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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Picking battles, understanding limits while a pet is in hospice can be transformative

Recently, I was meeting with a family to get up to speed on their dog’s hospice care plan. They had lost another dog, Sal -- one that they had adopted well into his senior years -- only a couple of years earlier, and that experience was still quite fresh in their memory. In the time since their sweet boy, Timo, had developed a life-limiting illness, we’ve set time aside to talk about the changes that have been occurring, how the family is feeling about what’s happening, how well they feel they’re all managing and bouncing ideas around about comfort care and safety.

“I really wish that I could do more for Timo,” said my client, someone who I might add isn’t shy about administering care, no matter how challenging or messy the task is.

“I get the feeling that you mean a little more than what you’re saying,” I replied.


This, after getting the update on my charge’s updated prescription regimen and hearing how he gave the clear indication that he wouldn’t be accepting of acupuncture. He also doesn’t tolerate taking one of his medications well, so, as with many hospice pets, we give the medications he needs in order of importance, and administer what he’ll reasonably allow and revisit what he won’t a little while later in hopes that we’re successful -- basically, picking our battles.

“Yes,” she went on to say, with a big sigh. “I just wish I could give him all of the medications everyday. Sal was so good about it; Timo is a different story, and he’s not faring as well as he could.”

One thing that I’m certain of in my work is that navigating animal hospice isn’t routine, nor perfect.

There’s the notion of having ideal days, rough days, really good days, great days, even, but it’s never perfect. Having that realization come at you when you’re hospicing a pet, especially when you’ve tended to another so recently can make for a daunting journey. And when things had gone well in one’s previous experiences with animal hospice, it can conjure up some complicated, unexpected feelings -- including frustration and guilt -- emotions that we when we need to free from when trying to focus on providing that level of care.

The truth is that we need our pet’s cooperation, their permission, really, to carry out a hospice care plan, among other things.

Some companion animals are extremely easy going, like Sal was, others not as much. It seems important to note that no two pets are alike, nor are their disease trajectories, even if they seem similar. Case in point: two like-aged cats with renal insufficiency can fare differently based on any additional diagnoses that they have, like diabetes, hyperthyroidism -- not to mention their personalities. A medical issue seems easy enough to contend with, right? It’s there, it is what it is, no wrestling with it. It’s more tangible, rigid, cut and dry. But a pet’s willingness to consent or cooperate with allowing care, veterinary exams, taking medication requires flexibility; we can try and work with that, we can cajole them.

Or can we?

Well, most of the time. Sometimes. In some cases, never. And there’s the rub.

Sure, we can be creative with compounded medications and with disguising pills and capsules, and that works well, but sometimes, we just need to honor what our pet is telling us and back off a bit, maybe try again later. Perhaps the pet prefers someone else to handle that particular duty.

We can forgo some treatments, even supportive care like subcutaneous fluids, and try other, less effective strategies that a pet will accept or that we’re able to manage.

We can, if it’s too stressful for the pet or the humans, go with a house call veterinarian instead of going to a vet clinic.

With some pets, hospicing them -- nor treating them reliably for any medical condition -- isn’t an option at all because they won’t allow anyone to handle them, something that becomes more necessary as things progress. We can only do what they will accept, and what we’re able.

Something else to think about is how we as family members might be different in handling the duties of providing palliation or hospice care the second or third time around. We’re not the same person as before. It’s important to ask ourselves: Are we as physically able to manage it? Do we have the time needed to devote to it? Mentally, do we feel equipped? Are the financial resources in place? Are we trying to manage the care of a human loved one who needs it right now as well? Is everyone in the household on board with managing the plan?

That’s only part of what affects how a palliative and hospice care plan can be seen through. Ensuring that the pet and the humans at the core are feeling honored and supported by the professionals involved (veterinarians, pet sitters and even a pet’s trainer or behaviorist) is also vital through the process. So is understanding that circumstances can change at any time and affect the way that the plan is carried out. I’ve seen time and time again that much of the strife that is felt by families comes with the ever-changing landscape that comes before a pet dies, and it can be amplified by comparing this experience with previous ones, especially if the latter was one that was more manageable.

I’m not going to say don’t feel guilty or don’t let the fact that your pet isn’t accepting of treatment upset you, because that’s our nature to have emotions like that in those situations. What I will offer is this: give yourself a moment to take a step back along with a deep breath, and understand that you are doing the very best that you can on any given day with the resources that you have and what your companion animal will allow. You might be surprised that in giving yourself the permission, the courage to do that, you can transform this time of life with your pet.


Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Disrupted sleep cycles can be a result of and a clue into how much stressful events affect dogs

“Bumble has been behaving oddly the past few weeks, and I’ve been concerned about that, given that she’s so young and has been healthy. She’s been urinating in the house, and at times seems so touchy. You know her pretty well -- any ideas??”


This was an email that I got a few weeks ago, and the question, well, it’s not all that unusual.


I decided to call Bumble’s human, rather than email back, since it seemed like the best way to get to a solution. We chatted for a bit, talking about what was going on in her family’s life, and then I asked some more questions that ranged from if there were any changes in the dog’s appetite, her water intake, bowel movements, any disinterest in her usual favored things or activities, apprehension with other pets -- any small detail. A couple of things had accompanied the inappropriate elimination, including some sleep changes and being withdrawn at times. She even snapped at the vet staff -- something that was very uncharacteristic of her, as she loves going to the vet -- to have an exam to get to the bottom of any possible health issue behind the behavior changes. Plowing forward, I helped Bumble’s human whittle down things even more: was there a pattern to these things happening? When did they start? Does the intensity increase at any time?


In the end, we figured out that, after an unfavorable interaction with another dog that occurred weeks before (Bumble was bitten and required a few stitches and an antibiotic for a bite wound to her leg), she hadn’t been herself -- that’s the time that the behavioral changes started. Putting everything together, it all made sense. But one thing -- the sleep changes -- were especially telling.


A recent study on how stressful experiences affect a dog’s sleep drive home this point. Researchers from the Family Dog Project wanted to see if stress affects sleep, and just how much. The results, which were derived from observing 16 dogs, divided into two groups (one-half having a good interaction, the other an unfavorable one) over a period of days. You can learn more about the study by clicking here.


We know that sleep is important for a lot of things, and during all stages of life. It’s especially vital when we are trying to heal from an injury (as in Bumble’s case) or navigating a stressful period. A secondary issue that Bumble’s family faced is that they were losing sleep because of Bumble’s tendency to be restless at night.


After implementing some strategies that I suggested (with her vet’s input, blessing and oversight) to help Bumble manage the after-effects of the traumatic event that she encountered, the sweet pooch was able to settle into a more normal routine and get back on track.


The takeaway: when a pet is expressing behaviors that are new to us, and troubling or less-than-we-expect from them, we can’t opine that they are doing so out of spite, or anger or other very-human reaction. Pets are great communicators, and if we are paying close attention to the details, we can often get to the root of what is going on. We also can’t discount the importance of sleep, for every member of the family.


Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care and is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion. She's 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 Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Indifference, lack of support from others after losing a pet can stem from hidden stories

That flush of emotion -- one that can encompass anything from sadness, a void, a breathlessness even confusingly accompanied by a catch of vibrant joy after recalling a fond memory -- is sometimes familiar, at other times, surprisingly less so, equally gripping and can hit any time. It’s that emotion that comes with the grief after the loss of a loved one. Loss that is recent, anticipated or is one that has had a chance to cure a bit with time or tending. The accompanying grief that inextricably links us as part of the human experience can just as easily isolate those that it’s touching if it doesn’t really register on the radar of loved ones, friends, those that we work alongside, the world-at-large.


The interesting thing about loss and grief is that neither seek approval from anyone. The pair swoop in without being summoned, and we’ve no choice but to go along with them when they arrive. There’s really no point in which grief from loss -- especially loss sprouted from death, loss has many roots -- is equidistant to any time frame or stage of life. In fact, there is no timeline at all for it, despite what some think.



Having experienced this myself and in accompanying others through their grief, there’s no doubt that this is an especially challenging misconception to hurdle in our interactions with others after losing a pet. It seems that it’s easier to understand the loss itself to be so gutting -- it’s so black and white, so tangible -- but it’s that lack of approval that grief seeks that seems to trip people, the grieving and those around them, up. Grief is cloudy, so murky, subjective even. Because grief isn’t always recognizable, because of some of our less-than-healthy relationships to it, fears about what it is or isn’t and most importantly, how it should proceed, it can be the default when around a grieving person to say well-meaning-but-off-the-mark things, to even have a dismissive attitude or worse. I recall one woman, who I know to be impossibly caring quip, "Well, we all have to go sometime..." after my dog, Bruiser died from cancer. This was odd, coming from her but later, I came to understand the flippancy of her comment better.


