Your animals are important and valued family members. They are your furry kids, bestest buds Life’s companions, and confidants. They bring a quirky and amazing furried or feathered joy to your life. The bond is deep and real, and things are going GREAT.
Until they’re not.
You begin to notice your beloved animal isn’t eating or going to the bathroom as they used to. They might seem to struggle to stand, or begin to limp, or aren’t as playful. They might not greet you at the door or at the fence as they once did. Or, you find a lump.
You take them to the vet, or have a vet come to you, waiting with baited breath and racing heartbeat for a diagnosis. Your furry friend’s big eyes seem to be asking you while they’re being examined, “Why am I here? Did I do something wrong?”
Sickness or injury never comes at a good time. If you’re lucky enough to get a diagnosis, the vet may recommend tests, medications, new foods and treatments. But, even if the vet is thorough and loving in their explanation including side effects, reasons and costs, it may sound as if they’re speaking under water while you try to assimilate the new terms and jargon that inundate you and swirl inside your head.
As in the case of any caretaker of a fellow human or animal, the questions are endless and so is the research. The questions can multiply like rabbits.
Do I have x-rays done? Bloodwork?
Do I go with the new food? How much is it?
Do I give the new meds? Maybe one, but not both? What are the side effects?
Do I opt for the surgery? If I give the new med, is there no turning back? Are there any alternatives?
Can I afford all this?
Then, there is simply the task of keeping track of the new meds and/or figuring out how much you need to give them. Trying to remember what you gave to them. And, when. Trying to remember how they responded when you did.
Even so, not having a diagnosis, or the correct one, can add even more stress to an already nerve-wracking situation.
Rarely in your life are you ever in a situation when you need to make a decision that has life or death implications for another being. You are their guardian and they rely solely on you to make every decision for them. The pressure can be crushing. And, it can be even more difficult if you live alone and have to make all the health care decisions yourself.
But your love for your animals is immense, sometimes surprisingly so. These sentient beings enter your life, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, and you share so much of yourself with them. You want them to have the best life possible.But, the emotional ups and downs and trial and errors of the day-to-day care can be exhausting, especially with chronic illness. The back and forth to the vets. Balancing work and other personal demands. The loss of sleep. The repeated hopes and prayers that you are doing the right things. The repeated apologies to your animal for what they're going through. The mounting vet bills juxtaposed to your dwindling bank account.
Yet, when they make a good poop or pee, it sends you into a euphoric state, making it all worth it.
As the days pass into months or maybe years, your life might look different than before. You might miss out on functions or gatherings because of a sick animal. Your browsing history is chock-full of veterinary topics. Your kitchen counter looks like a pharmacy with syringes, subQ fluids, gauze, five different types of food, pee-pee pads and your carpet holds stains from numerous accidents.
Guilt is a seemingly inherent part of having animals in our lives. The “shoulda, woulda, couldas” often create and intensify anxiety and can keep us spinning and stuck. Maybe you accidentally gave the wrong medication to the wrong animal, or forgot to order their new food, or couldn’t afford the surgery.
Maybe it was something more traumatic. For example, you accidentally left a door open and your beloved dog ran out into the street and got hit. Or, you accidentally gave them the wrong medication or the wrong dose of a prescribed medication sending your already sick animal to the emergency room.
I know it’s easier said than done, but self-forgiveness and self-compassion are of most importance.
There will be people in your life that won’t understand the depth of your connection to your animal or the time, money and energy that you spend. They may, or may not have a point, but either way, it adds to an already difficult situation.
When we look at others going through similar situations, we might have done things differently, had their animal been ours. Most animal lovers are doing the best they can. At first glance, it may appear as if they aren’t, but you don’t always know the other person’s full story and most animal lovers are doing the best they can. Maybe they just got fired or didn’t get that desperately needed promotion. Maybe they are struggling with depression. Maybe their ailing car just went kaput, or they’re in the midst of studying for a huge exam. Maybe they themselves are dealing with a chronic illness. Maybe they are a caretaker to a child or parent dealing with one.
Or, maybe, just maybe, they were being a human being and made some mistakes.
The same applies to you.
Trying to continually manage others’ beliefs about you is an exercise in futility. There is enough judgement to go around, and none of us are immune. We’ve all been the judge and the judged, but maybe next time we can take a step back to pause and remember our own struggles.
Even though your experience might be unique, please know you are not alone. There are many others experiencing similar situations who can truly understand this roller coaster and are willing to extend compassion to you.
Support is key, either in friends or family, or through online or in-person groups. To hear someone say, “Yeah, that happened to me, too,” or, “You did the best you could. I’m so sorry. It’s so hard to see our furry babies in pain,” can be a salve on the heart during this tumultuous time.
Taking care of a sick animal can be all-consuming, and sometimes there is not a light at the end of the tunnel. So, periodically taking some time away is vital.
Take a walk. Go out to a movie. Meet a friend for lunch. Work on your painting. Go to the gym. Binge-watch a favorite show. Talk about something else. It may seem as if you’re abandoning or neglecting them, but you must refill your empty tank to help them. Also, animals are intuitive, and if you are too anxious or a “helicopter parent,” it can sometimes impact their recovery.
So, place your hand over your heart.
Take a deep breath.
Send as much compassion your way as you gave to your animal.
Our animals can be so forgiving.
They know your heart.
The key is extending this to yourself.
With so much dividing us, animals connect us. Tracie Barton-Barrett, Licensed Professional Counselor, former psychology instructor, and animal enthusiast has counseled, facilitated support groups, and presented and written articles on the subject of pet loss. Her debut novel, Buried Deep in Our Hearts, is now available on Amazon. She and her husband live in North Carolina and are owned by their two cats: Rutherford B. Barrett and Oliver Monkey.