Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Trigger-stacking and other causes of aggression in geriatric pets can move the conversation toward euthanasia

"Let's schedule a consultation well before any trip you've in mind to meet and get a feel for whether or not we're all a fit," I always implore once a family and I have a chance to make that initial connection by email or phone. 

They can also be assured that I'll be asking a lot of questions about their pet's health and behavior, as well as a history on both had how they've changed as they've aged or how their co-morbidities have progressed. I also do periodic re-assessments with my existing families with pets in fragile health or advanced age.

Because of my experience, it's not uncommon for families with pets with special needs—usually geriatric pets—because of their health and behavioral considerations to reach out for help with their care. It could be that they'll be traveling or need a hand while they're at work to tend to little or big things that contribute to the pet's comfort and well-being, not to mention the family's peace of mind.

You'll notice that I noted health and behavioral considerations. Those two things are very much united when we're talking about geriatric pets receiving palliative or hospice care. In fact, they're criteria, or need to be, when families receive a life limiting diagnosis for their pet, or when age-related decline has necessitated conversations about how to best help them. We have a lot of options for treating disease, or crafting a palliative or hospice care plan—but how that is carried out is another matter. Not only does the family need to be able to manage it, but so does the pet. I recall saying on one podcast that I guested on, "...we need the pet's permission and cooperation... they need choice [on whether or not to participate]." 

Pets are great communicators. And in my professional training, which includes a designation of dog bite safety educator, I've learned to home in on what a pet is telling me or those around them. A pet's sensory deficits (like vision and/or hearing), physical decline, pain level, their overall feeling on a given day and any cognitive dysfunction can impact their ability to manage tolerating a treatment plan and being interacted with to have it in place. The same is true if a pet is touch averse or has behavioral issues. I spend time talking with families about all of this, as well as how their absence alone can impact the pet's ability to cope, not to mention being in my care for any length of time. 

As I said, when doing a consultation, I have a lot of questions about a pet. I ask about their care plan including medications, and things like how easily they rest and eat among other things. For those of a certain age or in fragile health, I request a full health assessment be done by their primary veterinarian. It's vital that the pet's health be stable enough to be in my care. While all of that is the criteria that I use on my end, I also assess the companion animal from a behavioral and emotional standpoint. 

I'm not ashamed to say that there countless families that hear me say, 'I don't think that your pet will do well in my care, or in your absence at all' or 'I get the feeling that your dog could manage your being away for a long weekend, but ten days... no. That's too long.' I always offer facts to support my case to advocate for the pet and myself, and I stick to my guns.

The truth is, when a pet enters the phase of palliative or hospice care, it's not only about daily management of a medical treatment plan. It's about them having stability, predictability, and routine and I'll assert that is the core foundation of it all. Their emotional and behavioral well-being depends on that. So does my ability to promote safe interactions between me and the pet, something that can be more challenging as a pet moves through this phase of life.

And sometimes, I'm not confident that safe interactions between myself and the pet will be possible, and it is likely to things that one might typically disregard. It can because the kinds of interactions that the pet requires to stay adherent to the treatment plan and feeling good, like being medicated, make them uneasy. Hygiene and needing help with that can be problematic for a pet. If a dog needs help physically getting around or help up from their bed or assistance getting up if their legs give out when they're walking (even with a sling) because of the all-too-common hind limb weakness, that can put me in a dangerous situation. Being out of routine and in the care of a less-familiar person can contribute, just like a family's absence can. All of these scenarios can stress the pet and lead to a nip or a serious bite. I clearly and compassionately articulate that, and give specific details why, because it's more common than not that I'm seeing the pet is demonstrating that they are having trouble with trusted and known family members performing those tasks, too.

The stuff that I've talked about already is a good example of what we in the pet care and training industry refer to as 'trigger-stacking'. Though, in this phase of life new triggers are often revealed simply because the pet's health needs require more frequent interactions and handling.  

This all brings me to a topic that I'm asked to weigh in on periodically: whether or not humane euthanasia should be considered for a pet that is experiencing behavioral changes, namely aggression, that make for a very slippery slope when it comes to their well-being and safety, and the humans around them. It's hard to ignore how even the most seemingly benign interactions that a pet requires can become triggers for them. In some cases, the techniques used to navigate through interactions can be modified to suit a pet's new boundaries, but when that's not possible or a pet's stress and anxiety can not be assuaged, or a bite occurs, exploring the decision of humane euthanasia becomes a very real thing for families. 

