How to Care for Your Pets When You’re in Survival Mode


Life can be hard.

That’s true on a daily basis–paying bills, standing in line at the post office, dealing with angry or unreasonable people, remembering to move the 3 million moving parts it takes to get through a week of work/appointments/school/activities, whatever–and it’s true in more acute moments when you’re faced with a particularly difficult challenge.

Scary medical diagnoses. Caring for an ill or aging family member. Failing a class. Starting or losing a new job. Having a baby. Losing a loved one. Moving.

The list goes on.

When you’re hit with something that causes a major stress response, you might shift into “survival mode.”

What It Means to Be in Survival Mode

Survival mode is considered a regression to your primal instincts. AKA, you’re just trying to survive.

Your goal becomes getting through the day.

Lest you feel bad or guilty for feeling like you’re barely surviving, know that it’s a natural response to stress. Of course, knowing that it’s okay is way different than taking care of all your responsibilities while you’re actually in survival mode.

When you’re in survival mode AND you have pets, well, you still need to take care of those animals. Their entire wellbeing rests on your shoulders, and you’re barely getting through the day. Pet care can feel like a huge strain.

Since you need to focus on pulling yourself out of this tough spot while you take care of those who rely on you, some simple strategies can help.

So, let’s dig into easy pet-care tips for when you’re in survival mode.

Note: This is a judgement-free zone. We all go through tough times. It helps to be kind and supportive to those struggling because, let’s be real, your time will come when you need help, too. Unkind or judgey comments will be deleted. Also, I am not a medical professional. Please seek help from an understanding mental or primary healthcare provider if you are feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety.

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What happens when your body is in survival mode?

Every body is different of course, but most people who get stuck in this space experience physical symptoms like aches, pains, and tense muscles; mental and emotional symptoms like irritability, anger, stress, feeling like you have to rush or can’t do anything at all, and crying; and an inability to sleep or deep desire to get lots and lots of sleep. You might also become forgetful and overwhelmed.

How do you then push through your basic tasks–like taking care of your pets–when your body, mind, and heart are wrung out?

Pet care in survival mode is all about the absolute basics.

Create a List of Pet Care Notes

Ideally do this now, before you’re struggling through a low point.

Life isn’t always ideal, though, so if you’re coming to this already just trying to survive, grab a piece of paper or the notes app on your phone.

List each of your pets. You can do this in a list or across the top. The most important thing for now is to capture the information; we’ll organize it later.

Next to or below each animal’s name, write out what he or she eats and when.

Then, below that, list all medications and time.

For example, my sheet would look something like:

Cooper – 1/2 cup kibble mixed with 1/2 cup Farmer’s Dog at 7 am and 5 pm

  • allergy pill with dinner at 5 pm
  • liver pill before bed

Newt – 1/3 can rabbit and pea at 7 am and 5 pm – 1/3 cup kibble at 11 am

Ripley – 1/3 can U/R diet at 7 am and 5 pm – 1/3 cup kibble at 11 am

Fish – pinch of flakes at 7 am – add an algae disc on Sundays

Now, to organize the information.

To be honest, I’m assuming everyone has a smart phone. While I know that isn’t entirely true, if you’re not a smart phone user, I’m guessing you at least have an alarm or timer somewhere in your house; use that in lieu of a phone!

For phone users, set an alarm for each meal time. In the “label” section, type exactly what needs to happen at that time. Same goes for any pills that don’t occur during a meal time and other must-do reminders like scoop the litter box and take the dog out to go to the bathroom.

Mine might look something like this:

7 am alarm – LABEL: feed Cooper 1/2 cup kibble and 1/2 cup Farmer’s Dog – feed Newt 1/3 c rabbit – feed Ripley 1/3 c U/R – pinch of flakes for the fish

11 am alarm – LABEL: feed Newt and Ripley 1/3 c kibble & since you’re up, scoop their litter boxes

5 pm alarm – LABEL: feed Cooper 1/2 cup kibble and 1/2 cup Farmer’s Dog – feed Newt 1/3 c rabbit – feed Ripley 1/3 c U/R

10 pm alarm – LABEL: Coop’s liver pill

I don’t set alarms for Cooper’s bathroom breaks because he rings his Poochie Bells to go outside.

