How to Manage Chronic Dog Illnesses Without Getting Overwhelmed

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PetMD Editorial
Published: November 26, 2018

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on November 26, 2018 by Katie Grzyb, DVM

Long-term dog illnesses or diseases that require ongoing treatment can feel overwhelming for pet parents. Diseases like diabetes mellitus, decreased kidney function and painful joint issues can be challenging, and are many other chronic dog illnesses that might require ongoing care as well. “Skin allergies, heart disease and chronic intestinal problems such as food allergies are all examples of chronic medical conditions,” says Dr. Suzy Fincham-Gray, ACVIM.

Many chronic conditions can be successfully managed with special diets, prescription pet medications and veterinary care, says Dr. Fincham-Gray. But to do it successfully, you need a plan of action that not only benefits your dog, but also helps you effectively cope with the emotional stress of caring for a dog with a chronic illness.

Having a plan can help relieve the caregiver burden. Here’s what you can do.

Get Things in Order

When your pet is taking several dog medications and needs regular appointments, you might worry that you’re forgetting something important. Finding ways to keep track of everything will not only make things more manageable, but will also help ease the stress of the process.

An easy way to start is to create a notebook to keep track of everything in one place. “One section can be dedicated to personal information about your pet—how they like to be rewarded, favorite foods, etc.” says Dr. Heidi Cooley, DVM, a general veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospital. “The rest can include medical information such as lists of medications, medication schedules, surgeries and copies of lab work for both daily and future reference.”

When you visit the vet, Dr. Cooley suggests bringing the notebook with you so you can update it on the spot. It also allows you to write down all your questions for your veterinarian in one place so you can refer back to them when you are at a vet visit.

“In addition, you should keep a separate, pet-specific calendar on your fridge or in your phone, and consider creating worksheets to organize your pet’s medications,” Dr. Cooley suggests.

When it comes to giving medication, organization is particularly essential. “A lot of my clients use weekly pill boxes to help organize medications, especially if a pet is needing more than one medication once or twice a day,” says Dr. Fincham-Gray. “And setting smartphone reminders for medication refills ensures you never run out at an inopportune time.”

If you're already using a wall calendar to keep track of things, Dr. Fincham-Gray suggests also using it to chart clinical signs in between appointments. “This can help give your veterinarian a good sense of how things have been going,” explains Dr. Fincham-Gray.

Be Open to Dietary Changes

Your dog’s diet can be an essential part of the successful management of chronic medical conditions, says Dr. Fincham-Gray. “Diet can help treat diabetes, kidney disease, intestinal disease, and even chronic arthritis and seizure disorders,” says Dr. Fincham-Gray.

Nutritional management and prescription dog food tend to be most vital for pets with kidney disease, urinary diseases/stones and diabetes, says Dr. Cooley. “Many long-term illnesses in pets are managed through nutrition and can serve as an additional aid for treating a pet’s condition,” Dr. Cooley explains. 

Although diet can have a dramatic impact on almost all animals, pets with a chronic dog illness can be especially sensitive to what they're fed. “When you have pets with long-term illness, it’s imperative to partner with your veterinarian on your pet’s diet—and any concerns or changes you notice,” Dr. Cooley says. “Some diseases may even make taste buds change or appetite diminish, so you may need to ask your veterinarian about different diet options as the disease progresses.”

Make Adjustments in Your Home Environment

Depending on what issues your pet is experiencing—difficulty moving, urinary incontinence, pain—you might need to make changes in your home to make his life easier. This will also make your life easier, because you won’t have to worry that your pet will fall, run into things or have accidents in the home.

For example, Dr. Cooley says you should pay attention to furniture placement if you have vision-impaired pets, to prevent them from running into objects or sharp corners. “If your pet has mobility issues, consider setting up baby gates or installing ramps to help protect pets from falls down stairs, adding rugs or carpeting to slick floors, and indoor ‘potty patches’ or litter boxes,” Dr. Cooley adds.

In addition, Dr. Fincham-Gray suggests using rugs to help dogs move around on slippery floors and providing dog ramps to get in and out of the car, upstairs and even into bed at night.

“Heating pads which are safe for use with pets can help dogs and cats with chronic joint pain, and finding the right type of bed that provides the most comfortable support for your pet can all be helpful,” Dr. Fincham-Gray says.

Consider Looking Into Alternative Treatments

While your pet might need to take medication or go through surgery as the main form of treatment, adding things like acupuncture, dog supplements or physical therapy can be a great way to help manage pain and help him heal faster.

“Incorporating integrative medicine to can also improve the quality of life for some pets by focusing specifically on symptom relief,” says Dr. Cooley.

Depending on the condition being treated, holistic treatments for dogs, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, therapeutic ultrasound, hydrotherapy, chiropractic care, and/or reiki, can all prove helpful when caring for dogs with chronic dog illnesses, says Dr. Cooley.

Always ask your veterinarian for recommendations if you're considering alternative treatments. “For example, many herbal supplements are available, but getting recommendations from a veterinarian with experience in this field is recommended, rather than choosing supplements online without recommendations,” Dr. Fincham-Gray says.

Keep Their Brains Busy

For pets who are less active or can’t spend much time outside, finding ways to keep them busy and entertained is key. “The most important thing for pets with chronic illness is to maintain their quality of life, but this doesn’t always mean they can enjoy the same activities they did before,” says Dr. Cooley.

If your dog has loved to play ball all of his life but can no longer partake in fetch sessions due to their age, illness, injury or other condition, Dr. Cooley recommends providing activities that incorporate a ball but don’t require as much physical activity. “This can include rolling or spinning a ball on the floor,” Dr. Cooley says.

Dog puzzle toys like the Trixie activity poker box or the ZippyPaws burrow squeaky hide and seek dog toy can help fight boredom. You can also try obedience training classes or practice sessions to stimulate your pet’s brain and keep him entertained. 

“For example, teach them a new trick, or refresh their stay, shake hands or other skills,” says Dr. Cooley. “These activities can help provide stimulation, especially when physical activity is decreased due to their condition.”

Understanding the physical needs and capabilities of your pet when they are sick is very important. “Spending time with them, snuggling on the couch, petting them and brushing them if they enjoy grooming can strengthen the bond between you and your pet and this is particularly meaningful and important when caring for a sick pet,” Dr. Fincham-Gray says.

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