Thursday, December 20, 2018

One overlooked detail could be hampering your dog walking efforts

Being out on an adventure with our dogs is a fun way to engage with them and is great for our mutual well-being. As a professional, I've had the opportunity to try out different leashes and other pieces of equipment, for example, harnesses—my requisite choice—to enhance the experience for myself and the dog I'm with. Comfort and safety are paramount for both of us, and since I'm in the driver's seat so to speak, it's up to me to ensure that and to gauge if my 'passenger' is having trouble. 

Safety and ethics

There are things that, for safety, ethical and professional reasons, I unable to use: choke, prong and shock collars and retractable leashes—the latter being my focus here—are off limits.

Many families love them, and it's not hard to see why. They offer dogs more space to roam while still being tethered, the lead itself retracts back into the handset as the dog moves closer and further away. Some models have lights and even a dog waste dispenser attached to them. 

Convenience is attractive. But it, like other things, comes with a trade off: safety. Are you willing to sacrifice that? I hope not. Though there's an inherent level of liability that comes with having a pet in our custody when we're out in public, there are just too many variables that are not predictable and can contribute to very dicey situations. I've addressed this in past posts, so feel free to click here and here for more on that. 

An equally important issue

There's is another issue with retractable leashes that I find dogs don't like and it's easy to overlook. Though I find this is more the case with dogs that are touch-averse, it's not limited to them. The constant tugging feeling of the lead as it releases and retracts when a dog moves toward and away from the handler. It's distracting for the dog and to some degree can be confusing for them—after all, the leash itself is a communication conduit of sorts between dog and handler. At least that's what I've always felt. I've tested this theory on several of my canine charges, and overwhelmingly, a traditional leash yields more favorable interactions.

If your dog isn't doing as great on leash as you'd like and you're still using a retractable, consider instead using a lightweight, comfortable leash (it does not need to be expensive, just sturdy) that feels good in your hand. A lightweight leash can help mitigate any undesirable sensation (the constant tugging) at the point of contact and improve the dog's ability to focus on the things that are most important during a walk: any clear communication that you offer up, and having fun. 

A final word 

Many families note that they prefer that their dog be afforded more distance to roam when out on adventure, and that a retractable gives them that flexibility. My solution—one that I employ professionally—is to use a 20 foot long training lead. Typically made from lightweight cotton web, they are inexpensive, easy to find and can be let out to extend to the full 20 foot distance when safe to do so. Having one would be a great investment. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Offering advice about a pet's serious medical or behavioral issue requires permission, context and sensitivity

Having a pet with a chronic illness that requires special care can be hard. The same is true if you have a pet with a life limiting diagnosis, or if you have a pet with profound mobility issues or behavioral limitations. Though enriching, sharing life with these loves, it can be mentally draining, especially when the situation lends itself to being progressive.

And there’s never any shortage of unsolicited though well-intentioned advice about all-things-behavioral-or-medical when it comes to pets. I hear a lot of chatter about what a family should do through my own filter as a pet care professional—especially on my social media feeds where everyone can speak up—and I’m able to appreciate the thoughtfulness that is intended by other pet owners. I'll admit that feeling is also cobbled with a tinge of uneasiness.

We don’t like to see others suffer, and a natural instinct is to react.

'You have a cold? Here, you should take this and then do that.'

Sound familiar? 

To me, it doesn’t feel as though people want to act like a know-it-all necessarily or actively seek to interject themselves into a situation. I like to say that we are allergic to suffering. And if we recognize a type of suffering, it's tribal: I see your pain, I feel your pain, I’ve known your pain. Here is how, looking back I would have addressed it or this is how I did. 

Nothing has taught me more in working around death and grief than that we humans inherently want to reach out and fix, to remove what we see as wrong or troublesome or broken. We don't want pets or other humans to struggle so much. And sometimes, they need not: things can be fixed, illnesses can be cured, hurdles jumped, palliative and hospice care can extend the number of really good days by providing solid comfort care and emotional support. We have the world of veterinary and integrative medicine that has come so much further than sometimes financial and emotional resources of families can allow; the knowledge of how we can help dogs and cats to expand what I call their proverbial sandbox through behavioral management and enrichment; the ability to offer more options for healing and physical freedom to pets with limitations with their mobility. 

