Pets & Chronic Illness
“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”
As an avid animal lover, especially of dogs, when Louise asked me if I’d like to write an article about having pets when you’re chronically ill, I accepted right away. I am what is known as a caninetrovert: I prefer to spend my time with dogs over the company of humans; the more I am around people the bigger a caninetrovert I become. The bond you build with a pet is unlike any bond you can build with a human: they show a level of unconditional love, loyalty and companionship that is just beyond human capabilities and it is that that makes having them a huge ray of light to someone with chronic illness, but it’s a journey that isn’t at times without its setbacks. I would like to share with you my personal experience and the experiences of some lovely “Spoonies” that I know, with the hope of giving some insight into having pets while dealing with chronic illness to those who have been thinking about possibly bringing a pet into their lives.
As mentioned above, I’m all about dogs, I love all animals, always have since I was a little girl, but if there was ever an animal I gravitated to more than others, it was a dog. Growing up, I faced many challenges with events that happened in my family and I always felt uncomfortable around people; I felt alone even in groups of people and didn’t ever really fit in. I didn’t have many friends and looking back now, I don’t really think I ever felt that I wanted any because most of the ones I had weren’t really friends. As much as I could sometimes be sad in my own company, I almost preferred that to being around people and feeling alone and different. The first dog that stole a piece of my heart was owned by one of my parents: his name was Dylan and he was a beautiful tri-colour Rough Collie. The sweetest, most genuine soul I had ever known, he was the kind of dog that if you had a cut on your leg, he’d lie beside you and lick the wound because he wanted to help make it better. I loved watching him run freely around the dog park we used to take him to; he was so graceful, but he had a very cheeky side to him too and it was wonderful to see. He became my best friend growing up and he was still on the day I had to make the decision to ease his pain at sixteen years old. I think of him so fondly to this day and I will never forget him. What made the passing of Dylan only the slightest bit easier was that at the time I had my own dog, Vader. Dylan had come to live with me when my parent had to move to accommodation that wasn’t suitable for pets and I happily took Dylan under my wing for the last few years of his life. During that time, I got Vader: he was a black Labrador, full of love and mischief galore. Vader was two when Dylan passed, and without Vader I couldn’t have dealt as well as I did with Dylan’s passing, as there was still that companionship and sense of routine in my life.
I got Vader on 24th October 2008 and I had ten wonderful years with him, until 11th November 2018. At the time of writing this (May 2019), it is almost six months since I lost my boy Vader and I’m still grieving. I was diagnosed with all my illnesses when Vader was in my life and he always adapted with me. It was thanks to Vader on numerous occasions that my husband was alerted to me having fallen, fainted or had some sort of seizure. Investigations into my illness started in February 2013: I had fainted and hit my head on the top of the stairs in our home and it was Vader who found me, alerted my husband (my fiancé at the time) and sat with me until I came around. In the past six years of being chronically ill, there have been very dark times, times where I have felt so much anger and frustration at the life I now have to lead, and each time I knew I could turn to Vader and he would be there for me: he would lie with me in bed, giving me comfort and an ear to talk to, and when I fell asleep he would go from sleeping to guarding me to cuddling into me again. Of course, as with any relationship when chronic illness is a factor, there was strain and guilt; Vader was so strong by the time I was diagnosed, it meant I could no longer walk him, so I had to leave that part of his care to my husband. He would come with us on holidays up to the Scottish Highlands and it made me sad I couldn’t climb the hill walks that he so would’ve loved, but Vader being Vader, he didn’t care: he was with me, He happily ran around the land our lodge was on while I sat on a chair on the porch and watched him. He loved just sitting with me, watching the scenery and the world pass by. I missed being able to have our bonding time on walks but I tried my best to make sure that we had a bit of play time at home in the garden and in the house and he very often came in the car with us on day trip adventures. Once I had our boys, the bond I had with Vader grew stronger, as he not only showed me loyalty and companionship, but he watched over our boys from pregnancy to them being born to them reaching milestones. With my youngest son, Carson, I had a kidney infection near the later stage of my pregnancy and I remember saying to my husband a few days before the doctor diagnosed it, “Vader keeps lying behind me when I’m sitting on the couch or trying to lie on across my back when I’m lying on my side; that’s been every day for the last four days”; he knew before I did that I had an infection and he wanted to try and help me. My chronic illness journey has seen me lose friends I never thought I would lose, it has adapted the life I thought I would have, and it has changed many factors in the relationship I have with my husband; in many ways, I feel if it hadn’t been for Vader, I don’t know if I could’ve kept pushing through.