There’s so much chatter about what not to say to someone who is grieving a pet, what to say to them, and a lot of it is helpful information. In their defense, it can be tough for someone who doesn’t “get it” or hasn’t been afforded the luxury to, to get it right. And, in my experience, those grieving the loss of a pet often don’t feel empowered to own their process, to express what they need.


Do you see the gap there?


Instead, when we’re grieving, the advice we often hear is to stay away from those who aren’t as understanding or supportive as we’d like, at least for a little while. And that’s fine in theory, but the fact is that in practice it’s more tricky; we have professional and familial ties to others, not to mention that in general, life doesn’t stop and avoidance isn’t a good strategy. To soften those uncomfortable interactions for ourselves, we often defer to the other person. Sure, that can be a quick way to get through a moment, but time after time after time, it can wear on us -- and it really doesn’t make future interactions easier as we grieve.


What I’ve discovered in years of writing about the human-animal bond (and more importantly, listening to reader comments), working with families with pets and as a pet loss and grief companion, the idea that often, in our own haze of grief, the ones with the most indifference, the purveyors of biting, off-the-mark comments are the ones who are hurting as much as we are. Yes, sometimes, our grief tears off the proverbial scabs of their own disenfranchised, buried, and silent grief. Like the ones that belonged to the aforementioned woman, as I learned.


Does that mean that we stuff our grief? I offer, a resounding no! -- quite the contrary. Instead, tread thoughtfully, mindfully through your grief process during interactions with others.


Don’t be afraid to say to another person when you’re having a tough moment, hour, or day that when they are having difficulty in navigating something important to them, that you hope that you’re extending the kind of consideration they need to do that better. Be fearless in articulating how your grief is very much a testament to the relationship to your pet -- another living being that you spent each day with -- and that their confusion about it can make it tough to relate, but surely they’ve a close relationship that’s been impacted by death and that must resonate on some level. The comments with regard to euthanasia can be especially cutting, and it’s no wonder: in my experience, it’s the single most sensitive issue surrounding a companion animal’s end-of-life, especially for those who have avoided it, had a poor euthanasia experience, or if there is a sudden illness or accident necessitating it. It’s always fitting to express with sensitivity, the notion that yes, having a veterinarian’s help to helping your pet go to peace might be or is or was necessary, and that you’re grateful that your final act of love for them was an option.     


Is everyone that you encounter wrestling with their own buried grief with a pet as you make your way through your own? No. But I will say that our culture doesn’t have the healthiest relationship when it comes to loss and grief. And pets have a way of drawing us humans closer to that edge of profound emotion than anything else on earth with their ability to form social bonds and life cycles that move far too quickly from curious, young creatures to the mature sages that we envy. And the latter, no matter our feelings about pets, magnifies our collective uneasiness with mortality. So again, be unapologetic and brave about your grief after losing a pet, and bear in mind that the person who seems to be the least supportive of it may actually draw the support and resilience that they sorely need to reconcile their own sense of loss in your doing so.





Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Halloween safety with pets can be successful with mindfulness and a little preparation

For weeks, aisles have been lined with Halloween candy, decorations, costumes and the like. It's a fun time of year, and, in most households, things are looking and feeling a bit
more festive. Pets have a natural curiosity about all this new stuff, but it can also make them a bit uneasy. It's important to remember that the things that we humans view as fun can be especially frightening to pets. Costumes, faces painted with make-up and life-sized decorations can startle pets and cause them to behave unpredictably, so introducing Halloween to any pet with mindfulness and a slow pace is important.

