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.