Pre-emptive action can reduce distress - Veterinary Practice
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Pre-emptive action can reduce distress

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI presents the second part of her article on the negative effect on pets of the loss of a companion

IN my last column (October issue) I raised the issue of whether pets should watch a companion being euthanased or view the body of another departed animal from the same home.

This topic not infrequently crops up in conversations with clients and colleagues now that pet loss and grief counselling form part of mainstream veterinary practice.

A more important issue, however, which often seems to be woefully neglected, is that of preparing other pets well ahead for the inevitable. Owners rarely seem to do so, even when the potential for significant problems to develop is blindingly obvious.

It is understandable that people try to avoid emotional pain and denial is often part of the creeping grief that accompanies a beloved pet’s decline. Which is why it is disappointing that when an older, sicker dog or cat is frequently attending a clinic for support treatment that can only maintain quality of life, not prolong its span, no one warns the clients of the potential negative effect on the animal that will remain behind.

Cats generally cope better because of their natural species behaviour but dogs can really suffer. This tragic scenario simply compounds human bereavement and is especially distressing when the departed pet was the last link to a deceased partner, friend or, worse,a child.

Two recent cases illustrated this for me. They show how beneficial to both owners and pets a little timely advice would have been.

Sudden isolation often intolerable

The very much-loved dogs were both mature and, as their situations were so similar, only the details of one need be presented. Pickle,a nine-and-a-half year-old Pug, had lived happily with his owners and their two teenage children as well as their older dog of the same breed.

To the last of these he had bonded firmly from the minute he arrived. Thus, for the best part of a decade this sweet-natured but unconfident individual had been constantly in contact with another dog and/or human being. By this stage he was also showing marked signs of ageing, with his sight in particular failing quite rapidly.

Pickle had always shown some defensive aggression towards bigger dogs following a series of unfortunate incidents when he wasayoung “victim”. Unsurprisingly, this was worsening as he became increasingly vulnerable. At the same time he had become ever more attached to his owner, who did not work and was often available to him. When she was out and at night he had his canine pal for company.

The precipitate loss of a major figure from his “maintenance set of stimuli” simply tipped Pickle over the edge. His immediate response included howling when isolated, even after his normal bedtime routine, and scratching frantically at the closed kitchen door.

In the short term this was resolved by taking Pickle into the bedroom, where he paced, jumped on and off the bed and generally behaved in a disturbing fashion – a problem as the husband was a busy GP. Concern for his well-being led his practical wife to decamp to the spare room but evidently things could not go like this.

Even life’s most capable “copers”, however, sometimes get things wrong. So rather than dealing with the problem behaviour and then getting another puppy, she opted for the swift acquisition of a replacement.

Another bond quickly established

In fact, the sociable, but needy Pickle immediately took to the newcomer whose personality was ebullient and outgoing. So an interesting paradox developed. Rather than the previous not uncommon situation where a youngster derives confidence from an older canine, the position here was reversed.

Quite quickly the daytime distress subsided so long as the puppy was present. On the odd occasions he was taken out, the “grieving” party became markedly distressed again. The problem at night, however, persisted, possibly because of the lack of physical contact, as the sensible owner contained the pup in a pen.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the original dog to the new pug, when they were unsupervised for long periods this precaution seemed appropriate, as the greedy older dog was on a restricted diet due to skin problems for which he also had corticosteroids. No wonder the pup’s food was attractive!

This owner quickly perceived she needed outside help, especially as she envisaged a possible modelling effect on the pup of both the night-time shenanigans and the negative reaction to some other dogs. Obviously it wasn’t rocket science to build coping strategies and independence into Pickle’s life.

And the consultation also provided a timely opportunity to ensure that these two dogs, representing opposite ends of the canine life spectrum with very different management needs, were subjected to husbandry and behavioural regimes that catered well for them individually.

Prevention is the better option

Sadly, this distressing situation, which went on for some months and so clearly undermined the welfare of everyone involved, could so easily have been predicted.

How much easier it would have been to instigate in advance preventive measures when the dog’s health was more robust and his behaviour more adaptable. What’s more, his owners’ grief would not have been so unnecessarily exacerbated; even better if his fearful reaction to larger dogs had been addressed way back when – but that’s another discussion for another day.

Suffice it to say that anyone treating one terminally ill animal in a multi-pet home owes it to all concerned to highlight such potentially problematic issues and deal with them as far in advance as possible. Undoubtedly, this is a welfare issue that deserves better and more dedicated attention.

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