Can Avoiding Vacations and Business Trips Prevent Illness in Pets?


Dear Dr. Barchas,

I read your article via on why pets get sick when owners go on vacation. [Note: the questioner is not referring to the article published a few days ago. I originally covered the subject last year. Click here to read the article to which the questioner refers.]

I recently experienced the loss of my 13-year-old dog when I left for a business trip. Just before my trip, I took precaution by paying a visit to our vet. One week into my trip, I learned that my dog was admitted to the hospital with a kidney failure. It took me 29 hours to travel back home but I did get to spend the last hours with my dog.

Even though my dog’s mind seemed fully alert when he saw me, the vet saw a poor prognosis since his kidney condition hadn’t improved with hospitalization.

Just as a dog is impacted by an owner’s absence, do you believe an owner’s presence could cause recovery that goes against all odds? I wonder if my dog would be around had I had never left for the trip. I wish I had come across your article before my trip…maybe then I wouldn’t be dealing with the sadness and guilt of having lost my dog.

San Francisco

Your trip did not cause your dog’s illness. Staying home would not have prevented it. There is no reason to feel guilty.

Kidney failure generally develops slowly. This is especially true in 13-year-old animals. This means that your dog almost certainly had kidney failure for months before your trip.

Animals’ bodies naturally hide disease–from owners, from veterinarians, and from the animals themselves. Chronic diseases like kidney failure develop slowly. As the syndrome progresses, the affected animal’s body adapts to the condition. No outward symptoms occur. Without blood and urine tests, there is no way for any person to know that anything is wrong. Significantly, during this time the animal does not appear to feel sick.

Over time the condition progresses, and the body continues to adapt. This proceeds until a breaking point is reached. At some point, the disease reaches the point that the body no longer can tolerate it. Sometimes this happens for no obvious reason. Some times, stress such as hot weather, a bout of diarrhea, or the absence of the owner tips the balance.

When this point is reached, animals tend to get very sick very suddenly. An apparently healthy animal falls ill very quickly. But in fact the animal has been sick for a long time.

Your trip did not cause your dog’s illness. The illness was already there. Your trip was the last straw in a process that was inevitable.

You mention that your pet’s condition improved noticeably when you returned home to visit him. This is part of what is so amazingly about pets. They experience genuine joy at the sight of their loved ones. The joy makes them feel better.

In many cases, they feel better only temporarily. It is true that the presence of loved ones leads to a desire to get well, and a desire to get well helps with recovery (this is one of the reasons why therapy animals are used in hospitals — they motivate patients to get well). But with a very serious medical condition the pathology may be so advanced that getting well is not possible, no matter how motivated the patient. Although I don’t know the details of your dog’s situation, advanced kidney failure is one of the most relentless medical problems an animal can face.

I am very sorry for your loss.

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