Specter's Northern Lights

[Picture of Chinook]

Chinook, the Siberian husky, wasn't supposed to grow old. Because of technology, he lived to nearly fourteen. Born July 24, 1985, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, he came to live with us shortly after Chandra died.

A typical Sibe, he was his own dog--bullheaded and stubborn. True to his breed, he loved winter! On the coldest nights, he'd insist staying outside, only to be covered with snow in the morning. Our first experience with a northern breed, we didn't understand. He quickly educated us on Siberian etiquette. :-)

As a puppy, Chinook loved books--literally. We thought he was trying to absorb them through ingestion. He also loved Solo, our Lab/Aussie mix. After Chandra's death, Solo was depressed. Chinook lifted her spirit. With plenty of growling and snapping, the neighbors thought their rough-and-tumble games were fights.

In 1987, a human member joined the family. Located 70 miles from the hospital, our neighbors looked after Chinook and Solo, when Bryan was born. Late risers, Chinook pounced on their bed at six a.m. Never thought to warn them. Don't all doggy people begin the morning that way? ;-)

Bounce, bounce, bounce--thrilled with the new pack member, Chinook was eager for a closer look. As a result, Grandma didn't trust him. Her worries unfounded, he accepted Bryan instantly, and was quite useful in cleaning messy faces.

1988 brought a move to Tucson, Arizona. All was not well. Uncharacteristically lethargic, Chinook was diagnosed with immune mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA)--a blood disease where red blood cells get dangerously low. Severely weakened, he nearly died, but constant nursing pulled him through.

Not too long after his bout with IMHA, Chinook became lethargic again. The vet detected a low heart rate of forty beats/minute. More blood tests--and although his titer was low, he was diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis, better known as "valley" fever. Although extremely ill, he recovered in time for our next transfer--to Virginia.

In Virginia, with lush vegetation and space to run, we hadn't quite learned that one doesn't let a Northern breed off leash. Although under supervision, he decided to go exploring--over the mountain. Unable to find him, we blanketed the area with lost dog notices. One paid off. A farmer called. Chinook was in with his cattle. Within his legal right to shoot him, the farmer shrugged his shoulders and said that Chinook was merely curious. Besides, 'he was too pretty of a dog to shoot'. To this day, we silently thank him. Learning from our mistake, except in a fenced yard, we never let him off leash again.

After a year, subtle signs reappeared that Chinook wasn't well. Our new vet detected the low heart rate. Since Chinook tended to be on the athletic side, he told us not to worry. On walks he began to pull less, then the dreaded lethargy reappeared. His heart rate plummeted to twenty-four beats/minute. Drugs kept him alive, but only one option remained--a pacemaker.

Considered obsolete for humans, a medical hospital donated a pacemaker to our local vet school. The surgery went smoothly. With his whole left side bruised and shaved, he looked like he had been hit by a truck. For a couple weeks, his exercise was limited to short leash walks. Once he bumped his side, and it was the only time we ever heard the stoic Sibe cry.

In those days, pain relief for dogs was almost unheard of. The vet clinic said to give him aspirin. Sigh . . . For two days, we sat and held him. By returning to his normal activities, he let us know the pain had become tolerable. Ironic, the next time illness struck the family, he took up nursing duty--usually Solo's job. A chore he had never taken on before or since. But with his heart rate eighty beats/minute, again, he recovered quickly.

[Chinook in Ruckersville]

The Good Times

By this time, Chinook's aged friend, Solo died. The stoic husky never showed grief. Finally able to move to a home of our own, instead of another rental, the first project was a fence. Except for his adventure over the mountain, Arizona was the last time he had been able to run free. As the posts went up, he paid no notice. Then as we placed the mesh, he started bouncing and racing back and forth on his trolley line. He knew we were building a fence. At last the fence was finished, and he zoomed around the yard--so happy and carefree. No more wrapping the trolley line around the tree in the middle of the night!

[Chinook chewing a nylabone]


Over the next few years, Chinook had chronic ear infections. Time and time again, they recurred. Never did find the underlying cause, but as he got older, we suspected more was at work than ear trouble. After five years, his pacemaker battery wore out. Not the major surgery as the time before, the battery under the skin was all that needed replaced. His heart stopped during the surgery, but restarted once the battery was connected. Like a young dog, he bounded around the house, then lethargy set in once again. The pacemaker's rate had been set for an elderly human, not an older canine. The technician (his only canine patient) hurried to the vet clinic and readjusted the rate. Chinook's spark returned.

By this time, old age crept up. He never reached the peak of the previous pacemaker. Ear infections recurred, along with arthritis, skin, and eye problems. He'd squint his eyes like a person with a terrible headache. The vet told us that while there's no documentation, basically because animals can't talk, we knew Chinook well enough to have probably guessed what he was feeling. Finally an ophthalmologist discovered his eye problems were autoimmune related. It suddenly clicked, Chinook had lupus, with migraines as a common symptom.

While we'll never prove the diagnosis, all of Chinook's systems were closing down. It was only a matter of time as to which one went first. One evening, he couldn't stand. We thought it might be time to call the vet, but with help, he struggled to his feet. The next day, his symptoms were worse. It was taking longer before he could get up. Quality of life had dwindled away. On April 27, 1999, we brought him outside to sniff the yard one last time. He even tried to run. While no puppy, he had fun. He was at peace. In a green shady grove of fir trees in Charlottesville, he was relieved from his pain. Crossing the Rainbow Bridge, he greeted Solo and Shaman.

Our vet dismissed systemic lupus as being rare in canines, but in Chinook's case, circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. The great imitator, lupus often takes several years for conclusive diagnosis in humans. In canine years, many dogs would have died before the disease is ever considered. Is it really rare or often missed? Chinook's symptoms read like a textbook and explain so much of his life.

These days--life seems strange without a Northern breed. The 'oo woo' is gone. Of our dogs, he was the only one that could truly howl. Nose pointed to the sky, he shared that primitive wail. The house is quiet. Chinook, we miss you, old man. Wait for us at the bridge.

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Kim and Pat Murphy