An Owner's Perspective To Caring For A Sick Dog
My heart goes out to you. If you are reading this article, you’ve discovered that your furry companion has an illness. This will change the way you care for them going forward. In some cases, it can be a quick, dramatic change that is heartbreaking to see.
This article is a gentle, loving guide from a fellow owner’s perspective on how to care for your sick dog. It will include tips on how your dog care may change, the practicalities of caring for a sick dog and how to look after yourself through this process too.
So Your Dog Has Been Diagnosed With An Illness, Now What?
Diagnosis is normally not the first blow. You’ve noticed a change in your dog and have sought to investigate. Only then does the vet tell you the bad news that your beloved pup is ailing.
Or it could be that a more sudden injury has occurred, such as a car accident, that changes your dog’s life in a flash.
Whatever the circumstances, here are three initial steps to take after your dog has been diagnosed:
Research your dog’s illness
My first step after diagnosis was research. When my dog Max was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, I went straight to Google to find out what I could about how cancer could manifest.
What kind of treatment options could there be in my country?
What is the prognosis when a dog is diagnosed with cancer?
The internet is a wonderful thing that helped me understand the topic.
Note: We often use the internet to ignore our trusted veterinarians. Your vet knows your dog intimately and has personalised their care plan to your dog specifically. Trust in your vet to do their job or seek a second opinion in real life from another vet if you are doubtful. Don’t take the internet as gospel. It’s there to help - not hinder solid medical advice.
Process the information
Next, I took time to process the diagnosis. It’s so important to internalise what’s happened. I spent lots of cuddle time with my dog as I soothed my worries about what his life could look like from that point on.
This processing time is vital as more often than not, we humans catastrophise way more than we need to. Spoiler for the end of this story but my dog lived a whole year longer than his prognosis. Sometimes we wind ourselves up with visions of a sickly, frail dog limping alongside us on walks.
But look at your dog. Hug them. Look at their joy, their energy, their gentility. Usually, this processing time will help bring you back to earth.
Note: If you are an anxious person, I recommend processing before you do the research. It was more important to me to do the research to get it out of my system. Your mileage may vary here. Do what’s best for your mental health!
Understand the treatment/rehabilitation plan
In my experience, the treatment plan for my dog and the diagnosis appointments were on two separate days. This is because the vet wanted to run more blood tests and scans to verify that his diagnosis was right. This is a good time to get that aforementioned second opinion too.
Once your vet has a plan, sit down with them to understand the medication or rehabilitation your dog will need.
Ask all the questions you need to feel confident in the way forward.
The Fundamentals Of Caring For A Sick Dog
Now that you have a treatment plan and you’ve processed your dog’s diagnosis, it's time to get to work. How will your care need to change now that you know your dog is unwell? Here are some tips.
Learn to give your dog medication safely
Medication can come in different forms. Injections are rare but can be done at home. Most dog medication involves swallowing tablets, liquid elixirs or suppositories.
Do you know how to give these to your dog correctly? Here’s a very brief guide (but remember to consult your vet for in-person advice!):
Giving oral medication to your dog
My best tip is to wrap up the tablet into something tasty. Peanut butter or bacon slices work great. Place the treat-wrapped tablet at the back of your dog’s throat. Once your dog has the treat in their mouth, gently hold their mouth closed and massage their throat until you see the gulp. (1)
Giving your dog liquid medication
It highly depends on the medication in question. Some are water-soluble and other types are best drizzled onto food. Your vet will help you with how best to administer this to your dog.
Giving your dog a suppository
Somewhat unpleasant for all involved but must be done! Cover the suppository in sterile lube or vaseline to make it easier to insert. Put on a glove and use one finger to push the pill into your dog’s rectum. One to two inches should be enough! (2)
Preparing an emergency fund
While it’s important to have pet insurance, it’s worth noting that not everything is covered. Even “comprehensive” policies can catch you out. Read the fine print of your pet insurance policy and start building an emergency fund for your dog just in case anything happens.
Your pet emergency fund could be used for petrol if your dog needs to be rushed to the animal hospital. Or it could be for a new wheelchair if the one they have breaks suddenly. Lots of things can crop up and an emergency fund will help you feel more prepared.
