Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Planning ahead empowers your pets to better handle your absence during holiday travel

There’s something to be said for the benefits of routine. To some degree, I think we’re wired for it. It offers a sense of familiarity in that we know what to expect, even a sense of safety. When routines are disrupted, no matter how little, it can make an impact on how well we humans and companion animals navigate through our respective days and nights. A frequent conversation that I end up engaging in this time of year is about how busy I must be. The truth is that my schedule, no matter the ratio of healthy pets, those with special behavioral needs or those receiving palliative or hospice/comfort care, is no busier during the holidays than other times of year. Long ago, I understood the virtues of curating my schedule carefully so that there is adequate time to tend to everyone, including myself. I’m also all too aware of how stressful this time of year can be for the families in my care, with the prospect of traveling when it seems every other family is, maybe dealing with any bad weather and yes, spending time with extended family that they don’t see all that often and maybe find difficult to be around.

So, I step it up a bit to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible for everyone, and that includes the pets in my care especially.

Most pets do pretty well in weathering the temporary changes in their routine, and they don’t need too much extra in the way of consideration, though every bit helps. But for those pets that are medically-fragile and/or lack coping skills to deal with changes in caregiving, schedule and in wrestling with boredom, they’re at a real disadvantage. And that’s when my advocating for them in an effort to allow them the autonomy to practice their own brand of self care -- yes, pets can do it too! -- really needs to come to the forefront. I’m a big believer in self care, and it’s concept that I embrace personally, and I espouse it where my colleagues are concerned, not to mention with clients who are navigating hospice care with their pets or other loved ones. By having the tools and resources that we need to ride the waves of change or bumpy periods, we can fare so much better.

But back to pets. How do we give them the autonomy to practice self care? How to better handle themselves when their families are away, to maintain an optimal level of physical and emotional wellness, to not have their already delicate health go off the rails?

By thinking ahead, anticipating needs, knowing their habits and where/when they tend to have trouble. By offering enrichment, comfort, and yes, even novelty.


This is all relative, right? Lots of things lead to comfort: the right bedding, favorite toys, appropriate things to chew on, being able to get outside to relieve themselves when they need to, even staying on track with prescribed medication. I am adamant about families making sure that those prescription meds or foods are refilled in advance of any trips away (this is super-important for those pets needing supportive care like subcutaneous fluid therapy, tube feeding or pain medications). Is your pet needing to get outside or visit the litter box more often because of age, illness or medication? Arranging in advance for your caregiver to make scheduled, timely visits for potty breaks and checking the litter boxes makes a huge difference. We all behave better when our physical comfort needs are met.

Edible encouragement

Don’t underestimate the power of tasty food and treats. It’s easy to get in that trap of thinking, ‘You’re just bribing them’, but oh, contraire. Food is a powerful reinforcer. I use pieces of kibble  or high value treats -- Happy Making Stuff, I call it -- a lot in my work to reinforce behavior that I want or need from a pet, no matter if they are canine, feline or avian. During our interactions, pets come to count on the fact that when I’m with them, it means that good things are going to happen, and that equals a cooperative and willing attitude.

Pheromones, Rescue Remedy, neutraceuticals (and catnip)

This is, in my opinion, a grossly underestimated area to tap into when empowering pets. I use Feliway, Adaptil and catnip profusely in my day-to-day, and it’s truly Happy Making Stuff. An ever-growing list of neutraceuticals can be tremendously helpful, too. Click here for more on that.


I talk about this a lot with my families, the age of the pet doesn’t matter. Geriatric pets need mental stimulation and enrichment every bit as much as puppies do, and when it comes to cats, they need every bit of help in that area as they can get. Food puzzles, frozen Kongs, scavenger hunts are all fabulous ways to promote the yay! quotient. Don’t forget their old, favorite standbys and yes, snag a couple of new toys for your caregiver to give them while you’re away. Novelty in this way can be a boon.

Consider the length of your trip

Where’s your pet’s tipping point in terms of how long they can tolerate being out of routine? I have this frank conversation often with the hospice families that I work with, and in erring on the side of mindfulness, a pet can fare much better. Despite any efforts to empower them to manage your absence, there are limits to what some pets can handle, no matter how much they love their temporary caregiver.

With all of this in mind, it's important to keep in mind that these are just a few things to seriously consider to empower your pets in practicing the very best in self care as you make your way out for holiday travel and they're out of routine. After all, you know your pet better than anyone. It also never hurts to pick your pet care professional’s brain about what strategies they think will work best for your tribe, and where their collective limits might be.

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.

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.