Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Puppy Pitfalls: Are Pets and Chronic Illness a Good Match?

If you’re chronically ill, is it a good idea to bring a pet into the house?

Rusty and Scout at the front window
In early June, my husband and I brought 12 week-old puppy into our house to join us and our 9 1/2 year-old hound dog, Rusty. I’ll be honest. Given the effect it’s had on my health, I’ve questioned at times whether we made a wise decision. I purposefully waited a few months to write about it so I wouldn’t form a snap judgment and so I could put the experience into perspective.

By now, I’ve fallen in love with our little lab, Scout, and can’t imagine not having her with us. But it’s been hard on me. Bottom line: I’m doing more, but I’m also feeling more sick.

I wrote this piece, hoping to provide guidance for those of you who are chronically ill (including those with chronic pain) and are considering getting a pet. I’m allergic to cats, so my experience is with dogs, goldfish, and—many years ago—a cute little mouse. This piece is about getting a puppy.

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Ever since my mother got me a puppy to help ease the pain of my father’s death when I was ten, I’ve had a dog in my life. One dream I’ve always had was to have two dogs at the same time. And so, because I’m home almost all the time—and alone a lot of that time—last Fall, my husband and I began to think about getting a puppy.

Once we decided to do it, we thought we were adequately accommodating my illness by not bringing her home until she was 12 weeks old. We were told that, by then, she’d be both housebroken and sleeping through the night.

Here’s what I’ve garnered from this experience.

The Downsides

1. It can be an expensive venture.

The bills added up fast: the cost of the puppy; the cost of her being kept longer than eight weeks; collars; leashes; a bed; chew toys; poop bags and a spray that supposedly makes the area where she has an “accident” smell unappealing to her (it never worked); stuff for puppy-proofing the house, including two doorway gates to keep her from roaming freely; a dog walker since my illness and my husband’s other responsibilities makes it impossible for us to adequately exercise a puppy. Then there was the matter of puppy food—two half-used bags containing kibble that didn’t agree with her tummy.

And don’t forget the vet bills. Before Scout was 16 weeks old, we’d spent almost $400 on a vet exam, two puppy immunizations; two medications to treat common but different puppy parasites that showed up when we had her stool tested. (Note: As I was putting the finishing touches on this piece, Scout broke two bones in her right front leg, requiring two surgeries on successive days to repair. I've written about it in this piece: “Anything Can Happen at Any Time.”)

My most desperate and wasteful purchase was a set of blinds for the bedroom windows. I’d read on the internet that if you keep the bedroom dark, a puppy won’t get up when the sun rises (in June, that was at 5:30 a.m.). It didn’t work. Good thing I bought them cheap at Amazon, but still, it was another expense.

2. Sleep deprivation can go on for several weeks, maybe a couple of months.

Sleep deprivation plays havoc with my illness, but we thought we had this handled. We planned to do with Scout what we did with Rusty when he was a puppy: leave her in a crate in the kitchen at night until her sleep hours coincided with ours. What we didn’t count on is that she came to us with such severe separation anxiety that she howled all night long in the crate and was clearly traumatized in the morning.

After four nights of this, we knew something wasn’t right. Even though plenty of people on the web will tell you to force her to stick it out, our instincts told us that this wasn’t normal puppy behavior, so we consulted with our neighbor, Cayce Wallace, who is our town’s dog behavioral expert. She said you should never crate a dog who has separation anxiety. You can use a crate to teach a puppy not to have separation anxiety, but if he or she already has it, the crate will only make it worse. (The SPCA website confirms this.)

Cayce suggested that we put her in our bedroom at night on a secured leash so she couldn’t wander freely, and then, during the day, practice several techniques to train her not to be afraid to be alone.

We’ve followed Cayce’s instructions and they’re working, but having her sleep in the bedroom has disturbed my sleep—not a lot, but it doesn’t take much sleep disruption for me to feel very sick the following day. Sleep disruption in the short term is no big deal for healthy people (it doesn’t seem to bother my husband), but if a good night’s sleep is the single most effective treatment for your medical condition, as it is for mine, this disruption can play havoc with how you feel. For the first six weeks, I spent most of my time in a daze.

Scout finally began to sleep through the night, but I’ve still had to adjust to a new sleep schedule. I’ve written before that one thing I like about being chronically ill is that I don’t have to answer to an alarm clock anymore. Well, I do now—in the form of Scout’s 6:30 a.m. tongue, licking my face to tell me it’s time to wake up for the day.

3. You may have to lie down to rest whenever your puppy does.

Before Scout came, I took one nap midday for about an hour and a half. Now I lie down whenever I can. Having her is like having a newborn baby in the house. When she takes a little nap, if at all possible, I immediately lie down too.

One reason I have to lie down so much is that, even though she’s slowly learning to sleep until 7:00 a.m. (which is when I tend to naturally wake up), before Scout, I didn’t get out of bed at 7 and start tending to a puppy! I’d lie in bed—sometimes until 9:00—and listen to the radio or fiddle on my computer. Now when I wake up, I have to take her outside, feed her, and play with her. Almost every morning, I look at the clock and say, “It’s only 8 a.m.? You’ve got to be kidding. It feels like noon!”

4. Puppies are incredibly energetic and also need to be socialized to the world in the first few months of their lives.

Here’s another area where financial constraints may come into play. My husband is often busy during the day and is sometimes out of town for days at a time. I can’t give Scout the exercise she needs. Rusty plays with her some, but mostly tries to get away from her sharp little baby teeth. Fortunately, our budget allows us to pay a student to come and walk her several times a week.

