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

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