Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Navigating end-of-life with pets is more easily managed with the rightsupport and knowledge

Just a couple of weeks ago, our family was faced with what we knew would likely be the inevitable: having to make the decision to contact our beloved 13-year-old Labrador's home-visiting veterinarian to come to the house and intervene, as a diagnosis of cancer over the summer had made things much too difficult for him to manage. 

Because of Bruiser's prognosis, in-home hospice and euthanasia was very much a part of the initial dialogue with his vet, Dr. Cathy Theisen, who proved to be a great source of guidance and support throughout his illness. We knew that being at home would be best to allow him to transition more peacefully, though we had to stay open to the idea that there was the off-chance that things may become unexpectedly difficult and taking him to an emergency facility may have been a mindful thing to do. 

That final decision did not come easily, of course. It was made after a lot of dialogue, listening, looking clearly.

The point of diagnosis to death is not a straight line. 

Bruiser was able to have an enriching and comfortable final weeks, doing most of the things that he did prior to his diagnosis, and it also enabled our family to reap the benefits of sharing that time with him. 

At a time fraught with so many changes — at some points, daily — adapting to Bruiser's needs as they evolved was something that could not be shied away from. It was a matter of being present; assessing what was happening on a given day and under the guidance of his clinician, adjusting things in his diet or medication or simply living with the changes. 

He was comfortable for the majority of his illness with the help of medication, thankfully. But managing Bruiser's disease took diligence and care, and when it was obvious that the resources that we had previously tapped into to help him were not going to be enough, we had to muster the courage to reach out for the help that, ultimately, only his veterinarian could offer was. This decision was reached mixed emotions, to say the least. But even now, we know for sure that we made the right decision, for the right reasons, at the right time. 

Having the balance of life and death in our laps is a daunting, emotional and complicated matter when life is shared with a pet. It's unlike any other.

As it turned out, Bruiser was able to make that final transition on his own, just an hour after I had contact with his vet. 

We were glad that any suffering that he had was over. Not having to go through the process of euthanasia has, for us, made his death easier to manage; we realize that our grief would be compounded had we needed to follow through. 

The transition after an event like this proves to be something to be done slowly. It's a recalibration of sorts: after tending to a terminally ill pet who has died, you go from 60 to zero, so to speak, in a short period of time. Waking up that first morning after a dog dies is horrendous. In terms of the pets in our household, things are an unsettling one-third quieter. 

The anticipatory grief is something that builds through the process, and then there's the grief hangover. 

It's interesting, traversing life with a pet into old age. Some liken having a pet to having a child, but I disagree: we're simply caregivers. We share life with a living, breathing being who has needs that require help in having met, we look out for them in order to ensure their safety and we act as their advocate, their voice. In advanced age and at end-of-life, that doesn't change, though their needs certainly do. 

After slowly emerging into regular schedule in the days after he died, we became more engaged in things after hunkering down at home to tend to ourselves and the four-legged members of the tribe. As far as the pets go, the dynamics have changed there, too. 

We needed that time to allow everyone the space and time to process everything unencumbered by outside influences: the misguided comments, the awkward questions and statements. A few loved ones, friends and colleagues were keenly aware of the intensity of what we had been experiencing, and we've continued to feel supported and encouraged by them. 

Interestingly during this transition, a lot of people have reached out and shared their own experiences. 

One thing that has resonated with me is the angst that people feel when presented with a grim diagnosis or issues associated with advanced age, and then faced with the complicated choice of euthanasia. These situations raise emotions, brings up fears and reminds us that we're never really in full control of things.

The feelings can be complicated: some have said to me that they know it was the right choice at the right time and for the right reasons, but there's a mental wrestling match that can ensue long after the process is over. There are others who express regret about waiting too long. 

Both of these are certainly understandable and have places at either end of the spectrum. 

The feeling that I get is that people could use more support when it comes to navigating the really difficult situations like old age, or at any age, illness and end of life for their pets. 

