Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Catastrophic Thinking: A Dog Story

A few days ago, we took my 10-year-old standard poodle, Ariel, out for a day of fun. First, we stopped at the market and bought her a bag of liver treats, and then we went on a six mile, off-leash hike. About an hour into it, Ariel started hiccupping constantly, licking her lips, gagging. As we walked, the gagging didn’t stop, and in fact, continued to get worse, although Ariel's energy seemed fine. At first I figured she just had a hair-ball caught in her throat, then I thought she had indigestion, but as her condition progressed, I became alarmed.

We finished the hike, went home and the hiccupping/gagging continued. It was Sunday, so I put off calling the vet and instead did internet research on her symptoms, figuring I’d get her to the vet on Monday. It could be worms, I discovered. Further research revealed it could be bloat, a potentially deadly condition, or … rabies. According to the rabies symptom list—the lip licking and the gagging were indicators. She ate her dinner just fine, seemed happy and had none of the other symptoms, but even so, the worry bug bit me and I couldn’t sleep all night.

The next morning Ariel was wagging her tail, wanting breakfast—but she still gagged intermittently. I called the vet, made an appointment, and kept my anxious eyes on her. I looked for a treat to give to her, but couldn't find the bag of liver treats. I searched the house and the car and couldn’t find it. And then, as I loaded Ariel into the backseat, I saw some scraps of plastic packaging with chew marks in them on the floor of the car.

Then I realized that Ariel had eaten the entire bag of liver treats when we weren’t looking, including the plastic bag they came in. Her hiccups were caused by her joyful and secret food fest, plain and simple—not by any of the awful conditions I feared.

So often it happens that we have a symptom, or someone we love develops a bump or a cough, and we spin off into catastrophe-land. Ironically, right after Ariel’s escapade, a friend of mine called experiencing pressure in her eyes, worried that she had a brain tumor. It turned out later that she simply had sinus problems.

I got to thinking about how we adults so often go into tailspins at the first sign of trouble, whereas kids don’t do that. Kids don’t know yet what they have to worry about, so when they get sick, they take their illness at face value, without worrying about terminal disease. They don’t worry about ruining their reputation because they’ve done something stupid, nor about ending up on the streets after botching an opportunity. Only we big people think in such catastrophic terms.

What I learned is that it’s as easy to imagine your dog having a treat fiesta so lavish that she ends up with hiccups, as it is to fear that she’s ill with a dread disease. Thinking catastrophically accomplishes nothing and wastes precious life energy that could be put to far better use.

Best wishes,

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