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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pet behavior professionals can enhance a companion animal's hospice care

Pet hospice is an area of veterinary medicine that is emerging, and for good reason. Our pets are living longer and healthier lives, and when terminal illness and the like rear their head in twilight or even in the prime of life, addressing a pet's comfort and quality-of-life is key. That goes for the family and caregivers in their life, too. That's the work that hospice vets and professionals who are a part of the periphery, but very involved with the day-to-day happenings—such as pet sitters and dog walkers, like myself—strive for. 

It's not uncommon for a family to reach out for some extra help during times like this; work and familial responsibilities don't stop because a pet's needs necessitate palliative and hospice care. Often, experienced caregivers like me fill that void to keep medication doses on track, see that potty breaks and comforts are seen to as well as offering a fresh, clear perspective on how things might be going. Respite for the family members, not to mention a 'hey, how are you feeling? How are you handling things? Any concerns?' is as vital as any care that the pet receives, I assure you. I've been there, and not so long ago.

We can also give insight into options for less stressful ways of medicating pets, including compounded medications and fear-free approaches.

You might be surprised that other professionals, like accredited positive reinforcement dog trainers, animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists, can be an integral part of the equation, too. 

'How can that be?', you might be wondering.

In my experience, yes, there's a lot of focus on the pet's health and physical well-being, and their mobility, and their safety—of course. But one core thing that I always ask a family is (and hopefully all of the humans important to the pet are present during that initial consultation) 'So what do they like to do? What's fun to them?? What brings them joy???' 

Usually, when that is unpacked, faces light up. Tensions are released. Voices speak up readily. That familiar joy emerges. 

Ah, yes... it's important to remember that simply because a pet is in a time of life that looks very different than when they were less fragile, they still crave joy and enrichment. They very much do. And the humans need it as much as the pets do. I will admit that often, I'm able to help unearth that part of sharing life with a pet that often gets buried easily. Toys, modified-versions of games that suit a pet's changing needs, thinking outside the box when it comes to what's fun. 

But other times, situations are outside my realm of training or expertise. Maybe there are some cognitive issues that even the hospice or regular vet isn't as in tune to. That's where an experienced and qualified trainer (or, in some cases, a veterinary behaviorist) can really untangle things and come up with solutions to a challenging situation, for example, helping to counter-condition and desensitize a pet to experiences that they troublesome. 

It's not that uncommon these days for companion animals to be part of a multiple-pet household. Let's think about how challenging that could be: each pet has their place in the hierarchy, then an illness or age-related decline shakes things up. I've had households where a cat being treated (reluctantly, at first) feeds some apprehensive vibes to the other cats in the tribe. Those other cats can at times pick up and transfer any tension to humans in the house, or sometimes, other pets, causing physical harm. Does the order of things change with dogs? Certainly, and situations can be complicated. In many cases, a protective tenderness emerges amongst the non-human members of the family. This isn't always the case, though, and the pet needing that extra care can get picked on by one or more of the group. A qualified professional can help sort things out and restore a sense of balance to the household. 

As much as its important with us humans to address emotional well-being when facing profound health changes, it's important not to underestimate the value of bolstering our companion animal's needs just the same. Having the insight of a professional can make a lasting difference for each member of the family. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Treating osteoarthritis in dogs has come a long way, but communication about it between vets and families is slow

Yesterday, I had meet and greet with a family that included two 14-year old Labs. We had a great time getting to know each other. I'll admit that as we went over the care regimen, I was absolutely thrilled to learn that both dog's osteoarthritis (OA) pain is being well-managed by maintaining a healthy weight, mindful activity and prescription medication. And because their kidneys are doing well, the latter includes a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID).

People love to talk about their companion animals. No matter how the topic of arthritis comes up with a pet owner, as it does often--in my work, even casual conversation in my travels--I find that it's not uncommon that there isn't enough solid dialogue between families and clinicians about the disease and the discomfort and pain that results from it.

"I had no idea that there was medication available to help my dog. And something like acupuncture--wow... who knew? So, I just ask my vet about this, right?"

It's unclear why there's such a disconnect between the two parties, but nonetheless, as a professional who has the unique position of being on the periphery, I do what I can to change that.