I find that many people aren't aware of effective care plans that can be put into place in any of these scenarios, and it starts with a conversation with the veterinarian. I suggest not being afraid to ask about the next steps, and what a care plan might look like: medication, diet, extra help — maybe even alternative therapies — to aid in a pet's comfort. I made sure to ask the questions that mattered in Bruiser's situation, some of which meant getting hard-to-hear answers, but in the end, we felt better able to manage things. 

Another avenue to consider is reach out to friends or loved ones who have experience in these areas. They're a wealth of support and information. 

Old age, illness and death are not viewed as favorable topics to approach. In fact, they're seen as ugly, distorted, too difficult: distinctly different than what we see when we think of new life and resiliency, and that's unfortunate. 

Death is as important an time of life as birth for a family and deserves the same attention and mindfulness.

After all, doulas are seen as a beneficial source of support at the beginning of a life, so why not have that same sense of everyone involved being tended to when a pet — a valued and beloved member of the family — is coming to the end of their life? 

The tide is turning, thankfully. The idea of pet hospice is garnering a lot of attention, and there are more options for comfort and support than one might think. Additionally, many vets these days are willing to come to a client's home to intervene, rather than doing so in a traditional clinical setting. 

Pet loss support groups, like the one the meets at the Humane Society of Huron Valley is another valuable resource to tap in to.

Our family was grateful to have had such an active part in helping Bruiser traverse the final weeks of his life with comfort and dignity. In the end, the feeling that we have come away with is an empowered one, though it might seem to be in stark contrast to the inevitable outcome. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

We've come a long way in understanding dogs' emotions, but does the way that we treat them measure up?

As one who works with and writes about animals every day — along with those in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behavior, ethology and dog training – being accused of anthropomorphism is a regular occurrence. I don’t think that it necessarily bothers any of us, and if anything, propels us to work more on behalf of creating a better life for animals.

An opinion piece that was published in the New York Times’ online edition over the weekend echoed much of what I’ve written over the past few years: animals – in this case dogs – have emotional needs that deserve more care and consideration.

Last year, I wrote about a study that the author of the piece, Gregory Berns and his colleagues conducted by way of using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to get a glimpse into the canine brain.

In the NYT piece, titled, ‘Dogs Are People, Too’, Berns expands on the findings of the study and proposes that the way we view dogs needs to change.

The study yielded interesting insight into how dogs react when presented with favorable stimuli, like hand signals indicating food, smells – most excitingly, the sight of a familiar human.

These responses are linked to area of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is sandwiched between the brainstem and cortex, and loaded with dopamine receptors. This is the area that Berns and his colleagues found especially interesting because of its similarities in dogs and humans, as many of the same stimuli that motivate activity in that region of the brain are the same: food, closeness to those that we love, things like that.

Neuroscientists refer to this as a functional homology, and in dogs, it can be an indicator of emotions.

The importance of positive experiences in a canine's life is nothing new, in fact I’ve written about many topics related to this. These positive experiences are crucial to establish a solid footing early in life so that dogs are properly socialized, which helps to connect-the-dots, so to speak, allowing them to develop the tools to navigate challenges, daily life and to form favorable bonds with other animals and humans.

Older dogs that struggle socially because they might have missed out on the opportunity to have had those positive experiences and socialization can benefit from having their fair share of caudate nucleus stimulation, as well.

Studies have demonstrated this, even with fearful dogs.

Oh, the power of comfort, compassion and love.

All of that said, the ability of dogs to be able to form attachments to humans, and as I have been witness to, some very close and complex bonds with the humans in their life – myself included, even as a caregiver – needs a fresh examination.

Understanding what we do now about how the canine brain works should be cause to keep the conversation ignited about how we treat dogs and other animals.

Anthropomorphic? I think not.

After all, we’ve come a long way since the days of Decartes’ assertion that only humans have minds.

These days, we certainly don’t mind putting those great animal minds to work in law enforcement, as military working dogs or service animals or to perform search and rescue duties.

The military is even considering the prospect of using MRI technology to recruit the best canine candidates to use as military working dogs.

It’s clear that we as humans understand their ability to think and learn in those capacities and as house pets.

