Explore how you can help your patients thrive emotionally and physically amid the challenges and changes of living with humans.
When contemplating the bond between humans and animals, we often think of providing affection, training, socialization, and daily general care. But at some point, we must stop and ask: “Is there something more? Is the pet truly happy? Or am I providing just enough?” I often talk with clients about surviving vs. thriving when it comes to the nutrition and food they give their pets. Can we apply this same philosophy to more than just diet?
In the recent economic crisis, many pet owners have found themselves at a crossroads. How do we keep our dogs, cats, and other critters happy during difficult life changes? This doesn’t relate to just the pandemic, but with everyday obstacles we may face at any given time.
DO ANIMALS EXPERIENCE STRESS LIKE WE DO?
Life stressors come in many shapes and forms. For people, it can mean a break-up, losing a job, moving, or a death in the family. But what about our animals? Are they affected by these changes? Do they experience emotional turmoil, stress, and grief? You bet they do. Not only do animals have a keen ability to sense their surroundings as a whole, but they also have the ability to tap into our emotions and read the energy (whether positive or negative) we give off on a daily basis.1
Life stressors for pets could very well be the same as ours:
• Adopting a new pet
• Bringing home a new baby
• Death of a family member
• Death of another pet
• Children moving out
• Separation from other pets
• Military deployment of a family member
• Natural disaster/evacuation
• People returning to work (pets left home alone more)
There’s no telling what scenarios we may find our families facing on any given day. While humans are aware of the general guidelines to follow when faced with changes such as bringing home a new baby, our pets have no idea what is going on. This causes them stress and uncertainty.
HELPING CLIENTS AND THEIR PETS DURING CHANGE AND HARDSHIP
All too often, veterinary professionals and animal shelters see the forefront of hardship among people and their pets. At the top of the list is an inability to pay for care, and the surrender or euthanasia of an animal.2 This frequently happens when the individual or family is facing a crisis.
When speaking with clients about difficult life circumstances and their concerns, such as a pet’s behavioral problem, family finances, thoughts of surrendering an animal, or even the dreaded topic of euthanasia, we need to first step into their shoes and understand where they’re coming from.
• Do they have the support they need (i.e. family or friends)?
• Are they educated on the topic at hand (i.e. a specific health issue)?
• Have they been struggling with finances? If so, why? What resources or help can we offer?
• What do they need to feel (and be) successful? What recommendations or alternatives could we suggest?
Coming from a place of empathy is of utmost importance when helping our clients and their pets. Sometimes, we may find ourselves in the mindset of “How do I help the animal?” when in many cases we should be asking: “How can I help the owner, so they can help their pet(s) in the best way possible?”
My philosophy for the consultations I provide is to give owners the tools they need to help their pets live the healthiest lives possible (physically and emotionally). Simply put, education and support are key elements in developing sustainable human-animal bonds and well-rounded family dynamics.
Just as we must adapt to life stressors, we must also help clients see their pets through the changes they are experiencing. Just because something has tipped their world upside down doesn’t mean we need to make it worse (like re-homing the animal). The truth is that dogs and cats thrive on routine, so when a part of their life goes haywire, you can expect to see some resistance. Stress not only impacts behavior and emotions, it also affects appetite, the microbiome, the immune system, inflammatory responses, digestive tract function,3 and more (see sidebar at left for signs of stress in pets).
WHAT DO WE LOOK AT FIRST?
Any time we see an animal come into the clinic, we automatically start running our brains to rule out potential causes of the presenting complaint, such as:
• Is the animal in physical pain?
• Does he have a UTI?
• Is this a GI disorder, allergies or food intolerance?
• What did the bloodwork say?
• Could we do more tests?
• Have we tried medication?
But one thing that is rarely addressed when discussing various behaviors (such as inappropriate urination, anxiety, hiding, growling, etc.) is the pet’s environment and routine, which sums up their emotional well-being. So we should also be asking:
• Has something changed? Is the animal stressed?
• How can we improve the conversation to not only help the pet adapt to his ever-changing environment, but also help the owner adapt to her pet’s changing emotions, behaviors and overall needs?
• How do we detect (or even prevent) the problem and begin the conversation with clients?
• What else can we offer a pet owner besides ruling out medical conditions, prescribing medications, running more tests and so on?
VIEWING THE PROBLEM FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE: CREATING SUSTAINABLE BONDS
We may not want to pry into the lives of our clients, but since animals can’t talk, it’s essential. One thing I like to make certain of is that I do some diligent digging.
