Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Strategies for helping pets navigate storm and fireworks season are not one-size fits all

Each year at this time, just as many other people here in Michigan, I delight in the arrival of the extended daylight hours; the warmer weather; not worrying about ice-covered roads; outdoor gatherings. Fireworks isn’t included on that list, and though I can appreciate other’s enthusiasm for them, they are the bane of those who share life with pets. The noise is the chief offender when it comes to frightening pets, but I've no doubt that if the light and smell resulting from them are within a detectable distance of a pet, they’re contributors, too. It’s understandable; the loud pops and bangs are confusing and occur without any sense of place. Though it need not be a precursor, for a pet that already has some level of anxiety or fearfulness, the things that make fireworks enjoyable to humans only feed the behaviors that signal to us that our pet is having even more trouble coping.

Merry-making isn't the only culprit giving pet frayed nerves this time of year: thunderstorms are just as responsible.

Over the years, I’ve had more companion animals in my care that find themselves in this situation than I care to count. My own dogs were included in that group. I’ve learned a few things in that time, and thankfully, there are more strategies and tools to help stave off the anxiety and fear associated with the nightly light and noise shows—and to assuage it if it’s already a problem. The key, as is the case with so many things, is to anticipate and plan ahead.

The approaches of using games to help dogs make a more positive association, T-Touch and Thundershirts is something that I’ve written about in the past, but there’s still more that families can do to keep the peace during these particularly taxing periods of time. Whether you've a young pet or an old friend in hospice or end-of-life—the latter posing its own set of emotional challenges—there's some flexibility in choices.

Having attended the Science of Animal Behavior Conference in June, it was not lost on me that the behavioral challenges that result from anxiety and stress in pets was at the top of the heap of topics. Out of the nine lectures that I attended, the majority of them were centered around anxiety and stress in cats and dogs, and science-backed ways to help them be more resilient in the face of it, or at the least feel more comfortable, safe and calm. A few things that veterinary behaviorists and other credentialed animal behavior professionals proposed during the event are covered below.

Pheromone analogs aim to appease

A staple in my day-to-day work, pheromone products work to promote a sense of calm and well-being in dogs and cats, and can be found at vet clinics, better pet stores or online. What are pheromones and how do they work? Pheromones are natural chemicals produced by mammals, and different types serve various functions depending on where they are secreted, but in this case, we're focusing on the ones that aim to appease, happy make, feel good. A synthetic form of the real thing, Adaptil for dogs (the collar is preferable), and Feliway for cats are available in a plug-in diffuser.

Herbal and nutraceutical approaches

Rescue Remedy - What’s in this tiny bottle does so much. Long sought after to alleviate anxiety in humans, there’s a formula for pets, too. Available at better pet and health food stores, no vet prescription needed.

ComposurePro chews – Available from veterinarians, these tasty gems are readily accepted by both dogs and cats. Bovine colostrum- and vitamin-based, this product promotes stress reduction and a sense of calm.

NutriCalm – A combination of amino acids and herbs, this product is available in capsule form for medium to large-sized dogs, and a liquid form for cats and smaller dogs. As with the aforementioned products and as the name suggests, it can be a help to promote a sense of chill.

Zylkene – This nutraceutical is something I'm really excited about. While attending a Fear Free workshop in Arizona, I spent some time learning about this product by the Vetoquinol company. What makes it unique? It's formulated with bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, and is good to implement before potentially stressful situations not limited to fireworks and storm season. Events like a move, bringing a new baby home, a visit to the groomer or vet and even preparing for the transition to an adoptive home are appropriate. Zylkene is purported to allow pets to be more receptive to behavior modification training as well.

Solloquin – Formulated with an amino acid as well as plant-based ingredients and others., this product from Nutramax Labratories boasts its ability to help dogs and cats get in their chill zone. Additionally, Solloquin is indicated to help address inappropriate elimination in cats, and would be a great addition to help make introductions between established family cats and new-kid-on-the-block kitties go more smoothly.

Though these products are not pharmaceuticals, and don't cause sedation per se, they still need to be used with care. Despite the fact that you'll likely be able to find them available for purchase online, there's no guarantee of their authenticity through that avenue. The good news is that you can get them through your veterinarian, which is where you can figure out which product or combination thereof is right for your furry friend. Your clinician can help you sort out any possible contraindications with existing herbal supplements, prescription medication and diagnosed medical conditions.

