Winter Worryland

Oscar, NE Portland    Erik Schultz Photography

Oscar, NE Portland

Erik Schultz Photography

Benjamin Franklin’s quote “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is the unspoken maxim of the veterinary emergency room.  Still, even those of us who start forewarnings of holiday hazards as early as the first school bell in fall understand that an inevitably sad side to the festivities remains.  We of the fellowship of the hairy lab coats know that keeping the new puppy from chewing light cords, the cat from slurping tinsel, or the Lab from gorging on a stolen turkey carcass/ham bone/box of chocolates (reader’s choice — pick your favorite) will not stop our ER from being busy Thanksgiving through New Years Day.  Dreaded chronic illnesses have a way of flaring up during winter holidays, and animals with cancer, immune diseases and metabolic disorders such as diabetes often are frequent flyers in the ER.  

Being stuck inside due to inclement weather — in addition to entertaining Uncle Clem from Kansas — causes stress for us and our furry housemates.  Wind and rain make arthritic joints ache, and pets with breathing and heart issues work extra hard to get through daily walks.  The stress of visiting relatives or changes in routine can unmask chronic medical conditions that your pet’s body has been keeping in check.  As stressors cause a release of unwanted chemicals, organ systems are bombarded, and that delicate internal balance is gone.  This can lead to waking up Christmas morning to find an unwanted surprise under the tree — a sick best friend.

No one wants to believe that their beloved pet has a chronic or terminal illness, especially during the “season of joy.”  And of course a trip to your veterinarian — or worse, the veterinary ER — is far from festive.  As tough as these things are, it’s best for our pets if we recognize a problem and try to make them feel better than to bury our  heads in the sand (or eggnog or figgy pudding — again, reader’s choice).  Many advances in veterinary medicine are boosting the fight against major diseases, so they’re not the hopeless situations they once were. 

The increased life expectancy of our pets is a boon to the human/animal bond, but it comes with a downside:  pets are now more predisposed to the development of cancer and chronic illnesses. 

Most cancers in veterinary medicine were once deemed "incurable,” but research is finding more tumor types that are responsive to treatments.  And those treatments are increasingly accompanied by minimal to no negative side effects.  There are so many more options than in the old days, when choices were limited to removing an offending limb or discussing euthanasia.  Today treatment options abound (pain management, medical or radiation therapy, nutrition) to stem the flow of disease and provide good quality of life. 

Chronic illness was once a life sentence:  the proverbial “ball and chain” where the owner was destined to stay close to home, administering multiple daily medications or making frequent trips to the vet.  Diabetes is a classic example of a situation where pet owners once felt “doomed” by a diagnosis that today involves more treatment options, diets and home monitoring.  Life with the diagnosis of a diabetic cat is dramatically better.  When cats, like people, get off the kitty cushion and cut carbs, the specter of complications and shorter life expectancy diminishes.

More options are also now available for pets with conditions requiring frequent vet visits or home treatments.  One example is the advent of pet sitters; some are qualified and even specialize in administering meds or fluids to dogs or cats.  Any time an owner can avoid wrestling to get their cat or schlepping the dog to the vet clinic is a good day for man and beast.  The moral of the story — don’t hesitate to act if you suspect something is not right with your pet.  Just as in our own healthcare, swallowing your fears and seeking a solution sooner makes way for the best possible outcome — for you, your pet, and even your pocketbook.  While a diagnosis of cancer or major disease is never a happy occasion, medical advances in the past decade have not only eased the treatment process, but in many cases made a better outcome possible.

So, what are some things you can do to be “pet proactive” when the weather changes and Santa’s on his way?  Don’t overload your pets with goodies or arrange festive outings with 47 of their furry friends complete with hats and stuffed toys.  Sometimes we — even veterinarians — forget that the holiday season is for HUMANS.  For our pets, any day their human is around is a holiday.  Unlike us, they don’t need fudge-dipped red and green sprinkled Oreos to feel special.  A walk around the neighborhood to see squirrels, followed by an uninterrupted hour on the couch truly is Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Saint Swithun’s day all rolled into one for your pup.  As for your cat, substitute a few minutes of “bat the string” followed by a catnip-induced coma (minus the walk) and watch the feline disdain fade. 

It is important to step back from the frantic pace and make sure you’re taking a few minutes to stop and smell the Rover — and not just for a whiff of chronic ear infection.  Schedule periods of rest for you and your pet during the holidays.  Find a quiet room and relax with them, watch how they move and breathe, and touch them from head to toe, looking for anything “out of place.”  This is a gift you can give your dog and/or cat and yourself.  That little nagging thought that something might be wrong is often right on the nose.  So many of my conversations in the ER with pet owners have included “you know your pet best” — a simple lack of energy or appetite, or a slight limp caught by an astute eye has often detected a disease process and helped a pet live a longer, better life.  Keep the numbers for your regular veterinarian and the local veterinary emergency hospital (for nights/weekends/holidays) close at hand.

Like most of life, the secret to keeping pets — just as with people — around for many holidays to come is not being afraid to find problems and then figuring out ways to make things better. 


Dr. Heidi Houchen is an ER/Critical Care veterinarian at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists in Clackamas; she writes and lectures extensively about trauma, blood banking, and toxicology.  She is especially passionate about keeping pets and poisons apart.