It's my job to know what's out there, what's available, working with families in capacities not just as a Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner, and as someone who acts as a resource and in a supportive role with families who are facing a pet's diagnosed chronic or life-limiting illness or age-related decline. I can attest to the fact that, yes—there are all kinds of wonderful ideas to help pets and their families. And I'm happy to help families get plugged in to the options that are a fit. But in doing so, I must to first be observant and sensitive in my conversations with them and what they demonstrate to me—often paying attention to those spaces in between that could easily go unnoticed. I need to understand the context and the dynamics of a situation. 

For many families, they've likely heard all about the tricks and tools and products and treatments and studies that could help (because, well the Internet), but in their pet's case, no, they wouldn't be beneficial.

I'd learned quickly to not be a know-it-all, but instead to be acutely aware that a family's resources, financially and with time can be thin, as can their physical ability or emotional bandwidth. Access to specialists or the right veterinary facilities can be limited, geographically, and ditto with regard to those professionals that work with pets to enhance their well-being behaviorally. The truth is that sometimes, getting the right help in place for a pet isn't dependent upon any of that so much, families find a way. It's just that the pet won't make space for it, they can't tolerate the standard never mind the integrative therapies that might make a difference and equipment like wheelchairs, booties, slings, acupuncture, chiropractic? Forget it. In a lot of cases, a pet is touch–averse and can't tolerate being physically handled. The pet won't give permission in some cases, and we need that in order for things to work, short or long term. I can't tell you how many families have cupboards of medicines, closets full of costly tools and products (booties and wheelchairs are the most common) and stories about treatment options that weren't a fit and ended up being useless in their efforts to help their pet. But, oh, have these families done their best, no matter the situation or circumstances.

So, you can see that my sage advice—though well-meaning, would fall far short of my intended mark and only alienate and diminish the family if I simply asked questions the wrong way or interjected what would be seen as my useless knowledge. In my efforts to serve, the best strategy that I follow is to be curious and eager to discover what is working for the family to help the pet and maintain their sometimes already stretched human-animal bond. I just listen to them, I hear them, I see them, I support them. That doesn't mean that I forgo using my expertise to offer suggestions and options about enhancing the pet's and family's quality-of-life, I've just learned to tread thoughtfully and in some circumstances, I get permission before proceeding. That's something that each and every one of us can practice. Doing anything different than that has the propensity to cultivate a sense of you're not doing this right, a sense of shame and guilt and that isn't something anyone with a pet in need of special care requires.

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Episode of 'Griefcast' explores pet loss and grief, offers insight to those who are alongside the grieving

Conversations are unquestionably expansive in my work with families as a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and each of those that I have cement the notion that companion animals are an important facet of people's lives.

We build lives with our pets, as well as memories. Pets somehow become markers for significant events in our lives and it's no wonder: we spend more time with them on a daily basis than we do other family members, and for years on end.

I was super-amazed by a deep-but-lighthearted conversation between comedians Michael Legge and Cariad Lloyd on the latter’s podcast, Griefcast. I stumbled on it by accident, by way of a totally unrelated podcast but I digress. Serendipity. If you are grieving your loss of a pet, recent or long-since, I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to relate on so many levels. Lloyd gets grief and instinctively knows how to get to the spaces-in-between questions that matter and Legge expands beautifully on his life and the end-of-life journey and after with his dog, Jerk, who died in 2017.

In speaking about the death of his aunt, and how it differed from the death of Jerk, Legge said, "I didn't take care of my aunt for 12 years. I didn't look after her every single day. I didn't like, come home every night—especially after the bad gigs—and you know, my aunt wasn't there wagging her tail and delighted to see me."

That's just one example that illustrates why the death of a pet can hit so hard.

Bonus: if you’ve a human in your life that’s grieving the loss of a pet and you just don't 'get it' but really want to, this conversation could very well enable you to gain some insight. Oh, so good.

Click here to go directly to the episode.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Does a fear of needles impact the way that you pursue medical tests or treatment with your pet? You're not alone

An article about needle phobia on the Canadian news site came onto my radar this morning, and I found it to be important for good reason. It highlights how challenging it can be for those—human OR animal—who are on the receiving end of the needle, and the need to create neutral or positive associations during these interactions for both species. 

Are you one of the many families in my care who are active caregivers with a profound fear of needles? Has it affected the way that you might like to pursue medical tests involving needles for your pet, and more importantly, how well you’re able to adhere to temporary or long-term treatment strategies for them involving injections or sub-q fluids? Have you chosen to forgo treatment altogether, or as some families have decided to do, make the choice to relinquish and re-home your pet because the fear was too great? 

