You're not my doctor OR my therapist
December 24, 2019 9:05 AM   Subscribe

A straightforward health risk assessment question is being clouded by some family history, and I'd like some help thinking it through.

Here's the immediate question: I have a bunch of small, not particularly deep cuts all over my hands from my cat right now. My parents have a Labrador who is sweet but poorly trained/young and easily excitable, and it's a guarantee that she will be jumping up all over me, and I will need to use my hands to fight her off, and she'll then be biting at my hands and getting her saliva all over them in the process. I'm freaked out that I'm going to get an infection this way, in particular one of those rare but serious ones that lead to loss of limbs and sepsis, to the point where I'm considering not going home for the holiday. I'm wondering if that's a rationale decision or if I'm projecting a bunch of emotional things into this equation (which I detail below)?

Other details on the health part:
- I know the chance of getting an infection like this is rare and that there would be a greater chance of me being killed in a car accident on the way there. I'm in my 30s and healthy as far as I know, but I do need to get tests for autoimmune diseases in January because of some tiredness/joint pain and a low red blood cell count that recently kept me from donating blood.
- I get really dry winter skin, and the dog's nails are long because they don't trim them (too hard because she's too excitable) so the potential for more open skin wounds are there.
- I might also be getting a cold, but it's hard to tell if it's a cold or just that winter hack from dry indoor air.
- The dog jumping will be constant. She calms down the longer I'm there, but I only stay a couple days, which is usually how long it takes her to calm down.
- This situation isn't new (either my cat scratching/biting me or my parents' dog jumping on me), so I'm sure she's licked some of my cuts in the past year. I've had both cats and dogs my whole life, so I'm sure I've had my wounds licked by dogs in the past.
- I would not consider myself a germophobe but I would be consider myself a hypochondriac, if that makes any sense. I eat on the subway without thinking twice, I will eat food off the floor. This is part of what makes me wonder if I feel so anxious/strong about this because I'm projecting other things into it.
- It's about 8 hours each way to get to my parents' place and some expense. I have both the time and the money. I see them every few months. I am an only child.
- I do like to play and roughhouse with the dog while I'm there and have done that in the past. It's possible it gives the dog mixed messages, which now I feel bad about, or even my parents mixed messages about how much the jumping bothers me.
- It's impossible for me to go there and not have contact with the dog. They are not 100% consistent about keeping her restrained/gated off. When I was there for Thanksgiving, they forgot to put the gate up one morning, so when I came out into the hall to go to the bathroom, the dog came running down the hallway and jumped up and pushed both paws into my chest before I could even react.
- Staying at a hotel and meeting them for dinner feels weird. Also, that's just an extra expense and hassle for me. It isn't possible for them to come see me where I live. (They don't get paid time off with their jobs, some health stuff.)

Details on the family history/emotional part:
- Over the summer the dog jumped on me and left three long scratches down the left side of my face. I was - and still am - freaked out about this. It was over before I even had a chance to react. It was inches from my eye. It wasn't immediately clear how deep the cuts were - her nails are long and sharp - and I was completely panicked that I was permanently scarred. Honestly, my parents were not all that concerned.
- I have offered to pay for high-quality/intensive obedience training for the dog multiple times. They have turned me down.
- I gently broached this topic and mentioned the scratching and my anxiety and really didn't get much of a response other than that they'd forgotten to put the gate up last time.
- My parents were not sympathetic to illness/injury or emotional distress growing up. I think I probably just need to accept that they will never give me this kind of consideration, but I can't help but be angry that I have to spend this time and money to go somewhere and be uncomfortable and anxious the whole time. I know the risk is small, but it feels needless, and I'm angry that I have to subject myself to it. But I would feel badly if something happened to one of my parents next year and we didn't have another Christmas together. I'm single, so I feel like I'm being lame and unappreciative to say I'd rather be by myself than go see people who love me. I feel like I'm going to say I'm not coming home because you're not taking either my physical safety/health and emotional comfort seriously, and they're going to say they can't believe I wouldn't come home for Christmas over a little dog roughhousing. I do wonder if I'm projecting all of my childhood hurt onto this one situation.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for any insight you have to offer into any part of this.
posted by unannihilated to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Wear glove, latex gloves. If your family asks why, you can remind them that the dog is uncivil.
posted by tmdonahue at 9:16 AM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am officially giving you permission to skip Christmas with the parents this year. Sure, the risk of dog spit giving you a massive septic infection that causes the loss of limbs (!) is negligible, but that's not really the issue here. You don't feel safe in their home because they haven't bothered to train their dog. It's their responsibility to make sure she doesn't jump on people, and while as a dog owner I'm sympathetic that that can be challenging, there's no excuse not to keep her nails trimmed both for her health and so that she doesn't gouge the skin off your freaking face. I think the real issue for you is their non-reaction to these things, leaving you feeling unloved, unsupported and unprotected. Your gut is telling you something here. Listen to it.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:17 AM on December 24, 2019 [35 favorites]

Don't go to your parents' for Christmas. Tell them you have a cold.