But are we measuring up when it comes to the way that we consider how they might feel about things, or if something makes them genuinely uncomfortable, for example?

The tide is turning in many ways; using terms like ‘guardian’ (though I prefer ‘human’), rather than ‘pet owner’ when it comes to expressing our capacity in their lives, and in recent decades, we’ve understood more about how pets experience pain (just like we do – what an epiphany!) and mechanisms that can be used to mitigate it, and of course other ways.

As humans, we’ve made great strides in opening our eyes to what animals experience, and dogs are proving to be integral in making that happen. As the single species that has had to adapt faster than any other to the very human world that we’ve created and purposely included them in, we owe that to them.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Creating positive associations with a cat carrier helps make car trips easier and safer

So many times over a cat's life, they'll need to make a trip in a vehicle to various places, often the vet's office.

It's safest and easiest to transport them in a cat carrier, but for so many felines, the mere sight of the contraption can trigger a sense of angst, and getting them into it can be a struggle.

The key to making it as easy as possible is to, first, start them as young as possible, and to always create a positive association with the carrier as possible.

There are some easy ways to create that association, and once you achieve that, transporting them in a mindful way is important, too.

Positive associations are crucial with every pet, but especially cats. To do this with a carrier, introduce it by the simple act of leaving it out in an area of the house that they find favorable, with the carrier door open so that they can explore it at will.

Placing a comfortable blanket, a towel or — depending on the size of the carrier, a cat bed — inside can be enticing. Try leaving a favorite toy inside, some catnip and maybe a few treats. Feeding your pet inside the carrier may seal the deal.

When the time comes to take a trip, the way you lift and carry the carrier will make all of the difference in how comfortable the animal stays throughout its time inside.

Lift and carry the carrier by the sides, the rims or underneath to provide stability, rather than by the handle. Using the handles may be convenient but allows for a swinging movement, which a cat can find unsettling.

Once in the car, driving as steadily as possible makes good sense, obviously, but before departing, consider securing the carrier in the backseat by putting the seat belt through the handles or around the carrier, adjusting as needed. This promotes stability during sudden stops, and in the event of an accident, your delicate furry friend will have an added measure of safety.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Understanding the common signs of illness in exotic birds is integral for a long, healthy life

Being a caretaker of other people's pets: It's great fun, but there's also a very serious side to it. I spend a lot of time observing the animals I am responsible for.

As I've seen over the years, anything can happen; a sudden or even subtle change in eating habits, elimination or behavior can tell me volumes.

This is true for any animal, and that includes exotic birds.

I have a handful of them as clients — all different species — and though they share many similarities, it's up to me to hone in on any changes that I see and convey that to their humans.

Knowing all of them quite well, it's not difficult for me to pick up on things. Each bird could not be more different. They have diets that differ a little — which has a bearing on what I look for — and as far as their personalities go, those all vary, too.

Though each of my clients are experienced bird owners, I realize that other folks may not be and may have a hard time picking up on those subtleties that indicate early signs of illness. It's easy for that to happen. Captive birds, just like other pets, haven't lost their inherent habit of hiding any lameness or signs of trouble like their wild counterparts.

Because of this, those who share life with these birds may find it helpful to get better acquainted with the early signs of illness in pet birds so that treatment can be put in place by their avian clinician, so that more serious problems can be avoided.

There are a few indicators that I find offer volumes of information about the overall wellness of a bird: eating habits, water use, elimination, engagement and appearance.

What goes in, comes out

Food is big with birds. It's not just a source of nourishment, it can be paired (and should be, in some respects) with enrichment. Owners of pet birds choose to include different items in their diet, and as a caregiver I adhere to those regimens strictly. It may be a strict diet of pellets and selected fresh produce, and may include seeds, nuts, fresh produce and even as one client does — prepared omelet wedges that include healthful ingredients.

Whatever the diet, if a bird is eating more or less, if they don't seem to go after something that they'll typically gravitate toward and forage through, or in some cases if I am not able to motivate them with food treats, that is telling to me.

Elimination is a very accurate barometer with birds, and just as their diets can vary, that impacts the way their droppings appear.