You are not alone in this. It’s very common, and in this space, you are not judged or shamed for it. Though they're less likely to convey the aversion to needles to their veterinarian or vet staff, I frequently hear stories from people, existing clients and new families alike, about how they struggle with it as well as the accompanying guilt and self-shame. I work closely with them to find alternatives and strategies so that they can manage a treatment regimen, and when the situation really calls for it, offer respite service so that they can have a mental break from it

You can read the article, which includes ideas on managing needle aversion by clicking here. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Adopting or fostering a new pet? Please include your pet sitter in the decision

Not long ago, I'd stopped by one of my family's homes to get a hands-on update on a new diagnosis with one of their dogs. The chronic disease will require treatment that will keep pace with it, which means medication, diet, and monitoring. The family was a little daunted at this prospect, especially the former and that's a refrain I commonly hear. Listening, really hearing them expand on their early struggles with medicating the sweet chap, and knowing what I do about him, my ideas on how to hurdle them immediately started flowing. 

"Let's take the fear out of it—instead, we'll make it a positive interaction. I've some strategies that I learned in this workshop I attended, " I said, and proceeded to demonstrate how to do that. 

The reply wasn't surprising.

"That's amazing! This feels totally manageable, like I wasn't even giving medication. I'm glad we have you for support, you know so much about stuff like this. We've been kind of curious... how have you accumulated all of this knowledge?"

I do get asked that question a lot. I always answer, "Necessity." And it's always in the best interest of the companion animal, and having safe interactions with them.

Given that I have a core level of training in my field, I've built on my professional education steadily over the years. How I've made decisions on doing that has been based on the changing needs of companion animals and their families. And those are complex and vast, make no mistake. 

The changes in how and where we humans live is a great influence on the lives of pets, not to mention the decisions that are made. Then of course, there's the influence of the ever-growing pet product industry, which is very much reliant on what need or problem families decide need fixing or addressing. On the heels of the latter, pet store staff give me plenty to think about when they make misguided suggestions about how to remedy a health or behavioral issue. Dog trainers—the ones who aren't credentialed, let alone ethical nor qualified—offer up plenty of fodder for where I need to take my educational journey. I can't neglect the influence of a family's neighbor's cousin's sister-in-law who obtained her knowledge about canine behavior from a less-than solid or science-based source but is nonetheless generous about espousing it. 

Do these scenarios sound familiar? It's likely they do to you as much as they they do to me, and I can't blame the families that recognize a behavioral issue with their pet or try to make their day-to-day life more manageable with them and end up reaching out for one of the resources above to help. They're trying. And it's not uncommon that at least some of those situations result in pets ending up being re-homed for behavioral issues, whether that be via a rescue, a shelter or privately. The relinquishing families realize that they've done everything they know they are able to do with the resources they have. In some cases, the human-animal bond has become not only frayed, but severed and the situation at that point isn't salvageable. 

But wait. Where do those pets end up? With new families, of course. Some of them are highly experienced, and others, are well-intentioned but need guidance.

All of that said, I'm going to circle back to the education that I've actively sought. Some of it has been free, much of it has been at my own expense of time, money and travel and all of it has been useful. I've spent a lot of time learning how to recognize behavioral issues—even getting a certifications, including in dog bite safety. I'm not unlike other deeply-committed professionals in the pet care industry. I've familiarized myself with the best practices that have been established by vet behaviorists and reputable and ethical dog training professionals. I do this because I want the pets in my care to be at their best, to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, and to be able to cope with the social interactions that they have with humans and the other pets in their midst, whether that's in public or at home. One thing that I can confidently say is that my families understand that and my position on facilitating safe interactions with any pet. And because of that, my families trust my instincts, as well as my recommendations on guiding them on where to find the right help. 

It's not at all unusual for one of my families to contact me when they're thinking about welcoming a new pet. This is especially the case if the pet is being considered for re-homing or fostering with them after being relinquished due to behavioral issues or there was conflict with other animals in their previous home. I'm definitely kept in the loop, and I appreciate that immensely. And why shouldn't I be involved during this process? In speaking on behalf of my colleagues, why shouldn't any professional caregiver? After all, as experienced pet care professionals, dog walkers and pet sitters know their families and the pets in their care well. Most of us have the vantage point of being able to identify possible problems between existing and new pets. We think of good questions that need asking on all sides (on behalf of the organization, the family, and all of the pets). 

