Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Foreboding is a common threat to the unexpected joys that unfold in animal hospice

It’s fair to say that the past few months have resulted in a lot of unexpected things. A pandemic in the digital age has, as an example, allowed many people to remain at home in an effort to keep the virus from spreading, while still fulfilling their work duties. This includes the majority of my families. 

Though the boon of being able to be home and appreciate their home spaces more and share time with their pets, there has been a lot of discussion about how tough it’s going to be on pets when it’s safe enough for their humans are finally able to be back in their workplaces part- or full-time. Our animal friends have gotten used to the heightened level of companionship on nearly a 24/7 basis. The notion of separation anxiety developing is on the minds of many, including me. 

I do see there is a benefit, if I may, that has sprung from families being able to be home so much due to the pandemic: their being able to be more present than they might ordinarily be able to during a pet’s final months, weeks and days. Several of my families have expressed over the past few months that though they still need to tend to work responsibilities, having the unexpected luxury of not needing the hands-on care that I provide as an animal end-of-life doula has been the greatest blessing in the wake of a most-important time of their pet’s life. Outside of the pandemic, they’d not be able to be home nearly as much to devote the time and attention needed to dote on their beloved pet, not to mention being able to cultivate the space necessary for the mental bandwidth and physical energy that this kind of caregiving requires of families. 

They’re grateful that they are able to do it themselves. 

I will say that the most common refrain that I typically hear upon meeting with a family is that they feel an intense amount of guilt for not being able to ‘be there’ to handle all of the day-to-day care that their pet needs when they’re recovering from an illness or surgery—or worse, after a life-limiting illness or age-related decline that requires more intense caregiving. They want to do it all, but having a commute to and from a workplace, not to mention needing to be away from home for other obligations makes one feel understandably torn. My tending to things as skillfully and thoughtfully as the family would, and sending reassuring video updates to them is nice and all, but for them to be there as the caregiver... there’s no substitute. 

And yet what has surprised a few of them is an unexpected source of angst: thinking about how different things might look if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. 

If I couldn’t work from home? It scares me to think of how I might have to make decisions that are very different than the ones that I have so far, especially since that would mean forgoing some aspects of his care, or that I might have had to discuss euthanasia already

It’s always easy to go down the road of ‘what if’ and allow the moments of relief, joy and gratitude that often accompany the act of caregiving to be overtaken by a sense of apprehension during any given time. (BrenĂ© Brown does a fantastic job of articulating the concept of ‘foreboding joy’ in her body of work.) The feeling that the handle that you’ve been able to get on the routine, even when it does require tweaking, might become less sure. When you don’t sweat it so much on days when you’re able to spend extra time during breakfast on a rough morning to ensure that your fragile old dog gets all of his medication without your feeling too frazzled—and then the thought creeps in to your mind that if your usual tried-and-true tricks don’t work that one day, will that continue? That fear that like you’re not doing enough or you’re missing a sign that means your pet is ‘ready’, that would before times mildly tug on your psyche. 

These are all very normal expressions of the human condition when we’re caregiving a beloved pet who is edging towards their end. And during a pandemic, when we are already raw from the fallout of being out of routine, missing normal contact with our important humans, all-too-aware that this is a very unprecedented time—these expressions and laments are easily magnified and understandably so. 

Sure, things could be different. But they’re not. 

Yes, this pandemic has lent a mix of circumstances that might be allowing you to be way more physically, emotionally and mentally present for your ailing pet than you ever expected would be possible. Its okay to feel gratitude about that. Give your proverbial magnifying glasses a rest. 


There will be days when things don’t go so smoothly. Your situation could change where you can’t be as available to your pet and re-evaluating how you’re going to manage their palliative and hospice care would be necessary. And guess what? You’ll manage it. You’ll figure things out with regard to your pet, just like you have so many times in the past. And it’ll be okay. I promise you. This time of life with your beloved pet is soaked with enough destabilization, joy-stealing, anticipatory grief and uncertainty. Though it’s a collectively tempting habit in our culture, there’s no need to give that sense of foreboding an opportunity to cast an unwelcome shadow on an emotionally-rich period of life that can and should as be full of joyful moments, warmth and good memories, just the same. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, holds a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning, and is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She's also a member of International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member), National End of Life Doula Alliance and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The out-of-order death of a pet poses brutal challenges

It’s not uncommon for me to be brought on board by a family to tend to their pet who has received a life-limiting illness or is experiencing age-related decline (in many cases, both)—and for them to have much-younger pets as well. The former tends to be the focus of my care and tending of course, but as any family in this situation will tell you, the other pets become just as much a part of the equation because they’re as much a part of the family unit. 

