The Sad Story of Otter, a Chocolate Lab Whose Life Was Cut Short

Otter’s brief life brought his family a deeper compassion for animals and, oddly enough, a closer connection to the victims of the Boston bombings.

Photo courtesy of The Sentinel, a Turley Publication, www.belchertownsentinelonline.com
Photo courtesy of The Sentinel, a Turley Publication, www.belchertownsentinelonline.com

Sometimes the pain of what happens to our pets can seem too hard to bear.

Even for those of us in the profession, when a beautiful friend becomes so ill, so soon before his time, it can seem senseless and unfair. We just can’t wrap our heads around the sadness.

This is the story of my technician’s Labrador pup, Otter, and how his brief life brought his family an even deeper compassion for animals and, oddly enough, a closer connection to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

It Started With a Limp

Otter was a playful chocolate Lab pup, the color of Fudgsicles. He sweetened the day like a bucketful of Hershey’s kisses.

When Otter was younger than 2, he began to limp a little after a wonderful winter walk on a snowcapped mountain. His mom, who has worked for me for 15 years, rested him and waited for the little sprain in his leg to go away.

Otter was so full of puppy exuberance that his limp didn’t hinder him a bit. Some days it even went away completely! We examined the leg and couldn’t find the source of the limp. If Otter’s leg didn’t get better, the best thing to do would be to take some X-rays.

Otter continued to love and live life to the fullest, but that darn little limp kept interrupting his goofy adventures. One day on her way to work, Otter-Mom brought him along to take that pesky X-ray, figuring he probably did tear a ligament and would need knee surgery (ACL) to repair it. She was worried the surgery would be expensive, but then Otter would be fine.

Otter was hard to restrain on the X-ray table because he wanted to lick our faces until they were sufficiently christened with puppy slobbers.

Finally, he lay on his side for the half a second needed to pop the film. Otter-Mom was talking with her work friends about what a love he was when all the blood drained out of my face as the X-ray appeared on the screen.

Otter didn’t have a simple knee injury.

He had a bone tumor.

Breaking the News

chocolate-lab-closeupI stared at the X-ray with my heart beating out of my chest while Otter-Mom and the two techs were laughing up a storm, letting Otter sniff their bagels and getting a lick in here and there.

I figured I’d  better just cut to the chase. “I think there’s something very wrong,” I said in an overly neutral tone, a subtle crack in my voice. I couldn’t say the word “tumor.” Not yet.

“This big area in his knee doesn’t look good.”

We verified my worst fears with the help of an oncologist and a surgeon, but it was clear from the start that this young, athletic dog did indeed have an aggressive bone tumor.

Within a short time, Otter was in pain. Amputation was the recommendation. Without the surgery, Otter’s family wound have to put him to sleep soon because walking on the leg would be too painful.

Even with a leg amputation, Otter’s long-term prognosis was poor. Dogs possibly survive a year before there is metastasis (cancer spread) to lungs or elsewhere. Otter Mom and family still chose to amputate. They couldn’t say goodbye just yet.

Bone Tumor Facts

Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer in dogs, often affecting middle-age to older large breed dogs. We are sadly beginning to see the tumor show up in younger dogs as well.

Some popular breeds are particularly at risk: Great Danes, German Shepherds, Dobermans and Golden Retrievers. Despite advances in surgical options and cancer treatments, we still can’t give these owners much hope.

Otter’s Rehabilitation

In Otter's honor, his family made a donation to the Boston Marathon One Fund.
In Otter’s honor, his family made a donation to the Boston Marathon One Fund.

Otter had a rough week or two post-op, but most of that was because he had no patience.

He seemed only mildly inconvenienced by the loss of a rear leg. Otter wanted to rock, roll, wriggle and wiggle before his sutures were out!

His resiliency in rehab echoed the brave stories of the Boston Marathon victims. Otter lived pretty close to Boston, and the bombing had just happened. Stories of victims rebuilding their lives after losing limb(s) were in the news daily.

As Otter was rehabbing from his amputation, Otter-Mom was continually reminded of the human beings working so hard at their own recovery and rehabilitation. She couldn’t help being sad as Otter struggled in the beginning to walk again and gain strength, but Otter wasn’t sad. He attacked this challenge as he did everything else in life: run around, roll on back, stop and smell the roses, eat one, and then full speed ahead.

Otter’s care had been covered as an employee dog. In his honor, his family made a donation to the Boston Marathon One Fund. Here at the hospital, we called it the Otter-One Fund.

Otter-Mom has been in the veterinary business a long time. After saving pets and working on tough stuff at the SPCA, she has worked with me for more than 15 years. Like Otter, we call her our goofy one. She’s always ready to laugh and — even when things are not that rosy — we anticipate our morning coffee being delivered by Otter-Mom, coffee almost spilling as she dances in to the tune of “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Osteosarcoma in Younger Dogs

Otter’s tumor was a terribly aggressive and metastatic variant. Despite the amputation, the cancer advanced quickly to his lungs. Chemotherapy bought him only a little time.

It was a bleak day when Otter came to visit for the last time. He was still licking my face and wagging his tail, and his attempt to act like nothing was wrong didn’t cover up the obvious.

The swelling in his feet and the cough that wouldn’t stop whenever Otter tried to play were signs that our efforts to make his short life happy were coming to an end.

No amount of experience in the veterinary field makes it any easier when it comes to losing your own sweet pet. One solace, perhaps, is that Otter had no idea that life was much different during his ordeal, and his joy in every moment was infectious.

All of us at the clinic have gained inspiration from the happy pup who lived every moment of every day he had to the fullest. In this instance, his ignorance was bliss. And we tried to live in his every day, not his tomorrows.

If only we humans with our fears, our worries, our despairs, could take a big lesson from Otter. Live in the moment. Look for the joy. If there’s a rough turn in the road, maneuver it with gusto.

To all those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings and those suffering from senseless acts of violence or tragedy, may the joy you see in animals help you through what may seem like the insurmountable.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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