In the big picture, we professional pet caregivers can and should advocate for all involved—including ourselves. Advocacy is an area that I fiercely defend in my industry, and for good reason. Pet sitters and dog walkers are sometimes asked to perform their job in less-than-ideal circumstances. Some of my peers, experienced and much-less-so, are expected to care for pets who seriously lack socialization or have hefty fear-based behavioral issues, dogs who've got separation anxiety, and others, they might have unaddressed or under-addressed health issues as well (some of which can contribute to behavioral issues). We professionals should be afforded the right to exercise the autonomy of whether or not we are a fit for a pet, and if we feel comfortable interacting with them. 

Though as I hear from some colleagues, that's not always the case with them. 

I've heard more than my fill of cringe worthy stories from colleagues. They range from close calls with unwanted interactions with stressed-out pets; families disregarding a pet's obvious uneasiness about one specific, frequent-but-unnecessary interaction with their dog walker; a serious dog bite injury requiring the hospitalization of an owner after a fearful dog's communication about their inability to cope with the stress of interacting with the resident dogs was repeatedly ignored by their new family (resulting in the euthanasia of the dog); countless cats enduring health issues exacerbated by the stress of successive foster cats being introduced into the home, even resulting in aggression towards their pet sitter.

These are preventable scenarios, and the power to make that happen resides squarely with the families and the pet care professionals. 

I've been asked by colleagues near and far how to deal with these situations and I always respond: understand what's going on, advocate for yourself, your safety and that of the pets, and have a solid core education about the issue at hand to back up your position and, if necessary, the ability to offer resources for sound, qualified professional help. The close calls I've heard about are impossibly scary, as are some of the outcomes from situations that go unchecked. The case involving the euthanized dog, who had been adopted by the family just weeks before, is the strongest evidence of that. 

So families, please ask your pet sitter's input when thinking of adding any pet to the family, temporarily or otherwise. Don't take for granted that your current pet care professional is equipped to or feels comfortable caring for a pet that you want to welcome into the fold, in fact, please invite them to meet and interact with the pet before making a final decision. The pet may not be as emotionally or behaviorally equipped to manage themselves as you might think and could even have health or behavioral issues that you or the person or entity currently in custody of them are overlooking. What you might discover is that you and your pet's caregiver mutually agree that you're no longer a fit for each other. The good news is that's okay, because it prevents problems, gives you both the opportunity to part ways on a good note, and you the ability to connect with a professional who is indeed a match. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tending to other family pets helps you be a better caregiver to the one in hospice

While having a consultation with a family with one geriatric dog receiving hospice care under their vet's supervision and another who was a reasonably healthy and very active senior, one of their owners—the main caregiver—expressed feelings of being overwhelmed, somewhat frustrated and torn.

"I'm exhausted, keeping up with the younger one. She's like a toddler, always moving, doing something, getting into things. And her sibling, I can't get her to keep pace—she blanks out and gets confused easily. Walks are becoming impossible," she noted. (The older dog had Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.)

During that first face-to-face conversation with a family, it goes without saying that taking a full inventory of any diagnoses, treatment or a palliative care plan as well as the pet's behavioral needs and cognitive level is in order. But I also make a point to get to know where the humans are in terms of handling things. With multiple pets, it can be a struggle at times to manage the needs of one pet in fragile health and tend to the other pet's needs—which can vary of course. The feelings that I referenced earlier are not unusual. Especially the frustrated and torn part. And that can get complicated, so much so that the animal-human bond with the family pets can become equally torn.

As anyone who has tended to a pet as they've gone though the decline of age-related causes or a life-limiting diagnosis knows, life doesn't stop. The needs of others, especially the other pets, continue or even increase. The other dogs want—no, need—to have their fun time with their trusted human's help, to blow off steam, to have their attention. So do cats. And if that doesn't materialize, I don't need to go into too much detail about what happens then. And if they have behavioral issues, you can almost watch those magnify if they're feeling like things are out of sync. 

It can feel really hard to take your attention away from the pet who's on your mind constantly, the one that you worry about having enough—enough of you, your time, your minding. Yes, because of them, you've become all-too-aware how quickly the sand slips through the proverbial hourglass that has taken up residence in the back of your mind. 

