The closest thing I have to a religion is nutrition, according to one of the greatest authorities on such things (my husband). In my personal life, I hope to offset my secret fondness for Little Debbie products with a judicious deployment of beans, brown rice, and salad greens. It all began twenty-seven years ago, when I stopped eating meat. I just couldn't bear the thought of chewing and swallowing the corpses of sickeningly abused animals. But that's just me. Anyway, this development alarmed my mother, who thrust at me a copy of Diet for a Small Planet. It became my first bible (see above).
Polly, that great seer and Mercy's trainer, did the same for me in terms of canine nutrition. Under her guidance I read Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, and soon we were home-cooking our dog's food--meat, oats, and greens, a recipe derived with help from M.F.K. Fisher. (I'm sure, had Mercy known about the horrors of factory farming, she would have been sympathetic, to a point. She was that kind of dog. But she would have still eaten it.)
Further inquiries into the matter of canine nutrition brought us to the brave new--or, rather, old--world of raw meat and macerated vegetables. Once our dog went on a BARF diet, I never looked back. Why would I, with her gleaming white teeth (oh, all right: gleaming white broken teeth [learned the hard way about giving marrow bones to a dog who never says quit with anything remotely edible]), sweet breath, shiny coat that never needed bathing. Well, apart from those days when she daubed some doggy Chanel No. 5 behind her ears: carrion that was past its eat-by date; human shit that lurked in the denser bushes of Prospect Park.
The vaunted dog-human bond is really a result of a simple act: one party providing food to the other. I know this is not a popular view, but it's one that I've arrived at after careful thought. My extrapolation--that the love of a child for a parent is also fundamentally built from food--is not going to be more warmly embraced. But my relationship with Nelly is all about feeding her. I show my concern for her well-being by giving her the soundest, freshest, most wholesome meals I can. (And I do this for my son too, to my husband's consternation; he thinks I'm a freak. See above.) I take delight in her delight at crunching bone between her teeth; she enters a state of bliss I see at no other time, her gaze turned inward, her concentration pure. I also train her, and reward her, using food. Nothing else cuts it for little Nelly, except food on the hoof. That trumps everything for my petite huntress.
I can't not participate in this joyful giving. That's why the past four months have been dreadful, and the past three weeks a torture. In March, Nelly started scratching herself, more than a dog normally does, that is. It escalated. The floor was covered with her hair. Her normally glossy ears were soon nearly bald. I could see pink, inflamed skin.
The logical thing to do, obviously, was throw money at it. Piles of money I didn't have. A vet in Ohio, on a visit. My vet here, three times. Tests, pills, fatty acids, ointments, shampoos. I went online and spent hours I also didn't have. It had to be allergies. As her misery increased, the vet convinced me that I had to try an elimination diet. I spent $80 buying cans and kibble from him. No more fresh meat. No more turkey roll or cheese treats. No sardines, eggs, yogurt. Only dead, processed food. I felt as if I had been told my child could no longer have oatmeal or apples, but must eat only Twinkies. For the sake of his health.
How was I going to get Nelly back on those ill-advised off-leash walks? I always brought chicken jerky and cheese--sometimes even Vienna sausage!--and this ensured her return in almost all cases but the presence of rabbits. Now I was going to give her a piece of kibble? Wow. What a reward.
The past two weeks, she took to incessantly licking her legs, opening sores on her joints. Finally my vet said he had exhausted his ideas. It was time for a veterinary dermatologist.
Also known as More Money.
How much I did not know, until I drove the eighty-five miles to her office, and stepped in. Uh-oh. Oriental rugs. Flat-screen TV. Granite counters, large staff. Fancy-pants individual-cup coffee brewer: Help yourself! It's "free." My heart truly fell in the examination room when I saw the personal framed photos of show jumpers. Those take big bucks to maintain, let me tell you. And I was going to be buying their hay and bell boots today.
The doctor was impeccably thorough. She had studied Nelly's chart. She asked a few questions, then examined her quickly. She took three scrapings from her ear, and in a few minutes called me outside to look under the microscope. Something was moving on that slide. "Your dog is absolutely loaded with scabies."
At that moment I wanted to throw my arms around her and say, I love you, and I'll even love your bill! The remedy was fairly simple, she said. Of course, it's possible you might have to be treated for scabies, too. (They are primarily carried by foxes, the vet tech told me; and now I am not surprised, because we are a hot spot for red foxes. Nelly even routed one from a den near the barn, and they did an intricate, fascinating ballet together in the front yard as we watched, breath caught, from the window, until the fox finally escaped over the fence. Thankfully Nelly did not follow.)
I paid the bill--what's $380 between friends?--and went out to the car. Then I thought of something and ran back in. "Say, can you please ask the doctor: Can Nelly go back on her normal diet now?" Yes, came back the answer. The feeling of relief was almost worth the money.
Last night she dined on lamb, beef heart, yogurt, and vegetables. I could taste her pleasure.