The day I had to make the decision to let him go came very suddenly: he hadn’t shown any signs of illness at all, then within a few hours during the early morning he deteriorated to a point where he wasn’t able to stand; his last steps were out of my bedroom to the landing on the stairs and it was like he didn’t want me to see him like that because he knew how much it would upset me. I lay on the stairs with him until my husband went to get my mother, who lives close by, to look after our boys, who were still in bed, and I told him he had been with me every time I needed him and I wasn’t going to leave him. I quietly talked away to him; in the past, when he was stressed with fireworks etc., I would sing a song to him, so I did that. We took him to the vet and she confirmed that I needed to make the decision, the one that took every bit of courage and strength inside me that I could muster. I’ve been through a lot of darkness in my life: I’ve lost people to death and other circumstances beyond my control but losing Vader has hit me with more force than I could ever have imagined. I miss all he was so very much: I miss his snore at night, I miss him waiting for my husband to get off the bed so he could jump up and lie beside me, I miss his beautiful eyes and his happy face. He will always hold a huge part of my heart and soul, and I will think of him every day until I meet him again. He was like a soulmate to me and one who changed my life: without him, I don’t feel the same. I suppose that is a dog’s only fault – their short time with us.
Vader on one of our day adventures. Picture taken by Rochelle Hanslow.
Our family made the decision to get a new dog, as I’m just not me without a dog in my life; Vader opened up our lives to something that we simply can’t be without for long. He will never be replaced but I know he wouldn’t want me to deny another dog the love we could give it. We looked into adopting from Dogs Trust, from local rescue shelters and even from Romania; however, having children under the age of five meant we weren’t able to adopt. I thought about having a different breed too, but everyone I contacted ended up not going anywhere until we found a fantastic Labrador breeder who lived 25 miles from us. The mother of the puppies has “Rogue One” in her name, and as Star Wars fans (hence the name Vader) my husband and I took it as a sign (Rogue One is a film in the Star Wars franchise) and arranged to view the puppies when it was suitable. I was an emotional wreck when I went with my husband, but out of the stunning litter of beautiful yellow/very pale white Labrador puppies was one who came straight up to me and my husband; no fussing about it, he just sat at my husband’s feet until he picked him up. I was holding another puppy at the time and then I swapped with my husband; I looked into the little guy’s eyes and I knew – it’s you. He gave me kisses and fell asleep in my arms. I had to wait three weeks after viewing to see him again. Wade Wilson is his name and he’s been with us since February 2019.
He has settled in well with our family and he and I have a great bond. Training was harder at times with Wade because Vader was already fully grown and trained by the time I got ill and he adapted to having the boys come along too; I had never had a puppy and children and chronic illness, and it was something I had wobbles with. Trying to make sure I had enough energy to deal with my boys and give Wade the critical interaction that he needed at the early stage of his life was taxing at times. I had a few tearful moments but I admit, on the days I started to feel I was struggling, I would go upstairs, hold Vader’s collar and talk to him for guidance. It didn’t matter to me whether he could hear me or not: it helped me feel like I still had a connection with him.
A fellow “Spoonie” friend, Victoria, gave me a little bit about her experiences with pets and chronic illness and she makes some great points for consideration:
“The most difficult parts have been toilet training and the routine things that need consistency. Because I rarely go out I’ve had to deal with separation anxiety also, as I’m always with them. A home trainer is helping with this, but this causes more expense because I can’t do it all. It is worth it though and I’m not complaining, but anyone who needs 90% or more of the time needing to lie down in bed really needs to consider that side of things. With all that being said, you can’t beat the Staffy tail wagging, Frenchie snuggling and the love and kisses.”
There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about bringing a pet into your life, and with chronic illness looming daily it can make your decision much harder. Here a few things to remember in your decision making:
- Different breeds of dog have different needs. A Pug, for example, won’t need as much stimulation or exercise as a Collie; however, all breeds need some level of stimulus and exercise. Consider carefully what breed you get: think about size, the home you live in and (a key factor) what the breed was originally bred for. A Labrador always wants to retrieve and needs this stimulus in its daily routine, for example, or some dogs may be more vocal than others. Make sure the breed matches your needs as well as matching the dog’s needs to your abilities.
