Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Predictability, the right tools and simple rules promote a sense of safety for senior or infirm pets and their humans

One of the first things that I notice when meeting a family with an older pet, or one receiving palliative/hospice care, are the ways that the humans have implemented ideas to address the animal's changing needs. It's typically a combination of things designed to enhance mobility, prevent any falls and comfortable rest. I'm always happy to see the creative and thoughtful strategies that families use to accommodate their pets with time-tested tricks, and even some terrific new products on the market.

Safety first, is the mantra when it comes to our pets, but something that is too often overlooked—and vital nonetheless—is the need to ensure the safety of the persons handling and interacting with the pet. I’m happy to say that in all of my years caring for pets professionally, especially geriatric companion animals and those in end-of-life, I’ve not been bitten. But it’s not luck: I’ve employed safe rules of engagement.
The truth is that animals that are living with pain (numbers that are often underestimated, in my experience), those that are not feeling well or have issues with mobility quite often are apprehensive about interacting with us, especially when we need to assist them in some way. Chronic pain wears on animals just as it does humans, both physically and mentally. It doesn't feel good, and the prospect of being in more discomfort or not having the autonomy to move independently and at a pace they can manage is daunting.  The same holds true for pets with diminished vision or hearing; having either or both of those senses dulled or expired impacts the way that they might be able to respond if approached in away that is incompatible with what they're comfortable with. And when that's the case, pets react in really the only ways they can: they give a clear warning when put in situation that's challenging—usually with a look, a growl, even a quick snap—or in a worst case scenario, yes, a bite. For that reason, it seems important to reiterate the need to interact with our pets in a safe, mindful manner always.

Additionally, the assistance the we give is physical in nature, and no matter the size of the pet, keeping our bodies safe from injury (both from bites and from lifting/assisting) is imperative.

The basics

It seems important to begin by saying that understanding where a pet's comfort zone is, what causes them tension or unease is a great place to begin to both be most helpful to them, and for us to stay safe.

Be aware of proper lifting and transferring techniques. Using tools like harnesses and slings for dogs can help facilitate ease of assistance, provide stability. You can create a sling from re-purposed materials, but harnesses like the RuffWear WebMaster and the Help-Em Up are especially great because since they have handles attached, one need not have physical contact with the pet. This is a plus, as many arthritic dogs can be a little guarded about being touched, even a helpful way.

Create a safe environment for pets with diminishing mobility. This might mean moving dog beds (preferably orthopedic!) to a main floor area so that they are not only easily accessible but so pets need not use stairs. By placing rubber-backed area rugs on non-carpeted floors, pets can have sure footing on these surfaces. Consider adding baby gates to limit access to areas like basement stairs, a second story, or other areas where a pet has trouble negotiating movement. By implementing these strategies, we reduce the necessity of having to help a pet up from a fall because they've lost their footing, which is an area of less-than-ideal interactions that gets overlooked.

Understand how changes in cognition, hearing or vision can affect how a pet responds in various situations. A pet's senses can be dulled with age, so it's easy to imagine how that affects their perception of what's happening around them. This is especially important when people and other animals are close by. Giving a pet that's hard-of-hearing a little warning that you’re approaching with a wave of a hand, a click of a light or by not approaching them from a direction where they're not looking is mindful.

Pets with visual impairments benefit from an audible heads-up, like a verbal cue or a quick whistle before being approached.

It's also important to remember that some medications can leave pets a little sleepy, so that can affect their ability to respond.

Changes in cognition can affect how a pet may process being touched and/or approached.

In my experience, geriatric pets can be quite fuzzy-headed upon waking, and it can last for a while longer on some days, so they always need extra time to get rid of the cobwebs. Speaking of sleeping, it goes without saying that approaching a dozing pet too closely or touching them carelessly isn’t wise, but this is especially true with older pets or those traversing illnesses and end-of-life. When trying to rouse one of my charges, I’ll often give a couple of raps on the wall where they are sleeping and call their name calmly but audibly.

Other considerations in safety

The younger members of a family aren't as sophisticated about recognizing signs of uneasiness or stress in pets of any age, and so it’s vital that there is open conversation with children who are in the midst of family pets about using extra-special care when around older or infirm pets. Click here for a great source of info by Dr. Sophia Yin.

As a caregiver, I stress these strategies to clients as we talk about my caring for their most vulnerable family members not only for their safety, but mine. Though I adhere to low-stress interaction techniques and those that don't promote fear, as one who is new in the pet's life, they're often less-than-comfortable with my needing to physically handle them in ways that they might not feel so much so about with a trusted member of their tribe.

By implementing these rules of promoting safety and favorable interaction with each human that comes into contact with a pet with these special needs, there's a sense of predictability, and that is critical for their overall well-being.

With over 20 years of experience in pet care and the past 8 of those focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner and Certified Fear Free Professional. She is CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC and can be found at lorrieshaw.com.

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