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It's much easier to love a dog than a person

The love I have for my dogs is pure and simple. It is so much easier to love a dog than a person

He took one look and said: "Oh, it's serious."

My heart sank.

I have three dogs and while I love them all, Nicky the chihuahua is the one whose photo I use on my smartphone case cover.

He's a rescue dog I adopted five years ago. His owner had used him as a breeding dog and when he closed the business, he didn't want him anymore.

A friend introduced me to the woman who was housing Nicky before his adoption.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

They came to my place to check us out. Nicky, who was probably five years old then (no one knew his real age), liked the house. He strutted around confidently and left his mark in many spots.

I thought he was adorable. DeeDee, my bichon frise, didn't mind him, which settled it - Nicky joined the family.

He quickly established himself as the top dog, bossing over DeeDee and another chihuahua, Hidey, which we adopted later.

Chihuahuas tend to be one-person dogs and, for some reason, I became that person to Nicky.

I am his favourite human. His eyes perk up when he sees me, he cuddles up to me, lays his head on my lap and is totally relaxed. With everyone else, he is more wary.

A week ago, he started walking funny. His back right leg seemed to hurt and he couldn't bear weight on it. We waited a few days to see if he got better, but he got worse. All four legs were weak and splayed when he walked. His mood was low.

Last Saturday, we took him to the vet. He got Nicky to walk and he didn't like what he saw.

Oh, it's serious, said the vet.

The diagnosis - he had torn his cranial cruciate ligament, which is similar to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans. In other words, he had a bad knee injury.

These injuries are serious and happen more often in bigger dogs. In Nicky's case, both back legs were already weak. He is also on the chunky side and likes to jump, which don't help his spindly legs.

The vet said he would need surgery and we were looking at a long eight-week recovery period.

My heart went out to my dog because he has had too many health scares of late.

In November last year, he had an operation to treat a hernia in his groin. He had two worrying lumps - one on his back and the other on his right paw - removed too.

He went under general anaesthesia and was utterly miserable for the first four, five days. His eyes had a stricken, haunted look, he hardly ate and had to endure wearing an e-collar to prevent him from licking the wounds.

Luckily, he recovered fairly quickly and the lumps were found to be benign. He was back to his old self in two weeks.

Earlier this month, he had trouble opening his right eye, which meant another visit to the vet and a week of eye drops and anti-inflammatory and pain medication.

Just when he had recovered from that, he busted his knee and was now looking at another surgery.

Even as all this happened, DeeDee, who's 11 this year, was diagnosed with Cushing's disease, a hormonal disorder.

He used to be an active dog who was never without a tennis ball in his mouth, but had grown listless over the past half a year.

He was also drinking (and peeing) excessive amounts of water. His body took on a strange bony look, but he had a pot belly. Something definitely was wrong.

An ultrasound and blood test showed that he has a large tumour on his adrenal gland.

He is now on lifelong medication but his energy level and mood have improved, and he is drinking less water. He's more like his old self.

He might need an operation to remove the tumour, but for now we're relying on the medicine and taking it one step at a time.

As pet owners will know, the cost of medical care for animals is very high, in many instances higher even than when people fall sick and visit a GP.

Each visit to the vet goes into hundreds of dollars, operations go into thousands, and medication is not cheap.

You have to pay upfront, there are no subsidies you can claim and because there aren't that many vets around - or at least good ones you trust your dog's life with - your choices of care are limited.

Nicky's ACL operation alone was $3,500. His earlier operation was also a four-figure amount, as has been the tests and care for DeeDee.

While pet insurance is common in countries like Britain, there are only two I know that are being offered in Singapore, but both have limitations.

For example, the cut-off age for one of the policies is nine years, which means two of my three dogs are not eligible. To keep premiums low, owners must also pay quite a substantial proportion of the bill as co-insurance and also a deductible.

Cost is just one concern animal lovers have when their pets fall ill. But if treatment will guarantee the animal gets better, it is something many of us will accept and come up with the money somehow.

The bigger issue is the heartache you feel when your pet is sick. You feel so helpless watching them suffer.

There is no way a dog or cat (or hamster or horse) can tell us what's wrong, so we look out for signs - dry nose, loss of appetite, lethargy, panting, vomiting, tail tucked in, listless eyes. It's a painful period for the owner.

Nicky went for the knee operation the next day, on Sunday. We brought him home on Monday. He had to be kept in a small and quiet corner away from the other dogs so he could rest and recover.

H ingeniously fashioned a cage by tying an Ikea clothes drying rack against a wall. That way the dog could still see what was happening around him even though he would be confined. We lined the spot with rugs so he wouldn't slip on the floor and hurt his leg, and placed cushions to help him sit better.

It's been five days since the operation and he's still pretty glum.

Every day will be a better day Nicky, I tell him, as though he can understand what I say. You will only get better.

I talk to him a lot.

Actually, I sing to him too, nonsense songs I make up while I stroke him and gaze into his eyes.

I sound crazy, don't I?

People who don't love dogs (or other animals) will think so.

A dog's just an animal, they'll say. They eat, sleep, bark, bite, soil, smell and shed. What's the big deal? Why go gaga over them and spend tonnes of money and time on them? It's not like they understand what's going on or can repay your kindness, love and care, not the way people can. They might offer companionship, but that's about it.

Besides, dogs have such short life spans so why invest so much money and feelings in something that will be around at most 10-plus years?

The reason I love dogs is actually a selfish one - they make me happy.

The late Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comics strip, once said that "happiness is a warm puppy". It's a feeling I fully understand.

And it's not just my own dogs that make me feel all tingly and happy.

I follow about 100 dogs from around the world on my Instagram feed and the antics of every one of them brighten my day.

When one of the dogs - a famous black pomeranian called Barkley The Pom - unexpectedly died last October, I sobbed, really sobbed, and felt a grief that stayed with me for a long time.

I wasn't the only one. More than 17,000 people around the world "liked" the post announcing his sudden death, that is, they sympathised with the owner. More than 8,200 took the trouble to pen their condolences.

It's easy to love dogs because they show happiness so easily and simply.

Give them a toy, a treat or take them for a walk and they go mad with joy. They live for the moment, their needs are so innocent and their enthusiasm infectious. How wonderful it is to be a part of that.

Dogs, unlike people, are uncomplicated. They don't scheme, they don't plot, they don't disappoint or betray.

A dog has never let me down, which is why the love I have for them is pure and simple.

Romantic love, familial love, love between friends, on the other hand, are fraught with hurt, slights, hopes and expectations.

A dog's company provides a safe haven in a world that humans make so complicated.

In his book Marley And Me, American journalist John Grogan wrote: "A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things - a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty."

As I write this, Nicky's resting in his make-shift cage, DeeDee is sitting under my chair and Hidey is sleeping in his corner.

I'm happy, and my life feels quite complete.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'And they call it puppy love'. Print Edition | Subscribe