Though I urge families to discuss this with their veterinarian—the only one who can guide them through this decision and process—I offer some perspective. For anyone who has done it or done their best to avoid it, it's hard enough to have that 'bigger conversation' as I call it, with a veterinarian about euthanasia when one is considering a pet's physical and medical decline and their inability to manage physically and emotionally (this goes for the humans too). And introduce the topic because there's a question that a behavioral element affects anyone's safety, it completely changes the landscape of the situation. I assure you that the emotions that a family struggles with regarding humane euthanasia are ten-fold when the conversation is broached because of a question of a pet's behavioral stability, and oh, do they have a lasting effect. 

The truth is that in most cases, I've seen that behavioral changes, yes, even aggression, are often heavily influenced by factors like a pet's ongoing pain or other factors. There are diseases that are known to affect a pet's behavior (like diabetes, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, the latter often linked to laryngeal paralysis and accompanying hind limb weakness in dogs), and even Canine or Feline Cognitive Dysfunction. These are very much medical conditions, and can in themselves contribute to trigger-stacking. And as time goes by, medical conditions of any kind can become less manageable, especially if a pet's ability to participate in their prescribed treatment plans, including taking medication, becomes more difficult for them.

I say all of this not in an effort to minimize how much a pet's behavioral stability can impact the decision about whether euthanasia needs to be a part of a conversation. I do so to highlight the weight of how medical conditions—diagnosed or not—influence a pet's overall ability to cope, physically, emotionally and most of all, behaviorally, even to the point of aggression. And in looking at a situation from this vantage point, it helps to see that perhaps the decision to euthanize is less about viewing a pet as an aggressive animal who's behavior is jeopardizing the well-being of themselves or others, but how the progression of medical issues has impacted their ability to cope and be the calm, loving pet they've always been. In any case, it's important that we are not expecting more of a pet than they are willing or able to give, and to respect their boundaries, especially when they move the proverbial line that tells us where they are. That's the greatest show of compassion that we can give them, and ourselves.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

One overlooked detail could be hampering your dog walking efforts

Being out on an adventure with our dogs is a fun way to engage with them and is great for our mutual well-being. As a professional, I've had the opportunity to try out different leashes and other pieces of equipment, for example, harnesses—my requisite choice—to enhance the experience for myself and the dog I'm with. Comfort and safety are paramount for both of us, and since I'm in the driver's seat so to speak, it's up to me to ensure that and to gauge if my 'passenger' is having trouble. 

Safety and ethics

There are things that, for safety, ethical and professional reasons, I unable to use: choke, prong and shock collars and retractable leashes—the latter being my focus here—are off limits.

Many families love them, and it's not hard to see why. They offer dogs more space to roam while still being tethered, the lead itself retracts back into the handset as the dog moves closer and further away. Some models have lights and even a dog waste dispenser attached to them. 

Convenience is attractive. But it, like other things, comes with a trade off: safety. Are you willing to sacrifice that? I hope not. Though there's an inherent level of liability that comes with having a pet in our custody when we're out in public, there are just too many variables that are not predictable and can contribute to very dicey situations. I've addressed this in past posts, so feel free to click here and here for more on that. 

An equally important issue

There's is another issue with retractable leashes that I find dogs don't like and it's easy to overlook. Though I find this is more the case with dogs that are touch-averse, it's not limited to them. The constant tugging feeling of the lead as it releases and retracts when a dog moves toward and away from the handler. It's distracting for the dog and to some degree can be confusing for them—after all, the leash itself is a communication conduit of sorts between dog and handler. At least that's what I've always felt. I've tested this theory on several of my canine charges, and overwhelmingly, a traditional leash yields more favorable interactions.

If your dog isn't doing as great on leash as you'd like and you're still using a retractable, consider instead using a lightweight, comfortable leash (it does not need to be expensive, just sturdy) that feels good in your hand. A lightweight leash can help mitigate any undesirable sensation (the constant tugging) at the point of contact and improve the dog's ability to focus on the things that are most important during a walk: any clear communication that you offer up, and having fun. 

A final word 

Many families note that they prefer that their dog be afforded more distance to roam when out on adventure, and that a retractable gives them that flexibility. My solution—one that I employ professionally—is to use a 20 foot long training lead. Typically made from lightweight cotton web, they are inexpensive, easy to find and can be let out to extend to the full 20 foot distance when safe to do so. Having one would be a great investment. 