I'll let in you in on something that you probably suspect but might be feeling too reluctant to acknowledge: the pet who you feel like needs so much of you because of the knowledge you've acquired about them but didn't ever want to learn? They're doing fine. Even though their 'new normal' looks vastly different than it did six months ago, they're managing. Despite the fact that they are demonstrating that they can't walk as far, as fast, nor play or engage with as much gusto on a regular basis—yes, they have days that are just no good—they're going with the flow, as pets do. And they're able to because you've put in the effort to ensure their pain is managed, that they're not nauseated, that they have environmental enrichment, that they're comfortable.

They're fine enough to leave behind at home with a puzzle toy to work on while you take your other dog who needs some exercise out for a 30 minute adventure at their pace, or have a solid game of fetch on their own. Or maybe while you step away for an hour to have fun with your other pets, that sick pooch could use some undisturbed alone time to get that much-needed sleep that they often have trouble achieving because of their changing health condition. I bet that healthy-but-needy cat who has been feeling a bit neglected could use some cuddle time on your lap on the patio, or a little solo time with you and their favorite wand toy. 

One of the suggestions that I made to the pet owner—a strategy that I use myself—was to walk the dogs separately. It was clear that the younger dog needed at least 30 minutes to get out and walk briskly (she often sniffs as she walks, without stopping), while the dog in hospice couldn't physically nor mentally keep up with that pace or distance. The latter was something that the family needed help understanding. Having the expectation that either pet even meet somewhere in the middle was unreasonable, so with separate walks, everyone was happy, including the human. 

The time that you spend with your fragile pet is important and soul-filling, of course. And while there are times when it's possible to include everyone in fun activities, it bears noting that you also need to allow yourself the ability to dip solely from that wellspring of vitality that the other pets in the family possess. There's no shame in that. It doesn't mean that you're diminishing the ill pet in any way, in fact quite the opposite. That interaction that you set aside is vital for the physical and emotional well-being of the other pets, not to mention you. Play and fun is something that often evaporates from our lives as we age, but when we have companion animals, they invariably reintroduce both as a staple. So don't underestimate its power—as well as having that short mental break from hospice caregiving—which is undeniably stressful. 

One important aspect that the family noted after shifting their focus with how they spent time with each dog was that they felt like they weren't drowning in the swells of demands of time and attention around them, which aided in keeping the collective human-animal bond intact. It also helped them just be with their anticipatory grief too, something that is common with families with loved ones in hospice. And in the end, feeling less stretched and overwhelmed during that period of intense caregiving created an environment where they felt more empowered to walk with their grief after their pet had gone to peace. 

With over 20 years of experience in pet care, Lorrie Shaw is an Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner, Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter and CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She can be found at

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Snuffle mats are an unexpected food puzzle option for dogs of any age or ability

Enrichment is super-important for companion animals, so as a pet care professional, I'm always on the lookout for ways to incorporate it during my visits. I'll make suggestions to my families, sure, and they often follow through with setting up their pets nicely. That doesn't stop me from using my intuition when I need to when stepping up my game is required: usually by day 4-5 in my care, dogs need a little extra help in keeping their minds and bodies busy, while for cats, they can always use some brain work

Today, I'm going to focus on dogs if that's okay. 

I hear the old adage, '...a tired dog is a good dog', but I'll admit it makes me cringe at times. It seems as though the focus is so honed in on the physical aspects of what a dog needs, that the mental and emotional part of their being goes ignored. Sure, activity is essential—appropriate for a dog's age and ability, of course—but is there a mental component to it that suits them? Not always. 

Food toys are a favorite tool of mine, but they're not all created equally—and nor do they need to cost much, if anything at all. Kongs are great for power chewers, as are Pickle Pockets. I've crafted homemade foraging toys from upcycled cardboard boxes and anything in between for average dogs, too. 

But one of my favorite suggestions to families are snuffle mats. Homemade or purchased, these gems provide a foraging experience unlike no other. 

Typically crafted from fleece or upcycled materials, a finished snuffle mat has tufts of fabric or sustainable materials. It's in between those tufts that kibble or dry treats are deposited and hidden for the lucky dog to root out. Using one is a brain game that is suitable for most any dog, no matter their age, physical ability or skill level. Because they're made from soft materials, I find them especially useful for dogs who are noise- or touch-sensitive and find other food puzzles to be to troubling. That softness, along with the fact snuffle mats lie flat on floor and stay put, make them my go-to choice for dogs with limited mobility or are in hospice. They're also great for second-story residents because, well, no noise. 