Scents and Sensability

One study indicates that essential oils -- four of them, to be specific -- may elicit a sense of calm in dogs. According to one study, The behavioral effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter, the essential oils containing coconut, ginger, ginseng and valerian seemed to promote better rest and less vocalization and barking in dogs. Knowing what I do about the power of smell and pets, I don't think essential oils are a great choice for every pet. It seems mindful to go with a trial to see how your dog responds to smelling a couple of drops applied to a bandana when they're at their best, and go from there.

Going further

One thing that was discussed frequently at SABC was the importance of how effective medication can be in addressing noise phobia. Anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed by your pet's veterinarian. Eileen Anderson summed up the topic (with Dr. Lynn Honeckman weighing in) with a post that's worth reading.

Having a discussion about Sileo, a new prescription option on the market, is a good idea if your pet is having trouble. Designed to home in on one pressing issue associated with fireworks, noise aversion, Sileo is administered transmucosally. This drug is not indicated for every dog, but that's something your veterinarian can help you decide.

Queue up the tunes

Music is an area of great interest in recent years, and while classical has been touted as the gold standard for soothing anxiety and offering an audible buffer to offending noise in dogs and cats, one study suggests that our canine friends respond favorably to reggae as well. After coming home from SABC, I ended up down a few rabbit holes of additional reading since noise phobia -- something that is of great interest to me since I see it frequently in my work -- was one of the topics covered at the event. One of the theories that experts in veterinary behavior have is that music that's heavy on bass and rhythm, like hard rock music, is effective. (Reggae certainly fits that criteria.)

Sally J. Foote, DVM, who specializes in animal behavior, noted that for her dog, playing belly dancing music has been helpful. This intrigued me because the rhythm, deep bass and instrumentation associated with this type of music seems the most sensible choice in blending out noise from thunder and fireworks. I've been experimenting with it with my charges, and it definitely seems worth pursuing. I created a playlist on Spotify that everyone can access and use.

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, June 7, 2019

(Pet) patient and family advocates throughout a pet's life are necessary

Seeing a family-of-record’s phone number light up my phone late at night or in the early morning hours is not at all unusual. When it happens, I take notice: I know it’s serious. It usually means that there’s been a crisis of some sort, and that may be a family situation that they need to head out of town in a hurry for but more commonly, it’s regarding their pet. A frantic, tired voice on the other end begins with an apology that’s never needed and a rundown of what has unfolded at the emergency veterinary hospital followed by:

I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by all of this information and I don’t know if I really understand what’s happening. Calling you seemed like the natural thing to do. You always know how to sort out all of this stuff. Have you heard of this diagnosis before?

It’s also not uncommon for me to get a nervous email from a family when they’ve made an appointment with their primary vet because they notice changes in their pet, for example appetite, weight, willingness to engage in their typical activities.

What should I expect going in? What will the vet suggest in the way of tests, etc?

Whether it’s an emergency or things are changing and a family is facing even the gentlest of shifts in their pet’s health status, there is no lonelier place than the opposite end of that veterinary exam table and never does it seem more cold. One thing that I’ve learned in working with families that are in the midst of either scenario with a pet, or are experiencing anticipatory or fresh loss is that yes, the ability to hear what is said is there, but the ability to comprehend it naturally avails itself in short supply. And being slammed with the worst of news, the need to make decisions and wondering if you can trust the information you’ve been given to make them is hard. (What we know is that when a pet owner is reluctant to move forward with a treatment plan, it’s usually based on lacking two primary things: facts and trust.) Plus, many people are already weary of making decisions in general. And add stress to the mix, it becomes more difficult. I’ve learned in my experience and in my never-ending training that these families need tremendous amounts of support; the direction to know what questions to ask; the wherewithal to say, ‘I’m not sure that this treatment plan is going to be manageable because of XYZ. Do you have other options?

This is what veterinary staff members need in order to do their jobs better. A bridge for the gap.

In any case, I’m always happy to take the time to help sort everything out, give the family talking points to consider in their conversations with the vet and staff, translate what the vet and staff have relayed (and yes, sometimes as importantly, decipher what the family is having a hard time conveying to the vet staff) and support the family as they make decisions about next steps. In many cases, having a fresh, neutral eye and mind on things helps the family feel more empowered about moving forward.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang wrote about an experience that she had during a serious health crisis with her pet, in which she detailed how even a veterinarian-as-pet-parent can use some neutral, knowledgeable support during times like that. She notes that in human medicine, designated patient advocates exist to help bridge the communication gap that can often exist between the health care provider and the patient. She posited that veterinary medicine might benefit from the same kind of thing.

