Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Social Help

Need a hand caring for your dog or making pet care decisions? A veterinary social worker may be able to help

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When my father died in July, I flew out to Oklahoma to help my stepmother with the funeral and other arrangements. I expected to be there for a week, but then my stepmother fell and broke her wrist and kneecap -- necessitating surgery and a lengthy stay in a rehab facility.

That brought up a big question: Who was going to care for her pets? I was able to stay an additional two weeks, but I had to be home by the end of the month to take care of my husband and our dogs after his hip replacement surgery.

My stepmother, Ann, didn’t have a regular pet sitter, and her animals -- an elderly toy poodle and a skittish cat -- were not good candidates for a boarding kennel. We needed someone who could stay in the home or make multiple visits daily, give medication, and spend time with 16-year-old Spike, who was grieving for my father. I wasn’t familiar with the resources in the area, and I had my hands full with everything else that was going on.

A veterinary social worker might have been able to help us navigate this quandary.

“These kinds of situations crop up all the time,” says Jeannine Moga of Smithfield, Virginia, a licensed clinical social worker. Moga’s work takes her into the places and situations where human and animal needs meet: homes, hospitals and veterinary clinics, to name a few. She also works in cases involving domestic violence.

Veterinary social workers have training in human-animal interactions and relationships, and may be employed by veterinary hospitals or have their own practices. Their clients might have an acute illness, an unexpected surgery or an injury from a fall or car accident -- any of which could render them unable to care for their pets for days, weeks or even months. In other instances, clients may be facing a long-term health crisis, such as a diagnosis of cancer or dementia, or a dangerous home situation involving domestic violence. They may not have family members or friends who can help.

The role of the social worker is to help clients figure out how to manage not only their animals’ care, but also their own.

“Sometimes the difficulty of finding care for an animal can prevent people from staying on track with their own health care needs,” Moga says.

It’s important to make pet care contingency plans now, so they can be set in motion if you face an emergency. This is also something that seniors and their adult children should discuss. Moga says that since the pandemic began, this issue has been “at the forefront of people’s minds, because you might get sick very suddenly.” She adds that pet owners should “plan in advance for any potential interruption in their animal’s care related to their own health and well-being.”

She recommends starting with small steps, such as writing down details about animals’ daily needs: where they eat and how much, where you keep their food, whether they receive regular medications, how often you change the litter box, what the dog’s walk or play routine is like, and so on. Include a list of pet care contacts, such as the veterinarian, the nearest emergency clinic and the groomer (if pets have regular appointments) -- as well as someone who has agreed to provide emergency pet care or transportation, and who has a key to your home. Post the information on the front of your refrigerator where it can be easily found.

In my stepmother’s case, we were fortunate that her great-granddaughter was able to move in temporarily to take care of Spike and Daisy. But helping Ann put together a care plan -- and updating my own -- is now at the top of my to-do list.


Why is my pet

acting up?

Q: How can I better understand my pet? She often misbehaves or seems angry, and I’m never sure why.

A: When I work with clients, I see three common causes of problem behaviors in dogs and cats. Here’s what they are and how to get back on track to a good relationship.

The first is misunderstanding or ignoring a pet’s body language. You may not notice that your pet is asking for space because she’s afraid, anxious or stressed. When you don’t respond to signals such as yawning or lip-licking in dogs, or squinting or turning the head away in cats, your pet may progress to growling or snarling to get the message across. You, in turn, read that as “bad behavior” instead of recognizing that your pet is expressing fear, anxiety or stress.

Another common mistake is putting a pet in a situation she’s afraid of -- one involving small children or loud noises, for instance -- so she can get used to it. Insisting that she allow your 5-year-old nephew to hold her or running the vacuum in the same room with her can cause panic and increase fear. Instead, use gradual desensitization and counterconditioning to help reduce her stress and be better able to manage it in scary situations.

I also see people forcing pets to accept nail trims or having tangles combed out. In the struggle to escape what may have previously been a painful experience -- it hurts to have nails “quicked” or hair pulled -- pets may struggle, potentially injuring themselves or the person handling them. That makes it difficult to ensure that they get good care. A better approach is to work quietly and calmly to teach pets that rewards come with calm cooperation. You can find videos and articles about body language, behavior and training at -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Dogs vie for

mayoral title

-- A 6-month-old French bulldog named Wilbur prevailed over incumbent Brynneth Pawltro, a pit bull, in the heated race for mayor of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky (population 426). In this quadrennial contest, it’s common practice to pay for votes -- $1 each -- and anyone is eligible to do so. People from around the world determine the election’s results while raising funds for the Rabbit Hash Historical Society, which benefited this year to the tune of nearly $23,000.

-- November is National Pet Cancer Awareness Month. Among the types of cancer pets can get are lymphoma, bone cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer, anal sac cancer and oral cancer. Watch for these warning signs, and take your pet to the veterinarian if you see any of them: loss of appetite or difficulty eating; rapid weight loss; diarrhea or vomiting; loss of interest in play or exercise; difficulty defecating or urinating, or changes in frequency of defecation; abnormal stiffness; severe lethargy; unusually strong or foul odors; blood coming from the mouth or rectum; increased thirst and urination; respiratory changes; abnormally firm swellings; or masses along the jaw or toothline.

-- Baby, it’s cold outside! Protect pet skin, fur and paws from winter’s chill with the following tips: Ward off itchy, flaky skin by using a humidifier in your home and drying your pet thoroughly when he comes in from playing in the snow. Rub petroleum jelly into paws before taking your dog outdoors to help pads retain moisture and protect them from deicing salts and other chemicals on streets and sidewalks. For dogs with longer hair on their face, belly, legs, tail or paws, prevent development of ice balls by trimming hair (especially between toes) or putting a coat on to protect the belly area. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.