Infectious Fear

Photo by Keri DeDeo

In the dark of night, my husband calls to report he’s headed home.

I gather our two dogs and lock them away with me in the back room.

I text him, “Coast is clear,” and then I wait.

The back door squeaks open.

The floorboards in the hall creak.

The dogs whine and wag their tails at the TV room door, but their expectations go unmet.

The reason for this bizarre behavior? To keep my dog Nikko safe. Diagnosed with immune-mediated neutropenia, her immune system is compromised. Already, since her diagnosis two months ago, she has had three rounds of antibiotics for various infections: 1 from an unknown infection; 1 from a small cut on her foot, and 1 from kennel cough. She’s on another round of antibiotics for kennel cough—the first round didn’t do the trick.

We’re not sure where she contracted the kennel cough, but when we started thinking about the possibilities, my brain hurt. I also understand the fear behind Ebola.

I’m not concerned about catching Ebola. The chances of catching it in Wyoming are narrow. I do worry about family members in South Africa because they are closer to the epicenter of the outbreak, but still, they are far enough away to be relatively safe.

Besides, I have my own worries at home. Right now, we’re homebodies and I worry about the consequences of having an outside dog touch me. If a dog touches me or my clothes and has any infections or disease, then I could carry that to my dog. If I touch a person who has dogs, and those dogs are even carriers of any disease, then I could carry that to my dog. Even if I step on a patch of grass where a diseased dog has urinated, I could carry that to my dog on my shoes. If I shake someone’s hand of a dog-owner of a diseased dog, I could carry that to my dog.

If my dog touches noses with a diseased dog through the cracks in our fence, she could get ill. If her nose touches the grass where a diseased dog has urinated, she could get sick. If my other dog, Maiya, touches grass or dirt where a diseased dog has defecated or urinated, she could pass that on to Nikko.

Just like humans, dogs carry disease even if they are asymptomatic, and a compromised dog’s immune system can’t fight even the simplest infection.

It’s the same with humans. Going through chemotherapy, my immune system was compromised. The people around me had to be careful. They got flu shots, stayed away when they were sick, and my mother-in-law scattered hand-sanitizer pumps around the house. In the end, I survived, and so will Nikko.

But in the meantime, my husband and I shower and change clothes after being exposed to dogs and before petting our dogs. I disinfect surfaces, door knobs, shoes, our floors…anything I can think of that we could have touched.

To some people, this may be extreme measures. Yes, it’s inconvenient to undress in the garage and shower before petting her. Yes, it’s strange to ask visitors if they’ve had contact with dogs before shaking their hand or allowing them to come inside. And, yes, at times I feel trapped in my home for fear of bringing in disease, but then I see her sweet face and I remember the comfort and love she gave me while I went through chemo, and it just seems natural to do this for her.