chronic illness dog

Caring For a Dog With a Chronic or Debilitating Illness

Taking care of a dog with a long-term illness or disease can be overwhelming—and pet owners often don't know how to deal with it.

From getting organized to learning how to manage long-term issues, here are ways to deal with a sick pooch while keeping everybody’s stress under control.

Get Organized to Lower Your Stress

Rather than trying to remember everything, find an easy way to keep track of things. This could be a wall calendar where you write down appointments and medications, Google calendar reminders, or even a plain old alarm in your smartphone. Having everything jotted down somewhere means you don’t have to stress about forgetting a crucial medication or an important appointment, and you can focus on loving your dog instead.

Keep Your Pooch Active

When your dog becomes unable to carry on as they did in the past, you can still keep life interesting for them, says Kristi Benson, CTC, a certified positive dog trainer. This will not only better his mood (and yours) but also lower stress and make everyday life much easier. “If you used to do a lot of high-energy activities, you’ll probably have to moderate your schedule and your plan, but with the approval of your vet, there are still many ways of keeping your dog active,” says Benson. “For example, you can make your walks both shorter and slower: an amble instead of a power-walk; your dog may be happier wading for sticks rather than the intense fetch games they used to play.” Adjusting to your pooch’s new physical limitations is also key to help him deal with things properly. “Always plan your outings with an eye on being able to stop if your dog needs a rest, or turn around and head home if needed,” Benson says. “If your dog becomes unable to walk too much, a dog stroller is a fantastic way to allow them to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of their neighborhood.”
chronic illness dog ©istockphoto/beavera

Make Staying at Home Fun

If your dog isn’t as physically active as he used to be and can't engage in long days out, you can help him stave off boredom by giving more mental exercise. Mental exercise, also known as 'enrichment', is a wonderful gift to give any dog—but is particularly welcome for dogs who aren’t as active, according to Benson. “The easiest enrichment comes from tossing the boring old food bowl, and having your dog work for their dinner,” says Benson. “Stuff-able food toys such as Kongs are wonderful, along with do-it-yourself or commercial food puzzles, having your dog hunt for their kibble in the grass or by hiding it in your home, and so on.” In addition to food toys, you can also use specific training games to stimulate your dog’s brain. “You can sign up for a fun scent course either in person (seeing other dogs and people is very enriching, too, so that’s a double whammy of enrichment) or online and play sniff games with your dog,” says Benson. “You can also enrich your dog’s life by allowing them to experience more: bring them in the car for trips around town, have their favorite people and dogs come over for visits, and so on.”

Help Him Deal with Bad Days

If your pet has 'bad days' because of his illness, keeping him mentally stimulated when he’s in pain or not feeling great can take the focus off his issues. Any kind of stimulation he’s willing to participate in will help. “Also, make sure your dog feels included and comfortable in your home,” says Benson. “Get a comfortable bed or two and place them in well-used areas so your dog feels like they can join in but still be comfortable and safe.” Illness and aging can both contribute to anxiety in dogs, so if you see an increase in anxious body language and behavior in your dog, Benson recommends speaking to your vet. “You can also cast a critical eye at your home and lifestyle, and identify areas where anxiety crops up and take action to mitigate these things,” Benson says. “If your dog is anxious when you vacuum, for example, put him in the backyard with a chew toy when it’s time to clean; some careful planning can really reduce anxiousness in our dogs.”
chronic illness dog ©istockphoto/skynesher

Train Him for New Behaviors

If you anticipate a reduction in your pet’s mobility, it is both wise and kind to train in advance to help them get used to mobility aids, says Benson. “For example, a mobility aid harness can be introduced while your pet is still feeling fine, with lots of treats and praise,” Benson explains. You can also get them used to stairs or ramps if you will use them to help your pet up to the couch or the car. “Put the stairs out and lure your dog up with a treat, and then give them a jackpot of treats when they make it up, then repeat a few times until they are happily climbing without the lure,” Benson says. Finally, if your dog is uncomfortable at the vet, start training for this now so regular visits as he gets sicker won’t be so stressful, says Benson. “Call a positive, force-free trainer and have them work with you to set up a plan to get your dog comfortable at the vet’s office and happy to participate in their own care,” Benson says.

Take Care of Yourself Too

Caring for a dog who needs constant help and attention can be stressful and will take a toll on you as the pet owner if you’re not careful. While it’s normal that you want to spend as much as possible with your ill pet, it’s also important that you take time to decompress and take care of your own mental health as well. If you’re feeling alone and overwhelmed, join a support group so you can connect with others going through the same issues. Having people to talk to will make you feel better and can end up being a great way to get information as well. Finally, stop trying to “do it all” and instead focus on the things you can control, from keeping up with vet appointments and medications to researching new ways to help your pooch.

Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at
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