How my dog’s health reminds me of living with cystic fibrosis

Before Trikafta, I too struggled with a hacking cough and gagging

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by Kristin Entler |

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“You don’t sound so good!” my dad says to the family Shih Tzu, Jasper. And my dad’s right: The little dude (as we affectionately call him) doesn’t sound great.

“He’s been coughing on and off for a while now,” my mom chimes in.

But for the past few days, Jasper’s coughing spells have gotten both more intense and more frequent. It started after we put him in his crate before we ran errands for the day. That afternoon and into the night, he started hacking this hoarse cough that’s sometimes so forceful it makes him gag.

He’s always had some level of separation anxiety, but it’s worsened as he’s gotten older, and as far as we can tell, he pitches a loud, screaming fit about it while we’re gone. Usually, we take him on errands with us. But with summer’s harsh heat in the South, we can’t leave him in the car.

We think overusing his lungs may have irritated whatever he’s got going on in there.

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It reminds me of, well, me. Specifically, his coughing reminds me of my health in the days before I started taking Trikafta (elexacaftor, tezacaftor, and ivacaftor) for my cystic fibrosis (CF) in December 2019.

I’m reminded of times when I’d be recovering from a cold, my body struggling to clear the infection from my lungs. Like many others with CF, I’ve had coughing fits that have made me gag so hard I’ve thrown up. Once, I coughed so hard I cracked a rib.

I remember coughing in classes, my lungs struggling to bring up whatever mucus, thick like wet cement, was refusing to budge. The pitying looks of my peers would always make me feel embarrassed.

To steady myself and help me from losing my sense of proprioception, I’d clasp my hands around whatever stable and steady surface was near: a desk, a wall, a close friend. I watch Jasper brace his muscles in a not dissimilar way to how I tensed. Back taut, feet planted, everything flexed, braced for impact. Coughing is surprisingly violent at its worst.

People would ask if I was OK, and I’d wave them off or flash a thumbs-up. Meanwhile, my face was turning red as I was stuck in a jaggedly painful burst of coughs. My lungs would feel thick.

“You know, it doesn’t feel great when people constantly tell you that you sound terrible,” I say back to my dad, to joke about his comment. The truth is, we’re all pretty casual about engaging with a level of coughing that would likely make others — people who haven’t been managing a chronic lung disease for the better part of the past three decades — panic.

This year, Jasper turned 14 years old. My dad, being the kind of guy who enjoys math, ran some calculations, and concluded that within the past week (give or take), Jasper successfully reached his 100th birthday in dog years. According to the American Kennel Club, the average life span of a Shih Tzu is 10 to 18 years. As Jasper’s solidly in the middle of that range, we’re all resolving ourselves to the realistic truth that our little centenarian might not have much longer with us.

“When I took him to the vet the other week, I mentioned the coughing and they said they couldn’t find anything wrong with his heart and didn’t say anything about his lungs,” my mom tells us.

It’s not the first time the little dude has barreled through a batch of bad health. He’s got a bad back that, when he twists wrong, makes it so he can hardly walk, and his eyes have visible cataracts. His age is showing, and it reminds me of how disability is natural.

I once learned I’d walked city blocks with a partly collapsed lung. I knew I was CF-sick with an exacerbation, but I didn’t know the extent of the damage until I was being admitted to a hospital a week or so later. Our bodies do as much as they can to keep us going for as many days as they can manage.

“Do you think he could’ve caught something when we took him to the groomer last week?” I ask. I go on to hypothesize that his immune system might not be as good as Azzie’s, his younger (but much larger) brother whom I’ve written about here before.

Mom looks up kennel cough, and Google tells us it usually resolves itself in a week.

“Getting old sucks,” my mom says.

“Not being able to breathe sucks,” I say. I know how the little guy feels.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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