My Dog Had Insomnia, And Now I Feel Guilty for Not Seeing It as a Symptom of Something Much More Serious

I was the world’s most overbearing dog mother, and I missed it.
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Publish date:
November 28, 2016
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Cancer, insomnia, dogs

Sometime during the winter of last year, our border collie developed insomnia. At 10 pm nearly every night, Harvey would start grumbling; somewhere between a whine and a growl, it comes from low in his throat. It’s not menacing — Harvey would never hurt a fly — but it is annoying. We’d take him out again, offer him another serving of kibble, but still he would grumble. It made it impossible for my husband and me to sleep.

We took Harvey to our vet, who did an exam and noticed some early arthritis in Harvey’s hips, but said he otherwise seemed very healthy for a 7-year-old dog. We ordered several hundred dollars' worth of blood work and we did an ultrasound just to be sure. The vet gave us some mild pain medication to see if that made Harvey more comfortable at night.

The blood work came back normal. The grumbling continued.

We tried everything: more walks during the day, and then less walks, more food, a different brand of food. I tried doing some training with Harvey before bed so his busy border collie brain would be tired.

Finally, we found something that worked: Harvey would stop grumbling if both my husband and I slept on the floor with him. If we did that, Harvey would go right to sleep, his body visibly relaxed. For months, our bed went unused.

I know it might sound crazy to some people, but I would do anything for the comfort of my dog. Dog owners know — we are responsible for their wellbeing, and their happiness is our happiness. It can be so frustrating that dogs can’t tell us what they need. We do our best to guess.

When you Google “why won’t my dog sleep at night,” it is often suggested that your dog is bored and lonely during the day.

But here’s our small family’s strangest secret: We never leave the dog alone. I adopted Harvey five years ago when I was a graduate student in Alabama, and I quickly discovered he had terrible separation anxiety. It’s gotten even worse with age, and he knocks himself out from barking if we leave him by himself. I feel a little sheepish admitting that we never leave Harvey alone, but it escalated over time, and eventually it just became the lifestyle I was most comfortable with.

I take him to work with me; he has his own dog bed, water bowl, treats, and toys at our office. Harvey has visited many bookstores, has been to pick out paint at Home Depot, has flopped himself on the floor of the dressing rooms of Anthropologie. We eat outside at restaurants, and go to dog-friendly hotels on vacation. I even took Harvey to a job interview for an adjunct professor position once, because my husband wasn’t around to stay with him. “I love dogs,” the head of the English department told me. I was offered the job.

Harvey makes friends everywhere we go. He’s calm, patient, and sweet; has the most soulful brown eyes. He rolls over on his back every time he meets a small child. He’s very smart, and appears to understand nearly everything we say to him. Harvey has a very distinctive face, split exactly down the middle — one white side and one black side — so people always stop to talk to me about his markings. And when I do have to leave Harvey, I drop him at my parents’ house; the neighborhood kids come over and take him into the yard to play Frisbee.

So Harvey is not lonely, and I can’t imagine he’s bored either.

We tried giving him melatonin for the insomnia after we’d read that it was safe for dogs. It worked like a charm, but it upset his stomach, so we had to stop. Then we read on some doggie blog that sometimes older dogs develop anxiety at night because the dog worries they can no longer protect the family.

Explain to your older dog that their role in the family has changed, the website suggested.

“Your role in the family has changed,” I said to Harvey. He cocked his head at me, which he does whenever I say something that he doesn’t understand.

“I don’t like to think of him as an older dog,” my husband chimed in. “I don’t know what we’ll do when he’s gone. I can never get another dog.”

Harvey was my dog first, but he’s becoming equally ours. My husband is the one who walks him early in the morning, and late at night. Harvey was there when we got engaged, and he was in our bridal party.

“If I died, I’d want you to get another wife,” I pointed out.

“That’s different than getting another dog,” he said, smiling.

When we moved to a new apartment last May, the nighttime grumbling and insomnia went away completely. My husband and I went back to sleeping in our bed — the one with a real mattress. We couldn’t figure out what had changed, except that our new apartment is much nicer than our old one was. We joked that Harvey is a snob — a nouveau riche former stray with high expectations.

“That’s very strange,” the vet said the next time I brought Harvey in for his shots. “But he’s a weird dog,” he said, kissing his head.

Harvey is a weird dog. He barks at the air conditioner when it’s too hot in the house, demanding that someone with thumbs turn it on. He loves the sound of the shower and will barge in on anyone who takes one. He sits every time he sees a mailman, because we once had a mailman who carried MilkBones.

“He has more personality than most people,” we often say.

And then one morning, Harvey collapsed. We were already on the way to the vet because he had been acting lethargic. When we got there, his gums were grey. We rushed from our usual vet to Angell Memorial, the Mayo Clinic of animal hospitals, seven miles away.

After an ultrasound, the vet at Angell reported that Harvey had a tumor on his spleen, and it was causing internal bleeding.

“It’s possible the tumor is benign,” the vet told us, “But we can’t know until we get it out.”

“Please do it,” I sobbed, as my husband sobbed harder. We met with the people in the financial office, and emptied out half of our savings account. My husband, who balks at the amount of money I spend on a haircut, didn’t flinch.

It wasn’t benign. It’s a kind of cancer called hemangiosarcoma; dogs often show no symptoms before it’s too late. But that’s what kills me: there were symptoms. Harvey was trying to tell us that something wasn’t right, and that is very hard to swallow. When we spoke after the surgery, his vet assured me that the cancer isn’t painful, and he thinks it’s unlikely that that’s what Harvey was grumbling about.

But I feel I should have known. I rearranged my life for this dog, was with him every day, all day, and still, I missed it. I was the world’s most overbearing dog mother, and I missed it.

I posted about Harvey’s diagnosis on Facebook, for that special kind of group therapy. I wrote that I believe that all dogs are good dogs, but every dog owner gets one dog who is just special. There’s the one dog you remember your whole life, the benchmark for everything after. Harvey is my once-in-a-lifetime dog, I explained.

“In dog show circles, a dog like Harvey is called the dog of your heart,” an acquaintance responded. I was so glad there was already a phrase for it, a sweet validation of the way I feel for him.

Here is what we know now: Harvey has anywhere between a few weeks and two months to live, but he should feel pretty good during that time, now that that first big tumor has been removed. But other tumors will grow; he will grow weak again. We are bracing ourselves for making that hard choice that most dog owners face, that final guess about what is right for the dog.

While my husband and I were waiting for Harvey to get discharged from the hospital, we went to the tattoo parlor next door and I got an H tattooed on my wrist. It was a small thing that made me feel better, something I can keep. It’s my only tattoo.

Our apartment has too many stairs, so once we got Harvey out of the hospital, we moved into my parents’ living room, where we are planning on camping out until the end, however far away that is. We give him Chinese herbs three times a day to help him fight the cancer. It does not feel like hospice yet; he’s growing stronger every day since the surgery and going on short regular walks.

One wise vet at Angell told us not to mourn Harvey now, warned us not to treat him like a dead dog, because he will notice it. He will absorb our sadness the way dogs always do. When I want to cry now, I sing silly songs to Harvey instead, hoping that he doesn’t notice the tremor in my voice.

My husband and I are back to sleeping on the floor of the living room, in a nest of blankets by Harvey’s dog bed. We all need that comfort of nearness now.

“We tried our best,” I tell Harvey, and hope that he understands. He doesn’t cock his head in confusion; he just kisses the bottom of my palm, somewhere close to my new tattoo.