In addition, before a puppy is four months old, it’s crucial to expose her to the world—to people of all ages and sizes and looks; to different things in the environment, like noises. It’s called “puppy socialization.” I thought I could handle this. I had visions of my husband taking me and the two dogs to my favorite espresso place and sitting outside with all of them. What was I thinking? I wasn’t able to leave the house at all for the first three weeks. I was too sick from all the extra exertion. For us, this meant more money into the pockets of helpers.

Oh, and about that being housebroken at 12 weeks old….yes, she was trained to go outside, but it was by using a doggie door. Given the structure of our house, we can’t install one. As a result, we just about had to start at the beginning with housebreaking.

5. There will be lots of times when you’ll have to ignore your body pleading with you: “Don’t do that!”

I’ve written before about how, as a teacher, I lived mostly in my mind not my body but that since become sick, I’ve learned to listen to my body. Now, when I see Scout standing at the back door, my body might be telling me, “You’re too sick to get up and let her out.” I hear my body’s message, but I ignore it and get up anyway. Letting her out is preferable to cleaning up more pee in the house!

My body might be also be saying, “You’re too exhausted to play with her one more minute.” But my mind is saying, “Yes, but just a little more play and she’ll sleep through the night.” And, am I supposed to listen to my body telling me that I have no “juice” left to stop her from chewing on a furniture leg? No. I ignore my body and save the family heirloom.  

6. Caring for a puppy may affect your ability to socialize with other people.

I have two friends whom I try to see each week. I meet them on two different days at a local espresso place. I try to go even if I’m feeling really sick because it gives me an emotional lift to get out of the house. The first few weeks after Scout came, I had to cancel our visits. It was all I could do to get through the day. Then I began to invite them to come over, but only for a very short visit. It’s been difficult for me.

7. Caring for a puppy may affect your ability to be flexible in your schedule.

As I mentioned above, I’m doing more (and that may be a good thing) but I’m also feeling more sick. The way this has played out in my day-to-day life is that the “windows of opportunity” during the day when I’m feeling well enough to visit with people or do other thinkgs have shrunk. Before getting Scout, on a good day, those windows were a couple of hours in the morning, and 3-4 hours in the afternoon.

Now, the only time I feel well enough to visit or do other things is a 2-3 hour time period in the afternoon, right after my nap. In the mornings, getting out of bed earlier, plus the exertion it takes to care for the puppy uses up all my energy. In the afternoon, by about 4:00 p.m., I start counting the hours until I can retire to the bedroom at 7:00.

And so, having Scout has cost me flexibility. I’ve even cancelled two doctor’s appointments and rescheduled them to be within that 2-3 hour time frame. And, at the moment, I only make plans to see people during those hours. In effect, my non-puppy life has shrunk to that 2-3 hour period. I truly hope this changes, because the lack of flexibility is hard on me emotionally.

The Upsides

1. This:

2. Coping better with isolation and loneliness

As I indicated above, at first, having Scout increased my isolation because I was unable to visit with people at all. In addition, my husband was out of town for 2 1/2  weeks in July. I want him to go off into the world and see people who are important in his life—and in our lives. I don’t want him to be housebound just because I am. At least now, when he’s gone, I’ve doubled my company: I have Rusty and Scout.

Rusty is an independent sort. He’s happy to be rubbed, but he’s just as happy to be on his own. Right now at least, Scout is great company. She cuddles with me. She licks my face. She’s excited to see me in the morning and after each rest. I definitely don’t feel as isolated or lonely with two dogs around.

3. Young life in the house

There’s something precious and sweet about young life in the house. I’ve been joking that, since Scout’s arrival, I haven’t had a single moment of existential angst. Who has time for it? There’s new life to look after and protect! There’s cardboard boxes to clean up after she’s torn them into tiny pieces!

And then there’s that phenomenon called crazy puppy to keep track of—something that seems to overtake her once or twice a day. When it hits, she starts running around wildly, with great joy and abandon, slipping and sliding on the floors, grabbing at anything she can find. It makes me happy just to watch her.

***

You may have noticed that the Downsides outnumber the Upsides 7 to 3. Even so, for me, the Upsides are weightier and so have come to “outweigh” the Downsides. But I would not tell another person to get a puppy without thinking it through very carefully. Given my illness, getting an adult dog might have been a better idea, and I’m not sure I’d have been able to handle a puppy were we not able to pay someone to help with exercising and socializing her.

Most of us have a fantasy about what our ideal pet would be like, whether it’s a puppy or another critter. In the months leading up to getting Scout, I had my fantasy about what she’d be like: playful, cuddly, eager to please, easy to impose my will on. But this fantasy didn’t include pee on the Persian rug, unbounded energy, or a determination to get into things I don’t want her to get into.

I learned the hard way that living in a fantasy world in the months leading up to getting Scout made the adjustment that much more difficult for me. My fantasy reminds me of the Indian aphorism: when a pickpocket meets a saint he only see’s the saint’s pockets. All I saw before Scout came to live with us was her cuddly cuteness.

She can still be a handful, but the day I got down on the floor with her when she was still groggy from sleep and called her “my princess,” I knew I could never give her up.

If you’ve had experiences with pets and chronic illness, please share them with all of us.

© 2014 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also like “5 Tough Choices You Face When Chronically Ill or in Pain.”

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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