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Offering advice about a pet's serious medical or behavioral issue requires permission, context and sensitivity


Having a pet with a chronic illness that requires special care can be hard. The same is true if you have a pet with a life limiting diagnosis, or if you have a pet with profound mobility issues or behavioral limitations. Though enriching, sharing life with these loves, it can be mentally draining, especially when the situation lends itself to being progressive.

And there’s never any shortage of unsolicited though well-intentioned advice about all-things-behavioral-or-medical when it comes to pets. I hear a lot of chatter about what a family should do through my own filter as a pet care professional—especially on my social media feeds where everyone can speak up—and I’m able to appreciate the thoughtfulness that is intended by other pet owners. I'll admit that feeling is also cobbled with a tinge of uneasiness.

We don’t like to see others suffer, and a natural instinct is to react.

'You have a cold? Here, you should take this and then do that.'

Sound familiar? 

To me, it doesn’t feel as though people want to act like a know-it-all necessarily or actively seek to interject themselves into a situation. I like to say that we are allergic to suffering. And if we recognize a type of suffering, it's tribal: I see your pain, I feel your pain, I’ve known your pain. Here is how, looking back I would have addressed it or this is how I did. 

Nothing has taught me more in working around death and grief than that we humans inherently want to reach out and fix, to remove what we see as wrong or troublesome or broken. We don't want pets or other humans to struggle so much. And sometimes, they need not: things can be fixed, illnesses can be cured, hurdles jumped, palliative and hospice care can extend the number of really good days by providing solid comfort care and emotional support. We have the world of veterinary and integrative medicine that has come so much further than sometimes financial and emotional resources of families can allow; the knowledge of how we can help dogs and cats to expand what I call their proverbial sandbox through behavioral management and enrichment; the ability to offer more options for healing and physical freedom to pets with limitations with their mobility. 

It's my job to know what's out there, what's available, working with families in capacities not just as a pet sitter, but as someone who acts as a resource and in a supportive role with families who are facing a pet's diagnosed chronic or life-limiting illness or age-related decline. I can attest to the fact that, yes—there are all kinds of wonderful ideas to help pets and their families. And I'm happy to help families get plugged in to the options that are a fit. But in doing so, I must to first be observant and sensitive in my conversations with them and what they demonstrate to me—often paying attention to those spaces in between that could easily go unnoticed. I need to understand the context and the dynamics of a situation. 

For many families, they've likely heard all about the tricks and tools and products and treatments and studies that could help (because, well the Internet), but in their pet's case, no, they wouldn't be beneficial.

I'd learned quickly to not be a know-it-all, but instead to be acutely aware that a family's resources, financially and with time can be thin, as can their physical ability or emotional bandwidth. Access to specialists or the right veterinary facilities can be limited, geographically, and ditto with regard to those professionals that work with pets to enhance their well-being behaviorally. The truth is that sometimes, getting the right help in place for a pet isn't dependent upon any of that so much, families find a way. It's just that the pet won't make space for it, they can't tolerate the standard never mind the integrative therapies that might make a difference and equipment like wheelchairs, booties, slings, acupuncture, chiropractic? Forget it. In a lot of cases, a pet is touch–averse and can't tolerate being physically handled. The pet won't give permission in some cases, and we need that in order for things to work, short or long term. I can't tell you how many families have cupboards of medicines, closets full of costly tools and products (booties and wheelchairs are the most common) and stories about treatment options that weren't a fit and ended up being useless in their efforts to help their pet. But, oh, have these families done their best, no matter the situation or circumstances.

So, you can see that my sage advice—though well-meaning, would fall far short of my intended mark and only alienate and diminish the family if I simply asked questions the wrong way or interjected what would be seen as my useless knowledge. In my efforts to serve, the best strategy that I follow is to be curious and eager to discover what is working for the family to help the pet and maintain their sometimes already stretched human-animal bond. I just listen to them, I hear them, I see them, I support them. That doesn't mean that I forgo using my expertise to offer suggestions and options about enhancing the pet's and family's quality-of-life, I've just learned to tread thoughtfully and in some circumstances, I get permission before proceeding. That's something that each and every one of us can practice. Doing anything different than that has the propensity to cultivate a sense of you're not doing this right, a sense of shame and guilt and that isn't something anyone with a pet in need of special care requires.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Episode of 'Griefcast' explores pet loss and grief, offers insight to those who are alongside the grieving

Conversations are unquestionably expansive in my work with families as a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and each of those that I have cement the notion that companion animals are an important facet of people's lives.

