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The Flea Dance

When Cricket got fleas as a puppy, seven years ago, I didn’t know what they were. I saw what looked like fennel seeds stuck to the base of her hair, when she was wet from her bath and her hair was clumped together. I asked Mom what the seeds were and she had to take samples to the vet’s office, on a tissue, to find out.

"You're drowning me!"

“You’re drowning me!”

"I can do it myself."

“I can do it myself.”

We started Cricket on her anti-flea meds right away. Once the medication kicked in, I still had to comb through her hair to remove the dead fleas, and then trim her hair with clippers in order to find every last bug. And then we put her on monthly doses of Frontline, which she hates. The Frontline liquid has to be squeezed onto her back and she acts like I’m burning her with acid.

"You can't find me."

“You can’t find me.”

I don’t think we gave our dogs flea and tick treatments or heartworm pills regularly when I was growing up. I vaguely remember those white collars for flea and tick prevention but I can’t imagine they were worn year round. People spent (a lot) less money on dogs when I was growing up.

I don’t even remember hearing about ticks until we found one, engorged, on my last dog, Dina’s, neck and I thought it was a cancerous tumor. The vet rolled his eyes at me for that one too.

Dina. She survived that tick.

Dina. She survived that tick.

The thing is, when I was in first grade, I got lice three times. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know why it was only me, and not my brother, or my best friend. Each time, I was sent home with special shampoo and combs, and everything in my room was washed. By the third time, my hair was so knotted from scratching that the hairdresser had to cut it short.

My classmates had two answers to this situation. One was to call me Simon, the name of a boy in my class with a similar haircut to mine. The second was a dance the popular girls made up, where in they pretended to be bugs, and danced around me with curled fingers and raised shoulders and bent knees.

Little Rachel

Little Rachel

When Cricket got fleas, I felt like I was back in first grade. Cricket had no doggy friends laughing at her and calling her names, and the fleas were dead and gone as soon as possible, but I could still feel the phantom popular girls dancing around me and laughing.

Cricket doesn’t understand when people are criticizing her, or making fun of her. She doesn’t hear it or care about it, but I do.

I can’t imagine having a dog now and not medicating her against fleas and ticks and heartworm. It’s part of the ritual now. With each new dog I become more protective and more of a mommy. They need meds, and treats, and baths, and grooming, and special collars and tags, toys, and beds, and training, and endless scratchies.

By the time I get my next dog I’ll probably have a full sized princess bed in the corner of my room with a tray table for midnight water breaks and maybe an escalator out to the yard.

And I’ll try not to project too much of my human crap onto him or her, but I can’t make any promises.

The Red Dog


This is a Red Dog, but not The Red Dog (and this is not my picture of a Norfolk Terrier)

This is a Red Dog, but not The Red Dog (and this is not my picture of a Norfolk Terrier)

            The first time I saw Red Dog, about three years ago, Cricket and I were walking up the hill on our regular route around the neighborhood. We rounded the corner and there was a dog in the leaves at the side of the road. She looked like some kind of terrier and she was the same color as the autumn leaves around her, that orangey, reddish brown, and hard to see. But then Cricket noticed her and started to leap frog towards her. She does this. Instead of her pull-like-ox move, she hops forward in hopes of outsmarting the leash.

            The little red dog crossed the street, so we did too. She wandered around on the side street, sniffing all of the hot spots, letting Cricket know where they were. I couldn’t leave, knowing she was in the street with no leash and cars on the way, so we stayed with her. Eventually, she climbed up a lawn and stood on a small concrete slab at the front door, like she owned it. Cricket and I walked up to the lawn and knocked on the door. A sleepy face eventually came to the door and I asked if this little dog lived here. The woman stepped back, and the little red dog ran inside. And then the door shut.

            The next time we saw the little red dog, it was about a month later and getting chilly. She was missing a lot of hair down her back, and from a distance, I could see black dots on her skin. It was only when I got up close that I could see that the black dots were moving.

            My immediate reaction was revulsion, and I pulled Cricket away from her. Cricket had fleas once when she was a puppy. She was two months old and I was giving her a bath and found these things that looked like black sesame seeds stuck in her hair. I freaked out and obsessively cleaned and medicated her and combed and combed and combed.

This is not Red Dog either, but, ouch! (also not my picture)

This is not Red Dog either, but, ouch! (also not my picture)

            But Red Dog had been colonized. She had cities of fleas. I couldn’t understand how a human could live in a house with a dog that thoroughly inhabited by fleas. Fleas jump.

            I wanted to take her home and dunk her in a flea bath and wrap her in a soft towel and comb and soothe and ice and do whatever necessary to make her feel better.

            But more pressing was the fact that she was standing in the middle of the street and not following Cricket to safety at the side of the road, and there was a car coming straight at her. I screamed. It was one of those out of body screams where you look around to see where the noise came from. Finally the scream brought someone out of the house.

            Red Dog’s mom was disheveled and wearing pajamas and she asked why I’d screamed. I pointed to Red Dog, who was now safely on the side of the street, sniffing at Cricket. And, when I got my words back, I told her about the car.

            No real reaction. It was as if her emotions were blunted. She came down the lawn and picked up Red Dog, fleas and all, and watched as her other dog ran out of the house, without a leash, or even a collar. He was a black haired, medium sized dog, maybe fifty or sixty pounds. And the woman called him Jack, yelling at him to stay out of the street. Jack was missing hair too. I realized I’d seen him around the neighborhood, even further away from the house than Red Dog.

I mentioned the fleas and the woman smiled and said, “I know,” and shrugged. She eventually got both dogs back in the house and Cricket and I went along on our walk, but I couldn’t stop obsessing. The woman had cuddled Red Dog. She didn’t seem abusive or mean, but her dogs were sick with flea juice. I wanted to go home and get a box of Frontline and leave it in her mailbox, but I was afraid she wouldn’t use it or she’d be insulted and firebomb my house.

            I called my mother at work and asked for advice, because I couldn’t sit still and I was fantasizing about running back and stealing Red Dog. Mom asked her coworkers and they suggested I call the ASPCA which led me to the local no kill animal shelter in my town. The woman I spoke to from the shelter was just as upset as I was when I described Red Dog’s hair loss and standing in the street. She said they’d had previous complaints at that address and they would look into it again. She didn’t make me feel like I was interfering or making too much of it, but she also didn’t give me much reason to hope that they could help Red Dog.

            I wanted to be a super hero but I didn’t know how to do it.

            I didn’t see Red Dog for a long time after I made the call for help. I hoped, but did not believe, that they had been able to make a difference. Eventually, I did see her again, at least a year later. She had most of her hair back, but she was still outside by herself with out a collar or a leash, running into the street. As we got closer, her person came out of the house to get her, so that was progress, at least.

            I walk by her house regularly but rarely see her. I hope that means she’s doing well and her fence is working.

            The Red Dog situation, and the deep pull to save her, is what, eventually, led to adopting Butterfly. I learned, from Red Dog and others along the way, that I really didn’t need to know a dog from puppyhood to love her. In fact, my ability to love a dog seems to blossom in the first few seconds and is very hard to shake.

My Butterfly, with her Duckie

My Butterfly, with her Duckie

Butterfly, with her own adoptive family

Butterfly, with her own adoptive family