There are few more worrying things than when your dog is sick.
When my dog was still a puppy he was struck down with a life threatening condition (Steroid Responsive Meningitis Arteritis).
Neither of our lives has been the same since.
His year of treatment was the most traumatic year of my life. It was a crash course in dog ownership. If I knew at the outset what I know now, we would have been able to avoid many of the mistakes that were made.
Perhaps the biggest learning for me has been that many of the answers you desperately need will be found in unexpected places.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to blindly rely on what your vet tells you. You need to play an active, informed role in your dog’s care. It’s your job to advocate for your pup.
To do that effectively, you need to understand as much as you can about the condition and all the options for treatment. You need to research the drugs and check for contraindications as they might relate to your specific animal. Your observations of your pup will be critical.
If your dog has just been diagnosed with something serious, here is what I would recommend you do, straight away.
1. Educate yourself
Google is your friend. Google Scholar is worth checking too, for research papers about your dog’s condition. Don’t wait. If I had done this immediately rather than just do what the vet said, my dog would not have spent an extra month at the highest possible dose of steroids (as instructed in error by the vet).
Don’t wait until something goes wrong to get proactive.
If I’d been aware of the standard treatment protocol, I would have been able to pick up the error and would have spared my dog all the damage that extra month of high dose drugs did to his body. Googling is how I discovered, for instance, that it’s possible to successfully treat a UTI with three days of high dose antibiotics rather than the usual 2 weeks at a lower dose. My vet had not heard of it. Some papers you will have to buy access to online, but it’s worth it to be as well informed as you can possibly be.
2. Connect with other dog owners
I didn’t think to connect with other owners until we were already more than three months into treatment and I started to lose confidence in the vet. Now almost the first thing I would do upon receiving any diagnosis is find any Facebook communities specific to your dog’s condition or your dog’s breed or, failing that, about dog owning in general. You have to wade through the misinformation and the opinion, but there is gold to be found there.
Dog owners can be great storehouses of information. Our experience has taught me that vets (or professionals in any field) are not the keepers of all knowledge.
Dog owners who have been through the same thing before you have a lot of valuable, direct, lived experience. They will be able to tell you a lot of things the vets actually don’t know and they will be there for you when professionals aren’t. Though anecdotal, the experience of other owners with other dogs can give you some leads for how to help your own. You can then check the information back with your own vet or investigate further.
3. Call the breeder
If your dog came from a breeder, run your dog’s situation past them. They may have experience in treating the same condition. They may know if other pup’s in the same litter had problems and how it was managed. Even if they don’t have answers for you, they need to know about problems in their bloodlines so they can breed away from genetic weaknesses and prevent future suffering by breeding healthier pups.
4. Keep money in your account
This seems like a no brainer but I have been caught out. You are going to be stressed and potentially sleep deprived and not thinking entirely straight. There will be emergency vet visits and unexpected expenses. Often animal ERs will not see your dog until you pay a hefty deposit. Operations and diagnostic procedures can run to the thousands of dollars and you don’t want to have to wait on money transferring before your dog can receive help. I’ve had to borrow from family when I found myself in this situation.
5. Fasting / Rest
The understandable reaction of most of us when something goes wrong with our dogs is “go to the vet”. We are certainly conditioned to equate immediate veterinary attention for every little thing with responsible dog ownership. I have been that owner.
Some things (say, bloat) are a downright emergency requiring surgical intervention and you have no choice. But many other non-emergency conditions can benefit from things you can do immediately at home.
As a first port of call, I’ve learned to try removal of cause rather than addition of drugs. Fasting and rest is low risk, high reward. Whereas once you give medication, you open up a can of worms.
Drugs always come with risks and side effects.
If your dog is limping, for instance or seems to have injured himself, try rest and ideally fasting for a few days. No matter what is causing your dog’s problem, fasting and rest cannot hurt. The principle behind fasting is this: freed of the work of digestion, the body can direct maximum energy to healing. Even if you have a vet appointment scheduled, this is something you can do at home in the meantime to support cellular repair and regeneration. You may well find by the time the vet opens on Monday, your dog has recovered.
Fasting and rest is also a great course of action for a dog with diarrhea. You can keep your pup hydrated by syringing water into his mouth. If you don’t have a syringe on hand, I’ve found pouring water into your cupped hands can often encourage your dog to drink.