We build lives with our pets, as well as memories. Pets somehow become markers for significant events in our lives and it's no wonder: we spend more time with them on a daily basis than we do other family members, and for years on end.

I was super-amazed by a deep-but-lighthearted conversation between comedians Michael Legge and Cariad Lloyd on the latter’s podcast, Griefcast. I stumbled on it by accident, by way of a totally unrelated podcast but I digress. Serendipity. If you are grieving your loss of a pet, recent or long-since, I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to relate on so many levels. Lloyd gets grief and instinctively knows how to get to the spaces-in-between questions that matter and Legge expands beautifully on his life and the end-of-life journey and after with his dog, Jerk, who died in 2017.

In speaking about the death of his aunt, and how it differed from the death of Jerk, Legge said, "I didn't take care of my aunt for 12 years. I didn't look after her every single day. I didn't like, come home every night—especially after the bad gigs—and you know, my aunt wasn't there wagging her tail and delighted to see me."

That's just one example that illustrates why the death of a pet can hit so hard.

Bonus: if you’ve a human in your life that’s grieving the loss of a pet and you just don't 'get it' but really want to, this conversation could very well enable you to gain some insight. Oh, so good.

Click here to go directly to the episode.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Does a fear of needles impact the way that you pursue medical tests or treatment with your pet? You're not alone

An article about needle phobia on the Canadian news site cbc.ca came onto my radar this morning, and I found it to be important for good reason. It highlights how challenging it can be for those—human OR animal—who are on the receiving end of the needle, and the need to create neutral or positive associations during these interactions for both species. 

Are you one of the many families in my care who are active caregivers with a profound fear of needles? Has it affected the way that you might like to pursue medical tests involving needles for your pet, and more importantly, how well you’re able to adhere to temporary or long-term treatment strategies for them involving injections or sub-q fluids? Have you chosen to forgo treatment altogether, or as some families have decided to do, make the choice to relinquish and re-home your pet because the fear was too great? 

You are not alone in this. It’s very common, and in this space, you are not judged or shamed for it. Though they're less likely to convey the aversion to needles to their veterinarian or vet staff, I frequently hear stories from people, existing clients and new families alike, about how they struggle with it as well as the accompanying guilt and self-shame. I work closely with them to find alternatives and strategies so that they can manage a treatment regimen, and when the situation really calls for it, offer respite service so that they can have a mental break from it

You can read the article, which includes ideas on managing needle aversion by clicking here. 


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Adopting or fostering a new pet? Please include your pet sitter in the decision

Not long ago, I'd stopped by one of my family's homes to get a hands-on update on a new diagnosis with one of their dogs. The chronic disease will require treatment that will keep pace with it, which means medication, diet, and monitoring. The family was a little daunted at this prospect, especially the former and that's a refrain I commonly hear. Listening, really hearing them expand on their early struggles with medicating the sweet chap, and knowing what I do about him, my ideas on how to hurdle them immediately started flowing. 

"Let's take the fear out of it—instead, we'll make it a positive interaction. I've some strategies that I learned in this workshop I attended, " I said, and proceeded to demonstrate how to do that. 

The reply wasn't surprising.

"That's amazing! This feels totally manageable, like I wasn't even giving medication. I'm glad we have you for support, you know so much about stuff like this. We've been kind of curious... how have you accumulated all of this knowledge?"

I do get asked that question a lot. I always answer, "Necessity." And it's always in the best interest of the companion animal, and having safe interactions with them.

Given that I have a core level of training in my field, I've built on my professional education steadily over the years. How I've made decisions on doing that has been based on the changing needs of companion animals and their families. And those are complex and vast, make no mistake. 

The changes in how and where we humans live is a great influence on the lives of pets, not to mention the decisions that are made. Then of course, there's the influence of the ever-growing pet product industry, which is very much reliant on what need or problem families decide need fixing or addressing. On the heels of the latter, pet store staff give me plenty to think about when they make misguided suggestions about how to remedy a health or behavioral issue. Dog trainers—the ones who aren't credentialed, let alone ethical nor qualified—offer up plenty of fodder for where I need to take my educational journey. I can't neglect the influence of a family's neighbor's cousin's sister-in-law who obtained her knowledge about canine behavior from a less-than solid or science-based source but is nonetheless generous about espousing it. 

