Author and pet expert Peggy Frezon offers four tips for how to deal with the news that your beloved pet's health is at risk.
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One summer day my husband stroked our golden retriever Ernest’s side, the same way we both had many times before. But this time he felt a bump, no bigger than a mosquito bite. Our vet’s biopsy showed that it was a malignant mast cell tumor. Cancer. One moment we thought our eight-year-old dog was perfectly healthy; the next, we knew that he had a potentially fatal disease.
How did it happen? Could we have prevented it? Sometimes there’s no explaining why a pet becomes ill. You may feel scared, distraught or confused. There is no wrong reaction. It’s okay to cry—your pet is a beloved part of the family. Here are four steps you can take to cope with a difficult diagnosis and give your pet the best care possible.
1. Gather information.
To make sure we don’t miss anything and that our questions and concerns about our dogs are addressed, my husband and I go to the vet’s office together. Or you can bring along a friend or other family member. I always take notes. One friend records the conversation on her phone so she can go over the details later.
If you look up your pet’s condition online, beware of inaccurate and conflicting information. Check that you’re consulting a reliable source (I like Petmd.com and Amva.org), then confirm the information with your vet.
2. Connect with other pet parents.
After the diagnosis, you may be bombarded with tests, medications and additional veterinary appointments. Overwhelming, right? That’s why it helps to share the news with others who understand.
Seek out pet parents who have been in similar situations. A friend of a friend whose dog had mast cell tumors offered Ernest her dog's leftover Chinese herbal medications (which our vet approved). When our spaniel Kelly had a spinal injury, someone advised us about a treatment that had helped her dog. Turned out, it helped Kelly too.
If you can’t find a support group locally, look online. Kelly was diagnosed with dementia later in life, and we found it comforting to connect with others in a canine cognitive dysfunction group on Facebook.
3. Evaluate decisions.
Which treatments are best? Is surgery advisable? Are the benefits worth the risks? There are no right answers that fit every pet. Do your research, ask for advice and talk to your vet. But ultimately, you know your pet and your own situation best.
A useful tool is veterinarian Alice Villalobos’s “Quality of Life Scale” on Pawspice.com, which helps you evaluate your pet using factors like level of pain, ability to take in nourishment, mobility and happiness.
Personal finances are another factor in determining a pet’s treatments. A blood test can cost from $30 to $250. An ultrasound may cost upward of $400. And surgery can run into the thousands of dollars. Discuss the options with your vet. In some cases, ours was able to suggest less expensive treatments. If you can’t afford the surgery or lifesaving treatment, organizations like Diabetic Cats in Need or the Magic Bullet Fund may be able to help.
4. Find comfort.
Most important, don’t make every day about the illness. My husband and I love looking at photos of our pets when they were young and healthy. One friend notes positive moments in a journal and has found the good days outnumber the bad.
Do what makes your pet happy. Even after 16-year-old Kelly had become blind and deaf, we took her up to the mountains where she had played for many summers. Kelly couldn’t see or hear, but she still enjoyed smelling ferns near the cabin and chipmunks along the trail.
Turn to your faith. My husband and I put our hands on the place where Ernest’s tumor was removed and pray for the cancer to be gone. One friend rubbed healing oils on her dog, and another brought his cat to a Blessing of the Animals service. Not long after Ernest’s diagnosis, our friend Lori slid a note that read “Ernest the dog” into a crack between stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a centuries-old Jewish custom to bring prayer requests before God. We were so touched—and strengthened—by her prayer.
Peggy Frezon is the author of Faithfully Yours: The Amazing Bond Between Us and the Animals We Love and other books about pets. Connect with her on her blog, peggyfrezon.blogspot.com; on Twitter @peggyfrezon; and at facebook.com/peggyfrezonbooks.