It’s New Year’s Eve and our family have gathered for a holiday in a beautiful farmhouse in Snowdonia. We’ve been for a walk through mossy forests to Llyn y Parc, where the dogs splashed and passing horse riders called out ‘Happy New Year’ to us. Now we’re home ready to start the evening. The dogs have been fed, I’m cooking a meal, and the bubbly is chilling in the fridge. And then Raffi comes into the kitchen, unsteady on his feet and retching. At first we think he’s choking, but his breathing isn’t affected.
But something is very wrong.
The family go into a kind of controlled panic, someone finding out where the nearest vet is, someone looking after the other dogs who are stressed. Someone tries to phone the vet for advice on the house phone but it keeps cutting out, and my mobile is about to die and I can’t find my charger. And all the time Raffi is retching, retching, trying to be sick but nothing is coming out.
After a second failed attempt to talk to the vet for advice we put him in the car and drive. Along endless dark lanes, passing through bright little towns with people celebrating in the streets. There is silence in the car, just the monotone voice from the satnav and Raffi’s quiet whining. I’m trying not to panic, trying not to drive too fast, trying to trust that the satnav knows its way through this black night. Then at last, about 50 minutes after we left, the vet’s sign: a beacon.
The vet examines him and I’m hoping he’ll say, yes, there’s something in his throat, and all I need to do is take it out. But there’s a dread at the back of my mind that it’s worse than that. And since we’ve been in the car his stomach has become hard and distended, his waistline gone. The vet confirms my worst fear.
Bloat usually happens because the stomach has filled with gas, which is already an emergency, but if the stomach twists then the condition can quickly become fatal. This is what has happened to Raffi - his stomach has twisted 180º. We knew about it, we took precautions, but as the vet later tells us, however careful you are it can still happen, especially in large-chested dogs like ridgebacks. I quickly sign consent forms both for the surgery and for the estimated cost of it. The cost barely registers: my dog is dying in front of me and he needs treatment whatever the cost. The vet puts a slip lead on Raffi and I kiss his velvet head. ‘You’ll be ok,’ I tell him, and then the vet takes him away. We arrived with our dog. We leave carrying only his lead.
At one in the morning on New Year’s day we are in a layby beside a lake, which is the nearest spot to the farmhouse that has a phone signal. The vet tells us the surgery went well, except they had to cut his stomach wall open as well which means there is an added risk of infection. Not out of the woods yet, says the vet.
Back at the farmhouse we pop open the bubbly but it isn’t a celebration.
The next two days are punctuated by trips to the layby to phone the vet. He’s not eating but they can’t send him home as his wound is leaking fluid. There is a worry that there is an infection in the stomach wound. There is a suggestion that they may have to open him up again. But at 7am on the third day, with the mountains white with frost, we get the news we were waiting for. The wound has dried and we can collect him.
We are expecting an excited reunion but when the vet brings him out he hardly registers us. He’s thin, still in pain, and tired. Back in the farmhouse he sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps. We cut the holiday short so we can get him home and over the next ten days his personality starts to return, his silly, puppylike self, and while for now he can only be walked for five minutes at a time, we’ve got our boy back.
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