Dog getting bandage
Even though I’m a seasoned veterinarian, I am as anxious as anyone when my pets are sick or injured. When my own little QT Pi was fighting for his life after a distemper outbreak in the shelter where we found him, I was in agony. And as a father, I’ve been on the other side, too: My daughter, Mikkel, often turns to me for reassurance when her dogs are sick.  

So I understand when pet owners share with me how anxious they are during a pet’s emergency, especially if it’s life-threatening. I’ve been there — with my patients, my pets and my granddogs.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to cope during the long wait. Hopefully, my time-tested strategies will help you, too, if your pet is sick or injured. Though they won’t take away the stress and fear — not completely anyway — I’ve found that they help me to relax, so I can think straight and make good decisions. Fear and anxiety are normal reactions in an emergency, but they don’t have to be in charge.

5 Things to Do in a Veterinary Emergency (and 1 to Skip)

Rely on your vet — not the internet. Let’s start with what not to do: Resist the urge to Google your pet’s signs. An overload of information isn’t likely to be helpful — it will just give you more things to worry about, which can increase your anxiety. Instead, put your trust in your veterinarian, who has the training, experience and insight needed to care for your pet.

Take a deep breath.
When you’re confronting a pet emergency, remember to breathe first. Not rapid, hyperventilating breaths but slow, deep breaths. It will help to calm you. Taking deep breaths helps carry oxygen to the brain. That’s going to help you think more clearly about what you need to do. Anytime you are stressed or fearful about something, you need to do four things: Stop, breathe, think, then act.

Reach out.
Once you have your pet at the veterinary hospital and he’s being cared for, don’t sit and fret or pace the floor. Call a sympathetic, supportive friend, neighbor or family member. Talk out your worries with her. She might even come sit with you at the hospital. Even better, she might help you out by taking care of things at home for you — walking or feeding other pets, for instance. A really great friend will volunteer to do these things for you, but don’t be afraid to ask if you need help. Most people are glad to jump in if you just let them know what you need.

Stay busy.
Fretting while your pet is being examined or undergoing surgery isn’t productive. Work on your knitting or crocheting, read a book, or watch something funny on television. Laughter is one of the best ways we can relieve tension, even if we are upset or sad or worried. It really is the best medicine.

Keep moving. Light physical activity can also help manage your anxiety. Do some stretches — stretching increases blood flow to muscles and helps them to relax. It also sends blood to the brain, which can help improve mood and reduce stress. If your pet is in surgery or otherwise being cared for and there’s nothing else you can do, take a walk. The exercise and fresh air will help to soothe your fears. Taking a walk also increases your brain’s production of endorphins — feel-good hormones — which can help to reduce signs of anxiety.

Give yourself permission to cry. Don’t hold in your tears. It’s perfectly normal to cry when you’re anxious or frightened. Those tears are your body’s pressure relief valve. Shedding them may also release stress hormones from the body.

One last thought: It won’t help if you’re experiencing a pet emergency right now, but in the future, take a pet first-aid class. If you do have an emergency with your pet, you’ll feel more confident about responding to it and then getting him the professional help he needs. Repeat the class annually to reinforce what you know and learn new information.

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