Notice that the list doesn’t have any extraneous information. I cut out Cooper’s scoop of pumpkin he sometimes gets and the CBD drops we occasionally add.

The goal? Capture the bare necessities to keep everyone alive and happy.

Everything else:

Channel Your Inner Elsa and Let It Go

For real.

Does your dog need a daily walk? Well, maybe, but also no. It’s okay to skip if you’re barely able to make it to bedtime. You need to take care of bathroom needs, of course, but if you need to skip the walk, skip the walk. Instead, stuff some Kongs with peanut butter or yogurt now and toss them in the freezer for the proverbial rainy day. Ditch the guilt for skipping the walk and toss your dog the Kong instead. (We like the Classics, but if you want to give your dog a smidge more “work” to do, try a Wobbler.)

If you have a yard, take advantage and toss out a handful of kibble or treats for your dog to play a snacky version of hide and seek.

Or don’t.

Your cat might expect a morning game of chase-the-mouse, but if you don’t have it in you, consider an electronic cat toy (this one looks pretty wild!) or a special toy like this you only save for moments like this. Or, toss out some felt mice.

Or don’t.

Seriously, don’t worry about it. If your pets are being fed and given the chance to go to the bathroom, drop the rest of the demands on yourself until you’re out of survival mode.

(I realize some will argue that walking, exercising, playing, etc. can all help when you’re feeling down. Sure. That can be true. There can also be times when it’s honestly too much. In those cases, give yourself and give others grace to rest and recover as they need to without the added guilt of “should-ing” all over themselves. They’ll exercise when they can.)

Ask for Help

Pick up your phone. Call or text a friend, your mom, a professional dog walker, your next door neighbor, anyone who might be able to help.

Asking for help is hard. It is. But just think: If you reach out and ask for support, you’ve modeled how to do it and will someday be the one who can provide the support.

If you are drowning in overwhelm and you need to pick up your kids and drop your mom’s medication at her house and the kitchen is a mess and did you buy groceries for dinner and the trash needs to go out and you’re not rested and you’re stuck in a stress cycle that is literally causing your body to shake… ask for help.

When I was diagnosed with cancer and John was working out of state, I hired a professional pet sitter. It was more affordable than I expected, and then on the days I literally couldn’t get out of bed, I had someone nearby who I could count on to get my three big dogs out and fed.

When our eldest daughter received a complex neurological diagnosis and we had to spend huge amounts of time visiting specialists and getting tests done, my mother stepped in to swing by the house to feed the cats their lunch at 11 and let Cooper out into the yard to go to the bathroom.

Make a list now–perhaps append it to the bottom of your pet care list–of the people you know can jump in for a quick favor. Include their phone numbers next to their names so nothing takes any extra work when you’re in distress.

We all need help sometimes. Know when you need it, and don’t be afraid to ask.

A white woman in a fuzzy white bathrobe with an eye mask pushed up her head snuggles a small brindle terrier on a blue fabric sofa. The dog is wearing a pink silk pajama shirt. Behind the woman and dog, a cream-colored throw blanket covers the back of the couch.

Remember, we are not our worst days.

No matter what, your pets love you.

They will be there, ready to snuggle or walk or play or nap.

Our pets see us for who we are, not for our worst days.

We are not our worst days.

Your dogs or cats will think the world of you even if you need to spend two days lying on the couch in your fuzziest pajamas sobbing into a bag of potato chips while “When Harry Met Sally” plays for the third time.

Pet care in survival mode is about meeting their basic needs while you strive to heal and repair yourself. When you emerge, your dogs and cats will still think the world of you and still be there ready to spend more time with their favorite human: you.

Resources if you need help getting out of survival mode:

Sometimes it’s more than just a little bit of time to recover. If you need professional help, reach out to your doctor to get a referral for a therapist or social worker. Here are a few more resources in case you need a little bit more:

National Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Trauma and the Brain: Signs You Might be Living in “Survival Mode”

A “How-To” Guide for Surviving Survival Mode


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