It sounds like both you and your parents need to very very seriously learn how to train your animals better. If that is not possible then you all need to stop having pets!
posted by mareli at 9:17 AM on December 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

You can solve the exposure of your hands to the excitedly-greeting-dog issue by wearing gloves and not taking them off until the dog is used to your presence. You can also cover your scratches with band-aids.

I feel like the bigger issue is that the dog is untrained and a jumper and that makes you uncomfortable. It would make me uncomfortable too (and by the way I never roughhouse with dogs, and it doesn't stop them from trying to jump on me if they're poorly trained -- you don't need to feel "guilty" or like you've given the dog mixed messages, you don't live with it, it doesn't remember or care how you feel about roughhousing.)

So it's just -- do you dislike the presence of the untrained dog enough to not want to visit your parents' home? Listen, I get it. But I also think that if you want to visit, and if your parents would not agree to kennel her while you're there, then you can take half a valium, which will probably ratchet your annoyance down to manageable levels.

It's also ok not to visit if you don't want to deal with it. Sorry, folks. There are consequences to not training your dog.

I'm sorry, by the way. I hear a lot of people whose adult relationships with their folks are complicated by their folks' having adopted a needy/untrained dog when they're older. It's common, but it really sucks. We don't stop needing our parents' love just because we get older, and it's really hard when things go this way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:19 AM on December 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do wonder if I'm projecting all of my childhood hurt onto this one situation.

Maybe, but that's ok. Just because it's Christmas doesnt mean past hurts get magically healed. If youre not up for dealing with that or the dog, you have this internet strangers permission to beg off on the visit. If pressed, mention that you think you're getting a cold.

Going forward, can you offer to pay for a groomer to trim and file her claws, or put silicone tips on them, so they're less sharp?
posted by ananci at 9:22 AM on December 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would go without a second thought. Maybe you don't want to go for other reasons and maybe you're kinda scared of the dog because of the scratching incident (which is reasonable)? If the dog is freaking you out, maybe ask that they take her to the groomer for a nail trim and tooth-brushing before you arrive? I wouldn't say it as "for the sake of my health!" but because you want to be able to roughhouse with her and if she has long claws or terrible breath that clings to you, that's going to make playing/roughhousing tough. But in any case, you can't live in fear over some cat or dog scratches.
posted by rue72 at 9:24 AM on December 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

Assuming you wash your hands regularly, from what I understand you are at greater risk from cat scratch than dog slobber.

But you have my permission to skip family Christmas for any reason. This is year 2 for me of skipping family Christmas and it has been overwhelmingly positive for my well being.
posted by phunniemee at 9:36 AM on December 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

this feels like a dangerous situation all around. even cat scratches can become quite serious without treatment. so if you are not able to keep the animals separated, it might be better to separate yourself.
posted by megan_magnolia at 9:52 AM on December 24, 2019

Honestly, if you have brought this up several times, which it sounds like you have, your parents might not get it until they feel the consequences: you not coming to their home. This situation would also freak me out, and if the dog owner didn't see that it was a real problem, I would not go back to their house. If I still wanted to see them, I'd invite them somewhere, like, "Hey Mom, I saw that this place is doing a Christmas morning brunch, can I take you and Dad there?" You arenot being unreasonable that you don't want an untrained dog who has hurt you in the past jumping all over you.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

I live with a slobbery dog and 4 angry cats, so if you're in danger, I am doomed. You've correctly assessed that your danger level from infection is extremely low.

You seem super stressed by the thought of going home for the holiday. I'm guessing you won't have any fun, and your family will sense your discomfort. The polite fiction of a bad cold seems best if that's the case. I spent most of my 20's and 30's pretending to have to work on Christmas Eve/day to avoid having to spend the holiday with my family, and those particular holidays were better for me because of it.

