I Wish I Had a Crystal Ball
by Terri Florentino
He was awful small. He needed extra attention, more than I could give. “I’ll need your help,” I said.
She nuzzled Wee’s tiny nose. “You know how much I love taking care of the puppies.”
“He’s a bottom feeder,” I joked. “He makes his way along Echo’s underside to find a nipple. We need to keep watch all the time to stop the others from elbowing him away from the milk bar.”
My husband, my mom, my two daughters, and I arranged our schedules so someone was always there to rotate the puppies and make sure Wee was nursing. One of my shifts was two a.m. The first few nights, I’d lie awake and worry. Two a.m. just couldn’t come soon enough. Finally I’d get out of bed, make my way to the whelping area, peer into the box, and hold my breath until my gaze found little Wee and saw him move.
Echo’s daughter, Wyn, was a big help too. Whenever Echo left the box to eat, drink, or stretch her legs in the yard, Wyn climbed in, lay down, and licked and nuzzled the puppies. In fact, the puppies suckled on her so much, she started lactating. This phenomenon is perfectly normal, commonly found with packs of wolves. The pregnant female will select an assistant from among the other females to help her rear the puppies. Wyn was such a good second mom, I was able to let her have Wee all to herself. Thanks to her, Wee didn’t have to struggle to nourish himself, and she seemed blissful.
Once I stopped worrying that he might not make it through the day, I began to worry about Wee’s physical development. His littermates could drag themselves along by pulling with their front legs and pushing with their back. Wee could push along with his back legs, but he could not tuck his front legs underneath to pull himself forward. When you held him up he would extend his front legs out to his sides in a “splat,” position. He might never be structurally sound enough to walk. Several times a day I’d force him to exercise his limbs, and the more I worked with him, the more I saw he wasn’t developing normally. He was going to need constant physical therapy.
“OK, girls, let me show you a few stretching and strengthening activities I’d like you to do with Wee a couple of times a day,” I explained to my daughters, Amy and Heather.
“Not a problem,” Amy said.
“Do you think it will help him?” Heather asked.
“I’m not sure, but we have to try,” I said, and they were eager to help.
My second immediate worry was the shape of his head. It was dome-like, indicative of hydrocephalus, a condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid doesn’t drain properly, causing an apple-shaped head. Symptoms include loss of movement and coordination, depression, vision problems, and seizures.
I wished I had a crystal ball. Was Wee going to develop normally? Or would he only need more and more from us? Would he suffer? I began to wonder if I was being fair to my family. By now we were all emotionally invested. What if Wee didn’t make it? How would I know if euthanasia was the humane thing? How would I break the news to them? I dreaded the thought of putting my family through the pain of losing the little guy.
I decided that as long as he progressed and wasn’t in pain, I’d continue to help him to carry on.
Every day I watched him tussle his way through his littermates to the “milk bar.” I tried to find the balance between normal puppy interaction and frustration. I didn’t want him to develop a “Napoleon” complex. Whenever I sensed him getting overly annoyed, I intervened and either moved him right up to a nipple or allowed him nurse peacefully alone with Wyn.
Once his belly was full, however, he wasn’t content unless he was curled up with his littermates in this puppy Jenga-like arrangement. They were so charming all cozy and coiled up together.
As the days passed, he continued to grow. His development seemed to be typically a week behind his littermates. His legs became stronger, and he developed the ability to tuck his front legs underneath in order to pull himself along.
At about fourteen days, his littermates’ eyes started to open. I didn’t see Wee’s little tiny black eyes until he was closer to twenty-one days old. I was concerned that he might never have normal vision.
When the puppies are at about three to four weeks, I introduce solid food. The food is puppy kibble soaked in water, giving it an oatmeal consistency. I make sure they always have more than enough food. I never want them to have to fight for it. Once they’ve eaten their hearts’ content, the puppies look like they just had a finger painting contest all over one another. Echo would take delight in finishing the uneaten portion and licking all her puppies clean. Early on in the feeding process, Wee needed to be separated to be fed. He wasn’t coordinated enough to hold his head up to eat and swallow effectively. He sat in our laps while we held his head in position and let him lick the kibble off of our fingers. He loved these feeding sessions and ate so enthusiastically, we almost wished this sweet task would last forever.
When the pups were three weeks, my son was graduating from Navy basic training. I asked Megan if she would take care of Echo and the puppies while my family and I were out of town. Since Megan worked as a veterinary surgical technician, I knew she’d make sure the puppies had everything they needed. She was also taking one of the puppies, so this opportunity would give her ample quality time with them. I left her with detailed instructions on how to care for the puppies, especially Wee.
“I know you will do great,” I said. “If anything goes wrong with Wee, I trust you will do the right thing.”
“I won’t make any decision unless I speak to you first,” she said.
The next morning my family and I packed up and headed out to Chicago. As I left Megan smiling down at the puppies and stroking them, I worried about her. Yet again, there was another person emotionally invested in our adorable little runt. I felt bad leaving Wee. He was so used to all of us tending him, our smells and sights and ways of doing things. Would this stress him? I couldn’t help but wonder if he would perish while I was out of town.