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 pet sitter, but 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.

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.

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