Remodelling your home for your sick dog
If your dog is losing their faculties in some way, you may need to change things around a bit. For dogs in wheelchairs, try installing ramps around the home and keeping their resting places downstairs. If your dog is losing energy, create more resting places for them around the home with orthopedic dog beds to soothe aching joints.
The only time I think remodelling doesn’t work is with loss of sight and/or smell. These two senses are vital for your dog to feel comfortable in their surroundings. If they no longer see or smell as well as they used to, it’s important to keep their home environments as consistent as humanly possible.
Providing your dog with a happy life
A sick dog is not the same as a dying dog. But even dying dogs need joy, love and companionship right to the end of their lives! Treat your dog as the loveable bundle that they are and focus on creating lasting memories with them. Just because they may be slower or have an injury doesn’t mean that their spirit is dampened.
A huge part of staving off doggy depression after a diagnosis is the way that you care for your dog. You can still go on adventures, and play and cuddle together as you used to. You may need to adapt your exercise routines for shorter walks for example. I guarantee whether you stroll around the block for 5 minutes or 50, your dog will still love that walk.
Dogs are incredibly resilient creatures. Three-legged dogs can live long full lives. Dogs with cancer can outlive their prognosis by a mile (as mine did). How do you want to remember your dog’s life? What joy can you bring them every month, every week, every day?
Caring for your mental health
This is an aspect that we often neglect as owners of sick dogs. It can take an emotional and psychological toll on you as a carer. This is particularly true in the beginning when new medication routines are not yet habits and symptoms seemingly worsen before they improve. You owe it to your pup to care for yourself as much as you care for them. Carers are prone to burnout if you’re not careful which will be the detriment of everyone.
One key part of caring for your own mental health in these trying times is asking for help when you need it. This could be calling on another household member to split the caring duties. It could be calling on a friend to dog sit for an evening when you’re feeling frazzled. It could be involving professionals such as dog physiotherapists to support your dog’s recovery. This will look different for everyone, but don’t feel you need to go it alone. It can be hard work to care for an ailing dog right to the end, so reach out to those who can support you.
Caring For A Sick Dog: When To Let Go
Woof, this is the hard part. Your dog isn’t improving or they are slipping into a worse and worse quality of life. How do you know when it’s time to let go?
I can’t answer that question for you. Some dog owners prefer their dogs to pass on completely naturally. Others believe human intervention to be a kindness.
I don’t want to sway you one way or another on this subject. I will simply tell you Max’s story.
Over a year after Max’s prognosis, he was still thriving. His tumour was growing but his quality of life was still fantastic. He ate well. He had bundles of energy. He enjoyed walks and had a sound body and mind from the outside. Everything seemed to be going well and he was fighting cancer with all his might.
Until one fateful night. (trigger warning here)
The tumour on his posterior burst. I won’t go into detail about the horror, but Max was stressed. He panted furiously and the bleeding continued. By the time he got to the animal hospital he was weak, still panting excessively, eyes wide and frightened.
The vet proposed two options:
- We could surgically operate on the tumour but it would impair his bowel functions forever, and severely lower his quality of life.
- We could put him down peacefully that night.
We took the latter option and he drifted away into sleep that day. We don’t regret that decision. He was an elderly dog that lived a joyful, transformative life. If you are faced with that decision one day, only you will know what’s right for you and your pup. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Related: The Lifecycle Of A Dog.
Final Thoughts: Your Dog Is Not Their Illness
I hope this article wasn’t too depressing? Comment below if it helped you at all. My final takeaway is to remember that your dog is not doomed by their illness. Some dogs make full recoveries from damning prognoses. Some dogs live incredibly happy lives in spite of their illness affecting them. You can still be that wonderful caring dog parent to your pup, filling their lives with exploration and fun, while still honouring their illness.
Your dog’s diagnosis is not the end. It’s a change of state. It’s up to you how you go forth from here and be the strong dog parent your pup needs you to be!
- Burke, A. July 22, 2021. “6 Tips for Giving Your Dog Pills”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-give-a-dog-a-pill/
- Barnette, C. “How to Administer Rectal Medications”. VCA Hospitals. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/how-to-administer-rectal-medications