top of page

Aisle Seat: When Pets Ache, Our Hearts Break

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

By Naomi Serviss / New York City

Janis in Central Park
Janis in Central Park

My heart dropped when my rescued Maltese, Janis, started limping out of the blue.

We had just completed our usual early morning Central Park walk without incident.

Greeted two- and four-legged friends Lily, Nina, Robert, Jerry, Emma, Loki and Jose.

Nothing seemed amiss. Janis was her typical jaunty, jolly 12–ish-pound self. Sniffing hither and yon over tree roots and atop green knolls. Her nose worked overtime, inhaling faded blossom’s lingering aroma.

With a predilection for bench warming, she eye-pleaded to sit for a bit. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse when she gazed fondly over her shoulder in a flirty pose.

Home again, all seemed well.

Until Janis limped to her water bowl.

WHAT’S THIS? I said with a gasp. I might have used stronger language.

My heart dropped to see this tiny creature tri-podding, right hind leg raised. She didn’t whimper or otherwise signal distress, but I was a wreck, imagining the worst.

When my kids were ailing or injured, they telegraphed discomfort the usual way: crying or telling me what was wrong.

Pets are a whole other migraine.

I called our close-by vet in a controlled state of near panic.

Appointment made, my kindly neighbor/friend Matt carried Janis two blocks to the office.

After what seemed an eternity, it was our turn and I felt my tears welling up in the exam room.

The vet calmly explained the situation.

Janis had a condition common to Maltese and other small dogs:

Fluctuating Patella

A fancy expression for loose kneecap (my terminology). Meaning, the small bones surrounding the knee were improperly formed, he said. As she wasn’t in pain, the condition should improve.

With a caveat:

If Janis continues to limp, or refuses to walk (too painful) then other options should be entertained.

He didn’t say the “S” word (surgery). For that, I was grateful and hopeful it wouldn’t worsen to that stage.

My senses since have been operating on high anxiety. Emotions are as rattled as when my daughter Emmy was bitten by a donkey at a petting farm, and a huge blood blister formed. Oh, I was also eight months pregnant.

Yes, I was a wreck. It, too, soon passed.

Maybe I imagined the limp!

I watch Janis trot happily with a mouth full of Bébé (her favorite toy).

Next moment, there she goes, Miss Limpy McGimp.

(Which is my (unspoken) self-attributed moniker post-hip replacement.)

After all, this two-year-old pup is my third “child” and I’m prone to worry.

My human kids would nod here.

Our morning walks are abbreviated now, but Janis is on the mend, slowly returning to her playful

and charming little self.

Clearly, why are we so heavily invested in creatures with relatively short shelf lives?

“When my twins were young we went to look at puppies and I told them very clearly we weren’t going to buy that day,” my friend (since fourth grade) Susan Harris, a devoted animal lover, told me.

“We, of course, came home with two beautiful golden doodles. Amazingly, this was 15 years ago, when Jack and Buddy came into our lives.

“Buddy passed three years ago, during Passover. Jack is now 15, the old fellow-turned-grandfather of the house. He makes his demands known with a paw on the knee.”

With Jack too old to climb the stairs, Susan had put a gate up to prevent him from making the attempt. One time, she forgot. Jack took advantage of Susan’s brain freeze.

He attempted the long haul upstairs and stopped, unable to rise further.

Reality bites.

“I ran down to him and sat holding his beautiful, big-eyed, long-eared head in my arms

and he and I began a slow dance of me bumping down step-by-step on my bum as he slowly backed down the stairs, safe in my embrace,” Susan recalled.

“My eyes filled with tears as the passage of time, my twins grown, my little puppy grown old, reminded me to enjoy these moments in life where I realize that in so many ways Jack and I have grown old together.”

Another animal lover is my sister, Susan Freedman-Varbero, who’s hosted kittens and adult felines for decades. She’s trapped dozens of feral cats from her woodsy upstate New York backyard, bringing them to her vet for neutering. Susan currently shares her abode

with five cats.

They’re free-range, with access outside through sliding glass doors that open to a sturdy deck.

When I asked her to describe the fur creatures she housed over the decades, she replied:

“Kittens to old guys, feral, abandoned, or lost, friendly, sweet, funny or serious, vocal or quiet, indifferent or affectionate, smart or not so much.”

“No matter what their origins, some have lived pretty healthy lives. Some have had underlying immune system problems--older males from fighting, inbreeding, accidents, who knows?” she added.

Which led to never-ending, costly medical treatments.

“So far, I’ve outlived them, and my goal now is to do the same with my current clowder (and last, I hope). Four are related and are seven- or eight-years-old.

“It’s been worth it every time (except financially) to take in the ones who found us, whom we have loved and who loved us back.”

Susan, a classic film trivia expert, took a Turner Classic Movie-themed cruise with like-minded fans a few years back. She found inspiration for her cats’ jazzy names:

“Nudnik, Squeaky, Carygrant, Johnny One-Eye, Meowie, Black, Grey, Whisper, Midge, Scrappy and the rest are playing over that rainbow bridge.