It’s no secret that the younger pets lend a sense of lightness to the overall situation and in themselves offer some respite from the day-to-day changes, decision making, monitoring of a pet who is in delicate health. In fact, I often remind my families that though the pangs of guilt that they experience from having fun with their younger pets and tending to their emotional and mental needs are completely normal, resisting that and setting time aside for play and all else can actually make them a better caregiver to that pet whose needs are increasing and abilities changing. 

I’ll admit, those interactions are good for me, too. 

I don’t think it’s lost on anyone whose pet has died after a long period of decline that the younger pet is a font of respite from the grief hangover that is experienced. The absence of medication regimens, tending to hygiene, the worry of getting home in a timely fashion to get an aging dog out to potty—yes, that is a welcome thing. The more carefree aspects of focusing on sharing life with a younger, healthier pet that we have a bonded relationship are definitely something to look forward to. 

And for some families, in the midst of caring for the pet in delicate health and all that is associated with it, their world crashes in. 

The usually robust, younger pet seems a little off. Or very much so. And then it’s revealed that they are in fact quite sick and a bigger conversation—one that blindsides—needs to be had. Perhaps, even, it’s an accident, or the negligence of another party that causes the unfolding of events. And then the beloved pet that was counted on to be a part of the family for years is then gone, not from memory, but sight and earshot and so many memories that will never be. 

The out-of-order death of a pet is especially brutal, just as it is with a human counterpart. Though I think in many ways, maybe more so: the representation that pets hold in one’s daily life can be much more tethered than other relationships. We often spend far more time thinking about and tending to the care of pets more than we might our human loved ones because pets inherently depend on us. And walking through the grief of a pet that died suddenly and far too soon all whilst navigating another pet’s terminal illness possesses a layer of difficulty that is unmatched. 

And so, that reliable buffer of being able to depend on the younger pet vaporizes. We’re left with emotions and grief that we didn’t expect to grapple with, and yes, confusing degrees of guilt often bubble up. It can be especially complicated having this unfold—contending with the usually stuffed-down anticipatory grief associated with knowing that we’ll be saying goodbye to one pet, and then of course living in a culture where the all-too-common accompaniment of disenfranchised grief is already so prevalent. The social interactions in our personal and professional lives can ride roughshod over us: the questions, comments and avoidance from others, well-meaning and not; the tone-deafness of the trauma that is so prevalent with these losses. This is of course married with, ‘how do I navigate losing the pet who is expected to die without my younger pet softening the blow?’.

So for those who are navigating the shock of an unexpected and life-limiting diagnosis of a younger pet, the sudden loss of another family pet sooner than you expected, grappling with how to grieve the loss of a pet that you at first blush thought would carry you through the expected death of another—you are seen, heard, acknowledged. This kind of loss and grief is very real and challenging to wade through. Know who the trusted parties are that you can confide in, and seek them out. And don’t apologize for taking custody of any kind of grief sooner than you might have expected. The out-of-order grief after a pet dies is as uncomfortable, confusing and gutting as any that is experienced. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, holds a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning, and is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She's also a member of International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member), National End of Life Doula Alliance and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

How pet care professionals handle even small details after a pet’s death matters to grieving families

I give my families whose pets have died—and my serving the family in the capacity of acting as caregiver to their pet is no longer needed—agency on how and when their keys are returned to them. Though I have a contract with my families that details the terms of my having possession of their house keys and their return, I recognized long ago that the act of my handing their keys to them is surprisingly difficult for many of them.

