When the puppies were nearly six weeks old, Ethel developed mastitis. It was a Sunday, and she refused to eat breakfast, then she moped around all day. By evening, she was shivering with fever, and could hardly walk. I know this because I’ve learned how to take a dog’s temperature in the butt.
Mastitis frequently occurs in breastfeeding women – it’s an infection in the breast tissue due to bacteria transmitted by a baby’s mouth. It also occurs in breastfeeding dogs – to the ninth degree. Literally. Ethel had nine filthy puppies sucking at her 10 nipples several times a day. I nearly got mastitis just watching.
And when I say filthy, I mean, you know, as clean as a furry thing can get when your mother is eating your shit and then licking you all over as a bath substitute. I don’t know, it seems like a design flaw, but whatever, God, your plan. I guess it works in the wild.
By this time, the pups had actual teeth and Ethel’s underside had become scratched up and bloody, and no matter how much she loved her brood, she needed an intervention. That night, I consulted Dr. Google, a vet tech friend, and the husband. I pretend the husband’s medical skills translate easily into canine medicine, but this is not the case. He has had people vomit on him at work, and he hasn’t blinked. But somehow picking up dog poop in the house makes him gasp and moan. He went to bed. So, based on a broad spectrum of advice, I gave Ethel a cool bath to bring down her fever, applied hot compresses to her infected boobs, and gently pressed them to force out some of the infection. And I swear to St. Francis of Assisi, I fixed her enough to guarantee us all a decent night’s sleep.
The next day I sent her to a bestie’s house to convalesce, and she was spayed two days later. Her pup-bearing days are over. The bestie has now adopted her, which is the most awesome gift she ever could have given me, and relieves her of acknowledging my birthday in perpetuity. Ethel still loves me a lot, and when I visit her she cries and hugs me. I love her so much. But the bestie loves her, too, and even lets her lounge on white couches. How do people even have white couches? I currently have an enormous beige sectional taking up half my house because my neighbor gave it to me for free last month, and it already has an alluring patina of coffee, puke, and sparkle slime. And bourbon.
Anyway, Ethel is good. Her boobs have transitioned from hanging cantaloupes to swinging hammocks, and we have hopes they’ll eventually be barely perceptible reminders of that time she got knocked up by god-knows-who.
After Ethel left, I became de-facto mama to the nine pups – Zo-Zo, Bourbon,
Fuzzy Bear, Banana, Biggie Smalls, Chip, Deli, Nugget, and Gemmy. During the day, I set up an outside kennel on my patio. At night, they slept in a smaller pen under my dining room table, which is also behind the huge sectional and next to my kitchen island. #tinyhouse
Each morning, the common area smelled like a genuine poop factory. So every morning I woke up at dawn, picked up the poop, moved the puppies outside, mopped the floors, and lit a candle so the kids could get ready for school without throwing up. Every night, we brought the pups inside for Puppypalooza, and the puppies ran around like little Pacmen, peeing and pooping everywhere and chewing whatever they could find. I made circles with paper towels, a disinfectant spray, and a mop. After 45 minutes or so, we put them in the pen and they collapsed until dawn.
This is still my routine, but I only have Nugget and Gemmy still here, which feels like an enormous weight loss. I think they’ll find homes this weekend, and I’ll be left with my full-time crew of three dogs, three children, and a husband. No, I’m not tempted to keep a puppy. I’m ready to not be a walking fecal contaminant.
What has struck me these past 10 weeks, aside from the cuteness and love and joy that Project Ethel has brought into this house, is the absolute necessity of the aforementioned love. These puppies came into the world like slippery sucking gerbils, and only their mother’s diligent instinct kept them alive. When she became overwhelmed, we stepped in to help, and our love for those puppies sustained them every bit as much as the (enormous amount of) kibble I fed them each day. The puppies came to us; they kissed us with their puppy breath and snuggled into our necks. They romped with our dogs, and chased us with abandon through the grass. We nurtured them. Without us and Ethel, they would have ventured into the world scared, snappy, and sad. They would be distrustful and shy. They might bite in fear.
Can dogs suffer from reactive attachment disorder? I have to think they can. (Can someone apply for a research grant to study this?) I’ve watched these little guys interact with us and other dogs with joy and curiosity for more than two months now, my heart pounding with love at their excitement at finding a shoe to chew, a hole to dig, a human ankle to bite. I kept thinking to myself, What if their first few weeks had not been filled with such joyful abandon? And – what if my son’s first few months had?
PS Call me if you want a puppy.