The misinformation about treatment options, including what is and is not safe to give both dogs and cats clearly pulls ahead in most conversations--something else that I regularly spend time untangling, too.

The good news is that there are several approaches and modalities to manage OA adequately in pets, even if renal issues make NSAIDs prohibitive in those dogs who are at a stage in the disease where they could benefit from them. (Gabapentin, available by prescription from your vet and is a safe and effective option for these pets.)

Click here for a great article from The Bark that covers what OA is and the facts on treatment. It can be a helpful starting point in talking with your veterinarian about options for your pet.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Despite advances in veterinary care, there are limits and that can carry an increasing emotional burden

Health care has been a hot topic in the recent election, and it's no wonder: the cost has risen along with the advances that have been made in medical treatment. Those of us who share life with pets know that the same holds true in veterinary medicine. While the basic medical care and preventative services are fairly affordable, treatment for other things like chronic conditions, surgeries, alternative treatments and care by a veterinary specialist cost more and for some families, they can be out of reach. 

Pet health insurance can help defer the financial burden of medical care. As someone who did not take advantage of that option as it had gained popularity during the latter part of my pet's lives, I admit that I wish I had. I had put away extra money for their care and was able to manage paying for four hospitalizations—which included two surgeries—as well as some alternative treatment to complement the traditional treatment plans to address their needs. If I hadn't, I assure you that would have informed my decision-making processes differently. That was something that was never lost on me. I was aware that my financial situation could have changed at any moment. 

The autonomy that I had with addressing my pet's medical needs didn't afford me having a casual attitude about it. In truth, quite the contrary—I feel that it kept my feet on the ground in terms of gauging what was happening, and made me very conscious about where my pet's limits (and my own) were in terms of medical intervention throughout their life. This was most important during their hospice and end-of-life. 

I had to constantly check in with myself: Just because I could afford the care, was I making the decision because it was mindful one for them, or was I doing so purely from an emotional standpoint? Being actively engaged in keeping an honest eye on any changes I noticed, checking in with myself/my loved ones/my vets about how I was feeling (and how everyone was feeling) about handling things helped me arrive where I needed to be with treatment options.

Sometimes forging ahead with treatment is a no-brainer. Other times, it's murky as Hell and overwhelming. There are also plenty of nuances in between. 

I did understand that at any time, I might hit a point when I wasn't able to consent to proceed with treatment due to financial constraints, or because the pet in question simply wouldn't tolerate it—truly a helpless feeling. In fact, both factors were the case with Silver, my 19 year-old cat, who passed this past summer. 

But one thing that I tried to keep in mind as we navigated this time of life is that medical intervention, medication and alternative therapies have limits, as do pets. (And so do people.)

One might discover that it's simply the end of the road, and continuing with treatment or supportive care isn't even an option. It can be a prompt from the pet—yes, I'm ready. And one shouldn't be ashamed to discover that can be coupled with their own ...I'm ready tooThe circumstance of deciding, after a decline, to have a pet helped along with their vet's assistance before they go into serious crisis would be the best thing is plausible. Perhaps the pet's safety while family is away at work and school is of considerable concern. Though veterinarians strive to make palliative and hospice care plans as simple and streamlined to carry out, the fact is that in some cases, they're not always something that a pet owner can manage—for many reasons. Sudden serious illnesses and accidents occur, and treatment costs can be prohibitive. Families that I've assisted during pet hospice and otherwise have faced these scenarios, and a couple of them are familiar in my own experience.

So, while keeping in mind that yes, while there are more treatment options and resources than ever that can be tapped into when it comes to our pets, there is a plethora of reasons why utilizing them isn't feasible. When the pet's best interest is at the center of a decision, there is no shame in that, nor should there be judgement from any angle.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Curb a cat's early-morning demands for food while maintaining your sleep regimen and sanity

It’s a common scenario in many households with cats: 4:00 AM, you’re sound asleep and your favorite feline is doing his best to awaken anyone that will give in to demands for food. It's annoying to say the least, but for many, it's a very frustrating occurrence that disrupts a good night's rest. For those who are already sleep-deprived, it can raise the tension level considerably. 

