Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Buck was an older lead dog, around 9 or 10 years. And as many of you know, old dogs are often the sweetest dogs. Buck was no different.
He was a sleek coated, black and white bundle of sweet joy. Always reaching for hugs and pets, and an energy level that belied his age. Buck was a powerhouse in harness, always ready ready ready to go. He had a mischievous, sneaky streak too - I remember I was walking through his circle during a rainstorm once and I stepped in a puddle with my mud boots, expecting it to be ankle high at most. I sunk in to my knee instead - Buck had dug himself a basement!
Buck was not one of Ed's bloodline; he was dropped off from another musher to retire at what they thought was a great retirement home where dogs too slow and old to keep up on the race teams could still happily fill their days running easy tour trails. Buck had been leading Ed's tour teams for a few years by the time I came to work there.
In late November, I noticed frozen vomit and diarrhea splatters in Buck's chainspot - he had obviously thrown up the previous day's meal. I offered him food and water, but he had no interest. I brought it up to Ed immediately, and Ed decided to dose Buck with metronidazole - a drug that is used to treat parasitic and bacterial infections in the digestive tract. He had gotten the prescription drug from a previous vet visit years ago; the vet was not involved in Buck's case. Morning and night, Ed gave Buck metronidazole, but he continued to refuse to eat or drink; he stopped defecating. Buck's weight melted away at an alarming rate and he became worringly lethargic, not even bothering to come out of his dog house to greet me like normal. Ed tried to offer clear, unbaited water. He tried the regular baited water we used. He tried different kinds of food - turkey, beaver, or kibble. Buck wanted none of it.
Ed said to me, "I hope that dog doesn't die." But Buck's deteriorating condition wasn't enough for Ed to seek veterinary help.
I was sure that this was caused by an impaction, but Ed wouldn't listen to me. He was convinced the diarrhea at the beginning meant that impaction wasn't an option, even though that is a common symptom. Ed told me it was a stomach bug and would not consider anything else, continuing to dose the metronidazole morning and evening, with my reminders. He even gave Buck a couple doses of an antibiotic to help with whatever stomach bug Ed thought it was, though it had no effect.
An impaction is caused by the dog swallowing a foreign object, which can then get lodged in its gut and inhibit digestion. It is fatal if untreated. And in my opinion, it was textbook.
3 days in, I suggested to Ed to get an IV drip on Buck to get some fluid in him, since fluid will often pass an impaction and Buck wouldn't drink on his own. Ed immediately shut me down; he knew what the best course of treatment for the dog was. I monitored Buck's vital signs on my own two or three times a day, since I knew Ed wasn't doing it.
Day 4, I asked Buck to come out of his barrel for me to check on him. His back legs shook violently from cold or weakness, I couldn't tell. He just snuggled into my chest wanting warmth and attention. I sat down and hugged him for minutes that felt like an eternity, feeling as trapped as he was. That evening, Ed finally took more action - we crated Buck in the warming shed next to the dog yard for the night, which was heated and kept at a toasty room temperature to thaw meat. His energy could finally go to healing himself and not just keeping himself warm. Day 5, he pooped out one singular turd and started drinking again. He drank a few mouthfuls and ate the turkey I offered him. I couldn't believe my eyes. This dog who had been on death's doorstep was showing a fight to stay alive like I hadn't seen in days, and I was overwhelmed with emotion.
I put Buck back in the warm shed again without bothering to ask Ed since it seemed to help him so much; I was cautiously holding onto hope. The next day Buck defecated again and voraciously ate his entire meal. I nearly cried with relief. He seemed like himself again - alert, lively, playful, and excited.
Everything seemed to be going fine after that - Buck regained his weight quickly, was having normal digestion and passing stool again, and started running in harness again. The whole ordeal seemed to confirm Ed's belief on dog care: "Leave 'em be and they'll be fine."
Three weeks later, I walked to Buck's chainspot to find frozen vomit and diarrhea. He still had some passing interest in food and water, so I prayed it wasn't the same thing as before. Unfortunately, day 2, he refused all food and water. His skin rebound confirmed his dehydration.
We put Buck in the heated shed for the night again, and Ed started him once again on the metronidazole. Ed also syringed some Pepto Bismol down his throat, along with a small amount of water to at least get a little hydration in him. We talked about injecting saline water under his skin as a method to keep Buck hydrated, but Ed had run out long ago and it wasn't something that was available at drugstores anymore. He talked about how he had saved dogs by hydrating them this way. Yet he would still not visit a vet and spend money to get more saline water for Buck. Ed continued to treat the symptoms of what he called a "gut issue" but would not call a vet for advice or a diagnosis, no matter how many times I brought it up.
After day 2, Buck stayed in the warm shed full time. I would bring him out every time I visited the dog yard to let him relieve himself (if he had any pee at all) and offer him water, which he always refused. His weight dropped even faster than the first time. Day 4, I brought Buck outside and cried into his neck. The pain in his eyes was heartbreaking. Buck was dying before my eyes and there was nothing I could do; I was as tightly in Ed's grip as Buck was. Every time I opened the crate door, I wondered if today would be the day I found Buck dead.
Every time we tried to feed him and Buck inevitably refused it, Ed would say to me, "Can't help him if he doesn't eat."
Ed always believed he knew more than the vets. He was the one who had been in dogs nearly 50 years, not the vets. Every time I begged him to call a vet, he told me "the first thing the vets will try anyways is to put him on this metronidazole." He kept telling me his diagnosis: "It's a gut issue." The one vet interaction I experienced while I was there was rabies vaccinations - something that is legally required for all dogs, and moreso legally required to be given by a licensed veterinarian. Ed's vet did a lot of volunteer work for Iditarod and had lots of experience with sleddogs, traveling to many races and his wealth of knowledge was something I extremely respected. During the process, and for hours after the vaccinations were done, Ed complained about how much faster he could have done it. He bragged about how much more he knew about the syringes and dosing in the cold, and how much better at giving shots he is than vets, and how they rob you.
Day 5, Ed finally started giving Buck Pedialyte on my suggestion - it was actually the Pedialyte I had on hand in case I needed it for Ziggy. Pedialyte is excellent for helping dogs recover electrolytes and hydration - I had it on hand for use in case Ziggy vomited, but Buck needed it way more. Ed didn't have to spend money on it, and that was the only way I could convince him to dose it. Buck was now getting metronidazole, Pepto Bismol, and Pedialyte twice a day and continuing to tumble downhill.
Three days later - eight days since the second onset - Buck finally passed. Ed told me he went to catch a loose dog while I was asleep - the dog yard bursts into loud barking when a dog got loose, so loud you can hear it from the house - and discovered Buck was gone. Thinking back on it, I don't know if Ed finally put Buck down himself to save him from even more pain, or if he was telling the truth. I never saw the body. But one thing was clear.
To Ed, the dogs he didn't breed were disposable.