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How to Keep Your Healthy Dog Happy When His Sibling Is Sick

When my Dolly battled cancer, her pal Spot tagged along on appointments and kept everyone's spirits high. Don't forget to care for your healthy dog, too.

 |  Nov 6th 2012  |   6 Contributions


In September, I wrote about my Dolly girl’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. Comments on the story were numerous -- and heartbreaking when readers shared stories of loss instead of recovery -- but one response stood out and made me think twice about how I handled my other dog during this time.

Carol S. noted, “One thing you didn’t mention much was the impact on Spot, or maybe you were lucky and there wasn’t much.”

Her pup Milo was diagnosed with lymphoma three years ago, and his brother and best friend Marley suffered along with him. She commented that her healthy dog became more anxious than usual and lost weight, and that he sunk into a depression when Milo eventually succumbed to the cancer.

“Your other pets may need just as much support as your sick pet,” she said.

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Dolly, top, and Spot get ready for one of many trips to Southwest Veterinary Oncology this year.

Until I read this comment, I had not thought much about the impact of Dolly’s cancer on Spot. He was the healthy one, after all. I began to wonder: Did I manage the situation well? Should I have done more for Spot?

I considered my actions. I also talked to Spot and Dolly’s new trainer to get his take as I was putting together advice for those of you facing a similar situation. 

Spot came with us to almost every appointment

Dolly had two surgeries and 24 radiation treatments over the course of three months at Southwest Veterinary Oncology in Arizona. With the exception of picking her up after surgery, Spot tagged along with us. I did not want to leave him home alone, and I selfishly wanted his company while I waited for sometimes hours at the oncology center.

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Spot became fast friends with Jamie Smith, left, and Jenny Saylor at the front desk.

I believe this was the right thing to do. The staff doted on Spot, giving him more love and treats than any pup could want. When invited, he climbed onto the laps of other pet parents and provided comfort. Spot even made a few friends, including a chicken named Henry who was waiting for a sick sibling, too. We also went for walks around the complex and played fetch on grassy stretches while Dolly was in treatment.

When she finally emerged from the back of the oncology center each day, sometimes a little woozy from anesthesia and always hungry having skipped breakfast, Spot greeted Dolly with a gentle hello and escorted her to the car. At that point, both were more than ready to go home, but I do not regret bringing him as doing so helped keep all of our spirits high. 

My advice: Many people must drop off and pick up when a sick pet requires lengthy treatment sessions during the work week. If you have the freedom to wait, bring your healthy dog, too, and see how it goes. If he or she behaves and tolerates the setting well, you can provide each other with emotional support during this stressful time. But if it all proves too much for your healthy dog, ask a friend or family member who stays home during the day for help. My retired parents were more than happy to Spot-sit when I asked.

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Spot felt right at home in the waiting area of the oncology center after a few visits. In fact, more than once his snoring drew the attention of other pet parents who thought it was me.

I always tried to project a positive attitude

From diagnosis through Dolly’s recovery period, I was a bit of an emotional mess. My soul sister had a life-threatening illness, and the radiation treatment resulted in uncomfortable side effects that took weeks to heal. The daily commute and waiting time also ate up half of my work day, making for long nights with the laptop. It was rough. Through it all, though, I tried to stay positive and hope for the best. 

Turns out, my attitude was more important than I knew at the time.

“There are so many emotions involved with cancer -- with the humans, the sick dog, and the siblings,” said Nathan Dunham, Spot and Dolly's previously mentioned trainer. “If the humans constantly feel sorry for the sick dog and project that, it can make the other dogs feel like something’s really, really wrong, and that will have a negative effect on them. We have to project a positive attitude, that everything will be okay, since we can’t explain the situation.”

My advice: Easier said than done, I know, but put on a brave face and plan special events that include both of your pups. We stopped by our neighborhood pet boutique and bakery on the way home from the oncology center each Friday for a tasty treat or new toy. 

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The pups get a special end-of-a-long-week treat from Bone Appétit Bakery & Boutique owner Helen Goldblatt.

Spot got extra attention and playtime

Because Spot’s partner in play was out of commission, I stepped in to assume her duties. We swam and fetched and took long walks while Dolly quietly recovered on the couch. 

Again, I instinctively did the right thing, according to Dunham.

“You definitely have to up the exercise for the dog that isn’t sick,” he said. “Walk more, play more, find games that get him thinking. That way, he’s tired -- both physically and mentally -- and content.”

Spot kept an eye on Dolly, regularly checking in with a quick sniff or lick, but he didn’t try to engage her in play. I believe that the activity helped wear him out, but that he also knew Dolly wasn’t quite right and needed her space. This proved especially important as she recovered from side effects that turned her treated leg into a crusty mess, which needed rest.

My advice: Make extra play dates and walks with your healthy pup a priority during this time. Also, invest in an interactive toy or two. Such toys present a physical and mental challenge your dog can tackle on her own. And don’t be shy about asking a friend or family member for help if your sick pup needs supervision while you are away. A cone of shame can only provide so much protection!

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Spot got more trips to the pool than usual while Dolly recovered.

Has one of your dogs gotten seriously sick? If so, how did you handle the other dog or dogs in your family? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments!

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