THAT said... now that my mom and dad are gone, I do sometimes regret the holidays I didn't spend with them. I had good reasons for staying away -- too many smokers who smoked in the house, too little attention was paid to cooking/food hygiene & home hygiene for my comfort, etc, etc. But I knew it hurt them that I didn't come home more often, and when I think of my parents now, years after they passed, that is one of my bigger regrets. As a result, the holidays I'm having now are always just a little bit bittersweet.

Your job now is to think about the kind of person you actually are. There's no wrong answer. Are you going to be able to live with yourself later, if you stay home now? Personally, I find that while I do have regrets -- I loved my parents, and I miss them every day -- I also know that staying home was essential to my sanity at the time. So I can live with the bittersweet, even though I wish things could have been different.

This is time you won't get back. But maybe you can find different ways to connect with your parents? I didn't go home very often, and never on the holidays, but I did spend vast quantities of time on the phone with my mom & dad as a compromise. Is there something like that you can do, to make up in spirit for what you'll give up in physical proximity?
posted by invincible summer at 10:07 AM on December 24, 2019 [14 favorites]

This isn't about the dog or the scratches this is about anxiety coupled with long term family dynamics. You don't have to Christmas. You don't have to Christmas there. You can find alternative arrangements tonight. You can find a, church to be at. You can visit during the day but sleep somewhere else. There is a bunch of different options. You can just go, take deep breaths and be reasonably sure your not going to die, but your also reasonably sure you're not going to get what you need either. How you handle it is really your choice.

I go visit my mom every year. She's a nice lady. She's emotionally available as a brick wall. I know this about her. I set my expectations low. I stay somewhere else and visit. It's enough Christmas to make them happy and enough me time I can breathe and not cry. That's my balance that works ok. But you may be different.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:16 AM on December 24, 2019 [34 favorites]

I really doubt there is much danger of contracting an infection from the dog unless he is sick or you are immunocompromised. However, you have understandably developed a fear of the dog due to having been seriously scratched in the face, and the fact that your parents are not taking your safety and anxiety seriously by taking any step to alleviate the situation, such as training the dog, taking him to get his nails clipped, and/or making sure to have him securely restrained while you visit.

I agree, it would feel weird to drive 8 hours to your parents house just to take them out to dinner. Could you possibly stay in a hotel? Then call each time before you go over to their place, let them know you are on your way over and remind them to put the dog gate up before you arrive. Don't make it about the cuts on your hands, if they ask why he makes you so anxious just remind them that he seriously scratched your face over the summer, and he jumped at your face and startled you at Thanksgiving, and you need him to be restrained so you can be comfortable visiting at their house.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:19 AM on December 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you are, not quite projecting, but putting a lot of larger issues onto the comparatively smaller issue of the dog, because it’s easier to feel your larger fears and upsets that way.

Someone I know once mentioned to me his theory that a lot of families that repress emotion communicate to each other through the way they treat their family pets. It seems apt in this situation. You are dreading the visit and worried about it making you feel bad. You don’t think your family treats you with gentle care and concern, instead brushing aside your worries.

It’s also completely reasonable for you to just dislike this dog, even if you are an animal lover. My parents’ dog is a big, dirty buffoon and he does irritate me a lot of the time. It’s ok to feel that way.
posted by sallybrown at 10:20 AM on December 24, 2019 [17 favorites]

Nothing those who say this isn’t about the dog. You’re unlikely to be in actual danger from the dog. From here, it sounds like you want your parents to prioritize your comfort over the dog’s comfort, which is a reasonable request, and they don’t want to and are focusing on the objective rather than emotional realities of the situation.

It’s okay just not to spend Christmas with your family if they make you unhappy.
posted by corb at 10:50 AM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Over the summer the dog jumped on me and left three long scratches down the left side of my face. I was - and still am - freaked out about this. It was over before I even had a chance to react. It was inches from my eye.

Yeah this is not cool. I don't blame you for thinking hard about the dog-injury potential!
posted by slidell at 11:04 AM on December 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

+1, you don't want to go, don't go, say you have a cold or just that you're not feeling well. I like my parents but visiting them for major holidays isn't the best way to spend time with them and I haven't done that in a couple years.

And then deal with the dog behavior stuff in a separate conversation at least a few weeks from now. You, as you've guessed, need to stop rough-housing with the dog. Tell your parents that you can't deal with getting scratched up any more, and you're going to stop wrestling with the dog, and could they also [insert boundary here - nails trimmed, dog gated, etc.]? If they won't do it, you'll stay elsewhere and meet them somewhere besides their house. Yes, it is weird, but it may be what works for your family, so *shrug*.