By keeping a few things in mind, you can keep your furry friends safe and keep the fun going this time of year.
  • One of the most common activities, carving pumpkins, is a long-held tradition for adults and kids alike. Keep jack-o-lanterns that are lit with candles away from all pets.
  • The days preceding and following Halloween often yield pranks — and some are not-so-playful. In fact, they can be cruel, particularly towards pets, and especially black cats. Don't leave pets outside and unattended during this period.
  • Strings of lights are popular these days in both indoor and outdoor displays during Halloween. Be sure to always keep cords and wires bundled and out of reach. Watch for decorative plastic pieces that cover the lights. These can look especially inviting to pets, much like their chew toys. Artificial spiders and spiderwebs are enticing, too. Consider them carefully before using.
  • With oodles of trick-or-treaters ringing your doorbell, it can be a difficult time for some pets to manage. The noise, the costumes and little ones can be disconcerting for pets. Avoid problems like anxiety and excessive barking by giving your pet a safe, cordoned-off area to stay in during this time. Try a spare room with white noise or a radio playing to buffer the sound at the door, and use a Feliway diffuser or spray for cats, and an Adaptil diffuser or spray for dogs.
  • Halloween candy is particularly inviting to pets — some even have penchant for the sweet stuff. Take special care when there is candy around to keep it locked up and away from pets, perhaps in an upper cupboard with a door on it. Dogs and cats are very crafty and can reach counter tops, tables and stove tops. Chocolate is especially toxic to animals, as it contains a component called theobromine.
  • Also, xylitol, a sugar substitute found in sugarless gums, candies and other sweet treats poses a special threat to dogs: it's absorbed rapidly into their bloodstream, releases a large amount of insulin, causing extreme hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and can lead to liver failure and even death. Use special care with packs of gum in your purse or in your car's console.
  •  Call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) at (888) 426-4435 if you suspect your pet has ingested a harmful substance. They can help guide you, and if you need to have your pet see a veterinarian locally, the APCC can start a case file that can be transferred to that vet. Have your credit card handy, as there is a fee of $65 to do so and is well worth it. Though not a substitute in an emergency, you can also download their mobile app by clicking here.
  • Candy wrappers can be a special problem. Foil and cellophane can be fun for pets to play with but can pose serious tummy issues, even a blockage.
  • Does your pet like the activity that Halloween brings? Bandanas are a suitable, simple way to have a pet look festive. For the truly adventuresome, it's fun for pets to dress up in made-for-them costumes. But, be sure that they fit properly, that your pet can breathe in the costume and that movement isn't impeded. Consider giving the costume a trial run before the festivities begin to ensure your pet really feels comfortable and that there is no risk of allergy. Avoiding costumes that have small pieces that could be pulled off and choked on is a must, especially for those curious young canines. Bear in mind that some pets are not fond of playing dress up, so if that's the case, be mindful and skip the costume. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care and is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion. She's 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 Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Grief with pet loss—often met with shaming—is very much a bigger part of the human experience

Many years ago, I walked through my first professional experience with death. Being in the midst of a family who was navigating their pet’s decline in health and then the process of being humanely euthanized gave me a very different vantage point of death than I’d ever imagined I’d have. I also knew that I wasn’t as equipped as I could be; experience and time solved that in the coming years. Since that first experience, I’d seen even more than one might expect as a caregiver for pets: countless unexpected deaths, even more terminal diagnoses, age-related decline that had become too complex for the veterinary hospice care plan and medications to manage -- even a couple of pets who died in my care. I consider myself honored to have been a part of that as well as sitting vigil with families during a pet’s final hours, and having asked questions on behalf of a family while Face Timing with them during an unexpected emergency vet visit when they were at a loss for words after hearing news they didn’t want to hear, all the while scratching their dog’s backside because it comforted them, the one at the center of everything.    

It’s been a vicarious education that I never expected but with every opportunity, I felt compelled to run toward.  


One thing that every one of those situations has in common is grief.


The grief of families, of their extended circle. Not not just a blanket of anguish, no sir. It’s bereavement that ranges from the kind one feels when they get news and though the outcome of it is certainly dire, the path leaves much to the imagination -- a very active one, at times -- of grim anticipation. The fresh grief that leaves us numb, raw when that most unwelcome event swoops in, yes, that. The grieving that occurs when the dust settles just a little, and everyone goes back to their respective lives and one is left to be with that disquieting sense of everything is different. There’s the anguish that one feels when looking back and lamenting that if there was more money in the savings account, additional treatment could’ve been an option, if the pet would have only been amenable to accepting treatment. Oh, lest we forget about that kind of grief that leads others to quip, ‘...it’s just a dog -- you can get another to replace them, right?’


Regardless if the grief is fresh, long-set in, disenfranchised, anticipatory or blended with guilt, it’s not easy to endure. And, as I’ve seen time and time again, they’re not unified experiences, despite what well-meaning people will tell you. No one can attest, ‘I know how you feel,’ as our respective relationships with our pets are unique and complex than imaginable. The deaths of our pets are also, as one friend recently pointed out, so deeply felt because we share so much more time with them than other humans -- even say, our parents.


