It’s a Dog’s Life

By Howard J. Bennett, MD

My family had been pestering me to get a dog for weeks. They asked me at breakfast. They asked me at dinner. They even asked me when I was sitting on the john.

What none of them understood, of course, is that I wasn’t objecting to owning a dog on general principles. What troubled me about letting any four-legged mammal into our home was a concern about allergies. To put it bluntly, the gene pool in the Bennett household is dismal from an allergic point of view. True, we have passed on some good genetic material to our offspring—Jan is creative, organized, and even-tempered. And my DNA codes for a certain doggedness (no pun intended) and a good memory. It’s simply that for most of the year you’ll find more allergy paraphernalia in our home than sporting equipment.

So you can see that adding a dog to this biologic milieu would not sound like a great idea to any levelheaded doctor. Unfortunately, my family worked on me like en emergency room doctor trying to get an 80-year-old patient back to his nursing home. So, after weeks of negotiation, I finally gave in.

As an experienced pediatrician, I realize that no dog is truly hypoallergenic. Nevertheless, I informed the troops that we needed to find one that would minimize the risk of creating additional allergies in the family. It seemed logical, therefore, that a small, non-shedding dog would limit the amount of dander circulating through the house.

The ringleader of the We Want a Dog Club (my wife) then set about the task of finding a breed that would meet my requirements. Jan queried all of her friends, stopped every dog owner that would talk to a crazed woman carrying a clipboard, and spent countless hours on the Internet. After three weeks of research, I was presented with my wife’s choice: a Havanese.

“A Hava what?” I asked.

“A Havanese,” she said. “You’ll love them. They’re small—most max out at 11 pounds—cute, really smart, and they don’t shed.”

After looking at some pictures of the proposed dog (they really are cute), we found a local breeder and brought “Jessie” home a scant two weeks later.

Jessie worked her way into my heart faster than you can say hay fever. The little pup was everything my wife said she’d be, and life in our house was fairly uneventful for the next twelve months.

Uneventful is a relative term, as any dog owner will attest, because the first year with a dog is anything but uneventful. It takes months to get them house-trained, they have to be taught to follow simple commands and last but not least, they wake up in the middle of the night just like babies. But we weathered Jessie’s first year and, to my great delight, none of us showed any signs of developing an allergy.

Change always creates the possibility of adding irony to ones life and getting a dog is no exception to this rule. But the surprises that lay in store for me were not the ones I expected. The biggest irony was not that Jessie’s haircuts cost more than my wife’s. The biggest irony was not my observation that Jan routinely forgets my grocery requests but always remembers to pick up a bone for the dog. No, the biggest irony is that Jessie Bennett (that’s what the vet calls her) has more allergies than all of us put together!

After nine months of scratching that required Benadryl, steroids, and a food elimination diet, we finally took Jessie to a dog dermatologist (two weeks ago, I had no idea there was any such thing as a dog dermatologist). Jessie got 70 skin tests, and we discovered that she’s allergic to trees, grass, ragweed, mold, feathers, dust, and cats.

I said to the vet, “How can a dog be allergic to grass and trees? Isn’t that against one of Newton’s Laws or something?” When the vet started describing how the body’s immune system creates allergy symptoms, I casually reminded her that I was a doctor. This was a big mistake, because telling her I was an MD, i.e., someone who should know about these things, earned me a condescending look that I haven’t received since medical school.

Jessie got a cortisone shot before we left the office, and she will begin her allergy shots next week. As I paid the $400 bill, I grinned and asked the vet if she thought it would be a good idea to find out if Jessie was allergic to people. For some reason, she didn’t find this comment as funny as I did.

My first appointment the day after Jessie started her shots was with one of my longtime patients. After exchanging pleasantries, the patient asked me if Jan and I were planning to have any more children. I glanced at Jessie’s picture on my desk and said, “No, three are enough.”

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

(First published in Stitches, The Journal of Medical Humor September 2002.)

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