A Dog Like Darcy

Author: Kim Campbell Thornton

Not quite seven years ago, I was on my way to New York for the annual festivities surrounding the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. I went every year, but this trip was special: I would be picking up my first puppy ever.

Darcy Image

We had acquired our first Cavalier, a 3-year-old sweetie named Bella the previous year. As so often happens, we discovered that one was not enough and began the search for a puppy. Bella’s breeder was not expecting a litter for a while, so I contacted an Irish breeder (Heather Lamont of Moorfields Kennels) with whom I had corresponded during our original Cavalier search. She had a very cute tricolor bitch that would be old enough to ship right about the time I would be going to New York.


After a nightmarish experience trying to find Aer Lingus cargo and Customs, I took custody of two puppies (the other was for fellow Cavalier fancier Mary-Frances Makichen). In the cab on the way back to the hotel, one settled quietly into my lap. The other explored every inch of the back seat, tried to meet the cabby, and kept running back to give me kisses. That was Darcy.

She was a delight. When my husband picked us up at LAX and that little head popped out of the carrier, it was love at first sight. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said.


With her outgoing nature and her clear interest in everyone she met, Darcy was an ambassador not just for Cavaliers but for dogs in general. She considered it her bounden duty to meet—and greet with a hearty Irish kiss—everyone she saw. We rapidly gave up trying to teach her not to lick faces, because everyone loved it and refused to participate in the training opportunity. But that was one of the rare instances where training didn’t work. Darcy copied Bella—who I liked to joke had come fully loaded—and learned all the basics and then some in short order. I’ve never met a dog who could match her for politeness. During a taste test of liver treats for an article I was writing, our friend Jim Nash was besieged by what must have been a dozen Cavaliers and Dalmatians. All but 10-month-old Darcy, who knew that treats come when you sit and wait your turn.

Like every Cavalier owner, I worried that she would develop mitral valve disease. When she was 3, at a Cavalier health fair, the cardiologist turned to me with a concerned look. “She’s not a breeding dog, is she?” She said Darcy had a grade 3 murmur.


That was okay. I was sure she would follow Bella’s example and remain asymptomatic. But that was not to be. Instead, Darcy became a classic example of how this disease can hit Cavaliers: hard and fast.


Every year, I took her in to our veterinarian for x-rays, an echocardiogram that was interpreted by a visiting internal medicine specialist, and an EKG. For three years she held steady. But on her 6th birthday, the exam showed that the disease was beginning to progress, and we started her on medication. It was a trial getting it adjusted. She lost her appetite, which really scared me because Darcy loved to eat. It was during the holidays, and the cardiologist and I were playing appointment tag. I couldn’t get her in until after the new year, but for the most part she seemed to be doing all right. Her vet and I didn’t think the delay would be a problem.


We were wrong. She went into heart failure just a few days before the cardiologist appointment. I spent the night at the emergency clinic, wondering if she would make it through the night. The vet on duty wasn’t very encouraging. They closed during the day, so she was transported by ambulance (she needed oxygen) to the nearest high-tech veterinary facility. They pulled her through and sent her home after three nervewracking days. Her increased medications included pimobendan (vetmedin), which isn’t approved in this country but is available through various sources. It was said to be very helpful with some dogs; with others it didn’t seem to have much effect. We crossed our fingers.


Standard medications used to manage CVD are diuretics, angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, and drugs that can help regulate arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats. Together, the medications can help control the signs of CVD and improve a dog’s quality of life and longevity. Which drugs are used, and when, and how much, depends on how advanced the disease is, whether the dog has any concurrent problems, and what side effects the dog may experience from certain drugs.


Diuretics are necessary for any dog with signs of congestion, such as fluid in the lungs or abdomen. The standard diuretic is furosemide, or lasix, which acts to rid the body of excessive fluid.


Unfortunately, Darcy’s dose of lasix hadn’t been increased quite enough. She was back in the hospital two days later for another couple of nights. The veterinarians told us she might have months left or she might have only weeks.


Finally, she seemed to be stabilized and we took her home. Then we got her to the cardiologist as soon as possible. She adjusted and added to Darcy’s medications, and we appeared to have a winning combination of drugs. She was back to her happy, energetic, eager-to-eat self, and it was all we could do to restrict her activity without making life unutterably boring for her.