This resonated with me heartily.

It’s obviously something that I’ve seen exemplified in my experience as a pet care professional. Acting as an advocate for families of record when they've needed it has come so naturally. And in my interactions with their veterinarians, it’s been noted that doing so helps get and keep their treatment plans on track.

I also began to notice something years ago: with pets living longer, they and their families need additional support navigating those senior and geriatric years, a demographic that I most enjoy working with. I realized that they of course were the ones who were requiring more tending, intervention and interaction with veterinarians, both in primary practice and in specialty. So, I decided to use my existing years of expertise -- including certifications in Pet First Aid (the certificate that I hold goes far beyond the basics) and CPR, Infectious Disease Management and the namesake of my industry -- and build on it to help families. I completed training as an End-of-Life Doula. I earned a certification as a Pet Loss and Grief Companion. I’ve applied my existing skillset and added to it with regard to animal hospice, palliative care and end-of-life, a field that I truly love more than even geriatrics.

So now, my heart is in tending to families with pets needing palliative and hospice care, no matter their age, and I’m happy to serve as an advocate for them and for other families-of-record and otherwise when the call arises. But yes, sturdy, knowledgeable, fearless advocates who understand what goes on in veterinary circles, who work in the deep trenches of pet care and possess enhanced training in all things associated with these fields such as hospice care, palliative care, end-of-life care and grief and loss is so very needed. It’s because pets are living longer, better, but that’s not by osmosis: it’s because of veterinary care that has improved not only from a medical standpoint, but from a practical one -- it’s (ideally) asked throughout the journey, ‘...what will this pet allow, not allow?’. It’s because families know better and want better. It’s all coming full-circle. We professionals understand that pets hold a profound place in the family, even after they’re gone, and we honor that. These relationships are rich, colorful and meaningful. We serve them in many capacities. Yes, there is such a thing as an animal End-of-Life Doula.

What Dr. Vogelsang noted about advocacy for families and pets is absolutely correct. But it only clips the tip of the iceberg.

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.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Monday is the most difficult day of the week for pets who are in fragile health or hospice

For a pet who has a life-limiting diagnosis, or is in fragile health due to chronic illness or age-related decline, I find that the trend is that Mondays and Tuesdays to be the roughest days of the week.

With families hanging around the house and including their four-legged loves in their free time on Saturdays and Sundays, pet’s schedules are knocked off course. Medication doses may given off-schedule. Ever-crucial nap and rest schedules are disrupted. Increased activity and excitement affects overall ability to manage and old pastimes, like car rides, can result in a queasy pup.

In conversations with families over the years, I’ve learned a lot -- especially to pay attention to patterns that are unfolding.

One dog owner noted that by Monday mornings, their sweet, old dog was exhausted and irritable but would fully rebound by Wednesday when I saw her. “It’s pretty busy here on weekends, it’s no wonder she’s tired…”

And a more common scenario unfolds as a pet segues into a stage of more delicate health. Upon three weeks in a row of being withdrawn, drooly and unwilling to eat on Mondays and Tuesdays, I wondered with one geriatric dog in renal failure in my care middays, five days a week, ‘What happens on the weekends to make this dog feel so terrible right after?’. I chatted with the owner about their weekend schedule. She enthusiastically offered, “We go visit my parents on both days -- she loves car rides!” This, as I learned, was coupled with not getting pain and GI meds on time, and a feeding schedule that was not as regular. Stomach upset followed closely behind, not to mention the physical and mental effects of the pain that was under-managed and allowed to ramp up. By Tuesday/Wednesday, she was finally getting back on track with some doing, only to have trouble brewing again by weekend.

These examples of how seemingly minor changes in the routine have made the following recommendations to my families standard, no matter the day of the week:

  • Keep your pet’s feeding and medication regimens as close to what they are on weekdays as possible.
  • Consider how well your pet really handles car rides. Then think about forgoing them altogether, at least those that are too lengthy. And talk to your veterinarian to see if anti-nausea meds might be helpful if your pet’s FOMO gets to be too much for them.

It’s those little things that matter in this time of life. They increase the likelihood that a pet in fragile health is able to manage themselves optimally and thus, feel their best more consistently. They also decrease the time and effort that is spent trying to get the pet back on track, as well as the need for palliative/hospice/comfort care regimen tweaks made by the veterinarian. So, as you head into this weekend -- or whenever your time off from work is -- do so with care.

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.