You can purchase one, like the Wooly Snuffle Mat in the video below, but if you're a DIY kind of family, you can easily craft one from scratch for your pooch. In either case, if your pet has a predilection to chew or destroy things, supervision during use is recommended. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Two crucial details can make the act of medicating pets in fragile health less stressful

I recall one of the things that Harold Rhee and I chatted about during one segment of the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast were the challenges that families face in medicating pets who are in fragile health or receiving palliative or hospice care. Whether it's pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals or supplements, what is meant to provide comfort care, pain or anxiety relief or even treatment for a disease can be a source of struggle for both pet and human. 

Having had plenty of personal experience with that, I use what I learned during that period and beyond to administer what is prescribed by way of the most humane, safe methods possible and to get the most cooperation from pets. Though I'm not Fear Free Certified yet (still waiting on that to become available), I have participated in Fear Free training, which built on my previous experience and existing philosophy: interact with pets in the most safe and humane ways while getting their permission. I use these skills and teach them to my families, and it's just one way to make a daunting prospect a little less so.

Having talked previously about some strategies including using compounded medications, using yummy foils to disguise pills and capsules, and even using a game of sorts, there's one thing that I will say is vital to keep in mind: we need to keep the act of the pet actually getting the medication neutral or fun. As I said, in addition to the pharmaceuticals that are prescribed—primarily for geriatric pets or those cats with renal disease—nutraceuticals and supplements of varying forms are common, not to mention that it's not unusual for a pet to have a handful of them in their regimen. These pets are usually the most difficult to medicate or offer supportive care, like subcutaneous fluids, for various reasons. It can be easy to get caught up in trying to get everything that's prescribed on schedule, and to get stressed out while doing that. 

I find that there is a dual approach to mitigate this: remember that you and your pet are going to have 'off' days, and quite honestly, there are some of the things that are prescribed, like the supplements or nutraceuticals, that won't make that much of a difference if they are skipped. In fact, my philosophy is such that if you need to fight with a pet or get stressed out to administer them, those meds really are not worth it. Instead, I suggest, if your primary, emergency, or specialty vet hasn't done this yet, ask them to list the medications and other things they're prescribing in order of importance that they are to be given in the discharge or examination report that they'll be typing up to give you as you leave.

Yes, I know that it can seem just as easy to talk about it in the exam room, and we should be of course, but as we know that can be stressful setting and those details can slip our mind once we arrive home. Having that information handy on the report once we're at the helm, especially when we have a million other things on our mind, can make all the difference. 

Giving the meds that will offer the most benefit and comfort to your pet will provide you the most peace of mind, bolster your overall ability to care for them and as importantly—keep that human-animal bond intact.  

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Aromatherapy, essential oils and pets: a safe combination or a recipe for trouble?

When meeting a new family for the first time, it's always important that I gather as much information as I can about each pet. Understanding their habits, preferences, their willingness or lack thereof to be physically handled—that kind of thing—is super-crucial in my having favorable interactions with the pet and providing a superior client experience. 

My questions are not limited to that, though. I take far more into consideration. It's not lost on me that there are many companion animals who may struggle with feeling overloaded with touch, visual and auditory input, not to mention smell. This can exacerbate existing behavior issues or create new problems, which is something we don't want, especially when there's a new caregiver coming into the picture. The senses are powerful, there's no doubt and being mindful of how that can affect what a pet might experience what's happening when I am spending time with them, not to mention how being out of routine because their bonded humans are away can come into play.

For today, I'm going to focus on a pet's sense of smell. It's no secret that a pet's scenting abilities far surpass that of a human's; they can detect things that we can't. My charges frequently give me a thorough sniff test—even if it's been a few weeks since they've seen me—when there's a new pet on the roster. (Yes, they can always tell.) On dog walks, oh the pee mail. Cats can smell their medication a mile away. Do I need to go into detail about food or treats? I need to be extra careful when visiting some cats, as they can be quite sensitive to the scent of other pets, so at times, that means changing clothes before my arrival. 