It may be helpful to get a couple therapy appointments in (or EAP, if you have it) to help you figure out your boundaries and practice the conversation, since your starting point is justifying this with the risk of sepsis.
posted by momus_window at 11:09 AM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I recognize the "and then X will happen and then Y which leads to Z and I will die" thought chain as real, raw anxiety. It is fine to decide that this year it's just too much anxiety. What you want to tell your parents is up to you, but path of least resistance is fake the flu and apologize profusely and put off dealing with this until later and THAT IS FINE, that is totally okay if that's what you need to do.

Later at some point you probably should at least broach the subject of "I can't deal with your dog" (I had to do this with some of my family, except it was my partner and their smoking) and leave it with them to decide how they're going to improve that situation (or not, which is also something you'll have to process). Some of the other stuff you're probably going to have to process on your own without expecting them to change or acknowledge it, coming to your own terms with it and deciding about the relationship you may be able to have with them from there.

I'm sorry, this sucks, but it's more honest to yourself to step back and acknowledge to yourself that the real issue here is not that the dog will lick some cuts on your hands and you will die of a rare infection, but that your family relationship is difficult and you may need to reframe your feelings about it and amount of involvement you can healthily have with them.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:25 AM on December 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

The feeling of you not being protected when you were a kid carrying on into today is a solid enough reason to not go.

Family dynamics are a bitch to change, especially if all parties aren't interested, like. you know, your parents. if you're feeling like your fucks haven't been depleted enough for this visit, just don't go. I feel like resilience comes in waves at times, and if you don't have the juice to deal, it's a good time to just self-care the shit out of the days you can. Take it easy on yourself.
posted by speakeasy at 11:31 AM on December 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

Staying at a hotel and meeting them for dinner feels weird. Also, that's just an extra expense and hassle for me. It isn't possible for them to come see me where I live. (They don't get paid time off with their jobs, some health stuff.)

This seems like the best solution. You can pitch it to them as, idk, you might have work to do, or you have been snoring lately, or whatever, or you can be honest about the dog.

I mean it's an extra expense and hassle but it seems better than not seeing elderly parents OR dealing with the huge stress of dealing with their dog.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:53 AM on December 24, 2019

Also, it sucks and is not fair that you're being put in this situation. My answer is not like "oh whatever just get a hotel," it sucks and is NOT at all fair that that's the best solution. I'm really really sorry you have to make this choice. All that said, though, it seems like the best choice.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:54 AM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, if it helps: you're not "overreacting" to the cat scratch situation. You're actually legitimately and reasonably overwhelmed by the stress caused by important people (your parents) disregarding your well-being, over and over. Your brain is displacing that stress onto the sepsis worry. The magnitude of your anxiety/stress makes perfect sense and is totally reasonable as a reaction, even if it's coming out in a mildly quirky way.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:00 PM on December 24, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think you are, not quite projecting, but putting a lot of larger issues onto the comparatively smaller issue of the dog, because it’s easier to feel your larger fears and upsets that way.

This is my feeling. If you want to see them but your fears are getting in the way, I might go see them but not stay with them and tell them at some later time it is 100% about the dog (I am so sorry that happened to you, that sucks and I would be alarmed too) and this is a healthy boundary for you to have and I salute it.

But the other stuff does seem like runaway anxiety which I sympathize with (I am also an anxious person) and if that's your main thing, I think it's still 100% okay not to go but I might make a deal with myself (if it were me) to do something nice and healthy for me to help manage my anxieties. Because, again for me, this ramp-up where you're literally thinking of cancelling Big Holiday Plans at the last possible minute is an unhealthy dynamic and while I support you in doing what you need to do, it's also worth figuring out, over time, how to manage things better so you don't have to go through this (and a distant second, not put other people through it)

You deserve to be around people who care about and are concerned about you. I am sorry that is not your parents. It's okay if that's just you.
posted by jessamyn at 12:20 PM on December 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

You sound like you're having an anxiety flare- I wouldn't even think twice about dog spit on a cut, I'd just wash it off- and I AM a germophobe. The risk of sepsis is SUUUPER low.

Before ever getting sepis, you'd have a little localized infection you could see: redness, pain, heat, small amount of pus- and you can treat that with some iodine, it would be gone overnight. If you didn't treat it, it could possibly (but not super likely) get worse, in which case you'd have more pain, stiffness, hot skin, fever, pus, and the redness would start to leave a trail up your arm. Even then, you could treat it with a quick round of oral or IV antibiotics.

