed. We are still walking in the woods and around fields that are infested with dog ticks this time of year. I still scrape the ticks off Travvy’s legs when we get home, and keep an eye on him while I work to see if any more of the little buggers crawl out of his fur. When I got Lyme summer before last, I wondered if I would become more reluctant to walk in the woods or let Trav sleep on my bed. It didn’t happen.
As I blogged last fall in “Season of the Risk,” the risks we live with day to day are easier to assess and deal with than the ones we hear about on the news or social media. Which is why I haven’t posted a link to more information about Rocky Mountain spotted fever: the first half-dozen articles I skimmed couldn’t get through a paragraph without alluding to the risk of death and other worst-case scenarios. Look them up if you must, but remembr that the same could be said about getting into your car or walking down the stairs.