Pets use their sense of smell very differently than we do, and it's no wonder: human noses have about 6 million olfactory receptors, while dogs, for example, have up to 300 million. Many species of our companion animals also possess a Jacobson's organ, an auxiliary olfactory organ—one that we are also reported to have, despite it's overall functionality in humans debated amongst researchers—also referred to as a vomeronasal organ. One of its purposes is to detect pheromones from other animals in their own species. 

So, knowing their complexity, it seems like we humans should be more mindful of taking care with our pet's super-powerful noses.

These days, most of us are more aware of our fellow human's sensitivities to smell. Perfume, cologne, air fresheners and laundry products are common off-putting culprits, setting off headaches, nausea and all kinds of other unhappiness. (After a bout of the stomach flu years ago, I'd become quite sensitive to smells of all kinds, even some foods, something that's never gone away.) 

This can be in opposition with something that has become quite popular in the mainstream: essential oils and aromatherapy. I've used them at home for years with great success—though admittedly I'm not fond of every one of them. In my professional end-of-life doula training, the power of using essential oils is a topic that we've talked extensively about and that some practitioners employ essential oils in their work. I recall in class, one of the instructors fired up an essential oil diffuser to demonstrate one way to use them. At least a couple of fellow classmates raised objections as the smell was just too much, even within the large space that we were inhabiting. It was a very telling moment of this can be a powerful tool, but not always in the way that we intend. It really made me think about how those that I'd be interacting with in that stage of life, whether they are human or animal, might be more sensitive to scents in general. And in terms of using essential oils and aromatherapy, that needed much more deliberation. 

As an animal care professional—especially one who specializes in the tending of pets who are medically-fragile or in end-of-life—I discovered pretty quickly how much smells can affect those I'm interacting with. Many of the pets in groups I mentioned earlier cope with nausea, sleep disturbances, cognitive dysfunction and anxiety. I also interact with a lot of pets with behavioral struggles. Given that our companion animal's sense of smell is so powerful, it's not surprising that any scent that they find disquieting exacerbates any of that. 

Recently, there have been studies released touting the benefits of employing aromatherapy to promote calm and a sense of well-being in pets, especially in a shelter setting. Articles on it were shared enthusiastically, and it's no wonder: we love quick fixes, especially if that means not involving a veterinarian or as many quietly exclaim, Big Pharma, or hiring the services of a reputable, certified canine training professional. 

While I found this research encouraging, as always I proceed with a generous helping of caution and sometimes with a grain of salt; my experience is that nothing is one-size-fits-all, essential oils and aromatherapy included. A pet's autonomy should always be the first consideration, along with my golden rules of whenever in doubt, don't and naturally-based doesn't always mean safe or appropriate. This is especially important in multiple pet or multiple species households, primarily those with birds, as their respiratory tracts are quite delicate. 

Interested in using essential oils and aromatherapy to address your pet's well-being? It very well might be a workable tool, so long as the oil that you're using is not inherently toxic to them (as some are, click here for more on that), and said pet finds the smell pleasing or at least tolerable. So how do we know if the latter is the case? That can be tricky for two reasons: our willingness to believe that the oil that we're using will produce the results we want overrides what they are presenting, not to mention that our pet's behavior can be tougher to read when they're not at their best. Consider using oils appropriately (there are proper and improper methods) when a pet is having a good day as a control to gauge any signs of displeasure. It seems important to point out that despite the findings on essential oils providing a physiological or psychological benefit, if the pet finds the smell objectionable, it seems to hardly make sense to force it on them. 

As for the safety of using essential oils, it's complicated, as it's all dependent on the species, age, overall health, organ function and existing health issues. My best advice would be to consult a veterinary doctor—a holistic veterinarian would likely have more experience in this area—to discuss which essential oils would be safe, appropriate and beneficial. They might even be able to guide you on where to procure them. Remember my mantra: naturally-based doesn't always mean safe or appropriate.

On a final note, remember that autonomy is crucial when considering the use of essential oils or aromatherapy for your pet since their sense of smell is so sensitive. So bear in mind that they need to have the option of moving to another area of the house if they are not able to tolerate being exposed to them. 

