It has taken me some time to be able to put into words how we lost our girl Maple. Anyone who has lost a pet, will understand the depth of these emotions. So here goes....
As Maple's last litter was nearing their going home date, I was becoming more concerned that Maple wasn't bouncing back like she normally does. This was her retirement litter. We were so blessed by the great mama she always was! But this postpartum period was different. She began turning food down - my girl Maple always loved her food, but other times as she'd weaned her puppies, she'd backed off eating, so this had me concerned, but not too much initially. Then I noticed her belly beginning to swell! I took her to the vet, assuming it might be some type of uterine infection or complication from the pregnancy that an antibiotic would remedy. Initially that is what the vet assumed as well, but her condition continued to deteriorate.
I spent most of the next few weeks at either at the vet's office or in daily communication with them. They sent us to specialists. They sent samples to the lab. They could not figure out what was making her decline so rapidly. All of the tests were inconclusive; everything seemed off “just a little.” There was no smoking gun. Postpartum infection? Something bigger – heart? liver? She was growing sicker by the day. At this point, traditional medicine was failing us, and Maple was fading fast, so our vet tried acupuncture, homeopathy, and even Eastern medicine remedies. Nothing was working. By this point, I was sleeping nightly by her side. Each evening my kids would say their teary goodbyes not sure if she'd be alive by morning. My vet finally decided to try exploratory surgery, could her bladder be punctured? We dropped her off amid another slew of teary goodbyes. This was her last hope.
The vet called us from the operating room – her liver was destroyed, possibly cancer? He couldn't confirm without a pathology report, but her liver was in bad shape. We gave the ok the put her down. She was sooo sick, and we couldn't stand to see her in pain any longer if there was no fixing it. We were stunned, shocked, our world was rocked. What had happened? We had just sent home her beautiful litter of puppies? How could this happen? What had I done wrong? I needed to fix this and not let it happen again!
I started with my vet. Asking many, many questions...he assured me we had done nothing wrong. If it was cancer, it happens, especially in golden retrievers. Their rate of cancer is much higher than other breeds. He said my breeding, pregnancy care, postpartum care was spot on. My next contact was the breeder that we bought Maple from. I wanted to check her lineage. She assured me that Maple's parents were very much still alive. She even still owned Maple's maternal grandmother who was still very healthy. My next stop was Google. Could it have been a rare thing called copper storage disease? I did feed her a fair amount of liver at one point before I learned the correct ratios of organ/muscle meat. Was it something I fed her? We won't know because we didn't think to send off a final liver sample. The first liver biopsy had been inconclusive. In hindsight I wish we had. I began following Morris Animal Foundation who is doing a Lifetime Study of Golden Retrievers trying to understand the high cancer rates in this breed. There are no conclusive results yet, but hopefully as the data gets crunched in the next several years, we'll know more. I did learn of some changes I could make that would/could impact all my girls' health and the health of future puppies.
First off is chemicals. I have never been one to use a lot of chemicals in our house, but my one crutch was Round-Up around the perimeter of the house and in the driveway. Ever since my husband had to take a pesticide applicator course for a job in 2017, he has loathed chemicals. Ultimately, he left the job partly due to the chemicals. He will not let a drop of anything touch our field and garden. But we agreed to disagree on care of the perimeter of the house and driveway. He allowed me to make the choice on that domain, and each year I would spray Season Long Round-up in those areas. After Maple's death, I swung heartily to his side. Round-up is a poison. Could she have ingested some after I sprayed? Could her ball have rolled into freshly sprayed weeds? We'll never know, but I now use a combination of vinegar and salt for my weed control spray. Yes, I do have to reapply every few weeks, but it's a small price to pay to know my yard is safe from poisons.
The other area I have changed is food. I began to view dry kibble similar to processed food in our human diet. We have all heard the woes of processed food. Could the bag of dog food I was feeding somehow have left Maple's body susceptible to illness? I have tried to get rid of most of the processed food in my family's diet, but what about my dogs? What exactly is in these bags of food? They are obviously filled with preservatives to increase shelf life. How do these added preservatives affect health? Do they inhibit the gut microbial activity that research is just discovering is so important? I dove into research mode, learning about the importance of protein which is the building block of cells. I learned about the gut microbiome and its impact on health. Current research is just beginning to scratch the surface of how a healthy gut can affect your whole body. I learned the types of food that build a healthy gut (a combination of prebiotics and probiotics). In the end, I am a realist. I am a busy homeschooling mama who is already making most of her family's food from scratch. At this point I have only been able to replace about 1/3 of my girls' diet with homemade foods, but I have been able to increase their protein intake and make sure they get whole food sources of pre and probiotics daily.
I also learned about the early window in a human and dog's life when the establishment of a healthy gut microbiome can have the biggest impact for life. Not only do I want healthy mama's, but I want to be certain I am doing everything I can to get these puppies off to a healthy start. First we encourage our mamas to nurse for as long as we can (balancing her health), because science shows her milk is best. Then when we do begin introducing food to our puppies we add it lots of whole food pre and probiotic sources to hopefully set them up with a robust gut microbiome that can have a lifetime of benefits.
We continue to mourn Maple; I have days that I can't believe she is gone. I look at her favorite spot and expect to see her lying there. Maple will forever be a part of our family. But we are enjoying new life. This year we kept a Golden Retriever from Willow's retirement litter. Continuing our tree themed names, we call her Cherry. The joy and busyness of raising a puppy has helped begin healing the hole Maple's passing left in our hearts.