This is especially true when a pet has navigated the journey of age-related decline or a life-limiting illness and I’ve walked alongside them and their family to the end. And so, I proceed thoughtfully. Essentially, I’m asking permission to engage in this interaction, though it involves a seemingly benign detail, am giving it what I’ve come to know is the thoughtfulness that it deserves.

After all, I’ve forged a bond with the pet and the family through our time together, and understand the gravity of what has been experienced. 

Below is an excerpt of an email recently sent to one of my families: 

This transition can be very difficult for my families with pets that have navigated fragile health and end-of-life, so whichever option is comfortable for you both, I’m happy to make happen—whenever you are ready, and only you know what that looks like. That said, I’d love to see you all if you’re up for it. 

Receiving their house keys back can be an emotionally-charged experience for a family, greeting me with their tear-filled eyes, sometimes sobs. It’s not uncommon for me to hear when they see me to blurt out, Nope, nope, I’m not ready. Please hang on to those keys a little longer. And specializing in animal palliative, hospice and end-of-life care support, I understand. 

Keys are powerful objects in themselves. They convey a sense of trust, of being allowed to have access to very personal spaces. They have an all-too-familiar sound when they’re in your hands. They have a distinct feel; their weight, their shape. Returning them to a family whose pet has died conveys a finality to them that is punctuated in that moment. Another opportunity to lean into the experience grief and mourning. 

How one feels about this transition is often tied to their overall grief journey. And in keeping with what is known about grief and mourning, it’s important to ensure that the grieving person’s lead is followed. And so I do. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, holds a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning, and is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She's also a member of International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member), National End of Life Doula Alliance and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals: a viable 'third' option for families to seek support from after a pet's death

One afternoon many years ago, when I was having a conversation with one of my families after their pet died, I heard a response to something I offered in an effort to be 'helpful'. What I didn’t realize is the exchange helped me to see grief very differently, and it eventually pushed me further along on a unique path that led me where I am now.

I have no interest in listening to other people talk about their experience losing their pet, about their grief…

This resonated with me deeply. At first I thought it was just me because I tend to be exceedingly private about my personal life, and that includes anything regarding the deaths in my midst. Understanding that, in looking back I’m not even sure why I even suggested that a pet loss support group meeting might be helpful to this person. I know now that was widely accepted as just what was available, accessible to those grieving the loss of a pet. I’m better equipped, today.

People in pet loss support groups… they’re focused on their grief -- as you would expect. How can I go there and have an expectation of being seen, heard, understood in what I’m going through by others if they’re grieving? And I certainly can’t be expected to support them. I don’t want to. I’m too caught up in what’s going on in my own head to do that.

Oh boy. I can remember uttering those words years later in my own grief. Or at least thinking them. And fast forward years later, I know why they came so easily to that person -- and me. My intuition was good back then, and I’m grateful that I followed it, eventually.

We are generally pretty instinctive about how we need to move through our grief, we just need the right space and environment to do it. It’s when we don’t have that, when we are told the only option we have to have any sliver of a chance in having our grief seen and heard is to share grieving space with others, and in many cases, before we’re ready.

We all have a different set of tools and skillset in our toolbox to be with our grief, to navigate through it. And of course that’s true -- we’ve unique experiences with death, various types of loss, and grief, well… grief can be a shapeshifter of sorts. It assumes any form that it can take, to be heard, seen, acknowledged in, which for many of those who I’ve served over the years, can be disconcerting. It’s resilient like that, grief. It demands to have a front row seat, to be in your lap. Or at least sit side car.

Our culture is so grief-resistant, grief-repellent even, that if we see, hear or feel someone that is navigating the death of a loved one (or become aware that it’s happening), and this is especially true with disenfranchised grief, like that due to the loss of a pet -- we’ll find any way to push it, and them -- away. And so, until not so long ago, those wading through grief from the loss of a pet felt like they had no choice but to huddle together in groups designed just for them. Or, as I’ve seen in my ongoing training, they might be directed to talk to a mental health professional. Yes, people who are expressing normal grief because they’ve lost an animal companion are being referred to pet loss groups, and if they indicate that they’re not down with participating in a group setting, they are often at best referred to a list of mental health professionals to contact, if they’re not ignored altogether.