Do these scenarios sound familiar? It's likely they do to you as much as they they do to me, and I can't blame the families that recognize a behavioral issue with their pet or try to make their day-to-day life more manageable with them and end up reaching out for one of the resources above to help. They're trying. And it's not uncommon that at least some of those situations result in pets ending up being re-homed for behavioral issues, whether that be via a rescue, a shelter or privately. The relinquishing families realize that they've done everything they know they are able to do with the resources they have. In some cases, the human-animal bond has become not only frayed, but severed and the situation at that point isn't salvageable. 

But wait. Where do those pets end up? With new families, of course. Some of them are highly experienced, and others, are well-intentioned but need guidance.

All of that said, I'm going to circle back to the education that I've actively sought. Some of it has been free, much of it has been at my own expense of time, money and travel and all of it has been useful. I've spent a lot of time learning how to recognize behavioral issues—even getting a certifications, including in dog bite safety. I'm not unlike other deeply-committed professionals in the pet care industry. I've familiarized myself with the best practices that have been established by vet behaviorists and reputable and ethical dog training professionals. I do this because I want the pets in my care to be at their best, to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, and to be able to cope with the social interactions that they have with humans and the other pets in their midst, whether that's in public or at home. One thing that I can confidently say is that my families understand that and my position on facilitating safe interactions with any pet. And because of that, my families trust my instincts, as well as my recommendations on guiding them on where to find the right help. 

It's not at all unusual for one of my families to contact me when they're thinking about welcoming a new pet. This is especially the case if the pet is being considered for re-homing or fostering with them after being relinquished due to behavioral issues or there was conflict with other animals in their previous home. I'm definitely kept in the loop, and I appreciate that immensely. And why shouldn't I be involved during this process? In speaking on behalf of my colleagues, why shouldn't any professional caregiver? After all, as experienced pet care professionals, dog walkers and pet sitters know their families and the pets in their care well. Most of us have the vantage point of being able to identify possible problems between existing and new pets. We think of good questions that need asking on all sides (on behalf of the organization, the family, and all of the pets). 

In the big picture, we professional pet caregivers can and should advocate for all involved—including ourselves. Advocacy is an area that I fiercely defend in my industry, and for good reason. Pet sitters and dog walkers are sometimes asked to perform their job in less-than-ideal circumstances. Some of my peers, experienced and much-less-so, are expected to care for pets who seriously lack socialization or have hefty fear-based behavioral issues, dogs who've got separation anxiety, and others, they might have unaddressed or under-addressed health issues as well (some of which can contribute to behavioral issues). We professionals should be afforded the right to exercise the autonomy of whether or not we are a fit for a pet, and if we feel comfortable interacting with them. 

Though as I hear from some colleagues, that's not always the case with them. 

I've heard more than my fill of cringe worthy stories from colleagues. They range from close calls with unwanted interactions with stressed-out pets; families disregarding a pet's obvious uneasiness about one specific, frequent-but-unnecessary interaction with their dog walker; a serious dog bite injury requiring the hospitalization of an owner after a fearful dog's communication about their inability to cope with the stress of interacting with the resident dogs was repeatedly ignored by their new family (resulting in the euthanasia of the dog); countless cats enduring health issues exacerbated by the stress of successive foster cats being introduced into the home, even resulting in aggression towards their pet sitter.

These are preventable scenarios, and the power to make that happen resides squarely with the families and the pet care professionals. 

I've been asked by colleagues near and far how to deal with these situations and I always respond: understand what's going on, advocate for yourself, your safety and that of the pets, and have a solid core education about the issue at hand to back up your position and, if necessary, the ability to offer resources for sound, qualified professional help. The close calls I've heard about are impossibly scary, as are some of the outcomes from situations that go unchecked. The case involving the euthanized dog, who had been adopted by the family just weeks before, is the strongest evidence of that. 

So families, please ask your pet sitter's input when thinking of adding any pet to the family, temporarily or otherwise. Don't take for granted that your current pet care professional is equipped to or feels comfortable caring for a pet that you want to welcome into the fold, in fact, please invite them to meet and interact with the pet before making a final decision. The pet may not be as emotionally or behaviorally equipped to manage themselves as you might think and could even have health or behavioral issues that you or the person or entity currently in custody of them are overlooking. What you might discover is that you and your pet's caregiver mutually agree that you're no longer a fit for each other. The good news is that's okay, because it prevents problems, gives you both the opportunity to part ways on a good note, and you the ability to connect with a professional who is indeed a match. 


