One Thanksgiving, our friends John and Ginger traveled to visit family, planning to board Buck, their old black Labrador.
“I told Ginger, ‘Buck is just too old to be in a kennel,’ ” Ann said to me one Saturday morning. I was reading the paper, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. “He’d be cold—and lonely.”
I grunted in that polite husbandly way one uses when one wants to be left alone.
“Then it occurred to me,” Ann continued, “Buck could stay at home if we took take care of him.”
It was like a shot of double espresso. There’s a tacit division of labor in our marriage. I don’t wash the sheets, just like Annie doesn’t mow the lawn. My keen husbandly instincts told me that feeding the neighbor’s dog fell under my job description.
The clock ticked away in silence. But to an experienced ear, an argument was roaring full throttle. Ann cleared her throat.
“Did you say something?” I asked innocently.
“You’re already late. Buck should have had his breakfast an hour ago.” Ann handed me the house key.
My face unshaven, I stumbled down the hill to the Coopers’ house, feeling sorry for myself. Why did I have to feed an old dog when I hadn’t even had my breakfast yet? And I was worried, too. What would happen if Buck died on my watch? It wouldn’t be good for my professional reputation. Why couldn’t they put the darn dog to sleep already?
I entered the Coopers’ house and shouted for Buck. He was nowhere to be found. It dawned on me, Buck could already be dead. Sure enough, after a 10-minute search, I found his corpse behind the couch. My medical instincts took over: if he had just died, initiating doggy CPR would be the neighborly thing to do. I nudged Buck with my foot, hoping rigor mortis had already set in.
He woke up.
I was surprised. A clinical light bulb flashed: not dead, just deaf. Buck looked at me, a confused expression on his wrinkled gray face. Slowly he stood up, his bones and ligaments protesting.
A note with detailed feeding instructions was on the counter. I couldn’t believe all the vitamins and medicines this dog was getting: antibiotics, digestive aids, hormone supplements, Chinese herbs—along with vitamin-enriched kibble, and special canned food. Was this Buck’s secret to long life?
But how was I going to get Buck to take 20 pills? As a kid, I couldn’t get my dog to take one. As I considered my options, I heard Buck drinking water from the toilet. Could this be his fountain of youth?
But an incredible thing happened as I prepared his breakfast. Before my eyes, old sick Buck transformed into a frisky pup. He playfully bumped his shoulder against my leg, his eyes and mouth smiling up at me. With a gravelly woof he told me to hurry up: “I’m hungry, I’m hungry.”
I was intrigued. Buck’s appetite was legendary. Once he had eaten two dozen fresh bagels foolishly left on the counter. Another time, he had pulled open the refrigerator door with a dishtowel hanging from the handle and eaten an entire jar of mustard.
By the time his breakfast was ready, Buck was wagging his tail so hard his bottom shook. So I just tossed the pills in the bowl with his food. He lunged for the dish and devoured everything. Then he looked at me and licked his chops, as though to say, “My compliments to the chef.” Here was not an old, sick dog anymore, but quite the opposite, full of life and enthusiasm.
So we had a fun weekend together, Buck and I. I fed him twice a day and walked him at lunchtime. And in return, Buck shared with me his important secret, something every doctor should know; it’s the key ingredient to living long and living well.
And it’s not in any vitamins, prescriptions, or even water from a toilet bowl.
Buck’s miraculous ingredient is joy.
By Michael Litrel, MD, FACOG, FPMRS