There are as many forms of grief as there are ways to grieve. Whether our pet dies as a result from a sudden illness, an accident, a terminal disease or age-related decline, it seems important to note that those factors often determine how the grief manifests and how we walk through it.


And it’s not something that we get over, our grief associated with losing a pet or anyone for that matter: we get through it. I tend to think our grief is quite a testament to how much our bonds have evolved with our companion animals, and in some cases, what those relationships represent. For some, it’s straight up ‘hey, this is the best relationship that I’ve ever had with another living thing’, while for many, it’s a pivotal cradle-to-grave partnership. For others, that pet represents a bond with another human loved one who might have been that dog, cat, bird, or snake’s owner before they died, and the pet is that living link to said person and now that the pet is in need of extra care -- whether it’s a manageable health crisis, an accident, hospice or even death -- this event has an impact beyond measure. Each of these scenarios, each relationship reflects so much about our lives beyond pets.


So, know that your grief is valid; it’s valued (and yes, valuable), relatable, teachable and having it in your lap is very much a part of the human experience as we know it today.


There’s no right way to grieve. We just do it, our way, and there needn’t be any shame in grieving. We’ve enough on our proverbial plates to contend with in grief to be subjected to being judged on grieving our pets or for how long or how we express it on any given day.  And there’s no shame in taking the time that we need, nor seeking support in navigating the process.

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Thank you for not walking your dog

Upon meeting with a family of a happy Labrador mix a few weeks ago, the busy mom of two toddlers sheepishly mused, "I don't walk her as much as I should. I don't seem to have as much time these days, with the kids and all..." 

"No need to apologize," I responded. "You have this ginormous fenced backyard, she's occupied with playing fetch and squirrel-chasing. Let's not neglect the fact that she can run around free."

The truth is, walking said pooch is not all that fun. And by her human's admission, she's right—some of it has to do with poor skills on the part of the dog. But in my experience with her, outings are often fraught with challenges because of stuff going on in their neighborhood. The former could be remedied, but I know all too well how much work it is to try and smooth out. And for a busy young family, the bandwidth isn't there. And even if they could manage the training, there's the external stimuli and other dogs that have inadequate tools to cope and the humans with them that lack even more knowledge to create an ideal environment. Yes, it can be really hard to train our canine friends and then proof them in every challenging environment they'll face and expect the results we desire. 

I don't have a problem saying that I find dog walks a bit overrated. Sacrilege, right? Not so fast. 

Sure, dog walks can be fun, great exercise and terrific enrichment for our canine friends. But they are devoid of all of that for some dogs. So, what's the point? I ask. Walks are not the only form of exercise, fun or enrichment and I'm not sure who decided that walks were a must-do. There are plenty of other options to get dogs outside and burn off some energy, get some much-needed exercise or sniff around and use stimulate their brains. 

I've several canine charges that find walks challenging, and I accommodate that. Maybe that means only going for walks when their neighborhoods aren't so busy. It means avoiding one street because there's that one house where the well-meaning owners decided to go with an electric fence and their dog often makes their way to the street anyway and we'll have unwelcome interaction. Sometimes I go to Plan B, and stick with what's enriching, fun and what the dog can handle. Because when a dog needs to get outside and enjoy themselves, it should be a fun, favorable endeavor, not a daily struggle for both ends of the leash.

If you've a fenced yard, why not have a vigorous game of fetch? A ball, a Frisbee, a favored stuffed toy, heck! a stick will do just fine. Give your dog pal a play bow and give chase—they love that. Hide-and-seek is great fun, of course, as is a game of Find It. modeled after an Easter egg hunt, I hide a couple of a dogs favorite toys in the yard (alternatively I'll use a few favorite dog treats) and then open the door to let them hunt all the while encouraging them, 'find it!'. These games are great because they incorporate not only activity, but something far more important: engagement with their trusted humans. Dogs love—and need—this kind of interaction with us. It builds and maintains the human-animal bond and shared experience. It's also good for us humans. I can attest that I'll use any excuse to be silly and laugh. 