Diets with a high seed content usually produce uniform, dark green feces. Birds on pelleted diets normally have soft, brownish waste. A diet high in vegetables and fruits may increase the urine component of their waste, and it seems important to note that foods like blueberries can cause discoloration.

Urine is normally a clear liquid.

With that in mind, I monitor each bird's droppings and note any changes from what I see to be the norm.


How a bird engages with me is integral. Each animal has its idiosyncrasies when interacting with me — games, forms of communication, physical interaction — and if those seem to be "off," I take note of that. Unusual or decreased vocalization may be a concern.

Appearances are everything

Birds will act out-of-sorts — even a bit crabby — and lose feathers when they are molting, but overall their appearance looks normal.

Feathers that look broken or chewed on are not normal. Feathers that appear discolored or matted are a concern, especially those that are near the vent (their bottom). Feathers around the nares (nostrils) or face should not be stained. Crusting around the nares is something to take note of as well.

Other considerations

Birds love water, and will, most often if they have a water crock (some people prefer a water bottle), dunk their pelleted or fresh food in it as well as drink from it. Crocks need to be cleaned and replenished at least once a day, as they can get mucked up with bits of food and residue. How much a crock gets used depends on the animal, but knowing an individual bird's habits can help gauge if there's an issue.

I take note of any unusual breathing patterns; a healthy bird should be able to resume a normal respiratory rate quickly after vigorous play or stressful event. In the latter case, ditto for their disposition once the stressor is gone.

Lameness, like favoring one foot or shifting their weight in an unusual way, warrants further consideration.

Birds also have incredibly good balance. Clumsiness that seems out of the ordinary should be taken as a sign that something isn't right.

All of that said, it's never a good idea to take a "wait and see" approach when it comes to your bird showing signs of illness or disease. And, it's vital to have an avian veterinarian to reach out to should anything out of the ordinary arise, and of course to have your bird be examined by on a regular basis.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Resolving aggression in cats can take time, and identifying the root of the behavior is the first step

Many of my pet sitting clients are felines, and that is very telling.

Cats, by and large, do better in their own environment in their human's absence, as opposed to being boarded. That's not surprising: Cats, though personable and connected to their family, are often more centered around their environment as opposed to their people.

Over the years, I've seen some cats that are unwaveringly friendly — almost dog-like — and that can be due in part to natural characteristics of their breed, or simply part of who they are.

Some, I find, may prefer to have their basic needs met, a little lap or play time, a quick ear scratch and not much else.

Others are uncompromisingly aloof, and will go out of their way to make themselves scarce. A small percentage of those cats will become aggressive should they be approached, so I always take care to be respectful of their personal space, for their own well-being, and mine.

If you've ever had an encounter with an aggressive cat, you know what I mean. Quite honestly, I find a hot-tempered cat more daunting to deal with than a dog, because of the unpredictability, not to mention the damage that sharp claws and teeth can inflict.

Aggression is a term that isn't often attached to cats, but when it's there, it can seriously upset a household, and in some cases, is grounds for relinquishment because a family doesn't feel that they have another option.

Encompassing a broad range of behaviors, feline aggression can manifest from warnings like swatting, hissing and growling to much more serious manifestations that can cause physical harm, and these behaviors stem from different motivators.

Two things are certain: It's important that it's addressed, and situations that facilitate it should be minimized or avoided, and, secondly, punishment is counterproductive.

First, it's important to understand there are different types of aggression. Whether it stems from being cranky as a result of having an illness, injury or source of pain that has yet to be identified, under-socialization as a kitten, fearfulness or a status- or territorial-related cause (think multi-cat households), knowing the source can help you employ an approach that offers the right solution to address the behavior, safely and effectively.

Redirected aggression and aggression from a cat after it initiates physical contact with you can be confusing and especially daunting to encounter, because this aggression can seem to come out of nowhere. But no matter the cause, there are signs that indicate an elevation of behavioral arousal that means there is trouble ahead.