What’s often interpreted by the grieving when that occurs?

They feel dismissed. They feel like the only place their grief is allowed to come out to breathe is with another group of people who are grieving too. Or they come away feeling like their grief is a pathology. And for those who have the desire to get defensive about making those recommendations to the grieving, please don’t shoot the messenger. This is feedback that I’ve gotten from families over the years.

And we need to be clear: grief is not a problem, not a pathology. Grief is normal. We all experience it. Yes, even when our pets die. (That said, in less-common cases, like those involving complicated grief, the involvement of a mental health professional is beneficial.)

What seems to be the missing from this conversation? Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals.

As those professionals, my colleagues and I trained in the art of being fully present to those grieving the loss of a pet -- not to assess or fix them, give them a road map, or resolve their grief. Our role is that of a bereavement caregiver, tending to those grieving and doing so without judgement, shame, grief ranking, or a prescription on how to grieve. We walk with the grieving. We hold space for them. We have earned the right -- earned the trust -- to hear the stories of those we serve.

The Companioning philosophy, developed by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, serves the grieving in a way that is antethetical to what can be more commonly seen in our culture -- as those who need to be ‘treated’. As you might have guessed, Companioning started out as a philosophy designed to be helpful to those mourning the loss of a human, and later, was scaled to meet the needs of those navigating pet loss. That doesn’t mean that one is more or less valuable than the other, rather it recognizes that the two experiences can be very different. One of the things that probably comes to mind in how that’s so is that euthanasia is in many cases a part of the landscape in pet loss, and that’s so very true.

Though we are trained to lead pet loss groups, many Pet Loss and Grief Companion professionals, like myself, find it more useful to offer our expertise by way of one-on-one time. In that format, the grieving person can have as much space as they need and express themselves freely, unencumbered. They are able to have themselves and their grief be heard, seen and acknowledged. We walk with those who have shared life with their pets who are either approaching their end or already have (anticipatory grief is just as gripping as the grief after a loss): yes, some people seek the help of a Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professional as they are navigating their pet’s later years not only when pets receive a life-limiting diagnosis or are wading through the fourth life stage. Those being Companioned also learn how to craft space for themselves, to advocate for themselves when they are faced with everyday situations where they don’t feel as supported as they should at work, home and elsewhere. Because quite honestly, not having interactions with others isn’t always a workable option -- and why should anyone have to wear a brave face constantly because their grief makes other people feel uncomfortable?

Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals bridge the gap that seems to exist when we lack the space to really be seen and heard in our grief by those in our midst, and with what else is available: pet loss groups and mental health professionals. The former isn’t conducive to moving through grief, and for many, the latter two aren’t necessary or useful. The truth is, as is evidenced by my experience in working with individuals in families after their pet’s death, the reason that things can get difficult as we grieve is that there is no healthy, natural atmosphere to give one and their grief the space they need -- or that space is squashed. Companions, whether we’re certified to work in a capacity associated with pet loss or that with the loss of a human, help create that space. And we’re experts on understanding that the real expert on grief, is the one experiencing it. Companioning doesn’t involve there, there attitudes or oh, I feel really bad for you, here… you should do this to feel better. It’s not sympathy, but empathy; it’s ...yes, this loss that you’re experiencing? It’s very real and hard and I can’t take it away, but I’m right here with you as you move through it.

Ahh yes, bearing witness.

Pet Loss and Grief Companioning is about working in our culture at-large to dismantle or at least weaken the notion that the grief over the loss of a pet somehow ranks lower than that of a human, that it belongs squarely in the category of disenfranchised grief, where it often sits now.

As Companioning professionals, we understand the essential needs of the mourning, and the importance of ritual in grief and how art, writing and other forms of creativity can be an expressive outlet for adults and children alike. Those whose focus is on pet loss understand how other family pets might be affected by a housemate’s death.

That said, most Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals are in some way tethered professionally or work in the trenches in the veterinary or pet care industries, though not all are.

