When your dog is sick or not acting himself, you may feel unsure or worried about what to do. Through the bittersweet story of a dog named Zimmer, Dr. Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, shares five tips to help you navigate difficult times and know you did your very best for your dog.
If you suspect your dog isn’t quite feeling his best, often the signs are really subtle. Maybe you optimistically try to explain away symptoms as no big deal, or maybe you work yourself into a panic assuming the worst. As a veterinarian with over twenty years of experience, I’ve seen clients fall on both ends of the spectrum.
But I’d like to propose another option — one that comes with a healthy dose of common sense and allows you to remain calm, cool, and collected—the middle ground. It’s here that I propose you will best be able to help your dog.
Chris was one of my clients who understood the value of the middle ground in her conscientious care of her senior dog, Zimmer. Chris was proactive, prepared, and practical. I consider Chris the ideal dog mom. Drawing from her example and my own clinical experience, I’ll share five things you can do the next time your dog is sick.
A Labrador Retriever named Zimmer
Zimmer was a senior lab and quintessential gentleman.
Unable to resist his Labrador instincts, he suffered from chronic neck pain after a hard-hitting leap off a small retaining wall to chase a brazen squirrel. His primary care veterinarian prescribed anti-inflammatories, pain medications, and muscle relaxants that helped Zimmer to improve, but he never quite returned to 100%.
That’s where our relationship began.
I became a part of Zimmer’s health care team when Chris sought out spinal manipulation and acupuncture as a supplement to his treatment. Thankfully, Zimmer responded well and soon moved to maintenance appointments every couple months.
The last time I saw Zimmer, he was relaxing in my driveway as Chris and I chatted. We had pulled out chairs from my garage and a blanket for Zimmer, but he preferred to lie on the cold concrete. Chris talked about what a fighter he was — having rehabbed through his neck injury plus two cruciate ligament tears — now living a happy, active life.
My exam that day supported her claims. Zimmer appeared healthy, carefree, and strong.
When your dog is sick — subtle warning signs
Imagine my shock when I received an email from Chris just three weeks later because Zimmer was having trouble walking up the stairs. She was out of town, but relayed the report from her pet sitter and asked for my blessing to try nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which she kept on hand for his knee arthritis. I approved without hesitation, and we agreed to keep in close touch.
Like people, senior dogs have good days and bad days. So the next day, when Zimmer was back to his old self, Chris and I assumed he had rebounded from a bad day. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Instead, it was the calm before the storm.
When Chris returned home a couple of days later, Zimmer stopped eating anything other than treats. Since an upset stomach is a common side effect of NSAIDs, I advised Chris to stop the medication.
Knowing in her gut something was wrong, Chris made an appointment with Zimmer’s primary care veterinarian for the following morning. Zimmer didn’t have a fever, and his exam was unremarkable, except for swelling in his right front leg. The doctor prescribed more pain medication and an appetite stimulant. As a precaution, blood work was sent to an outside lab to check for any abnormalities.
While Chris waited for the blood work to return, Zimmer’s appetite decreased, despite the appetite stimulant — a major red flag. As Chris updated me throughout the day, my concern for Zimmer only grew. Chris agreed and took Zimmer for another recheck. Again, no fever and an unremarkable physical exam.
Don’t discount intuition when caring for a sick dog
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, Chris made the decision to drive Zimmer later that same day to our nearest veterinary referral/emergency center. Even though everything appeared to be checking out fine, she knew everything was not fine. She listened to her intuition.
Zimmer was seen as a walk-in emergency patient. Despite clear-sounding lungs, the emergency veterinarian ordered chest X-rays as a part of his workup. He diagnosed Zimmer with pneumonia and a tricky, difficult-to-diagnose heart murmur on the right side of his chest. Chris finally had some answers.
As noted in the exam notes, everything about Zimmer’s condition was unusual. He had “a complicated and atypical assortment of symptoms that weren’t easily explained and wouldn’t be easily treated.” As IVs pumped his body full of medications, Chris left him at the hospital overnight for treatment.
A heartbreaking call and a heavyhearted goodbye
At 3:00 a.m., Chris’s phone rang. Despite aggressive treatment, Zimmer was in full blown respiratory distress, and humane euthanasia was the only real option.
Chris rushed back to the emergency hospital to see Zimmer. Even though he was struggling to breathe, his eyes brightened when he saw his family walk into the ICU.
Chris later told me, “I’m so glad I saw that. He knew we’d come back to be with him. Even as he left us, I believe he could hear us tell him how much we loved him and what a good boy he was. He had a wonderful life. I just wanted to be selfish and have it continue a while longer.” Can’t we all relate to that?
Zimmer ultimately passed away from infective endocarditis — a life-threatening bacterial infection of the inner surface of the heart. Sadly, his story didn’t end with a miraculous recovery. But it is a bittersweet real-life picture of what saying goodbye often looks like. Chris and Zimmer’s experience also points to several important lessons to remember if your dog is showing signs of illness. I know for a fact Chris finds comfort in Zimmer’s legacy of helping other dogs through their story.
What to do when your dog is sick
The next time you suspect your dog is sick, it’s important not to wait to seek help. Here are five steps you can take:
- Trust your instincts. You know your dog better than anyone, so never hesitate to contact your veterinarian, advocate, ask questions, and pursue second opinions.
- Don’t ignore a loss of appetite. Zimmer’s loss of interest in food was a significant indicator of sickness. Contact your vet and get an appointment as soon as possible if your dog stops eating. Err on the side of caution with this symptom.
- Ask for blood work early. If your dog is ill, approve (or request) blood work at your dog’s vet appointment. Results may be life-saving. Most practices run blood work in-house for sick pets so you can have the results right away. Blood work is usually the first and best diagnostic tool when a dog is sick.
- Request a referral. Don’t be afraid to ask for a referral to a specialty hospital where your dog will have access to multiple specialists, advanced diagnostic testing, and round-the-clock care. Generally, these facilities offer emergency services and accept walk-in patients, exactly what Chris did for Zimmer.
- Know your dog’s vital signs. Your dog’s body temperature is one of five vital signs that can help you assess your dog’s health. Sometimes a fever is easy to detect. Other times, like in Zimmer’s case, it is much harder. Since certain medications can mask a fever, your dog could be very sick and still have a temperature within the normal range. By knowing your dog’s vital signs and establishing your dog’s baseline, you can alert your veterinarian if you observe a change.
A plan in place — long before you need one
As much as we love our dogs, the sad reality is all of our beloved family members will get sick and need our help one day. The time to prepare for those days is now — long before powerful emotions threaten to cloud our judgment on how we can best help our furry companions.
So the next time your dog acts a little “off,” remember these five tips and work closely with your veterinarian to formulate a plan. Whether it’s something mild or serious, you’ll know how to find the answers you need and get your dog on the fast track to recovery.
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In what special ways do you care for your dog when he or she is sick?
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