Over the course of the many years that I owned, worked and played with Canadian Inuit Dogs, they have given me countless joys as well as sorrows. I cherish memories of running a team on the frozen tundra in the twilight before the return of the sun, the crisp air biting at my face. Settling south of the 60th came with some trepidation. How were the dogs going to react to the dry Prairie heat in the summer? They took it in stride. They didn't have polar bears to round up, so they rounded up black bears and even a young doe. When the wildlife was safely on its way and the dogs back in their pen, we laughed. And we laughed too when a big male didn't want to walk in the mud and consistently walk over a 10x6 plank I had thrown down over the deepest part. And so many more...
Sorrows come when they grow old and died. In my book, The Canadian Inuit Dog: Canada's Heritage, I stated the belief expressed by ethnographers, explorers, anthropologists and observers of Inuit life, that the Inuit shot their dogs at about seven years of age when they began to slow down. I have since modified that belief. I now think that the Inuit had learnt from their ancestors that from about age seven, the qimmiq could begin to develop old-age troubles. From my observations and communications from other CID mushers, I determined that the average life of a CID is ten years. Some time after age seven, a qimmiq working in a harsh environment like the Arctic, begins to lose weight even though he still eats and runs well. This is the first sign of aging. He may also develop skin excrescences like warts, although he doesn't appear to be bothered by those small growths. Of course, not every dog will have them, but the weight loss is pretty universal.
By age ten, I don't sled my dogs, but allow the old guy to run alongside the sled until I see how far he can go before becoming tired. From then on, he'll go out with another old dog. Then comes a point, perhaps after two years, when the weight loss is pronounced and the dog shows less interest in his food. That for a CID is a definite sign of aging. Yet he might still go on happily for another year.
The length of time that the old dog picks at his food varies with the individual, until the day that nothing can tempt him, neither fresh meat nor savory treats, but he drinks, and drinks a lot. It is also the time when he looks at the gate but makes no effort to get out with the rest of the pack. Progressively, he stops getting to his feet when I go into the pen, but will get up with some encouragement. I'm a softy. I take my old dog into the house and we have some together time. He still stands and walks a few times, and in between sleeps a lot, but is very alert when awake. Till the moment he stops breathing. The period of final decline lasts approximately three weeks. This is what I qualify as a natural death.
Sometimes, an old dog may have shown the early signs of aging, and one day running to the gate collapses. Within a couple of minutes he stops breathing. This is always a shock for me, as I always expect the decline to last two to three years. Another manner I observed is the happy but aging dog, still working and showing no real sign of old age. Then without warning, he refuses his food. Two days later, he curls up in a corner and passes on into eternity in a matter of minutes.
Can something be done about the warts? I tried. The vet removed one on a dog's paw. Considering his age (11) he suffered more from the light anesthetic than from the wart, which regrew in a short time. In short, wart removal is a waste of time and causes the dog stress.
Is there a time to call the vet? There is if the old dog is suffering. It is hard to know as the CID ignores pain, especially when it's time to go out. But finally, he gives up, whimpers a bit and cries when touched as if the whole body was sensitized. Now is time.
Then there is the retired dog who has no symptoms due to age, eats well, is happy to go for a walk and suddenly collapses. He is alert, but cannot move and makes no attempt to do so. The vet can test the dog but the verdict is always the same: the nervous system is shutting down. In natural death, the fact the dog gets up and walks, helps clear fluid from the lungs. When the nervous system shuts down and the dog cannot move, fluid accumulates in the lungs, pneumonia ensues and, finally, drowning. Euthanasia is required to prevent undue suffering to the dog. I review his behaviour prior to the collapse and find that indeed, I had noticed he wasn't entirely his usual boisterous self, but I don't expect an old dog to be jumping up every day. I expect him to be more sedate, and trot rather than run when walking.
The end of life of CID can take different forms. It can happen anytime between age nine and fourteen years. I feel privileged when a beloved dog makes it to fourteen. I agree that all this talk about death and dying is pretty depressing. Focusing on young and exuberant dogs is much more fun. But we must cherish our dogs in all stages of their lives, from puppyhood to old age, for the enduring love and loyalty they give us.