Understanding felines and getting to the root of the behavior 

But it's important to remember that cats are not on the same sleep cycle as we are; as crepuscular animals, felines relate to their days differently. It's not uncommon for pets in their twilight or during hospice to experience sleep changes, and yes, that can affect when they feel hungry or have an interest in food. Pets in the latter category can also experience some cognitive dysfunction, which can contribute to wee-hour calls for food.

That said, giving in to a healthy cat's demands to be fed during our sleeping hours can reinforce the behavior and lead to more behaviors that are unwanted. With regard to pets who are in fragile health, that's far less of an issue obviously, but addressing their changing needs with regard to feeding in a way that keeps everyone happy is a priority. 

Space meals out

Feeding cats once per day can be a contributor to any early-morning cries for food, so switching to a twice-daily regimen can be a boon. In fact, for older or fragile cats, feeding some warm food before bedtime can help induce sleepiness. It can also mitigate any acid buildup in the stomach and subsequent vomiting upon rising that cats in this group can experience. 

Tech to the rescue

No matter if you've a young, healthy cat or one who is experiencing some changes they can't help, there's another solid idea that may help you get the sleep that you need—and you'll not reinforce unwanted behaviors. I'll admit that typically, I'm not big on gadgets and the newest tech when it comes to living alongside our furry friends. But one caught my attention with its simplicity and usefulness: the automatic cat feeder. 

These products have long been a boon for folks whose work schedules are unpredictable, travel for overnight stays and the like. By being able to stock an automatic feeder's compartments with kibble and set the timer to open the lid at a specific time, a cat can be provided a meal (or a ration of their daily intake), and no human need be present to dish it up. The same strategy can be applied in households trying to sleep until an acceptable hour; load the feeder and set the timer to go off whichever time in the wee hours works best. 

Auto feeders need not be limited to dry food. In fact, with a little preparation, cats on canned food—families with renal kitties, I'm looking at you!—can be accommodated, too. Loading the bowls of the feeder with wet food and keeping it fresh and appetizing is easy: simply line a cookie sheet or muffin tin cups with waxed paper, portion out the appropriate serving sizes, place in the freezer until solid and store in a container of choice. Pop out a portion to put in the feeder bowl before bed, set the timer, close the lid and by the early morning, kitty will have a thawed portion of canned food ready to eat without having to wake everyone in the house to get it. 

Though it may take a few nights for a cat to catch on to the new routine, once established, it can be a sanity saver. This strategy has proven successful in recent weeks with a couple of families that I work with, as it addresses the needs of everyone in the household. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Safeguard against serious injuries with positive reinforcement dog training and proofing strategies

Working with dogs can be unpredictable, as anyone who does so will attest. I've seen my share of (mostly) minor injuries through the years: bruises, twisted fingers, scratches, minor sprains—even blows to the face—and one of those latter instances made me grateful that I need not wear eyeglasses full time. 

While being mindful and employing safe and force-free handling techniques on the pet professional's end is vital in making any interaction that a companion animal has with them is as favorable as can be, it's only part of the equation. It's equally helpful that a pet not only be accustomed to being handled (with care, of course), but to be reliably trained to understand cues and to have a reasonable amount of self-control. That not only ensures the safety of the human, but as importantly, that of the pets. 

We understand that a dog needs be able to understand and perform cues, right? Of course. When a dog can stop what they're doing and listen when they are being cued to do something, it's invaluable. And, proofing those skills in different scenarios is vital. But, achieving a reliable level of recall can be a bit complicated when a dog has trouble reigning in their excitement or when they have issues with reactivity.  For some, it's an infrequent event, and understandable, while for others, well, it can be an ongoing problem. And, unfortunately, it can put dogs at risk of injury. 

I'll offer a cautionary tale (one that I've permission to share) and I'll be honest: this isn't the first time that I've seen a scenario like this.