Depending on the situation, we may come from a proactive or reactive standpoint.
A proactive approach may be used for wellness visits with no major presenting complaints, such as annual check-ups or new pet appointments, where we can take the extra time to set the family up for success and give them important tools for down the road. Here are some questions to ask clients:
• Do you expect any big changes in the next year (new job, moving, baby, etc.)?
• How do you prepare your pet(s) for big events like holidays, birthdays, etc.? (Training is key!)
• Have you considered extra training and planning before your new baby arrives?
• Are you prepared to handle your pet’s grief when your other animal passes from old age?
• How much time will you dedicate to training?
• Is there a plan in place for where a pet will go if his elderly owner passes? (Remember, pets grieve like humans!)
A reactive approach may be taken when a pet is presented with a problem the owner would like help with, such as those listed earlier.
• Has anything changed since we last saw you (e.g. work schedule, family members, food/ supplements, house or living situation, even changing the type of litter used, etc.)?
• Have any stray animals or other family pets been visiting the yard or house?
• Is the animal getting enough physical exercise?
• Is enough mental stimulation and enrichment being provided?
• Does the pet feel threatened, cornered, or defensive on a regular basis (e.g. small kids bothering them, stress/ conflict with another pet in the house, no escape from noises/daily commotion, etc.)?
• Are there enough clean litter boxes in the house?
Remember, even the smallest shift in a pet’s environment and routine can turn his or her world upside down.
DEVELOP A PLAN OF ACTION
Always speak with clients in the manner that best suits their needs. Though we prefer to be proactive, we also need to be reactive at times and help remediate the problems that have developed. Take time to listen and ask open-ended questions such as “When did this all begin?” or “What has changed recently?”
1. Be proactive and think ahead
It may be a difficult topic to bring up, but asking elderly clients if they have a plan in place for the care of their pets should they no longer be able to provide it can help them feel that their animals will be okay and in good hands. Families expecting a baby may benefit from recommendations of additional training and one-on-one support for bite prevention and child safety.
Touch base with clients who you know are moving, expecting a baby, or may have family members leaving the home (kids going off to college, divorce, etc.). Help them understand that these are big changes not only for the family but for their pets as well. Recommend appropriate tools and resources to help the family navigate their new journey.
2. Offer education to new pet owners
Talk to new pet owners about the essentials regarding their animals in order to avoid surrender — e.g. decompression, potty training, socialization, and proper nutrition.
3. Inspire clients to provide enrichment
Enrichment should be a part of every pet’s life. This is especially needed in times of stress and when behavioral issues or big life changes arise.5 Puzzle toys, nose work, trick training, and interactive games are all great ways to enhance mental stimulation and bonding. I always encourage enrichment with clients who have children in the home, as kids can safely be involved with these activities.
4. Discuss appropriate nutrition
Nutrition is the foundation of health. Providing high quality food is essential for not only physical (gut and brain) health but emotional and behavioral well-being as well.6 When animals are truly nourished and have proper gut health, certain behaviors such as anxiety and even destructiveness may be eliminated.
5. Talk about herbal and supplement support
Many herbs, supplements, probiotics7 and homeopathic remedies can be very helpful for addressing a variety of concerns, such as grief, anxiety, fear, frequent diarrhea and much more.
6. Encourage crate or kennel training
Crate or kennel training can eliminate and even prevent problematic behaviors. Always encourage clients to crate/kennel train pets of all ages (cats and dogs). This can come in handy in many circumstances, such as emergencies, injuries where strict rest is needed, stomach upset when kenneling is ideal, and when moving or welcoming home a new baby, during which the pet needs to be calm and out of the way.8
7. Address the environment
Are pets in the home experiencing conflict in high traffic areas? Is the pet stressed by a new visitor, such as a stray cat outside the front window? Does the dog have a safe space away from the newly-crawling toddler? Do cats have enough clean litter boxes in different areas of the home?
8. Don’t assume the pet will figure it out
We’ve all heard it before: “They’ll figure it out.” This often happens when folks adopt a new pet, have kids, or move. They truly think the dog or cat will just sort out the problem on their own. Dogs and cats are clever and adaptive creatures. But with domestication comes the need for human assistance. Gently remind clients that by allowing pets to “figure it out on their own,” they risk their pets solving the problem in the only ways they know how. This could come in the form of growling or biting when a new pet or baby gets in their face. Pet owners must guide their animals with proper coping skills and training during times of change, and give them safe and healthy mechanisms for adapting.