Don't have a fenced yard? Consider asking a friend or neighbor if you can borrow theirs while they're not around. Visiting a dog park during low-volume periods can be a boon; check out times of day when there's no one around and take advantage of that. One of the things that I love to do for dogs with no fence is to clip a long lead to their harness and head to a park or natural area when there is a low-volume of foot traffic around. Giving a dog the chance to sniff, to have autonomy, to make decisions about how long they'll be exploring and lingering over an area is tops. Here's a video demonstrating how useful a long lead can be. 

There's no need to allow others to shame you into forcing your dog into situations that they struggle in, even if it seems as benign as taking a walk. I can assure you that a leashed walk with a dog can be one of the most stressful situations for both dog and human. Of course, it's fine to work on leash manners on a regular basis when your dog is receptive to it, but if they really have trouble, as a professional, let me assure you I'll never throw shade on you when you decide to forgo it and stick with activities that your pet feels safe engaging in. 


Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care and is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion. She's 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 Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.





Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The lasting resonance of using "against medical advice" in vet medicine can complicate a family's already difficult decision

Instead of a traditional blog post, I'm offering up a vlog entry this week. I highlight a situation I've seen in my work in pet sitting and especially as one that has come to specialize in pet palliative and pet hospice care.

As pet professionals, our jobs, especially when a family is facing a grim diagnosis, can be very challenging, there's no doubt. This is especially true for veterinary doctors, vet techs (nurses) and support staff. And as professionals, how we use the words at our disposal is as important as the skills and knowledge that we've attained. We can't forget that.



Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been featured guest on the Community Cats Podcast, talking about how experienced pet sitters can be a valuable asset for families with pets, as well as in the animal rescue, veterinary and animal hospice communities. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Monday, September 11, 2017

Natural disasters magnify the conflicted decisions that are made despite the human-animal bond

In the hours since Hurricane Irma made landfall, I've read a couple of articles that have been circulating on social media about the pets that were left behind by their humans to fend for themselves. Left in enclosures, chained outside—even chained to cars. There has been so much in the way of commenting, knee-jerk reactions, armchair-ing and demonizing by well-meaning people.

But when I read things like this, I can't help but be reminded of how, when a Very Big Crisis occurs, humans often lack the resources that they need to not to only cope, but survive the upheaval of a traumatic event. Resources that are beyond financial. And in the event of an evacuation for a hurricane—having to leave one's core source of safety and stability and wholeness, their home—resources that are barely sufficient to keep themselves safe and sane. People often have to seek refuge in places that are hardly enough to sustain them, let alone their pets: a family member or friend's home, a temporary shelter, or in some cases, goodness knows where. 

When people are forced into that kind of situation, they often feel understandably conflicted and cornered, that they have no other choice but to make decisions that are less-than-ideal.

This is no Pollyanna-tinged point of view, no excusing the choice, but an explanation. An explanation of feeling powerless, frightened and the limbic brain taking over because this is very much a fight or flight alternative, and yes, our objectivity and compassion and are easily eroded when that's the case. This is the ugly part of our humanness.

How do I know this? Because I see it everyday in my work. In the trenches of pet sitting and animal hospice. Yes, it can be impossibly ugly and difficult to be witness to, but not for the reasons you think. 

The ugly, amplified view of everyday 

I see people make unfortunate decisions every day that in ordinary circumstances they'd never otherwise consider, only because they lack resources to do better. And believe me, that's not lost on them. These situations run the gambit, and sometimes they lead to outcomes that no one, including the family, wants to see.

One example that comes to mind are the folks that I encounter who can't bring themselves to get their pet to the vet for an assessment when I first gently declare that I'm seeing significant changes in their pet's health, then need to gradually be more urgent as the weeks or days tick by, my quiet moral support steady all the while. Time that passes by as the pet receives inadequate, misguided or no palliation at all for a clearly terminal illness that they likely won't weather the way they deserve to, nor be euthanized for in a timely or peaceful manner. 

Why? Because as I've seen time and time again, 'getting there' mentally, admitting to ourselves that there's something serious going on that will take our pet away from us—the one constant that is there, the one tether to normalcy that we might have, yeah, that—is so mind-bending that we shut down. We avoid it. If we avoid it, it's not happening. ['It will be okay...'] The truth is that we have only so much space, so much bandwidth for crisis, to be fully engaged in crisis-mode, and our brains are designed to operate that way. And when we have low resources to start with—varying degrees of the always stigmatizing mental illness, anxiety, financial instability, little or no outside resources, existing crises—we have far less bandwidth. We go into survival mode, a state of being with inherently very narrow margins. 