Sepsis and amputation are suuuuper rare! VERY unlikely! Think of all the farmers and their kids in the 1800s and in agrarian societies, who get hand cuts from all manner of rough jobs and animal interactions, and then slop out the pig poop every day. Most of those people die of old age with intact limbs! Think of homeless people who walk barefoot in the street, certainly with the odd cut or scratch, stepping in all kinds of ick... they don't generally get sepsis either. Your body's immune system can handle many insults!

If you go, some strategies:
Look up videos on how to de-escalate an anxious dog (basically, ignore her)
Look up the signs of an infection so you know what to look for in the very unlikely event you get an infection.
Spend $40 to get antibacterial soap, iodine, bandaids, polysporin, latex gloves, and a little caddy or pouch to hold it all, and bring this little "hand kit" with you.
Any time the bandaids get wet or dirty, and each night before you sleep, wash all cuts, dab in some iodine, then put on fresh bandaids, and wear gloves to keep the bandaids dry.

But also: you don't like the behaviour of this dog or your parents (I certainly would flip if a dog scratched my face, esp near my eye!!!), and THAT is totally valid. So you don't have to go. But maybe look into some therapy to deal with that because right now you're projecting it into germophobia (in my opinion) and self-blame (you playing spiritedly with the dog a few times in the past is not the reason the dog is high-strung! That's a sign of owners who habitually let their dog get hyper). Germophobia is a miserable way to live (speaking as someone who's had bad germ anxiety) and it will make your life shitty WAY more than a mildly infected cat scratch.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:36 PM on December 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you're looking for a middle ground, offer to pay to have the dogs nails trimmed before you get there. You front the cash, they do the legwork, and the holidays are slobbery but not slashy.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:08 PM on December 24, 2019

Yes, I'd have to say I'd be more worried about getting an infection from the cat scratches than from dog spit, but I don't think that's really the issue here. Don't go to stay with your parents. If you can manage it financially (maybe next year if it's too short notice this year) consider staying in a hotel and having a Christmas meal at a restaurant. You are absolutely within your rights to put your foot down on this. I say this as a dog lover and owner of two big bouncy dogs. It's on the owner to control or restrain the dogs in such a way that guests are not overwhelmed/injured/extremely uncomfortable when visiting. Your parents will push back but just stick to your guns in a calm, non argumentative way. Be firm, be pleasent and insist that you not be subjected to unwanted dog attention. Don't feel badly about this at all, it's how we train people to train their dogs!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:04 PM on December 24, 2019

Having known you for all of one paragraph and two lists, it does sound like the one issue is a cover for the other. You sound pretty clear on how unlikely this is to cause actual physical problems, but the stuff about your parents carries a tone of (reasonable) resentment.

Can you at all imagine laying it out and letting them know this longstanding issue of them not seeming to take your physical safety seriously as a concern is making it hard for you to visit them and gets brought up by an issue you acknowledge is not truly very dangerous to you? (Leaving aside that it's still shitty behavior to let your dog scratch someone and act like it's not a big deal?) Or do they just not respond to that kind of thing? Like if you bring it up and they say "it's just a little dog roughhousing!" can you say, and would it help at all to say "you know, I get that, but it reminds me of a lot of ways I feel like you've minimized my concerns for my safety over the years and I'd like you to just take this seriously or else my visit is just going to be several days of me wondering why you won't acknowledge how I feel about this and I don't think it'll be a great time for any of us"?
posted by less of course at 3:24 PM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Am I correct in reading that its late on Christmas Eve and you have an 8 hour journey to your parents before morning? And you are looking for an excuse not to go? I mean, thats reaeonable! Thats a heck of a drive to undertake this late. I don't think you're going to get sepsis and you'll have a hard time convincing anyone you arr afraid of a dog you regularly roughouse with but that journey alone would give me enough anxiety to consider cancelling. Calling on sick to Christmas, long phone call tomorrow and visiting on a more reasonable travel schedule seems fine to me.
posted by fshgrl at 4:15 PM on December 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who say that this is not about the dog (you basically make the case for that yourself), and more importantly that you are allowed to not go see your parents at any time for any reason or no reason.
posted by PMdixon at 5:03 PM on December 24, 2019

Putting all your family dynamics aside, I think it is concerning that you are so worried about the dog giving you an infection. I have anxiety and before I was medicated I was a terrible hypochondriac. I used to fixate on things like getting infections (and brain tumours) all the time. However, this has 100% gone with meds.

I agree with others that the dog thing is probably covering a larger issue with your parents, but even more importantly I think you should know that you don't have to live with hypochondria.
posted by thereader at 7:41 PM on December 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

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