After several years as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, I had witnessed many an instance when one of my charges died, and their families were left with the kind of grief that only another that faced pet loss would recognize. I’d also experienced the loss of a companion animal -- three times in as many years, not to mention the death of my father not long before. What kept resonating through that journey is that grief deserves as much care and tending as new love (one won’t exist without the other, of course), and we don’t tell people to please get over your happiness, so why do that with grief?

And so, I made the decision after these experiences and others (including training as an end-of-life doula for humans, refining my hard and soft skills in working with pets who are in fragile health or dying and their families) to get more curious about what comes before, during and after a loss. My curiosity has proven to be a valuable asset, because that is essential to the Companioning philosophy. After discovering the Companioning model years ago, I decided to do the work of studying Pet Loss and Grief Companioning and earning my certificate under Coleen Ellis -- who herself graduated from Dr. Wolfelt’s grief studies program -- so that I could better serve my families and other individuals navigating through fresh or ripe grief after the loss of their beloved pet. And then I got more curious. I had more questions. And I studied and learned more about loss, grief, and how guilt, shame and judgement so easily swoop in as uninvited guests from outside and in and try to crowd out what’s really important as we mourn: being able to freely express ourselves when we need to in grief and being seen and heard as we do so. And I realized that my work as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter specializing in palliative, hospice and end-of-life care support allows me to have a unique perspective on loss and grief with the time I spend in the trenches, seeing what unfolds during these times of life, which is very much profound, intimate and personal for families.

It goes without saying that it seems logical for those mourning the loss of a pet to seek support in navigating their grief to gravitate toward a pet loss support group. It’s not uncommon for that bereaved person to mention to their pet care provider or veterinary practice staff that they are feeling the effects of a pet’s loss. It’s equally often the case that those professionals refer the person to a pet loss support group or a mental health professional.

And it’s important for all of them to know that while those are viable options and a fit for some, they are not the only ones. Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals are capable and highly-skilled in pet loss bereavement care and offer it using a philosophy that honors the grief journey, without seeing it as something that needs to be ‘treated’; we walk alongside the grieving person. As I say frequently in my work -- in borrowing a quote from Ram Dass -- “...we are all just walking each other home.”

For more on connecting with a Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professional, click here.

Lorrie Shaw has trained as an end-of life doula and earned a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning in 2017, which qualifies her to work in a professional capacity with families coping with the emotional toil with pets in end-of-life, as well as individuals seeking professional Companioning in their journey through pet loss and grief. She's a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, National End-of Life Alliance and Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. She can be found at lorrieshaw.com, and tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Easy-to-use product gives dogs with changing mobility and arthritis better grip on slippery surfaces

Mobility is one of the key changes that my families and I see with dogs, especially large and giant breeds, and it looms especially hard. It’s such an obvious sign that things are changing, and it can affect how a pet functions day-to-day and even interacts in a family unit.

When I’m doing a consultation with a geriatric pet, how well they ambulate is something I focus on and I’m happy to make suggestions on how that might be made safer and easier. Bare floors can be too slick for them to get traction on whilst making their way through a room, and causing them to slip, fall and even sustain an injury. Non-skid rugs, yoga mats and neatly-trimmed nails are common things that I recommend to aid in boosting traction and guarding against slips and falls, but there are other strategies.

Booties to protect draggy back paws and give a little more traction that’s lost with diminishing mobility, though those are not a good fit, excuse the pun, for every dog and for various reasons.

Though many professionals, myself included, suggest something like Dr. Buzby’s Toe Grips, they are most definitely not suitable for every dog. Getting them on, while a pretty simple process, can be stressful for both dog (and their humans) if said animal has an aversion to their paws being handled due to arthritis or anxiety about the interaction. One of my families noted that they waited until their pet was exhausted to attempt it, which as you can imagine still didn’t go over very well.

It’s not lost on me that in my area of specialty, I’m having many more physical interactions with pets -- medicating, giving injections, tending to hygiene, re-positioning, assisting with mobility -- and so making every interaction that I have with a companion animal be as free from stress and anxiety all the while doing so safely is foundational. It’s equally vital that my families are using whatever strategies that are as low-stress and safe while effective to tend to their pets: this supports the human-animal bond. Interactions that cause families and pets stress and anxiety often slowly chip away at the human-animal bond with the negative or fearful reactions of pets. As a pet care professional specializing in fourth life-stage support, its clear to me that bond is the single most important thread in the equation.

