5 Indispensable Tips on Caring for a Sick Pet


Make sure you follow your pet’s medication instructions to the letter. By: Laura D’Alessandro

What’s the hardest part about being a pet’s human? Probably caring about them so deeply, especially when that fur friend is unwell, in pain or unable to do what makes them purr or wag.

But don’t feel helpless — for better or for worse, your care makes all the difference.

An example of the latter was a cat I saw recently with a stomach upset. Treatment included antibiotics and bland food, but at the revisit, he was still ill. It turned out, to encourage the cat to eat, his client added curry sauce to the bland diet. Once we cut the curry sauce, the cat got well.

1. Keep Them Clean

A sick pet often lacks the energy to groom. Give a helping paw with a gentle daily brush and use damp cotton balls to clean their eyes, mouth, and ears. Sick cats in particular enjoy a cotton-ball blanket bath — it’s like being licked by another cat.

Pay careful attention to toileting needs. For bed-bound pets, provide bedding that wicks urine away from the skin, such as Vetbed or puppy pads. Gently sponge-bath their rear to keep it free from urine, then pat them dry. Also, if the pet is leaking urine, apply a barrier layer of Sudocrem or Vaseline over their delicate parts.

If the pet has bladder control but finds it difficult to walk, then provide an indoor toilet. This could be as simple as a puppy pad by the back door or a litter tray near their bed. This maintains their dignity (they don’t soil themselves) and minimizes the cleanup for you.

Never punish a sick pet for having an accident in the house. The pet is already distressed about not making it outside, so don’t add to their burden. Simply pop the pet in a safe place while you clean up the mess.

2. Provide Beneficial Bedding

Any animal who doesn’t move is at risk of bed sores or worse. Be sure to change the side they lay on at least once an hour. This prevents blood pooling in the lungs and causing complications, such as hypostatic pneumonia.

Vetbed is a great option because it cushions the joints and keeps moisture away from the skin. You can also offer deep layers of bedding, perhaps with towels on top for ease of laundering.

Another top tip is to put a water bowl within nose’s reach. Most ailing pets don’t want to get out of bed, so providing water close by reduces the risk of dehydration.

Give your pet a well-located, comfy place to rest. By: Tim Johnson

3. Rethink Food and Feeding

Ask your vet if there are any dos and don’ts about what the pet can eat (such as curry sauce). Then offer small portions, little and often.

Tricks to tip a pet over into eating are:

It’s usually a good idea to offer a food the pet hasn’t eaten before or is unlikely to eat again (such as steak). This is because some pets develop a food aversion to a flavor offered while they’re sick. It’s a bit like when you had food poisoning after eating at a seafood restaurant and now can’t bear to be in the same room as shrimp.

For the pet that refuses all foods, let the vet know. They can prescribe a recovery drink to syringe into their mouth.

4. Attend to Your Pet’s Medical Needs

Follow medication instructions precisely; 3 tablets a day means giving 1 tablet every 8 hours. This spacing is important for how the drugs work, and giving at 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. is not as effective.

For the pet with a poor appetite, avoid hiding pills in food. Doing so risks destroying what little interest they have in eating. Instead, learn to pop the pill straight down their throat (syringe water in afterward so it doesn’t stick in the gullet), or speak to the vet about injectable alternatives.

If you are struggling to administer treatment, talk to your vet tech. Many will be prepared to do a home visit for a small fee to assist you in giving meds.

This old dog goes everywhere with his human:

5. Maintain Your Pet’s Quality of Life

An elderly pet or one with a terminal illness needs special care to keep life enjoyable. Be sure to spend time grooming and playing with them several times a day. Provide them with toys and chews, and play games such as hunt the treat.

Where appropriate, get the pet out and about, even if this means putting an arthritic dog in a buggy and pushing them to the park.

Whether your pet is short-term sick or permanently ill, know that your tender loving care makes a real difference to their feelings of well-being. There’s no substitute for good TLC.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Aug. 25, 2017.

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