Yes, this what happens, the kind of thing we on the fringes of the situation prefer to ignore. 

But you know what? I don't judge people in that space. I can't. All I can do is try to help empower these humans that are doing their highest to have access to resources if possible and make the best choices that they can. And when they can't, I do my best to support them through the glaring clarity of hindsight that rears its head.

This is happening everyday, all around us, these decisions that are made. The choices that leave people grappling with knowing what they have to work with leaves them feeling terrible, and yes, internally judging themselves. Though it might not seem like it, the mental paralysis of doing nothing when a pet is terminally ill, hoping all will work out fine—they aren't going to die, they can't, I need them, everything in my life is Hell—and a family deciding to leave their pets behind during an impending hurricane because they feel no choice and wishing for the best is very much sourced from the same place in our psyches. 

It's people, just trying to cope as best they can, given the set of circumstances before them. But, hurricane fare is more compelling, right? 

So, the truth is that we don't know the stories, the families behind the gripping, heart wrenching photographs of dogs chained to trees, confined in enclosures outdoors, left behind. I have a hard time imagining that these humans were looking for an opportunity to be cruel to their pets, goodness knows there are lot of ways to do that on a regular basis. I'll wager they wouldn't be that seemingly cruel on any other day than on the one that they have to flee for safety from a tropical cyclone.

Think about that: chaining your dog to a car. 

What does that say to you? What it screams, begs to have to me hear is that 'I was desperate and I couldn't make another choice. Look what I had to do. I felt like it was the best chance, a proverbial red flag, to perhaps have someone help them when I couldn't.' 

What we do need to remember is that in the 12-year wake of Hurricane Katrina, we know better, and are doing more to accommodate families with pets in the event of a natural disaster, but we've still a long way to go. In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, I heard plenty of chatter about the lack of resources for the thousands of families who needed to relocate with their pets temporarily, so that is, in my opinion, telling of why some families made the choice that they did. The choice to leave their pets behind. One that as I understand it, they'll be prosecuted for. 

We judge people for staying put in the event of a hurricane, which they often do because they lack resources like a place to go, money or reliable transportation to get far enough from harm's way. Or, though they won't admit it to others, but they don't want to leave their pets. We judge them more harshly for evacuating like they've been directed, but leave their pets because those family members are not welcome, allowed or valued as much by others as their human counterparts. I propose that instead of judgement, we look with at situations like this with the clarity they deserve and create an environment of cooperation, support and caring so that families don't need to be backed into this corner.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been featured guest on the Community Cats Podcast, talking about how experienced pet sitters can be a valuable asset for families with pets, as well as in the animal rescue, veterinary and animal hospice communities. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter



Friday, September 1, 2017

Why does the age-old conundrum of children not taking responsibility for family pets thrive?

I can recall to what seems like a lifetime ago, sitting in the passenger seat of the car when my 8 year-old stepson bounded into the backseat, teary-eyed at the prospect of having to get rid of his cat, Silver. He and his mother were moving again, it seemed, and the year-old cat wasn’t welcome in their new digs.


“Dad, can he come and live with you?”, his face pleading.


My then husband looked my way, knowing that he and I would have to talk about this in private for several reasons. First, it was a big commitment, taking responsibility for a young cat -- any animal, really -- something that he knew I took seriously. His son’s mother also had a habit of welcoming pets into their home life with a casualness that made me cringe: Silver had a sibling that was adopted at the same time from the shelter, and had ‘accidentally’ made their way outside just a short time before. Before that, there was a puppy that grew into a youngster who ‘disappeared’. As the boy's father and I discussed later, I didn’t want either of them to think that our taking pets into our home would be handled with the same laissez-faire attitude, nor would we be taking anymore animals off of her hands, among other things.


“Silver will have a permanent, stable home here, with us,” we explained to both my stepson and his mother days later, making clear that if he came to live with us, he wouldn’t be going back with them if their living situation changed. This was an arrangement that I especially felt was mindfully fair, given their track record with pets, not to mention the fact that this young child needed to have some semblance of what a responsibility of having a pet is really like, and Silver deserved to stay in one home. They happily agreed, (and of course they wanted the cat to come back with them months later when they moved, a request that I reminded them was out of the question), so we had ourselves a cat.


