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The Spotted Maltese

According to a recent cover story in New York Magazine, I am not alone, writes Sheri Spirt. Eighty-four percent of dog owners consider their animals akin to children. As a childless, single, forty year old Manhattan psychiatrist, my ten-year-old Maltese was my child. He was also my shopping consultant, travel companion, and canine assistant. Patients commented on his ability to lighten their mood.

He was highly intelligent, mastering commands in a week’s time and exceptionally good looking with attributes top rated according to Maltese standards. I named him Shanie Punum, Jewish for beautiful face. As an anxious mother, I worried about a small red blood spot that appeared on his pale abdomen last January, but rushed him to the Animal Medical Center on East 62nd street when he rapidly transformed into a red spotted Dalmatian.

The veterinarian was a petite woman in her thirties, with blond hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a white hospital coat. “I’m Dr. White,” she said. “What is the problem?” I handed her my polka dotted dog. “It looks like there may be a problem with his platelets,” she said, “but I need to draw blood to confirm. When she returned she told me he needed to be admitted to the intensive care unit and that he had no platelets. He was reacting to them as if they were foreign. She explained that his bone marrow would need to be stimulated to make more, and that he would need steroids to stop any further destruction. “If he responds he should be fine,” she said. “And if he doesn’t?” I asked. “He will bleed to death,” she whispered. All I heard was, “death.” My heart raced. My breath shortened.

I was not ready for him to go. Dazed, someone brought me to the payment window so I could leave a deposit. I took a taxi home. Besieged with a feeling of helplessness, I plugged the cell phone in next to the bed, and with the aid of a pill, fell asleep. She called the following morning. “It’s Dr. White,” she said. “Unfortunately Shanie suffered extensive bleeding overnight. He will need a blood transfusion.

You can see him today but just for a few minutes.” I returned to the hospital that afternoon and Dr. White escorted me into the intensive care unit. Shanie was in a cage, connected to plastic tubes, one filled with thick red fluid. Carefully, she handed him to me. The spots had multiplied. I sat on the floor crying, Shanie in my lap. I held him for as long as they allowed. That evening for support, , I called my brother, an internist practicing in Los Angeles, and familiar with the human variant of the illness. “I don’t know about dogs Sheri, but most people respond to treatment. I think he will be fine now, but he is not going to live forever.

Think about getting him a brother,” he suggested. She called the following morning. She thought she saw a platelet on a blood smear. “Thank God,” I said. Waiting in reception during visiting hours, I heard, “Mother of Shanie?” I raised my hand. A tall dark-skinned man in blue surgical attire approached, holding an excited Shanie. I followed him into a small room for my visit. Dr. White came in one hour later.

She looked happy. “I think he is going to be fine,” she said. “So, could he live a full life?” I asked, knowing Maltese dogs can live between fourteen and eighteen years. “Yes,” she answered. He was discharged the following day and within minutes of entering our upper west side apartment, he was playing with his favorite toy and barking for his favorite pup-peroni treat. Friends agreed I should get another dog, believing it might dilute my attachment to Shanie. An owner of two Wheaten terriers believed a dog lived longer with a companion.

Either way, Shanie was ten years old, seventy in human years, and unlike a human child, probably would pass before I do. Another puppy made sense. I decided to adopt from a shelter and pull one more dog off death row. An Internet search led me to The Little Forgotten Friends rescue in Middletown, N.Y. Four days after Shanie’s discharge, we headed upstate. A Shih Tzu – Maltese mix was waiting for us.

He was eight weeks old and one and a half pounds and fit in the palm of my hand. He was black except for a small white patch under his neck. The director put the tiny animal on the ground. Shanie introduced himself, sniffing the dog. Playfully, the puppy turned around. They liked each other. Unlike Shanie, my canine shadow, this puppy was a social butterfly, easygoing, and content to follow Shanie’s lead. I called him Moshie, Jewish for savior.

With a protégée, Shanie remained active. He also remained well, and by April stopped all medications. Moshie doubled in size, Shanie in spirit, and the two are now inseparable. Shanie’s mortality remains an unwanted thought, but a reality in a dog’s abbreviated life. He can never be replaced, but he is a great role model. I think Moshie would agree.

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