It was time for Darcy to learn some new tricks. These included NOT jumping on the furniture and NOT going up and down the stairs on her own and NOT chasing her toys down the hall. We got a set of steps for the furniture and taught all the dogs to use them. We put a gate at the top of the stairs and bought a child’s wagon so Darcy wouldn’t miss out on walks. She would ride in it standing up, surveying her domain. I’d take a toy and toss it a couple of inches, laughing when she gleefully pounced on it.


She also became an internet personality. To help cope with his anxiety, my husband started a blog about Darcy’s progress, called Darcy’s Daily. Written in her voice, it detailed typical days, the ups and downs of her medications, visits to Dr. Barrett, fun times with the neighbors, our obsessive worrying over her and her own blithe acceptance of the way things were.


“Dad says I’m here to teach him things,” Darcy “wrote” one day. “I’m sure one of those things is trust.” Her blog drew a small but devoted following, and her appearance in my MSNBC pet health column elicited more than a thousand clicks on the page with her picture, a record for the column.

Mitral valve disease, now more commonly known as chronic valvular disease, is the most common form of heart disease in dogs. Small and medium-size dogs that are middle-aged or older are most commonly affected, with Cavaliers and Dachshunds having the greatest incidence. Cavaliers are often affected by CVD earlier than other breeds, so Kirstie A. Barrett, DVM, the board-certified cardiologist at California Animal Hospital in Los Angeles, who was treating Darcy, prefers to check them more frequently—every six months—than she might another breed in which the disease is less aggressive.


Once we got Darcy stabilized, we took her in to Dr. Barrett about once a month, fearful that we might miss some sign that she was worsening. After a couple of good exams, Dr. Barrett suggested that we try to go two months before we saw her again.


At home, routine ruled. Meals and medications were on a strict schedule. We set my PDA to give off an alarm every time medications were due. Because of the diuretics, which cause increased thirst and urination, we took Darcy out to potty every two to four hours and refilled her water dishes frequently throughout the day. Luckily, both of us were working at home for the most part. And carrying 16-pound Darcy up and down the stairs numerous times a day meant I didn’t need to waste time at the gym.


I was the night shift; Jerry was the morning shift. Darcy was usually able to make it through the night without a potty break, but if I heard her up drinking I would go ahead and take her out. We tried putting down puppy pee pads for her to use at night if needed, but being a fastidious girl she carefully avoided Mom and Dad’s nice blue “rugs” and would squat on the wood floor next to them if she really had to go.


Darcy did well for a time, but in late May it became clear that she was starting to wind down. There were no more attempts to trot or run to the grass. She moved sedately, speeding up only if she saw one of her favorite neighbors.


Her appetite continued to be excellent. That was good, because she was getting seven medications two and three times a day, all mixed into her meals or given with treats. We discovered that fruit was an excellent carrier for many of the pills Darcy took, and she loved it. We’d cut a slit in a blueberry, strawberry or the back of a tangerine slice, and insert a pill. Banana and mango worked well too. We had other medications compounded into chicken- and fruit-flavored liquids, which we squirted on her food. She always licked her bowl clean.


We don’t know what finally tipped her over the edge. It could have been June’s heat wave or the increased dose of lasix she needed to clear the fluid from her lungs or that her heart simply got too big and too tired to go on. Dr. Barrett hospitalized her and put her on oxygen, but it didn’t seem to help. We took her home and switched from lasix pills to injections. She began having more frequent episodes of breathing difficulty. Her electrolyte levels fell life-threateningly low. The vets could fix one or the other, but not both.


We said goodbye to Darcy on June 27. She was only 6.5 years old. But she lives on in the Darcy Fund, which we started in conjunction with the ACKCSC Charitable Trust to fund research into causes and cures for CVD. To the best of our knowledge, there is not another such directed fund for MVD, and we hope that the Darcy Fund will help other Cavaliers live a longer, healthier life. She had a larger-than-life personality that we believe was meant to be shared, and she would like knowing that she could be helpful to someone else with a dog facing this disease. So do we. “After all,” Jerry says, “it’s not often you get a dog like Darcy.”

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