I’m happy to offer up one easy strategy to families to offer pets sure footing, and it involves minimal physical handling, so it’s good for even the most touch-averse dog.

Bio-Groom’s Show Foot -- easily available through online retailers -- is a product that handlers have used in the ring to give their show dogs better traction on slippery floors, and it’s one that some of my families have found helpful. Whether you’re at home or at the vet clinic, this convenient product can be quickly sprayed on the pads of the paws to instantly give dogs the extra grip they need to navigate confidently. The staying power of the product varies, but its ease of use and effectiveness are a boon in bridging the gap that families find themselves facing with one of the most troublesome and common problems with their aging dogs.

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 16, 2019

Tone-deafness in pet loss and grief may contribute to animal homelessness, negative outcomes for pet care and veterinary businesses

A good friend sent me a message a few days ago, it’s tone abrupt and the latter three words laced with a staccato that was easily palpable, even in a text.

“I got this in the mail for the third straight month…”

The accompanying photo showed what at any other time could be seen as innocuous, even helpful, but today and during the past year, gutting.

Not the first time since the sudden death of the dog last December, the local veterinary office handling vaccinations and such for the pet has sent periodic reminders just like the one pictured to his family for preventative care.

It seems important to mention that the dog died suddenly while being boarded
at their facility while my friend and I were traveling out of state. And that the after care for said pet, including my own clear requests to have a clay paw print impression be made and a lock or two of fur be clipped and carefully set aside for my friend prior to transport for cremation were met with “the crematory will handle that” and never were honored. And then, upon my friend arriving to take custody of their pet’s ashes, there were even more missteps on the vet practice’s part.

A message from a family-of-record asking if I would consent to being a reference for them after they decided they were ready to take the plunge and be considered to adopt a new-to-them dog from a rescue organization was met with the kind of joy those of us who are in the fold as Certified Professional Pet Sitters and Pet Loss and Grief Companions are super-charged by. In the months leading up to this ask, the family had lost both of their dogs unexpectedly to cancer. But after taking a little time to navigate through their grief and eventually feeling ready, they started browsing Petfinder. It wasn’t long before they saw a dog they felt would be a great fit for them and then submitted the necessary paperwork with the rescue organization—which included information on verifying their having a history with a veterinarian—they waited. And waited. It wasn’t until a short time later when the family checked in on their application, it was discovered that they’d been denied because their current dogs hadn’t had veterinary care in awhile.

Can you imagine the awkwardness that swooped in when the rescue’s representative heard my client say, ‘That’s because they’re both dead’? (Thankfully, this family wasn’t daunted, but they did relay the exchange to me so it had made an impression.)

Simple missteps, mistakes, you might think.

But from the vantage point of a family who’s suffered the loss of a pet—especially traumatically so—or that of a pet care professional who is also an end-of-life doula, these are cases of an egregious lack of common sense and I’ll come out and say it: tone-deafness.

It goes without saying that those who are connected to animal rescues can be more easily forgiven for this seemingly easy detail to pick up on because many of them are volunteers and may not have that much exposure to the dynamics of pet loss with families. However, with veterinary practices, it seems logical that more mindfulness and tact when it comes to the deaths with their clients-of-record’s beloved pet would be par for the course.

The problem is, sometimes, it’s not. Veterinary practices don’t always have the training, skills, protocols in place, not to mention the time to have more thoughtful interactions with families when a pet dies. Protocols like each staff member being educated on how to handle phone calls about inquiries from a family worried about their pet’s quality-of-life or regarding euthanasia and ditto for questions about end-of-life care; on how to handle after care for a pet including paw print impressions and cremation, if that’s in the family’s wishes and as importantly, how and when the family will get their beloved pet’s ashes. Protocols to immediately denote the pet’s death on their file so that the family isn’t getting notifications via mail or electronically for wellness care or otherwise.

Not having these protocols, dropping the proverbial ball only highlights what is known about why 20% of families surveyed don’t return to their vet practice of origin after after a pet’s death. My friend certainly made it clear that was how they feel, and it’s hard to blame them.

