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.
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.