real life

The summer I spent $38,000 trying to keep my dogs alive.

Australians spend $8 billion on their pets annually and I have certainly contributed my fair share of that figure, particularly in 2006 when my two beloved dogs became incredibly ill and I spent $38,000 trying to keep them alive.

It was New Year’s Day in 2006 when temperatures in Sydney quickly rose to an unheard of 47 degrees. I had food poisoning (not a hangover) and was in bed when I heard my husband preparing to take our dogs and our son out for their morning walk. I knew it was going to be a hot day and I weakly called out to him telling him it was too hot and to stay home. However he was determined to get in an early morning walk before it became too hot. We lived near the beach and were used to predictions of hot weather only to have them tempered by the cool sea breeze.

They bundled out the door and I promptly fell into a thick sleep.

I woke to the phone ringing but it was all the way across the room and I was too sick to get up so I let it ring out. It kept ringing and ringing and ringing and I’d wait for it to stop before falling asleep again. Next thing I remember my husband walks through the door holding our then two-year-old son Philip who was flushed and sweating. My husband was dripping in sweat.

“Honey, didn’t you hear the phone. Pepper collapsed. I need your help to get her inside.”

Pepper was one of our two Rottweiller dogs who we’d picked up from Renbury Farm Animal Shelter. She was a mature-aged slightly overweight rescue dog and Baxter was a young, incredibly stout dog we’d bought from a family when he was still a puppy.

Baxter had walked in behind my husband and Philip and he seemed anxious, as if waiting for instruction from us. I stumbled out of bed and gave Philip a drink of water and wiped down his face. Then I followed my husband down the stair to the garage of our unit block and saw Pepper lying prone in the boot of our car. She was awake but starring straight ahead and panting at an alarming rate.

They weren't as scary as they look. Baxter (left) was just adorable, happy and excited. Pepper (right) was loving, affectionate and needy.

"Pepper," I leaned in close to her face and her eyes moved a little and she tried to move but couldn't.

My husband didn't realise how hot it was until he arrived at Centennial Park that day. Our home and garage had been cool. He said he pulled up in their usual spot and noticed that nobody else was at the park. He opened the car door and the heat hit him in the face. He realised he may have made a terrible mistake but thought he'd take the dogs for a short walk seeing as they were already there. He strapped our son into his jogging stroller, let the dogs out of the car and started out.

Pepper didn't last long. Rottweillers have those thick, black coats and dogs are inefficient sweaters. They can only sweat out of their mouths and often that's not enough to keep them cool. She collapsed. Henry tried calling me several times before he found someone to help him carry her back to the car.


I couldn't help him carry her. She was 68 kilos and weighed more than I did. I left my husband knocking on neighbour's doors to try and find someone to help him carry Pepper upstairs and I got on the computer and Googled "heat stroke". It said we needed to cool her down immediately.

They placed Pepper in the bathroom and I gently placed frozen peas on the side of her face and started stroking her with a wet towel. My husband set up a fan and pointed it at her. My son Philip sat next to Baxter in the hallway watching. I thought she'd be okay. She was looking at me and I was kissing her face and hugging her and telling her it would all be okay. I kept expecting her to get up. Around 30 minutes later I noticed she'd soiled herself.

We have a new fur baby now, our beautiful little Sadie. Article continues after the video.

Video via Jo Abi

"Find a vet," I told my husband and he got in contact with an emergency veterinary hospital to agreed to see her. I was still sick so stayed home with Philip and Baxter while my husband took Pepper to hospital. It was the last time I ever saw her.

My husband rang me from there to tell me that we'd done a good job of cooling her down but she was very sick. The heat had caused her internal organs to begin shutting down. She was unconscious and on life support. It would cost us $2000 a night to keep her with us. I knew we should let her go but my husband and I weren't ready. We just couldn't do it. We kept her on life support for almost two weeks, with my husband and stepson visiting her each day. Eventually we were told there was no hope.

They were with her when we switched the machines off. My husband returned home and explained how he'd placed his nose against her nose as they turned the life support off. He shared her last breath. We were both crying hysterically.

It took us years to get another dog. Meet our beautiful Sadie. A dog's love is like no other.

My husband left to drive my stepson home and I was lying in bed with Baxter still crying when I saw blood dripping from his nose. I called my husband, completely hysterical. He returned and drove Baxter to the same veterinary hospital for treatment. It turns out that Baxter was also suffering from symptoms of heat stroke however because he was younger, fitter and lighter wasn't as badly affected as Pepper. He would survive but it would be expensive.

Pepper had cost us $20,000 all up and it would cost $18,000 to treat Baxter. We'd never considered getting pet insurance when we bought our dogs. Still, we had to do all we could. We drained our bank account. Our decision to spend $38,000 trying to keep our beloved dogs alive divided our friends and family. We could quickly tell who were the pet people, and who weren't.

For those who know my story, this happened two years before we went bankrupt in the Global Financial Crisis.

Baxter required treatment for years but was never the same. He lost muscle tone and was weak. My husband bought a buggy that he could sit in while we took him on bike rides just for a bit of fresh air. We'd gone bankrupt by then and weren't in a position to afford any further treatment however he'd received all of the help he needed by then, thank goodness. He did develop a hernia and our local vet wanted to operate. Deep down I knew he'd never survive the operation in his weakened state. The day before the operation it was incredibly hot. Baxter seemed to be struggling with the heat. I watched from the kitchen as he lay down on the grass. I called for my husband to go out and be with him. He died of heart failure as my husband held him.

It took us years to get another pet. We were devastated at the loss of our dogs and paid $3000 each to have them individually cremated. Now we have Sadie, a crazy Cocker Spaniel and she's my fur baby. We also have a cat called Millie. Both are fully insured.

Our relationship with pets has evolved over the past few decades. They are no longer just animals who live outside (where they used to belong) that we sometimes spend time with. They are members of the family. We no longer have the sort of money we had when Pepper and Baxter became ill which is why we prioritise pet health insurance and recommend it to everybody.

Just before we finish our time together I need to mention that we also have a rescue cat named Millie. She's the complete opposite of Sadie in that she is demanding and judgmental. She'd be so annoyed if I didn't even mention her in this post. She joined our family a full three years before Sadie did, and would like her seniority to be acknowledge.

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