Between illness and the quick rate at which animals age, many people end up caring for a chronically ill pet at some point.
Most of us have all been there. It’s hard not to feel hopeless when your pet is no longer enjoying their favorite activities and treats.
But know this: There are steps you can take to maintain your pet’s quality of life through their illness.
A Traumatic Incident
While I have cared for ill foster pets and aging cats, I never expected my healthy, young dog to be diagnosed with an incurable disease.
My 2-year old dog, Flea, is a small, mixed-breed dog I adopted as a puppy. He has always loved attention, playing and even the vet’s office. I used to secretly look forward to taking him to the vet for checkups, because Flea and I would receive compliments on his excellent health, temperament and personality.
It started with a dog-friendly dinner party at my coworker’s house. We were standing on the porch watching the dogs play, and suddenly I noticed blood dripping from Flea’s paw — one of his toenails was sticking out sideways.
He started yelping in pain and bleeding profusely, so I rushed him to an emergency night vet for treatment. Over the next couple weeks, he broke several more nails before my vet diagnosed him with symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO), which is believed to be an autoimmune-related claw disease for which there is no known cure.
During flare-ups of this disease, dogs will lose all of their nails over the course of several months. The nails essentially hollow out and lift off the quick, and then can painfully break off. The good news is that the disease is not terminal — just painful during the acute phase. I learned a lot over the next few months on developing a new normal as Flea began experimental treatments for SLO.
Working With the Veterinarian
When caring for a sick pet, it’s essential to communicate clearly and frequently with your vet. This was the first case of SLO my vet had treated, and he was diligent about consulting with colleagues and researching potential treatment options.
We had an open line of communication regarding Flea’s symptoms and how he responded to treatment. I would have looked for a second opinion if this were not the case.
SLO is a rare condition, so my vet recommended I join a support group on Facebook with other people and pets going through the same thing. He told me to report back if I read about effective treatments to pay special attention to the holistic steps that others were taking to cope.
This group was helpful because we could share experiences with various medications and tips on managing pain and improving quality of life. One medication made Flea sick, and other people in the group shared alternatives they had found with their vet that I could ask my vet about.
This group gave me hope because there were people in the group who had pets that were in remission after getting through the acute phase of nail loss. Knowing Flea might eventually return to his usual happy personality made the bad days better.
Modifying Your Lifestyle
As Flea painfully lost each of his nails, he could not go on long walks anymore. I had to cease fostering because the risk of an energetic puppy causing him to break a quick was too high. He became lethargic and would not eat his food.
I started cooking food for him to compel him to eat. We did lots of cuddling and grooming to enrich his life instead of walks and play.
Some of the people in my support group had talked about doing Epsom salt soaks to ease nails off. Flea has always been afraid of water, so I had to get in the bath with him each day to keep him calm. After 3 months, Flea lost all his nails and was no longer in as much pain.
Cherishing the Good Days
When caring for a chronically ill pet, remember to make the most of moments when your pet is feeling good. It seems obvious, but you’ll appreciate the times your dog has enough energy to go for a walk on a beautiful day or your sick cat can sunbathe on your lap on the porch.
Flea has enjoyed 9 good months since his last acute phase of SLO. During that time, his nails grew back and we went on lots of walks and adventures. I know that eventually he will probably experience nail loss again, but for now, we have a new appreciation for normal, healthy days.