Poor experiences like the ones illustrated demonstrate the apprehension and frustration that families feel about the tone-deafness by after a pet’s death and because of the depth of their emotion, and as a pet loss professional, I can confidently say that few are willing to articulate it to those on the other side of the equation. In fact, they take those hits in silence, tuck them into private, dark place and for many, they inform their choices about the way they might approach a pet’s care when it’s most needed in the future. Rather than leaning in to the experience and partnering with veterinary care professionals when those chips are down, a pet owner might decide to wing it and make less-than-ideal decisions for their pets. Because to them, those previous negative experiences with a pet’s life-limiting illness or age-related decline, end-of-life, euthanasia, death, aftercare and how they themselves were tended to after are far more scary to them than that unknown road of going it alone with a pet who needs exceed their capabilities.

As a pet care professional specializing in palliative and hospice care, I assure you that’s not what anyone wants.

And as for animal rescue organizations, it’s just as important for those handling applications and interviews to use a little intuition and thoughtful communication when sorting out the details offered.

The above statistic, reported by Compassion Understood, doesn’t reflect the percentages of families whose experience may affect their willingness to welcome a new pet at all in the future. Though, I can confidently say that I’ve heard families mention that in order to avoid having to go through what they had before, they’d go as far as to resort to that. And again, this is understandable, but not something that anyone wants to see happen, either.

How can we in the pet care industry and those in the veterinary and animal rescue communities help families avoid these feelings?

Shift the focus, get the education and expand the horizons

I see many veterinary practices, animal rescue organizations and pet care professionals home in on reducing pet homelessness, and though I understand that putting so much of their attention on getting animals currently without homes into a forever, stable arrangement is important, it’s hard to ignore that can be somewhat short-sighted. As a professional who has a specialty in the fourth-life stage (palliative, hospice and end of life care), I’m all-too-aware that walking with families through this important time of life is more powerful than one might think when it comes to reducing pet homelessness.

Though not everyone’s role is or can be in hands-on care during the fourth-life stage, having the soft skills that are so desperately needed to lend a sense of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and understanding where a family is (or has been, essentially, ‘meeting them where they are’) can be a boon. All of us can join and support organizations whose missions are geared toward facilitating as whole and peaceful a transition for pets and families alike through the fourth life stage. We can gain education (some even have transferrable CEU’s for specific professionals) about communication, best practices, standards-of-care and the all-important self care strategies in this area.

Regardless of our role in these fields, the access to the best information, education and skills are accessible.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the matter of hard it is to hurdle one’s own fears, biases and viewpoints of all that encompasses the fourth-life stage and death. In having this common obstacle in front of us, it’s difficult to see, hear and acknowledge those who have death, dying and loss -- or the remnants of it -- squarely in their lap, no matter our capacity.

With a lack of soft skills, the standards-of-care, the sensitivity, the time needed to give these situations, sliding into the tone-deafness of the trauma of losing a pet is much more easy. And that tone-deafness comes at a cost to veterinary practices, the pet care industry and animal rescue organizations. And so, if we want to help make a bigger dent in keeping families from losing trust in the ways that we say that we want to be helpful to them, and yes, in ending pet overpopulation and homelessness, we need to acknowledge the broadened scope of what is contributing to it and fix it.

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.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Safe canine enrichment for every dog—even those who routinely destroy their toys

Canine enrichment is a topic that comes up often with families and professionals in animal behavior, dog training and pet care. 

Kongs and related toys are an oft-recommended option to provide a fun and stimulating outlet for dogs in a variety of scenarios. But in some cases, there’s a valid concern: dogs who can’t be trusted with these items for fear of choking hazard or foreign body in the GI tract. The good news is, a simple idea gleaned from the Science of Animal Behavior Conference 2019 means that these dogs need not miss out on the enrichment and fun that other dogs enjoy. And a side benefit for shelters, rescues, foster situations and even boarding facilities means that sanitation isn’t a worry. 

The vlog below fleshes out the details on this idea that has already made for some very happy dogs in my care.

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.