Ease the strain of chronic illness for veterinary clients

Ease the strain of chronic illness for veterinary clients

The path for clients with chronically ill pets can be difficult and paved with pitfalls. Here's how to ease clients' way down this long and winding road.
Jun 01, 2012

Caring for a pet with a chronic or long-term illness is an emotional journey. When you bring a pet into your home, you accept the responsibility to care for them not only in good times, but also in tough times.

Dealing with my cat Cleo's hyperthyroid diagnosis was difficult. I'd been working in the veterinary field for 10 years at the time of Cleo's diagnosis. Her symptoms—voracious appetite, extreme weight loss, greasy coat, and behavior changes—were textbook. How could I have missed it? I felt like I'd let her down. For our situation—medically, financially, and realistically—oral anti-thyroid medication was her best option. The good news: Cleo showed improvement right away. She gained a little weight, her coat looked better, and she seemed more like herself. But within two weeks of starting therapy she started vomiting multiple times a day. I had to stop the medication, give her belly a few days to settle down, and then restart at a lower dose. It took weeks to work her up to an appropriate dose that controlled her thyroid level without making her sick. I felt really discouraged during those weeks when Cleo was very sick. It was difficult to see her suffer. But I knew she was a tough cat and wasn't ready to give up. And neither was I.

I did several things when I was on the path to become my pet's caregiver and healthcare advocate. And your clients can take these steps too—if you show them how. By taking the time to guide pet owners, you can help make them part of the team supporting their pet's care, extend the care you give pets when they leave your practice, and improve compliance.

1 Show them the way. The first step for pet owners to help their pet through an illness is to know what they're dealing with. Because I worked at a clinic, I was able to access medical books and journals. I also did a considerable amount of web research. The American Animal Hospital Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners are excellent sources of credible information on pet care and diseases. Many veterinary professional websites, like http://dvm360.com/, also feature sections where you can access and print information for clients. I believe the veterinary team should provide as much information and handouts for clients as possible.

2 Encourage patience with patients. How cooperative would you be if someone 10 times your size snatched you up and tried to shove a pill down your throat? Cleo is an orange tabby. If you know anything about orange cats, you know they have considerable "cat-itude." You can support pet owners by acknowledging that the pilling process can be difficult and frustrating. When they feel overwhelmed, it's a good idea to stop, give the pet a break, and try again. Also remind them that sometimes they must try a couple systems before finding an option that works for them and their pet.

3 Ask for the lowdown. Cleo is normally pretty social and likes to hang out wherever we are. She's always eager to eat. So if she's hiding in an unusual spot or not coming to her bowl at mealtime, I know something's wrong. Teach clients to watch for subtle changes in their pet's behavior and report back to you. This way you can adjust your care as the pet's needs change.

4 Build a foundation of trust. Remind clients that they can't care for an ill pet all by themselves—they need a veterinarian who's trained with the knowledge to appropriately diagnose and treat medical issues. Make sure your practice is clients' first source of information, education, and medication. Clients should know that regular communication with their veterinary healthcare team is essential to keeping their pet healthy and happy. The more information you have about the pet, the better. It ultimately leads to better medical recommendations and better patient care.

Three years after Cleo's diagnosis, she's doing great. Despite an episode of anemia last year, she's been holding steady at about 8 ½ pounds and her kidney values are stable. Her thyroid levels have been creeping up recently, so we're modifying her dose of medication again. She's even got her own medication shelf in the kitchen, complete with thyroid medication, lysine treats for immune support, and fiber capsules for decreased intestinal motility—a result of being on thyroid medication. She also eats two kinds of food—one to support her kidneys and another to keep her regular. Just like a typical girl, she's high maintenance, but she's better than ever. She's more active and social. And, at the end of the day when she curls up beside me on the bed, it's all worth it.

Jennifer Graham is a client services team member at Bradford Hills Veterinary Hospital in Wexford, Pa.