I should interject that I had no expectation that an 8 year-old would have any responsibility in caring for Silver. Doing so would be unreasonable and futile in my opinion, and I made that clear to his father going in. (After all, we were the ones taking on the responsibility for the pet.) Instead, he would be witness to the grown ups of the household modeling of thoughtfulness, sacrifices of time and resources, care taking, the joys of watching a young cat unfold into a full-fledged adult, as well as the difficulties, like when pets are sick and we have to sacrifice more so that they can have what they need. While in our midst, he’d really have no choice but to be tied to our commitment; before doing things for ourselves, especially traipsing back and forth to fun outings -- no, wait -- the adults needed to ensure that Silver had fresh water and food, and was the litter box tended to? If the grown ups couldn’t proceed before that was done, that meant the younger family member couldn’t either. As we thought about vacations, no fun planning for anyone until care was secured for the pet.


You get the idea. And so did the kid. Sort of. Well, as best an 8, 9, 10 year-old is able to.


The truth is that he wouldn’t have learned any more had we insisted that caring for Silver was ‘his’ responsibility. We didn’t absolve him of any responsibility, we exemplified it day after day and he saw what comes from honoring commitments and taking care of another living thing. And, this same thing was patterned when we welcomed Gretchen into the family, which changed the dynamic of intention and caregiving and sacrifice further. Expecting a child to take responsibility for a pet is a recipe for disaster and strife, though it is a bonus when they do pick up the slack, and by osmosis, he did at times.


I read a post by Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and fellow writer, Steve Dale this week regarding the collective disposability of pets, at least some species of pets, that some families seem to feel. In an exchange with a parent who was looking to re-home a pair of hamsters because their daughter had “gone through that phase”, Dale voiced his concerns about any lessons that were to be missed out on for her offspring, and that pets, in this case, hamsters, are not disposable -- the latter being something that the parent indicated they felt.


Dale’s feelings on this are understandable. And he’s correct in saying that no pet is disposable. But I’m ambivalent about his assertion that the parent can mandate that the child continue to care for the hamsters, and that if that doesn’t pan out, well then, the parent can assume sole responsibility of the pets to “offer the lesson that these animals aren’t disposable”.  


There’s a problem: just because it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t mean that the child will actually learn a lesson because the parent has stepped up to the plate after the original plan implodes, and often, they don’t. Often, they learn that they can just pass the buck. Someone else will take care of things instead.


The context of how a pet is welcomed into the family makes an impact.

Children are more apt to be empathetic, caring and responsible toward pets when they see that modeled with a sense of thoughtfulness and consistent diligence by their parents and other adults in their life from the start. That is, rather than us buying a cute hamster for our child on a whim because they’re cuddly and small and live in a cage (and cost so little, another issue) -- what’s the big deal, right?? -- we instead cultivate a different mindset: welcoming a pet into the family because, as a whole, we’re ready for that long-term commitment and want to share in giving them the kind of life they deserve. Yes, that means selecting a pet based on what we as families can handle, what can be afforded and what is an overall good fit for the family unit, and talking openly about it, not because of the pet’s appearance or that kitten that is part of a litter from down the street is free and it could be a good lesson as any in empathy. And, though it doesn’t mean that the young members of the family need to be exempt from the care taking and day-to-day responsibilities associated with having a pet, it does mean that parents need to dive in with the knowledge that ultimately, they’ll be responsible for ensuring that said pet is not only tended to, but patterning that sense of diligence everyday through open dialogue, action and inclusion that in most cases will take root.


That, in itself is the lesson, the solution to the exponential problem: the numbers of homeless animals that are waiting in shelters because of a family’s inability to keep them, the surmounting population of pets who are still with their families but their human-animal bond is broken because of behavioral and health issues stemming from lack of enrichment and interaction. I could go on. I’ll be honest in saying that though it might be an unpopular view in some circles, in my experience, in some cases it’s better for a pet to be re-homed successfully if its possible. The fallout from neglectfulness or when the animal-human bond is broken (or never really established) isn’t pretty, and I’ve seen it first hand.


So, while Dale was on the right track in saying that the family should honor their commitment, that commitment first has to be centered from the right place. People are more likely to carry on a healthy mindset of welcoming pets into the family if they see that patterned for them as children.


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 in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter