Terminal Illness and the General Public

Nov 19, 2014 by

Terminal Illness and the General Public

Today’s post is not a happy one. We are going to talk about terminal illness.

This is my eight-year-old Xoloitzcuintli, Pete.


He has a terminal illness called tonsillar squamous cell carcinoma. That is a skin cancer that originated in his tonsils. It has since metastasized to other parts of his body. Initially he was given three months to live, but he was diagnosed in December of 2013 and is still here. As you can see from the photo, the only physical indication that he is not well is the fairly large tumor on his throat.

The presence of this tumor is upsetting- not only to my family and myself because we know that it signifies the inevitable death of a dog we love very much, but it also upsets people who really don’t know any better. For some reason, probably thanks in part to sensationalism from the media and animal rights groups, everybody wants to look at a dog and see some form of neglect or abuse. What I mean by that is that people will look at my Xolo and see a lump on his neck and they immediately assume he hasn’t seen a vet or he is suffering from this disease because of neglect on my part.

I have seen this time and time again, not just with my own dogs but with any picture of any obviously sick dog shared on the internet. “Look how thin he is! This dog is clearly being neglect.” “Look at that tumor! Why haven’t they had it removed yet??” “This person should have their animals taken away, they clearly aren’t taking care of them because that dog is matted!”

Let me tell you a little secret about cancer: no matter how many times you cut it off, it comes back. My family explored our options for removing the tumor from Pete’s neck. I distinctly remember sitting in the vet office, clutching Pete’s little trembling body to my chest, and asking tearfully about removing the tumor “because he seems like he’s doing just fine other than the lump on his neck”. The vet tech I was talking to gave me a pitying look. She told me that even if they could remove such a large mass, it would return in less than two weeks. The risk and expense of the procedure wouldn’t be worth it because there was no comfort to be gained from yet another surgery. “His cancer is terminal,” she said. “You just need to accept that.”


By now, I think we have all had ample time to acknowledge that this wonderful unexpected period of time beyond the initial three month prognosis is the last that we are going to have with this wonderful little dog. But what absolutely amazes me is that other people have a harder time accepting it than we do.

To be perfectly fair, the vast majority of my friends, both online and in the real world, are wonderful and very sympathetic to our situation. It’s the general public that I can’t stand. Nobody even bothers bringing Pete to the pet stores now, partly because he would be uncomfortable, and partly because of the judgmental looks we get from other people who are a send button away from calling the ASPCA on us.

I attribute this knee-jerk reaction to near-constant barrage of photos of abuse and neglect that rescue groups and animal rights groups alike are particularly fond of distributing. After all, what garners more donations than a photo of poor little Fluffy with a skin condition or a massive conspicuous tumor?

People see these images and automatically assume that neglect was involved. They want to believe the worst of the dog’s owner. The pitchforks come out, the torches are lit, and the witch-hunt begins.

Do cases of abuse and neglect occur that result in the immediate need for advanced medical care? Yes. Are they common? No. Not at all. In fact, when you do hear about extreme cases of animals that have been severely neglect, you are probably only hearing about it because the case is extreme. I have said it before and I will say it again: the vast majority of dogs in the United States (and the world) have wonderful loving owners that care very much for their well being. You hear about the bad cases because they are bad.

So does the tumor on Pete’s neck indicate that he is being neglected? If everything you read on the internet is to be believed, yes. It doesn’t take long to come across an image of a dog with a tumor that was rescued from a shelter, the rescue group claiming abuse, and the accusatory comments from the general public that inevitably follow.

If you take one thing away from this blog post, please take this: an existing medical condition is not always an indication of abuse or neglect.

Many diseases take more than a month of treatment before they go away. And a lot of these diseases appear out of nowhere. Pete’s tumor was completely undetectable until it suddenly wasn’t, and then it was very obvious. Nothing was going to fix his cancer overnight, and as it turns out, nothing will ever fix it. This is the disease that will kill him. But in the meantime, while we have been blessed with months of love and naked-dog snuggles that we couldn’t have even dreamed about having last December, we are giving him the best quality of life we possibly can.

That is all that matters to him and it is all that matters to us.


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  1. Charlotte

    I hardly know what to say, my eyes are full of tears. I have had the privilege of having so many wonderful dogs in my nearly 70 years. It never gets easier to face the end of life. Reading your post has brought back so many intense feelings. My last old dog died almost 3 years ago, but the pain of his loss is still there, raw and hot, especially when I think of all the “arrangements” we made to shield him – and me and my husband – from those pointing fingers and glaring looks. He was blind from visible cataracts that I know were leaking proteins into his eyes and were painful. Until the last days, at nearly 17, he popped up on the couch every day for his eye drops. We don’t know if they made his eyes less painful or not, but he loved the attention. He had constantly growing ugly, bleeding, weeping warts all over his body, that prevented me from grooming him without hurting him. I resorted to scissors in place of a comb whenever a mat or knot appeared in his rough-looking coat. Because of his blindness and his appearance, we kept him home, let him out only in our yard, and snuck out of the house with the other dogs for walks – but he still knew what he was missing. I am active in my community in animal legislation, and I lived in fear that someone would see my old guy and assume the things you talk about here – and because of my high profile, I feared the worst, that someone would publicly accuse me of severe neglect of my own dog. It’s not a good way to live, and really added to our sadness at this unique and very special dog’s terminal condition called “old age”. He was my retired Human Remains Detector dog, had located several missing people so that they could be finally returned to their families. He once told me – and law enforcement – the entire story of a horrific violent murder that elicited a confession. The murderer is serving life with no parole. The least I could do for this wonderful dog was protect him from the ugliness that is out there, the judgmental people who would eagerly exploit this boy’s appearance to make a political statement about me, who loved him beyond understanding.
    About one year after I lost this dog, I lost my mom to COPD, such an awful way to die. The next year of my life was just going through the motions, for the sake of my family, friends, and colleagues, but I was living in a dark hole, and only now seeing some light.

    I want to hug you and Pete, and wish you peace. I understand what you are facing, and know you will take care of Pete until you can’t. And that is the way of this world.

    • Farm Dog

      Hi Charlotte,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. It sounds like your old boy was graceful and enthusiastic up until the end. He was very lucky to have you in his life, and I’m sure you feel the same way about him.

      I’m sorry for your loss of your mom as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. It’s easy to forget that there are others walking this road.

  2. Amber

    I experienced a similar thing with my Dane’s lymphoma. She showed no signs except for the side effects of the prednisone. People saw the way she was bloated and tried to tell me she was fat, and tried to say things about the amount she was eating. She only had a few weeks left to live; why should I make her be hungry all the time? She was a therapy dog for the hospice I volunteer with, and I continued to take her to visit until 2 weeks before she died. It has been 9 months since she died, and sometimes it still feels like yesterday that we were taking her to visit at Petsmart or the Costco food court.

    • Farm Dog

      Hi Amber,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your Dane. Lymphoma is such a horrible disease. My condolences for your loss- don’t listen to the naysayers. I’m sure you did everything right for your girl.