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.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The vetting of qualified pet care providers falls to families—not tech apps—here is how to do it well

'Oh, I'd love to do what you do,' is a common refrain to hear after chatting with someone I've been acquainted with. From the outside, what I and other pet care professionals do can look easy: happy-looking, energetic dogs walking nicely on leash; the antics of cute kittens playing; the random story of how an edible enrichment toy for an exotic bird was crafted.

As I've said on many occasions, what I do for a living is a terrific way to spend time. It can be fun, it's never boring but what many folks don't see is that it also comes with a lot of responsibility and has a very serious side. A few serious sides, in fact. And that may be why a lot of people don't stay in the industry—and why to a degree, some families are not inclined to hire in-home pet care after having a poor experience. I've heard the horror stories from both families and current and former pet care providers about things gone wrong, the misgivings of families who call with palpable tension in their voice, not to mention others who have an unwillingness to be transparent about issues with their pets or past caregivers.

There is a lot in the way of miscommunication and misconceptions in the pet care industry, and some folks want it that way. Being an unregulated industry, it's easy for anyone to enter it and hang a flimsy shingle out, hawk their services, regardless of their intentions, transparency, lack of competency or willingness to do their due diligence.

Anyone can provide pet care, right?

Well, it depends. Anyone can, but when it's not clear what services one offers (which is often confusing for families to begin with), how experienced and capable they are of handling the responsibility of the work and doing so ethically, that's an issue. It's important that families understand that who they're hiring the services of actually has the experience and training needed for the pets they're in charge of. Knowing that they adhere to best practices in pet care, and have a good working knowledge (or certifications) in areas not limited to pet health, zoonotic disease, animal behavior/body language and sanitation is helpful. And then there's the safety factor—not only with regard to the animals and who they have contact with, but with the integrity of one's home when having a caregiver come in. It's also hard to ignore the stories of less-than-equipped or ethical providers who offer boarding services—a professional service that in some cases is a better fit for some pets and their families. 

It seems important to point out that the ease of booking pet care services with a smartphone app only exacerbates the issue of unethical pet care providers being side by side true professionals—yes, those who make every effort to uphold the highest standards in the industry and mentor those who are entering it. There are no guarantees of ratings or background checks and the like, despite what these [tech] companies tout, and that those that act as subcontractors through them are really up for the responsibility that they say they are. 

Yes, it can be daunting, even taxing to connect with a reputable dog walker, pet sitter or boarding facility. And it's hard to know what questions to ask when you do locate one. 

As a pet owner, the best place to start is to be clear on which service(s) you need. Not every professional offers pet sitting, overnight stays, specialty care (like subcutaneous fluids or e-tube feeding), midday dog walking services or boarding. All of these services are different in the scope of work involved and where it's done. I often get inquiries from families that ask for information on pet sitting, when what they are really looking for is boarding. I'm happy to point them in the direction of reputable colleagues who are boarders and who I feel good about recommending. Conversely, I discover that some families aren't even aware that having someone come to their home and care for their pets with daily visits—pet sitting—is even an option. And overnight stays and dog walking services are entirely different conversations as well.

First things first 

So, where to begin? Let's sort things out.

Know your pet's needs + identify which services you want

Does your pet have behavioral needs that require knowledge and tending (think anxiety or separation anxiety)? What about their health needs—can the caregiver you're vetting handle things while you're away? Do you want a professional to come in for daily visits to care for your pets? Or are overnight stays (where the caregiver stays overnight, in your home) more fitting for them? Would they do better with a boarding situation, perhaps? 

Finding a professional

Professionals and those who are up-and-coming and mentored by established professionals strive for transparency, top-notch communication and best practices and ongoing education in all areas of pet care. You can find them online, by asking friends and loved ones for their recommendations, by asking your veterinarian or certified dog trainer and by checking out industry organization websites like Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. A reputable pet care professional will also want to have a meeting with you beforehand to go over lots of questions about your pets and their needs, and they'll detail what you can expect from them. I suggest connecting with a pet care professional before you need to reserve time with one. The really good ones are busy and tend to book early, year round. 

Beyond the basic questions

After years of being in the trenches, I can tell you that too often, families ask the wrong questions when vetting a pet care professional. Asking open-ended questions can make all the difference. Beyond inquiring about how long they've been in the industry, if they're insured and how many households they take care of on an average day, please, lose your reluctance and be more curious.

Don't be afraid to ask if daily updates and the like are an established policy and specifically how they are handled, and what time frames they adhere to for pet sitting visits throughout the day. 'Is this your full time career, or is pet care something that you do in addition to another job?' If the latter is the case, it doesn't hurt to inquire how they manage a work schedule and a pet sitting schedule.

Which approaches do they use or recommend to give medications to pets?

(One family reached out to me to ask how their pet sitter handled getting in
touch with families about regular updates, and how to reach with them. They had been gone for nearly two days with no update from the sitter and she had no voicemail, and no cell phone to call.)

Knowing their recommendations and preferences on dog walking equipment (leashes, harnesses and other tools) is an excellent view into their knowledge about best practices and safety. Ditto for knowing how they would handle a situation with an off-leash dog that is making an unwanted approach or if a dog fight ensues.

Whether or not they require vaccinations and how often they scoop the litter box and asking, 'I'm wondering how I'd know if my dog has tapeworm?', 'My friend's dog has a cough, I wonder if I should be concerned about my own pet', and 'If my dog or cat or displaying unwanted behavior, how do you address that?' can be great leading questions about their basic knowledge into areas of health and animal behavior.

More experienced pet sitters have seen their share of difficult situations and have had to navigate them. Picking their brain about what the most challenging situation they've had to handle professionally is—and how it played out is an excellent question.

To go further, if you're considering boarding services for your pet, ask to view where your pet will be housed, allowed to play and how many dogs are boarded on any given date. Ask about their sanitation practices and flea/tick preventative, heartworm testing and vaccination policies. Does the area or home smell foul? Does it look clean? How many pets are present, and how do they behave? How do the owner or handlers supervise canine interactions—any questionable practices? It's helpful to know if the caregiver (or trained staff) is on site 24/7, and if the facility or home is climate controlled.

There is no substitute for due diligence on the part of families when hiring the services of a pet care provider. Though it might seem like a job that anyone can do, the stories that I could share about my own adventures would quickly change anyone's mind. It's an industry for those who are truly work to do the very best for companion animals and recognize what that looks like. 

With over 20 years of experience in pet care and 8 years focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, and CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She is currently in the midst of an Internship with Animal Hospice Group in their Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner certification program. She can be found at