“Handsome, his son Keeper and his sibling sisters Red and Darla. Then there’s Missie. They’re here for the duration.”

Nina cradles 15-year-old Pussy Willow
Nina cradles 15-year-old Pussy Willow

Nina Felshin, a cat-loving neighbor and friend, also has a confession to make:

“My bond with Tiger Lily (2009-2022) and Pussy Willow (2009-) has been stronger than my bond with most humans, and the pandemic served to strengthen them more,” she says. “This made Tiger Lily’s death this past May 31st even more of a heartbreaker.

“I sobbed as I held her at the vet during her final moments, as my very kind vet injected her with an endless sleep potion.

“I realized the next day that I had been mourning her imminent death for more than a month, as it became clear that her condition—abdominal cancer—was untreatable.

“I watched her every move like a hawk, kidding myself sometimes that she seemed to be doing better. Or observing what she no longer did.

“For two years, right before I turned out the light I would hear what sounded like kitty cries

and within a minute or two I would hear what sounded like the sound of the wand toy she was dragging into my bedroom and drop by the side of the bed, waiting for me to play.

“She had to settle for jumping on my bed and head-butting me which is a way for cats to mark you with pheromones and bond with you.

“Pussy Willow is my silver lining. She and I are more bonded than ever. She, demanding more attention and affection, and me delighted to dole it out—and get it back.

“Because she is the same age as her sister, I keep my eye on all her behavior. Nothing to worry about unless, like me, you worry anyway!”

Tell me about it, Nina.

I practically check Janis’s breathing at night.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

Mercy and John share a tender moment along their hike (photo by Alan Davis)
Mercy and John share a tender moment along their hike (photo by Alan Davis)
Mercy soaks aching haunches in cool water on another great adventure (photo by John de Dios)
Mercy soaks aching haunches in cool water on another great adventure (photo by John de Dios)

Another good friend worries about his dog’s knee issues. John de Dios’s American bully-black Labrador mix named Mercy was the runt of her litter.

“When Mercy was a puppy, she strained her back knee running around,” John told me. “The vet said it was easy for her breed to tear ligaments because they’re such powerhouses.

“For years, she would get a bad limp after long walks, running to play with her ball, or even

when winter weather comes,” he added.

“It was always so sad to watch because she’d have the limp for a few days. There would be times where she would have to sit down.

“That went on for years (Mercy is seven), seeing vet after vet. They would say there really wasn’t anything they could do unless she got surgery.”

“As her dad, I worried constantly because she always looked so sad whenever her leg was bothering her,” John said.

Between exercising Mercy every day with walks and physical therapy, John has been a tenacious companion for Mercy and vice versa.

“She seemed to have been able to build up the muscles in her back leg to a point where we’ve gone on hikes on beaches, mountains, you name it. She hasn’t had a limp at least a couple of years now, knock on wood. She seems healthier and happy as can be.”

I suddenly feel better about Janis’s woebegone kneecap. She doesn’t seem put off by an occasional limp. It’s my attitude that needs adjusting.

Or does it?

I asked my high-school friend Jeffrey Rossman, a psychologist, why we get so crazy-invested in our pets.

He, along with his dog-loving wife Diane, gave the topic deep thought.

“Many pet owners develop a soul connection with their pet,” Jeff said. “It is a primal bond of pure, unconditional love, and a bond of responsibility, in some ways like a parent’s responsibility to care for a child.

“Because our pets are animals that have been domesticated, they have been bred to be dependent on us.

“Our pets can’t use words to tell us where it hurts or what their symptoms are. We depend on our empathic attunement to intuit what is ailing them and respond to their needs.”

I asked Jeff why people crave a canine or feline companion.

“Anatole France, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, summed it up well: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

“Our pets allow us to release our inhibitions and express love, affection and playfulness in ways we might not so easily express with other human beings.

“For some childless pet owners, their pet is like their child, and this relationship thus takes on an added layer of meaning.”

Jeff currently has a three-year-old golden retriever, Rumi.

“He is love incarnate. Our previous dog, also a golden retriever, was Milo, whose ashes we spread in our backyard near the headstone

that is our memorial to him.

“Before Milo, we had Daisy, a big, beautiful Great Pyrenees.”

I know that Janis is on the mend. I have confidence she will be zooming around again soon. She’ll be able to climb the two steps we put in front of the couch for her, with ease.

And maybe by tomorrow, the limp will be gone.

Janis watches the parade of dogs from her favorite bench

Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including

1 comment

1 comentario

24 oct 2022

One of your usual bests, sister, and not because you added my story. Enjoyed reading and commiserating with not only the other Susan (hi) but also all the other caring animal lovers. Hugs to all and especially my dog niece Janis.... 😘

Me gusta
bottom of page