An office chicken makes me ponder palliative care

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I am begrudgingly coming to terms with the idea that I have a part-time office chicken. If I were a heroine in a Janet Evanovich novel, this would be sort of a lead-in to “How did my life spiral so out of control?” My office chicken, a real one (not the funky, brightly colored one gracing my mantle since my last trip to Key West), is a fine example of the kind of trouble you get into when you extend the title of “family” beyond your threshold. Her name is Tia. She is resting in a large dog crate on my file cabinet and is snoring loudly enough that if we were on the phone right now, you would hear her. And if you didn’t know me better, you might be surprised.

Betsy and chicken

Betsy cuddles one of her flock.

This chicken’s story mirrors the last stage of most of my pets’ time with me these days. It is an uncomfortable balancing act between viewing my veterinarians as pediatricians and the gray world of veterinary possibilities (a world that allows for euthanasia for kindness or convenience and where the burden of love is that we’ll be charged with deciding “when,” usually based on way too little evidence for my taste). For so many of our pets, access to better healthcare has lengthened this last part of their lives. And so the big question in my life is no longer “when is the right time to euthanize” but, rather, “how far do I go with treatment.”

It isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding to be surrounded by oldsters. Balance extra trips to the vet with extra guilty pleasures like grooming and ice cream. Force them to take it easy but make sure they remain active with doggie-yoga. And always make sure to have at least one young guy around to remind you what youth looks like.

But more specifically, for the wheezing, gasping bird now on my lap, I keep her warm, give her extra oxygen during her “attacks,” and remember to get her outside to do the things that make a chicken a chicken, like digging, eating greens and sunbathing. I’m convinced palliative pet care is more and more common. It can last for years. For those of us with boomer parents it is probably good practice because great palliative/eldercare is probably one of those practice-makes-perfect things. Hear that Mom and Dad? You’re in good hands — you’ll have plenty of chances to dig, eat greens and sunbathe. Just ask the chicken.

Tia’s veterinarian, the amazingly kind Dr. Rosen in “exotics” at NC State’s veterinary school, just called to report that Tia’s lungs look beautiful and that her CAT scan revealed no blockage that could be causing her breathing issues. (I know, I know. A CAT scan for a chicken. So many things can be said about a CAT scan for a chicken. But seriously, it was really sweet. They put her in a little cardboard box and sent her right through.) The next step is to give her an EKG to determine if it is heart disease.

“Would you like to schedule the EKG?” Dr. Rosen asked.

That’s a loaded question, I think. Tia is not a good candidate for anesthesia. And I know we’re chasing a really elusive diagnosis at this point since we just ruled out all of the likely issues.

It is an ironic situation and makes me feel lonely in an “alone in the universe” kind of way. When we brought Tia in, gasping for breath, before they would administer pain meds, we had to sign a form promising not to eat her. So ironic. (I think this must be what it feels like to be a character in a Douglas Adams’ novel –maybe that whale that fell out of the sky.)

It has been a month now and Tia, on several medications daily, lives a protected life between my office and an enclosed grassy run that used to belong to my pet box turtle. She is protected from the other chickens, from predators, and now, of course, she is also (unnecessarily) protected from ever being stewed.

Heart disease, asthma, cancer — we’re not sure what. Now that she has settled in my office most of the day, attending conference calls with me, pecking in her bowl while I peck on my keyboard, and enjoying her makeshift oxygen bar every few hours, what I’m certain of is another Tia irony: I am inadvertently extending her life in this unchickenly limbo longer than if she were a normal member of my flock. This irony makes me the most uncomfortable because, by the numbers, it almost ensures that at any given time there will be a whole cadre of palliative care patients in my life — or in my office.

Betsy's goats and sheep

Many of Betsy’s pets, like Biscuit, Macie and Angus, are in their golden years.

My old dog Jim (R.I.P.) was so comfortable in his palliative care that he took his sweet time passing — four years or so after we thought he was a goner. Angus, my dear, sweet sheep (and rival to Charlie-cat for the top spot in my heart) suffered near-fatal kidney failure last spring and, against all odds, is still with us. In fact, this fall he passed away briefly while getting a steroid injection to his arthritic knee. He holds high honors here on the farm for being the only one who knows “The Truth” since he has seen the light and has come back. If only he could talk. My dad is famous for saying he doesn’t need to guess what Angus would say: clearly life on the farm here looked good from the other side, too. Macie, Angus’ goat girlfriend with emphysema, Pony-baloney and his chronic laminitis, and Morty the horse that we were pretty sure was dying of cancer last year but seems better than ever now — all seem determined to test the boundaries of eldercare and veterinary medicine.

This leaves me in a chronic state of wonder about the “blessing” of good veterinary care with the 30 (give or take) animal family members with whom I share my farm. My motto is “always invest in diagnosis because knowledge is power.” (Amazingly still renews my policies each year!) But the decision of when and what to treat, and even deciding when to stop chasing diagnoses is every bit as stressful as deciding when to euthanize. Or maybe it is the same decision — just that I spend a year or more doing it. It is a little like being pecked to death by chickens.

I am ever vigilant — watching for that little spark that tells me that my friend still has strong opinions and wants me to pull out all the stops and get some steroids in those knees. Or, lack of spark that tells me she is “Done” with a capital D — that not even the sweetest grass tastes good anymore.

You see, I’m more than willing to help them go peacefully because I’m bullish on quality of life. And, honestly, I’m really honored that we get to help them on their way when it is time. (Watch what befalls an old horse when his “owner” dies before he does and you’ll understand why I feel sort of lucky that dogs and cats don’t usually outlive us.) But with all this great medical care at our disposal and our ever-expanding view of “family,” what do we do about this long end-stage that we’re creating? I think it subtly changes the dynamics of what it means to provide great care for a pet’s life.

Because even I, animal lover extraordinaire, am not sure how I feel about having an office chicken in 2014. But then again, an office chicken sounds like a great protagonist in a children’s book.

De-beaked chicken found in the county park: FREE
Emergency trip to NC State Veterinary College: $230
CAT Scan for a chicken: $300
Having a brilliant doctor lovingly put your tiny sick chicken in a cardboard box and send her through a CAT Scanner: PRICELESS!

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