Lorrie Shaw, CPPS, CPLGC is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also 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 Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Self-advocacy is just one strategy to hurdle being overwhelmed by a sick pet's treatment plan

One of the ways that I spend my time working in the field is by helping families out with specialty care—things like subcutaneous (sub-q) fluids, esophagostomy (e-tube) feeding, giving injections, things like that. It can take some of the load off of the family when they need to travel, or when work or other obligations make keeping up with the care regimen prohibitive. I also coach families on ways to get comfortable with performing the tasks, best practices for keeping things sterile and having ensuring safe interactions with their pet during the tasks, as well as what to look out for as far as signs of trouble. I make a point of going over the veterinarian's written treatment plan with the family to try and detect any trouble areas they might have, and to answer any questions they are reluctant to ask the vet or their staff. 

It’s not lost on me that it's not easy to perform this kind of care when the pet is your own, especially when you've no experience and you're worried about pushing slurried food with an oral syringe into the tube that's been surgically placed into the pet's neck. Or when you need to try and get a minimum of 100 mL of fluid into your cat and you're tired and frustrated and can't seem to get the needle into them just right or you've poked yourself instead. If you've ever embarked on a newly-diagnosed pet's treatment regimen for diabetes, I don't need to mention how overwhelming that can feel. There are days or weeks where things are really tough, especially in the beginning. (It gets easier though, I promise!)

It's really a challenge if you're ruminating on your schedule for the week and wondering how you're going to manage Tuesday's tube feeding schedule or on Thursday and Friday you have to work double shifts and there's no way you'll be able to get the sub-q's done. Maybe you've got a needle phobia and having to give your pet injections is giving you some serious panic attacks that you already have difficulty managing—but some days are easier than others. Let's not forget the crises that come up with loved ones that need your attention, time and mental bandwidth.

I've heard these stories a lot. 

I've also been witness to those seemingly-genius light bulb moments of Why don't I just increase the amount on some days to compensate for what I can't manage on others? and I of course counsel appropriately. Sometimes I don't get the opportunity to hear that beforehand and a pet owner just goes for it. What's the harm?

(On the other side of the coin, in some cases, I hear, More is better, right? The rationale that if the vet recommended this regimen, and the pet is doing well, then doing more must be perfectly fine: if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.)

The results of this kind of tweaking can seriously complicate the diagnosis that the treatment plan it's meant to address. Doubling up on the volume of fluid that you're supposed to administer subcutaneously can result in things like fluid buildup in chest, something that cats with existing heart conditions—diagnosed or not—are at an even higher risk for. Trying to tube feed a pet too much or doing so too quickly can stress them out tremendously, and can cause or exacerbate any nausea. The efforts are often wasted since the pet will likely vomit either from the overload of food or being nauseated. And injections, especially when it comes to insulin, well, that can be a hot mess when adding extra doses. 

Though one of the details that I touch on when providing support with these types of specialty care plans—sticking with the doctor's treatment plan as it's laid out and to call the clinician with any questions—I also realize that it can be difficult, for the reasons I pointed out earlier. I find that often, families get home with their pet, a bag full of supplies and a discharge report and quickly go from feeling grateful that their pet can be treated for something and I've got this! to being overwhelmed and feeling incapably alone, especially when considering a work schedule or their own anxiety issues. Sometimes hiring the services of a professional like me can easily fill in those gaps and provide the support that's needed. But for some, they may not have access to that kind of help. 

If at any point you feel like you'll not be able to maintain any treatment regimen, no matter how simple, never be reluctant to relay that to the vet. Whether you're hearing what that plan is for the first time while face-to-face with the doctor, as you're fixing to leave the facility, or at home and giving things a solid go, if you're not able to manage things, please speak up. Vets understand and often are able to craft an alternative plan or regimen that you can stick to—or they can recommend a professional that is experienced in this area and can lend a hand at home. I know that it's easy to nod your head in agreement and say that you are clear on everything when a vet is reviewing the plan at the clinic or emergency hospital. It can be an intimidating space. The fear of being shamed or judged because you're not clear on things or not feeling confident about how you'll care for your pet is only second to wondering how you'll afford the bill. I get that. 

It can be tempting to double up on medications or sessions of sub-q fluids or tube feedings or even skip them repeatedly. But as I urge my families: forgo that idea to deviate from the doctor's directives and, never, ever be intimidated by speaking up about things that you don't feel are manageable with your pet's treatment plan for one reason or another, or to ask questions that matter to you. It's easy to find yourself in the weeds and you wouldn't be the first to be there. By advocating for yourself, you'll empower yourself to carry out what's necessary in a treatment plan as well as helping your vet to do their job and most importantly, your pet will feel better faster.

Lorrie Shaw, CPPS, CPLGC is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. 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.