6. Reevaluate your dog’s diet
Barring injury or accident, if your dog is sick, it is often a sign something is not right in his care, usually the diet. Use this illness as a wake-up call. Consider what you are putting in your dog’s bowl every day and ask yourself whether it is promoting health or disease. Is it a highly processed food or a fresh, natural diet? In dogs as in humans, diet is the origin of much ill-health. You can chart a new course from here.
7. Keep control
The vet is the vet. But you are the owner. You don’t have to automatically do what the vet recommends. Don’t be pressured in the vet clinic. Come home and take time to consider your options before committing to any course of action. You are your dog’s advocate and it’s you that needs to make the decisions about his care, factoring in advice from the vet.
Sometimes this might mean a second opinion. Consider phone consultations with specialists if it allows you to access their expertise even though they’re far away.
You’ll have to be diplomatic in your dealings with vets. Not all welcome involved owners. The worst ones see it as meddling. Good vets will see your dog’s care as a partnership between vet and owner, and will not try to impose a certain course of action without the owner understanding the basis for it and having a grasp of alternatives and, importantly, the potential side effects.
8. Find the right vet
Ask other dog owners and breeders, well-informed dog trainers — anyone reputable you can think of — recommendations for vets with experience with the particular condition you’re dealing with. Your research of the condition might lead you to studies authored by vets who specialize in the disease. You can find out where they work and contact them for a consultation or for advice. There are registers of vets that you can look up to find a list of specialists in your area.
9. Double check everything
At a critical point in my dog’s care the neurologist dispensed me a bottle of medication that was wrongly labelled as one dose while actually containing pills that were three times that strength. I only noticed because I knew the higher dose pills were blue and the lower dose ones were white.
If I hadn’t discovered this and just trusted the vet to be always right, I would have overdosed my dog on a very powerful drug to which he’d already shown an intense sensitivity.
The reality is medical mistakes happen. More often than we might like to think. Their consequences can be disastrous.
Vets are overworked and highly stressed and your dog is not their sole focus. You’re the only one wholly focused on your dog’s case. Make sure you check everything and don’t be afraid to challenge the vet.
10. Buy a subscription to Plumb’s Veterinary Drugs handbook
Be proactive. For a subscription fee, this professional text is publicly available online and as an app. It’s an invaluable reference book that allows you to look up any medication that is proposed or prescribed. You can read detailed information about dosing and side effects.
At one point in Shiva’s care he was prescribed metronidazole despite it being expressly contraindicated for dogs with meningitis. Vets are fallible. It doesn’t feel good to have to second guess their every move but for your dog’s sake it’s important to check and cross-reference everything you can.
11. Beware anesthetic / diagnostic procedures
My dog was put through several unnecessary procedures during his treatment. Each one involved a general anesthetic, the stress of being left at the vets and handled by strangers and the resultant impact on his recovery. Some procedures might be unavoidable, but vets can also tend to err on the side of doing procedures rather than not.
For instance, a specialist put my dog under a general anesthetic to biopsy a tongue growth that I later learned was fairly easily recognizable as calcinosis (if the vet had known of the condition) and anesthetized him for an ultrasound of his abdomen to identify a swollen liver (when swollen livers are known side effects of the prednisone he was on). If I had been better informed at the time, I would have been more confident in diagnosing those symptoms without opting for invasive procedures. If you’re uninformed you have no way to contribute to the decision-making.
You need to be the one who decides.
Blood tests are minimally invasive and so are things like urine tests and stool tests, but biopsies, scans that require sedation and operations that involve general anesthetic come with risks and the impact of stressing an already sick dog needs to be weighed up.
12. Home visit vets
Vets who come to your home can be a godsend when your dog is very sick. They lower the stress for both you and your pup. They especially make sense when the purpose of the visit is something like a blood test to monitor the progress of treatment, which can just as easily be done in the dog’s own environment as in the clinic. Home visits also avoid exposure to other sick dogs if your dog’s immune system is low.
In conclusion: Dogs are resilient
No matter how bad things are, dogs are amazingly resilient. Some health conditions get worse before they get better. Don’t give up. This is not forever. Keep the faith. Cry. But stay positive. Our dogs feed on our energy and it’s important that they feel good vibes.
Keep seeking information, keep asking questions of other dog owners who’ve already trod this path with their dog. Make the effort to get your head around every aspect of your dog’s treatment. Give your dog’s body time to work on healing. Keep a quiet house, encourage rest. Sleep, and time are restorative. You can get your dog through this.