As an emergency vet, I deal with a lot of pets in a crisis. It’s just baked right in to my career choice and my specialty. But attached to (just about) every pet is a pet owner, and a big part of my job is helping, counseling and advising pet owners on their options for care. I‘ve always maintained that while pets are integral to veterinary medicine, a prime focus of the profession is helping people. You can be the world’s best diagnostician and clinician, but if you have zero people skills you won’t get too far.
Having a pet in a medical crisis is stressful. Stress can lead to rush decisions, bad decisions. Being in the midst of an unexpected medical event also means that your normal schedule gets interrupted – things like sleep, food, and exercise can fall by the wayside. In some cases, you and your pet may be staying far away from home and hearth as your pet is treated (I’ve worked at large referral institutions where people have driven for days and holed up in a hotel while their pets receive advanced care).
I’ve seen the same progression play out many times: at the initial ER visit, worried pet owners look alert and almost excited; they’re animated and interact with heightened attention, talking rapidly due to the adrenaline rush. As the days wear on they look weary, beaten down. The once wide-eyed excitement gives way to dark circles and mumbled responses due to sleepless nights lying awake with worry. Lack of food (or worse – switching to an all drive-through based diet) deepens the funk. In an environment of stress, with stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine running amok in their systems, neurons don’t work well. Synaptic connections become logy and loose, thought processes become wrapped in a shroud of cotton. Impaired decision making and short fuses feed the frustration of having a sick pet, and discussions with the medical team become tense, combative, oppositional. The death knell to many a medical case is when the trust between the family and the medical team is broken and both parties are no longer on the same side.
How then to maintain your sanity – or at least your vital decision-making skills? It’s our inherent tendency to worry when someone we love is ill. Taking the emotion out of the equation isn’t often possible. We can’t just turn Vulcan and be totally rational with the flip of a switch. But there are a few things you can do to try and regain some of the lost balance. You can’t always do all of the things I outline below, but any little thing you can do can help re-stablish your normal routine and get you thinking more clearly. In many cases, I see people make their situation worse through well-intentioned but ultimately misguided decisions caused by the disruption of their normal routine.
1. Go home (if you can) – Staying all night sleeping in the clinic lobby will only lead to a sore back and subpar sleep. In many cases, clinics won’t even let you do it, but you’ll feel better and get better sleep in your own bed under your own blankets. Ever slept in an airport? It’s the same quality of sleep – crampy, crappy sleep-ish semi-consciousness, lulled into a feverish half-slumber by the buzzing fluorescent lights. If you’re too far from home to make this practical advice, get a hotel. The vet will call you if anything changes, so adhere to the principle of no news is good news and rest and recharge. A cup of non-caffeinated tea, a warm bath, or even a dose of a sleep aid can help make sure you get the much-needed rest your system requires to make sound decisions.
2. Eat – If you fuel your brain with refined sugar, saturated fat and salt, it will rebel and force you to make decisions you will later regret. I have tattoos to prove this. Try and eat well, balance your carbs with some protein and have something green in there (lime Jell-O doesn’t count). You know what I mean. I can’t always admit to eating well all the time; sometimes I’ll go for days on nothing but Yoo-Hoo and espresso, but in a crisis you need food that takes longer than two minutes to prepare, three minutes to eat and four minutes to digest. Eat like your mother wanted you to when you were eight. After the crisis passes, fine: go back to White Castle. But during the crisis, eat like a nutritionist is watching you.
3. Exercise – I know this is all starting to sound like advice you hear every year from your doctor – eat right, get more exercise - but if you can get up and get moving, you’ll blow the foggy cobwebs from your mind and clear it a bit. I’m not saying you have to go out and become a 4th level Zumba master or hone your cage fighting skills, but getting out of bed and going for a stroll for 20 minutes will do wonders for your mindset. What seemed insurmountable the night before can become more manageable after a good night’s rest and a morning stroll. It helps give you a fresh perspective and think like yourself again. Getting up and about also helps give you some distance from the medical crisis and can get it off your mind for a few minutes. I find that when I’m faced with a big decision, taking my focus off it for a bit and then coming back to it will help me feel better about what I ultimately decide. I think this is why the concept of “sleeping on it” can be so powerful; rest and mental distraction give you ways to reset and focus.
When it’s mealtime at my home, I tend to grab my plate first, sit down and start eating, leaving my poor and long-suffering wife to deal with two hungry toddlers. After a few go-rounds of this, my wife set a dinner table rule: feed the kids before you feed yourself. Getting food into them first means a quieter and calmer dinner table for all of us. This one simple change made home life much better. A few simple changes for yourself when your pet is ill can have the same effect on your medical decision-making.
The last thing you want to do during a medical crisis, and the dog days that follow, is get yourself in a situation that forces you to make poor choices – choices you’ll later regret, and some that may be irrevocable. It’s like the security announcement on an airplane about oxygen masks; put yours on first, then put your kids’ on. Take care of yourself first and your pet will be better off.