Pixel came into our lives as a continuity puppy, acquired so the household wouldn’t suffer a dogless period after then-eighteen-year-old Muffy inevitably passed. When she arrived, Pixel was a double handful of fluff and enthusiasm, a puppy with no settings between zero and top speed. She would see something she wanted and cartoonishly run in place, her legs a scratchy blur against the hardwood floor.
It’s always a mistake to anthropomorphize animals, but perhaps least so for dogs, with whom we’ve been co-evolving for thirty thousand years. Pixel was a dog it was hard to avoid anthropomorphizing. She seemed, in fact, to insist on it. She was inquisitive and intelligent, but not in the usual sense of dog intelligence–commands understood, objects recognized. Pixel’s intelligence manifested in a palpable sense that she was trying to bridge the gap; to understand us, and be understood by us. As soon as she was big and strong enough, she started using three dimensional space like a cat. She would jump up onto tiny surfaces, climb to the back of furniture. She seemed to understand, from her place on the ground, that conversations were happening over her head, and so would get as close as she could to human eye level before vocalizing her needs. At under a year old she learned she could get attention most easily by standing up on her hind legs and clapping her forelimbs at us, a behavior that persisted the rest of her life. It wasn’t anything trained, as many visitors over the years likely thought. We didn’t teach her to beg. Rather, as I always understood it, she was standing on her “feet” and using her “hands,” just as we did. “Pay attention to me,” she seemed to say, “for I am just like you.” When I think of Pixel, my first image is always of her seeing me come in the house and rushing to stand up on the back of a couch, praying her paws together, demanding affection in our common language.
You wouldn’t mistake Pixel’s communicated desires for anything less than a command. She was an insistent dog. This was a problem when she was a puppy, and what she insisted on doing was play. Muffy, never in her life a fan of other dogs and half a decade past playtime, hated Pixel. Hated her with an absolute, impatient purity. If, as it had seemed must be about to happen any moment, Muffy had died shortly after Pixel arrived, that wouldn’t have been a huge problem. We didn’t let Pixel bother Muffy. But as time went on and Muffy abided (she lived another two years), this became an uncomfortably constant vigilance. Pixel wanted to play with the other dog, and could not be deterred. The solution was obvious: Pixel needed a puppy. Hence, when Pixel was a year old, Carrie.
They were a vaudevillian pair from the start, Pixel and Carrie. A theatrical fusion of opposites. Pixel–scrawny, scrappy, smart as hell and damn near hyperactive–was Brains. Carrie–affectionate, timid to the point of skittishness with anyone but my mother, took a two-month vacation and came back a champion show dog–was Beauty. They were the canine equivalent of a cigar-chomping wiseass and a sequined ditz, always in character, spotlight shining. Pixel’s early treatment would have terrorized Carrie if she’d only been smart enough to understand it. Pixel, for a few years, got a real thrill out of manipulating her environment. She liked to turn lamps with floor switches on and off, and could easily operate the latch on her cage, or Carrie’s cage, if she wanted to let her out to play. Once Carrie grew to be the larger dog, Pixel figured out that she could use Carrie to open doors. She would get Carrie running, then herd her toward the door to my mother’s bedroom and let her slam into it head first. Carrie’s respectable momentum would pop the latch open, and as Carrie stumbled back in confusion, Pixel would happily saunter through to see what was up inside.
To be clear: Pixel was a brat. I found her brattiness adorable, comically diluted by the impotence of being confined to an eight pound body. But she was a brat all the same. A creature of unabashed selfishness and envy, Pixel cared far more about minimizing the affection Carrie got than maximizing her own. Or perhaps just about making sure, no matter what, that she got more. If you were lavishing attention on Pixel and, across the room, someone gave Carrie a pat on the head, Pixel would abandon your loving hands instantly to dash over and displace Carrie, make sure she got her pat. Make sure she got two. Often she’d aim little rabbit kicks at Carrie with her back leg even as she rolled her head against your palm–a behavior which infuriated my mother. My father’s frequent nickname for Pixel was “Ms. Jealous,” and for several years it was true that if you wanted Pixel to come your best strategy was to call for her sister.
Pixel’s knee-jerk competitiveness wasn’t antagonism, though. The two dogs got along well, and liked each other. Carrie in particular clearly missed Pixel when they were separated. Carrie was broadly accepting of Pixel’s dominance, following her around, waiting to eat until Pixel was finished. And Pixel became less tyrannical once Carrie grew and could no longer be physically intimidated. The line’s location was never clear to us, but it was there, and when Pixel occasionally crossed it, Carrie let her know by simply putting a paw on her back and pushing her to the ground. We were all watching the day that Carrie finally realized she was bigger than Pixel. Pixel was at the low sill of the window near the breakfast table, keeping a zealous eye on the squirrels near the bird feeder, and Carrie was standing in the kitchen staring at her. Just still, staring, for minutes. You could almost hear the gap-toothed gears start to turn in her mind. Finally she took off, ran at Pixel and body slammed her off the windowsill and into the wall three feet to the side. Carrie trotted away, tail wagging, and Pixel sat there and stared up at us, dazed, the wounded older sibling. “You’re just going to let her do that to me?”