A few months ago, a friend got in touch to ask if I had an extra crate that they could borrow. Their very sweet, large mixed-breed dog, Maggie, had injured her leg the night before and needed to be confined while unsupervised for the foreseeable future. While the injury—a torn Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CrCL)—is common, the poor pooch hadn't sustained the injury while running or during rough play, as one might expect. You see, Maggie's habit is to get really excited when she sees people. Running around like crazy, jumping up in the air, carrying on, that sort of thing. (We've all witnessed bouts of frenzied joy like this that seem harmless, right?) Upon the family's arrival home from an event on that evening, Maggie began jumping around wildly in her usual unbridled fashion despite her human's efforts to tone things down, and BAM! she landed on her leg in just the wrong way. The result was an injury that was not only painful, but required expensive surgery, and a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation period.

Once all was said and done, my friend insisted on enlisting the help of a qualified dog trainer to better communicate with and to empower Maggie in having some self control, so that there wouldn't be a repeat of what happened. The result is that Maggie gets far less keyed up in those situations she used to find difficult to navigate, which keeps her safer, and her humans are enjoying fewer mishaps, too.

Never underestimate the power of the skills and self-control that come from solid dog training grounded in positive reinforcement. They'll make sharing daily life with your four-legged friend more fun, safe and rewarding.

Need help hiring the services of a qualified dog trainer, behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist? Click here to get a better understanding of the field, and the certifications that you should be familiar with. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What dogs do post-training may enhance their ability to master new tasks

Dogs do a lot, albeit unintentionally, to remind us how to live life well. 

The value of being a good listener. The importance of naps. Stretch often. Don't lose your curiosity. Cuddling is good. Life is short.

The most important, in my experience—don't forget to indulge in play—comes up often in puppy development and dog training circles. I use it frequently in my work with pets, and for good reason: it's super-fun, it breaks up any tension that may be present from being out of routine and it's a great way to establish and reinforce a bond with an animal. 

Play also plays a part in a pet's learning, which is why it comes up so frequently amongst dog trainers, behaviorists and pet sitters. We've long known that by incorporating games, and fun, we can open up the channels for a dog in learning cues (what we used to refer to as 'commands') and other skills exponentially. 

A new study indicates that the usefulness of play may extend beyond that. 

Researchers from Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Group in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln in the UK set out to test how what events happen after a dog training session affect the animal's ability to retain what they've learned. 

16 Labrador retrievers were included in the study, and to accurately test how well they retained what they had learned, they were given identical skills to master and for good measure, they needed to reach 80% proficiency. 

The dogs were divided up into two groups: 8 were part of a "play group" while the other half were in a "rest group". The former engaged in 30 minutes of activity (a few minutes on a walk, then 10 minutes of off-lead play, with the balance of time spent on another walk). The "rest group" did just that—rested for 30 minutes on a dog bed—while the humans involved talked amongst themselves. 

In order to confirm that there were measurable differences in each group with regard to physiological arousal, the saliva (to detect hormonal variances) and heart rate of each dog were monitored during the rest/play sessions. 

Though the study was small, I found the results quite interesting. But first, a little on how the humans were able to test the dogs. Using a method called relearningthe dogs were put through the same paces as they were the day before to gauge how much they were able to retain from their previous exposure to the new task—in this case, was object discrimination, which used their sense of sight and smell. 

As far as what what the dogs demonstrated, those in the "rest group" didn't have as easy a time with relearning the task that they had been exposed to the day before: the dogs that were included in the "play group" relearned the new skill 40% faster than the dogs in the other group.

So, what does this all mean? 

Well, as far as we can tell, the old adage 'practice makes perfect' isn't as simplistic as it seems. Play and fun, when coupled with learning something new, seem to enhance and expedite the process of relearning and building new skills. It's fair to say that it could, in some way be connected to having fun with their people as well. 

The takeaway? It certainly can't hurt to take a break during your training sessions and do something that they find pleasurable—like a game of fetch, tug of war, a walk—to enhance your dog's progress in learning new things. You'll keep the good momentum going, and reinforce the human-animal bond. 

Read the study, Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs by clicking here

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A professional's lament on self-cleaning litter boxes

I see a lot of new products and gadgets designed to help make living with pets better, and though I find some impressive, others just make cringe. 