- Dogs need training! So many people think that a dog comes with the knowledge they need to be a well-rounded and adjusted member of your family, but that’s not the case: they require the same effort and one-to-one time as children do to excel and develop. The first seventeen weeks of a dog’s life are a crucial period in their development and it is in this period that they are most susceptible to developing habits that can cause problems later in their lives. Can you commit the energy and time to ensure your dog can have the training and play time it needs?
- As with children, pets can cause added expense. Food, pet insurance, vet plans, training for dogs, worming and flea treatments and all the beds, bowls, toys etc. they will need, and most pets need some sort of injections and boosters each year. You need to consider this and do research, especially when it comes to insurance: it can be an expense every month that you may not ever need to use, but when it comes to vet bills for X-rays, MRI, water rehabilitation, even medicine for epilepsy or thyroid problems etc., insurance could really be helpful. Is it all in your budget?
- Neutering. Whether it is a dog, cat or rabbit (other pets also) it is important to think about neutering/spaying. Spaying for dogs is a more invasive procedure, therefore the cost will be higher, and the cost can vary with size of breed also. The last thing you want to deal with on top of chronic illness is puppies, kittens or baby rabbits and all the stress that comes along with that. There is also the fact that behavioural problems can occur, as well as some medical problems, without neutering.
These issues are all very important and definitely need to be considered when deciding whether to have a pet. There are, however, companies and charities out there that should also be considered:
- A local dog walker or daycare centre. Yes, there are now daycare centres for dogs that allow you to pay them to look after your dog (usually if you are at work etc. for long hours) and it gives the dog somewhere to socialise and sometimes receive training. There is no reason why, if you can budget for it, you couldn’t contact local centres near you and ask them if your dog could go there for maybe a few days a week. There are more and more dog walker companies out there these days; they have to follow strict guidelines and again, if you can budget for it, can really help you to have a dog when you have a chronic illness as they are paid to walk your dog for you. For more information you can try a search site like Pawshake, which can help find your nearest verified dog walker.
- The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) is a fantastic charity which offers help to people on certain benefits towards the veterinary costs of their pet. It is important to remember that it is a charity and with that there are certain terms that come with the help. You can get an application form from your local vet practice that participates in the scheme and along with the form you pay a £5 postal order. The scheme only covers one pet per household. Again, it is a charity and receives no government funding. As long as you qualify, you will be put on a list with your local vet practice and will receive help towards treating any sickness of your animal.
- Cats Protection is another amazing animal charity which not only shelters and rehomes stray or “unwanted” cats but also tries to educate people about cat welfare. It offers people on low incomes and certain types of benefits help towards neutering/spaying cats every year. The amount it offers towards it depends on your circumstances but please again remember it is a non-government-funded charity and funds this service from donations.
- For those of you in England, the RSPCA has clinics across England that offer reduced cost veterinary assistance to pet owners who meet their criteria.
- The Blue Cross operates across England and Wales and offers means-tested support to low-income families who live in the catchment areas of its clinics and hospitals.
- Dogs Trust offers free and subsidised treatments to pet owners who are homeless or in a housing crisis. This scheme runs in over 113 towns and cities in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
There are a lot of factors to consider but there are a lot of places that can help you and allow you to cope with chronic illness and give a pet the care it requires. If you are thinking about adding a pet to your life, please consider adoption: there are so many wonderful dogs and cats and other small animals who deserve a second chance at a forever home. Dogs Trust alone rescues 15,000 dogs a year in its 21 rehoming shelters in the UK and recent stats showed that the RSPCA rescued over 30,000 cats annually in the UK over the past few years. As much as there may be things that can cause some strain in owning a pet, in my mind they don’t outweigh the vast amount of love and companionship that a pet can bring you, especially in your darkest and worst times. It is true what is said and I know from my own experience that “a dog will bless you with the happiest days of your life and one of the worst”. I know a lot of people who will also agree that cats bring the same. We lose a lot of relationships due to chronic illness but I hope I have managed to give you advice that means you don’t have to miss out on a pet.