It’s not clear which is more challenging to face: the sudden and unmistakable red flags that a pet presents with when a health crisis emerges, or that the little and seemingly insignificant changes that have been unfolding that leaves one feeling hoodwinked after a serious diagnosis. Either way, it means a lot of things; decisions made along with the veterinarians involved and in most cases, becoming quite familiar with the disease, its characteristics and resulting outcomes -- we follow a road map, so to speak.
Maps are helpful. They help us understand more about the journey that we’re taking, no matter how fast we’re barrelling toward the proverbial destination. Maps are empowering, tangible, even if they appear nebulous at times.
It’s easy to look back as a pet ages, or a disease progresses -- or how a pet’s age complicates a disease -- and think, ‘I feel like if I had to go through this again, I’d know and do better,’ and that’s a great thing. (That said, age is not a disease, but the needs of a geriatric pet are far different than that of one in their senior years or younger.) It’s a lot like traveling to a place you’ve been before and naturally feeling more confident about where to go, places you would avoid. But you wouldn’t use a road map for one town to navigate around another, right?
So why would we try that same strategy to cope with a pet’s illness?
It might seem logical to tap into our previous experiences in caring for a pet with serious health issues and apply that to a current situation. To some degree it can be helpful, but rooting our approach solely based on that just complicates things. A knee-jerk reaction of ‘Why would anyone do that?’ is common, but the truth is that there are lots of reasons behind that kind of blanket strategy. The antiquated school of thought that pets prefer to be left to deal with their illness still clouds reality, unfortunately. It’s also easy to get bogged down with the notion of how to manage a pet’s illness in terms of time and other resources. Maybe you know there’s something wrong, but pursuing a concrete diagnosis means getting news that you don’t have the tools to cope with, so denial becomes a safe haven. Using previous experience feels empowering when you don’t feel so great about your ability to deal with what lies ahead. Past experiences with a pet's decline might have been especially poor, and 'going there' again is just too difficult, emotionally. Sometimes it’s much more or even less knotty than that, and I get all of it.
No two pets are alike, and especially in their needs when it comes to a health issue that is impacting them. What works for a pet with advanced kidney disease doesn’t so much for another with bone cancer (and to be honest, not all manifestations of cancer are created equal in the way that they are treated and palliated). I admit it’s not unheard of, after my not seeing a pet for several months to observe unmistakable, startling changes in their health status and gently opening up a conversation with their humans to hear a refrain like, ‘Tessa isn’t showing the same signs of trouble as Marky was when he was so sick. She has to be okay, right?’
Sketching out a fresh road map with your veterinarian that offers clear routes -- as well as the alternate ones that they are so good at coming up with -- to manage a pet’s serious illness, keep them comfortable and avoid undue suffering is crucial. Even if the decision is made to not pursue diagnostic tests to obtain a definitive diagnosis, veterinarians can design (and tweak as needed) a care plan that can offer comfort care and a good quality of life for the duration just the same. Using a faulty parachute crafted solely from the too-narrow focus of previous experience is no substitute for a tailor-made care plan, despite any apprehension about what’s to come. In fact, the latter just might surprise in it’s simplicity, affordability and as importantly, it provides the structure to support the animal-human bond that is so vital to us.
Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in providing support to families with pets receiving palliative and hospice care. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.