Signs include:

  • Tail twitching
  • Vocalization
  • Dilated eyes
  • Flattened ears
  • A stiff posture

The first step in identifying the cause of your cat's aggression is to keep track of what's happening. Keep a journal daily and observe the day-to-day events — even small details can yield helpful clues and identify patterns. Here are some things to consider:

  • What kind of stimuli seem to be triggering?
  • Are there specific cats that tend to be a target of the unwanted behavior?
  • Are there feral or free-roaming cats around the home?
  • Is your cat sufficiently stimulated? Is there enough environmental enrichment, like toys that invite play, foraging toys, cat trees?
  • What changes have occurred in the household recently? (Remember what I said about cats being more connected to their environment than people?)
  • Does your cat have enough personal space?

Taking this information and talking about it with your pet's veterinarian is key. An underlying illness or pain (dental pain is often overlooked by owners) is common, especially if the behavior seems to appear out of nowhere. Once a cause of that nature is ruled out, then the next obvious step is to dialogue with your vet about the patterns and triggers that you've noticed.

From there, you can put a plan of action in place to help quell the angst that this sort of thing  can bring, and understand how to best maintain peace in your household.

Kelly Moffat, DVM, DACVB, medical director at VCA Mesa Animal Hospital and a behavior consultant wrote an excellent piece on the topic of feline aggression, and she offers more in-depth insight for cat owners and clinicians alike. Click here to read more from Clinician's Brief.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Teaching your dog to accept treats gently from bare fingers takes practice

It's no secret that dog treats work great to help me accomplish a lot of things in my day, like getting a reluctant dog to cooperate, or curbing their barking, or to divert the attention of a dog who has a hard time handling himself around other canines (or people) while out in public.

Like you, perhaps, I also use treats to reward desired behavior from my clients and my own dogs. I'm always looking for an opportunity to do that.

Because I hand out so many treats in a given day, then also means that there are more opportunities for my fingers to get nipped.

Much to the chagrin of many clients when they have the opportunity to see their pet interacting with me, they are reminded of their pooch's habit of snatching treats from bare fingers with great enthusiasm. The wince that I see on their face as their pet gazes at my hand as it comes out of my treat pocket is telling, but a sense of relief washes over when nothing unfavorable happens.

That's only so because I make it so with all of my clients, manners or not.

Not taking treats gently can be a source of conflict for plenty of reasons, but you're all-too-well aware of this if you're in the midst of working on training favorable behaviors. Repeated opportunities for their teeth to meet fingers can make for a frustrating go of things.

I should note that some dogs only exhibit this excessive eagerness when they're in a state of excitability, or it can of course arise only when there are multiple dogs present.

By and large, canines can learn to have some self-control (some are gentle about taking treats by nature) when it comes to accepting a yummy treat from their humans, and you can teach it at home — just make sure that you are steadfast in the idea that unless your furry friend does so gently, he doesn't get a treat at all.

This is done with the cue that is called "gentle."

Some dogs cannot be taught to take a treat with care (there's one in my family!), so if there's one in your midst, take heart — you can still safely offer your enthusiastic pooch a bit of something good.

It seems important to note that teaching this cue should always be done as a stand alone training so as not to confuse your pet.

Start by teaching your pooch what the cue means: hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it up. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed. How you deal with this will depend on your tolerance and how enthusiastic your furry friend is (wearing a glove comes in handy). Generally, they will stop biting and lick your hand — some even nibble gently — and at that point you'll want to say "gentle" and open your hand completely to give him the treat.

Repeat this exercise every time you give him a treat, as consistency is the key. If your dog has sudden amnesia when it comes to being careful, pull your hand away and then try again, once again using the "gentle" cue as a reminder.

This can be a challenge while in a dog park or a class, needless to say. In these settings, you can offer the treat with your flat palm. Most dogs are able to take treats properly when they are offered with an open hand.

With my Bruiser and a couple of clients, dropping the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog makes most sense.

Because it takes a lot of practice for most dogs — including some of my clients — to refrain from nipping fingertips, I for the most part will use the latter two approaches. They by no means teach a desirable behavior, but they keep my fingers intact.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.