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tending to other family pets helps you be a better caregiver to the one in hospice

While having a consultation with a family with one geriatric dog receiving hospice care under their vet's supervision and another who was a reasonably healthy and very active senior, one of their owners—the main caregiver—expressed feelings of being overwhelmed, somewhat frustrated and torn.

"I'm exhausted, keeping up with the younger one. She's like a toddler, always moving, doing something, getting into things. And her sibling, I can't get her to keep pace—she blanks out and gets confused easily. Walks are becoming impossible," she noted. (The older dog had Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.)

During that first face-to-face conversation with a family, it goes without saying that taking a full inventory of any diagnoses, treatment or a palliative care plan as well as the pet's behavioral needs and cognitive level is in order. But I also make a point to get to know where the humans are in terms of handling things. With multiple pets, it can be a struggle at times to manage the needs of one pet in fragile health and tend to the other pet's needs—which can vary of course. The feelings that I referenced earlier are not unusual. Especially the frustrated and torn part. And that can get complicated, so much so that the animal-human bond with the family pets can become equally torn.

As anyone who has tended to a pet as they've gone though the decline of age-related causes or a life-limiting diagnosis knows, life doesn't stop. The needs of others, especially the other pets, continue or even increase. The other dogs want—no, need—to have their fun time with their trusted human's help, to blow off steam, to have their attention. So do cats. And if that doesn't materialize, I don't need to go into too much detail about what happens then. And if they have behavioral issues, you can almost watch those magnify if they're feeling like things are out of sync. 

It can feel really hard to take your attention away from the pet who's on your mind constantly, the one that you worry about having enough—enough of you, your time, your minding. Yes, because of them, you've become all-too-aware how quickly the sand slips through the proverbial hourglass that has taken up residence in the back of your mind. 

I'll let in you in on something that you probably suspect but might be feeling too reluctant to acknowledge: the pet who you feel like needs so much of you because of the knowledge you've acquired about them but didn't ever want to learn? They're doing fine. Even though their 'new normal' looks vastly different than it did six months ago, they're managing. Despite the fact that they are demonstrating that they can't walk as far, as fast, nor play or engage with as much gusto on a regular basis—yes, they have days that are just no good—they're going with the flow, as pets do. And they're able to because you've put in the effort to ensure their pain is managed, that they're not nauseated, that they have environmental enrichment, that they're comfortable.

They're fine enough to leave behind at home with a puzzle toy to work on while you take your other dog who needs some exercise out for a 30 minute adventure at their pace, or have a solid game of fetch on their own. Or maybe while you step away for an hour to have fun with your other pets, that sick pooch could use some undisturbed alone time to get that much-needed sleep that they often have trouble achieving because of their changing health condition. I bet that healthy-but-needy cat who has been feeling a bit neglected could use some cuddle time on your lap on the patio, or a little solo time with you and their favorite wand toy. 

One of the suggestions that I made to the pet owner—a strategy that I use myself—was to walk the dogs separately. It was clear that the younger dog needed at least 30 minutes to get out and walk briskly (she often sniffs as she walks, without stopping), while the dog in hospice couldn't physically nor mentally keep up with that pace or distance. The latter was something that the family needed help understanding. Having the expectation that either pet even meet somewhere in the middle was unreasonable, so with separate walks, everyone was happy, including the human. 

The time that you spend with your fragile pet is important and soul-filling, of course. And while there are times when it's possible to include everyone in fun activities, it bears noting that you also need to allow yourself the ability to dip solely from that wellspring of vitality that the other pets in the family possess. There's no shame in that. It doesn't mean that you're diminishing the ill pet in any way, in fact quite the opposite. That interaction that you set aside is vital for the physical and emotional well-being of the other pets, not to mention you. Play and fun is something that often evaporates from our lives as we age, but when we have companion animals, they invariably reintroduce both as a staple. So don't underestimate its power—as well as having that short mental break from hospice caregiving—which is undeniably stressful. 

One important aspect that the family noted after shifting their focus with how they spent time with each dog was that they felt like they weren't drowning in the swells of demands of time and attention around them, which aided in keeping the collective human-animal bond intact. It also helped them just be with their anticipatory grief too, something that is common with families with loved ones in hospice. And in the end, feeling less stretched and overwhelmed during that period of intense caregiving created an environment where they felt more empowered to walk with their grief after their pet had gone to peace. 


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.