Of course we were, silly dog. We never protected Pixel from anything in her life, except her own body. Her take-on-the-world vitality was a medical miracle. She was born with a liver shunt, a congenital defect where a blood vessel that was supposed to go through her liver instead diverted around it, which can lead to hepatic failure. That’s usually how it’s diagnosed in puppies, their improperly filtered blood makes them sick, lethargic, stuporous. Pixel, an incisive whirlwind from day one, had her condition diagnosed through bloodwork at six months old. Our vet looked at her test results and said, “I think she has a liver shunt. You should take her to see the God of Dog Livers at Texas A&M.”
The God of Dog Livers is Dr. Mike Willard, the veterinary hepatologist who invented a surgical procedure for correcting liver shunts that was then 50% effective and is now more like 95%. Pixel was the healthiest dog with a liver shunt he’d ever seen. (She “made a ruckus” in the waiting area and had to go to “the quiet room.”) He didn’t recommend surgery for Pixel. “This is not a sick dog,” he said, “let’s try to keep her this way.” He had a medicinal protocol he wanted to try, one designed to support the liver in its present state of function. This involved multiple daily doses of several drugs. We followed his protocol religiously, and Pixel returned to A&M many times for checkups and to track her progress. Because dogs are usually so ill already when they get diagnosed, there is little data on how the condition progresses. Pixel, an unusual case and unusual creature, quickly became beloved at the veterinary clinic. Staff came in on their days off if they noticed Pixel on the schedule. For the next eight years of medicine and tests, Pixel’s liver function held steady and she remained as sprightly as ever.
That changed this past summer. Her regular blood test results showed a slip in liver function, very sharp, very sudden. Far too sudden to be the liver shunt, opined Dr. Willard. That would have been a gradual decline. Further bloodwork and imaging wasn’t able to determine a cause, though, so the decision was made for Pixel to finally get shunt surgery. But the God of Dog Livers was adamant: have the surgery, yes, but there is something else causing the decreased liver function. And, of course, he was right. While Pixel was being operated on, the surgeon found a diseased lobe of the liver, invisible on the scans, and excised it. It was metastatic bile duct cancer, a very fast and aggressive kind.
The severity of her illness was reflected in Pixel’s behavior. She slowed down, started napping all day, turned into a cuddler. The jealousy abated entirely; all she wanted was comforting. For a time she was on chemo drugs, but those made her so weak and unfocused that it soon seemed an unconscionable reduction in her quality of life. We decided instead to allow the cancer to run its course, manage her pain as long as it was manageable, and step in should she ever seem to be suffering intractably. Over the next few weeks she lost weight while her tumors grew with shocking speed. One large, non-organ mass in her abdomen was easily palpable, then visible through her skin. It pressed on the nerves controlling her back legs so it became difficult for her to jump, a heartbreaking diminishment in a dog that had always seemed able to get wherever she wanted (whether we wanted her to or not). We began lifting her up and down from from furniture. We gave her anything she seemed to want. Her abated insistence was balanced by our surging solicitousness.
My mother, as she had nine years earlier when we had a dog that seemed near the end of her life, decided to purchase a continuity puppy, and so in October Pixel and Carrie were joined by Mischief. Pixel’s first interaction with Mischief was to eat her dinner and snap at her when she tried to complain, an assertiveness that, given her weakness, we all found delightful. But unlike Muffy, Pixel came to enjoy the newcomer. She and Mischief would curl up together, and even play to the extent Pixel was able. My parents believe that Mischief, the last thing she ever seriously engaged with, extended Pixel’s life. But sadly her engagement didn’t last for very long. By December Pixel was skeletal, on multiple pain medications, unable to keep down food even on anti-emetics. She lacked the strength in her back legs to easily climb a step, or balance sitting up to wave her paws at us. No longer able to clap for our attention, it was like she lost her voice. The obvious next step in her disease progression would be full loss of mobility, then a slow death. We spent a whole day discussing it and decided she had finally reached the point at which euthanasia was the humane choice.
I met my parents on a bleary morning in San Marcos, and from there we drove the two hours to Texas A&M, as we had decided to donate Pixel’s body to the veterinary team who kept her alive for so long. Pixel was on a pink towel in my mother’s lap, and later mine. She had occasional moments of alertness, sitting up and looking around, but never for more than a minute or two. The the Small Animal Clinic staff were expecting us, and directed us to a reserved sitting room in the back as soon as we walked in the door. Dr. Willard, now semi-retired from his dog deity position, came in for the occasion. It was my first time meeting him, and he had thoughtful things to say on the ethics of euthanasia, such as the need to draw a distinction between acts that prolong life and acts that prolong death. When it was time, we signed the papers donating her body for research, and he administered the injections himself.
“It’s so unfair,” my mother said as we left College Station. “She was running three steps ahead of death her whole life. We thought she could do it forever.” But then, the death she was running from never did catch her. It is unfair that a dog should die so young, but fortunate that one with a liver shunt should live so long, and with such verve. Pixel was a delightful animal: curious, histrionic, surprising, and more fully a member of the family than any other dog we’ve had. I’ll miss her.