D. E. Larsen, DVM
I stepped out of the crowding ally quickly as Ervin released the cow that I had just checked. The next cow was charging down the alley with Ella right on her heels.
Ella was a middle-aged Border Collie. She had been on the farm enough years to know her job well. When one cow left the chute, Ella had another one heading down the ally. The cows also knew Ella. If they failed to follow her instructions, they would have her biting at their heels.
“You trained her well,” I said. As Ervin caught the next cow in the headgate.
“Wasn’t any training involved,” Ervin said. “She watched my old dog a couple times when she was a pup. The rest was just instinct. She loves these days or the days when we change pastures. The rest of the time, she is just waiting for me to head for the pickup. She likes to go to town in the back of that thing. Bouncing from side to side as we go down the road and then guarding the truck with her life when I go into the store. It is only different when I pull into your parking lot. She knows that place, and she doesn’t like it much.”
“I see a lot of working dogs,” I said. “Most of them live to work. And most of them are pretty good at what they do. But Ella has to be one of the best. I think she has the cows trained. They just know what she wants them to do.”
I had been to Ervin’s place many times before, but usually just for one or two cows. This was the first time that we were working through the entire herd, checking for pregnancy status. At most places, it was a job to keep the crowding alley full and have the next cow ready to go into the chute. Not so with Ella here, she was in total command of the herd, and she worked hard at her job.
Ervin was one of the older ranchers in my practice. He was tall and thin and always looked like he shaved about four days ago. His face was long and accented by a somewhat pointed nose. The few tufts of gray hair on his head were covered with an old beat-up cowboy hat, and he always wore cowboy boots. That told of his roots coming from Montana. He was probably the only true cowboy in my client base.
We worked through Ervin’s herd in about three hours. Ella was resting at the back of my truck as I was cleaning up and putting things away. Her tongue was hanging out, and she was panting a lot, but I think she was hoping that there was something else to be done.
Two days later, Ervin pushed through the clinic doors with Ella following with very guarded steps. Ella stood close to Ervin’s leg as he waited at the counter. She was a little hunched up in her stance.
“What’s going on with Ella this morning?” I asked as I opened the door to the back.
“I don’t know, Doc,” Ervin said. “She was a little slow yesterday, and I just figured she was tired from working those cows. She is getting a little older, you know. But this morning, she doesn’t want to move. And she wouldn’t jump into the bed of the pickup. I loaded her into the cab for the trip into town. I figure she must be close to death for her to want to ride in the cab.”
Ella tensed when I started to pick her up to put her on the exam table.
“Do you think she could have been kicked the other day?” I asked.
“That is what I was thinking,” Ervin said. “But if she did, I didn’t see or hear it happen.”
I ran my hands down her back and along the muscles of her back and hind legs. There was no indication of any pain. Then I palpated her belly. She tensed at my initial touch. When I palpated her abdomen, I immediately detected a large tumor in the middle of her gut. This tumor was the size of a cantaloupe. That is a massive mass for a dog of Ella’s size.
Ervin, she has a large tumor in her abdomen,” I said. “We need to get some x-rays and see if we can determine what it is and to check the status of her lungs.”
“Can you do anything to help her, Doc,” Ervin asked.
“It all depends on what it is,” I said. “We might not really know until we get in there and look. And then with a tumor of this size, if it is malignant, we might not buy Ella much time.”
“Okay, I want to try to give her a chance,” Ervin said. “I don’t want to sell the farm, but let’s see what we can do.”
We took a set of x-rays of Ella’s chest and abdomen and drew some blood if we were going to be doing some surgery. When the films were developed, I put them on the viewer for Ervin to see.
“The good thing here is the lungs look clear,” I said. “But look at the size of this mass in the middle of her belly. This could be just about anything. I think the only thing to do is to go in and look. If we can get it out of there, we will do that. If we can’t get it out, then you have to decide if you want to wake her up or not.”
“When can you do this, Doc?” Ervin asked.
“We can do her the first thing in the morning,” I said. “You can leave her overnight if you like.”
“Oh no,” Ervin said. “You give her something to make her a little more comfortable, and I will take her home. If this is her last night, she will be on the farm and beside the fire in the house tonight.”
“I am amazed at her grit,” I said. “She worked those cows the other day just like nothing was wrong.”
“Well, Doc, that’s her job,” Ervin said. “It’s just like the old farmer out in the field hoeing his corn. A fancy city slicker comes up and asks him what he would do if he was told he was going to die tomorrow. The old farmer thinks for a minute and looks around at his cornfield. Well, he says, I guess I would hurry up and get my hoeing done. No different with Ella, she just figured it’s her job.”
I was amazed at the size of the tumor when Ella’s abdomen was opened the following morning. With exploration, it was determined to be the right kidney. Her left kidney appeared normal, and her kidney numbers were normal in her preoperative blood.
I carefully isolated the renal artery and triple ligated it first. Then with careful dissection and ligation, I removed this mass. It was a full 10 inches in diameter.
Ella recovered well and bounced out of the kennel when Ervin came to pick her up. She is an excellent example of why the closure of the incision is so vital in these dogs. I doubt that she is going to restrict herself much.
“What do you think, Doc?” Ervin asked.
“Surgery went well, and the rest of her abdomen looked good,” I said. “We will just have to wait on the report from the pathologist on what type of tumor this is and what kind of a prognosis we can expect.”
“I guess it doesn’t really matter,” Ervin said. “We are not going to put her through any of the stuff that they put you and me through. That stuff probably doesn’t buy much time anyway.”
A couple of weeks later, Ervin and Ella bounded through the door.
“Doc, I want to thank you,” Ervin said with a broad smile on his face. “That tumor most have been bothering Ella for a long time. She has been like a puppy ever since the surgery.”
“I would bet that if you or I walked around with a mass the size of a small watermelon in our gut, we would be slowed down a little,” I said. “Let’s get Ella up on the table and get those stitches out, and then I will go over the pathology report with you.”
Ella’s incision was well healed. It has always amazed me how well dogs, cats, and cows tolerated abdominal incisions. When I had an appendectomy, I didn’t walk up straight for a month. Ella has probably been running around the barn and the pastures for over a week now.
“The pathologist says Ella’s tumor was an Embryonal Nephroma,” I explain. “This is a rare kidney tumor in the dog. But for the most part, it is considered benign. So maybe we have dodged the bullet. Let’s hope so, at least.”
“That good, Doc,” Ervin said. “But you know, at my age, and Ella’s age, we just take what the world throws at us when we get up in the morning.”
And in Ella’s case, the world did throw her a curveball. She was fine for the next 6 months. She worked and enjoyed life right to the very end. Then one morning, as if that final straw was thrown onto the camel’s back, Ella could hardly catch her breath.
Ervin rushed her to the clinic, and we took a set of x-rays of her lungs. Those lungs were full of cancer.
I didn’t have to tell Ervin a thing when I went out front to discuss the films with him.
“I guess that pathologist didn’t know what he was talking about,” Ervin said.
“That’s right, but we probably can’t blame him much,” I said. “He has probably seen about as many of these things as I have. And that is only in Ella. He was just reading out some book for us.”
“I don’t want her to suffer no more than she has already,” Ervin said. “I think it is about time for her to buy that last lotto ticket. I have a place next to the corral that will be perfect for her.”