A recent article on The Bark reminded me of the complaints that I hear from pet owners about the minutiae of day-to-day care that is necessary, which gave me pause. And while the topic was focused on things like having to pick up poop and the amount of pet hair that needs to be cleaned up—first world problems, gah!—the one thing I can say that I wrestled with was getting home at various times through any given workday to tend to potty break and medication duties when Gretchen was in her final months of life. The same was true for my 19 year-old cat, Silver, who needed lots of extra tending during his end-of-life which was only months ago. Yes, those times were stressful, but only because as anyone who has done it themselves knows, there are always days when things don't go so swell during that time of life. And sometimes, your pet just wants you. Not another familiar person or a pet sitter who could just as willingly and aptly take the helm, it's you they really need—and that can feel overwhelming. That makes picking up poop and vacuuming more often pale in comparison and in my mind, a joyful chore. 

Yes, the rest of the time that I spent with both pets was cake and I never took it for granted. But I digress.

The case for going low-tech 

Since none of the lives I'm responsible for can't speak, it's important that I get to know them pretty well, and I need to do so right out of the gate. Behavior, habits, play and exercise preferences, eating rituals, where they like to hang out in the house, how they engage with other pets in the household, that sort of thing. That can give me a solid picture of what's going on and if there things I need to monitor a little more closely.

Something else that I make note of on a daily basis is what's happening outside, in the litter box or for exotics, in their enclosure. A pet's waste speaks volumes. I call it 'reading tea leaves'. When meeting a family for the first time, I ask, 'How often is your pet having a bowel movement?', which is sometimes met with a look of panic and a response of, 'That's a good question...' 

I often say that keeping it simple when it comes to most pet products is best, and this is especially true when it comes to litter boxes. 

In fact, a traditional rectangular litter pan isn't even necessary; an old plastic storage box, so long as it's easy to step into and deep or big enough (the latter is something that I find isn't so for most obese cats or those with mobility or pain issues, like arthritis) is fine to use. 

A human's preferences and biases often become a focus when choosing a litter pan, which can translate into a lot of valuable information about the pet's behavior or health being missed or misinterpreted—which is never a good thing.

Case in point: the automatic cat litter box. 

Designed so that daily manual scooping isn't needed, these products seem to be a boon for those who despise the task of taking one minute a day to pick up whatever tool-of-choice and scoop out urine clumps and stools from the box. 

'Oh, the litter box smells so bad!' (If you scoop it once or twice a day and dispose of the waste, it doesn't.)

'I forget to do it. Then my cat won't use the box.' (Make it a routine to scoop at the same time each day so it becomes a habit.) 

Animals don't share the same language, and because of that we need to work a little bit to decipher how things are doing with them. I think that technology and advances are great, but I assure you that nothing takes the place of a human paying close attention to any changes that might be happening. And for that reason alone, I say get over the drudgery that is all of under two minutes daily and tend to that litter box.  

(I should add that I realize that some people might find it difficult to scoop regularly because of physical limitations or illnesses, so for them a self-cleaning box is an understandably attractive solution.)

Why keeping tabs is important

When I'm caring for a pet, I'm looking for a few things in the litter box:

-What's there?

-How much is there?

-How often I'm finding it

-What does it look like?

Along with that, I'm keeping mental track of how much water the pet has consumed in a 24-hour period and how long of a timeframe has passed between their last meal and a bowel movement.

Visiting the litter box more often to urinate could mean that a urinary tract infection is present, as well as other health issues that need treatment. Ongoing loose stools could indicate other health conditions. Stools that are chronically too firm in an older cat could signal a change in kidney function. And if there isn't a stool left (ideally) once a day, that can indicate a blockage, constipation or GI motility that is inefficient (the latter two are more common in cats with diminished renal function) and those need prompt treatment as well. Vomiting just outside the litter box after going potty means something too (click here). 

The payoff of going old-school

Relaying that kind of vital information to your vet can make the process of ruling out some things and getting the right diagnosis much faster and less challenging—and making it easier to resolve or address an issue. Getting to the vet sooner than later also has the benefit of saving you money. 

If you're using a self-cleaning litter box, it's just too easy to miss the clues that visually inspecting and scooping a traditional box on a daily basis can yield. Do yourself and your favorite felines a favor: keep it simple and use a regular litter box and while you're at it, consider using two boxes for one cat, and at least one box per pet in multiple cat households. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.