the emotional toll of caring for sick pets
Has having a sick pet ever impacted your family?
Late last year, we lost our beloved 15½ year old Sandy (pictured below) after a year-long battle with kidney failure.
Sandy’s last month, while precious beyond measure, was filled with the daily stress of fluid administration and meds, hand-feeding, assisting up and downstairs, and cleaning her after an unavoidable “accident.”
My wife and I were barely able to sleep more than three to four hours at a stretch, due to the constant subconscious alarm clock of, “What if?” Our experience was similar to untold millions of others caring for a terminally ill furry family member.
Sick pets and psychological stress
A new study published in Veterinary Record examined caregiver burden in owners of sick companion animals. The results further reinforced the depth and significance of the human-animal bond. It also validated that the feelings and struggles of fellow pet parents were normal, healthy and necessary.
We’ve known for centuries that caring for the ill creates tremendous stress and strife. Parents, spouses, and loved ones of chronically ill family have been shown to have decreased immune function, increased illness, and high rates of depression.
While anecdotal evidence suggested pet owners and veterinary staff may undergo similar developments, no one had conducted scientific inquiry into caregiver burden in pet owners until now.
Caregiver burden in pet owners
The study, led by researchers from Kent State University, evaluated 238 dog and cat owners, half with pets suffering from terminal illness. They were seeking to determine if people living with and caring for dogs and cats exhibited elevated stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer quality of life.
This is important not only to help pet parents struggling with sick pets, but also for veterinary and human healthcare providers to lend additional support. Its’ also essential that non-pet owners understand that stress, depression and grief for pet loved ones is real.
Of course, caring for a sick pet is different than a human family member.
Lead investigator Mary Beth Spitznagel told CNN, "It is important that we do not minimize what family caregivers are experiencing in human caregiving relationships. I would not say that pet caregiving is the same, for example, as providing care for a parent with dementia or a spouse who has had a stroke.”
“But pet caregiving in the context of a chronic or terminal disease is clearly stressful for the pet owner,” she continues, “and we can learn a lot about how to help people in this situation by looking at what helps reduce stress in human caregiving.”
The study also showed that caring for a chronically ill pet resulted in reduced psychosocial function, or withdrawal from human relationships and activities. I’ve witnessed both in my veterinary practice and personal life the tremendous emotional toll and time commitment a terminal illness in a pet requires.
Lending a paw of support
This study stresses the importance of a support network for caregivers of terminally ill pets. It also emphasizes the need for veterinary professionals to remain involved and prepare for the emotional turbulence many clients will endure.
Clients may require additional time to process a diagnosis and prognosis or make decisions, they may ask for alternative treatment plans, and often need help dealing with whatever is happening. Caring for a chronically ill pet demands close collaboration between pet parents, veterinary staff, and friends and family.
After Sandy passed naturally, in my arms surrounded by our entire human and animal family, a strange, simultaneous sense of both relief and regret washed over me. It took a couple of weeks to stop waking up at 3 a.m. and immediately looking toward her now vacant bed.
This study helped me realize that these feelings were normal, natural, healthy responses. I also hope it helps other pet parents and veterinary professionals better navigate and overcome the challenges of caregiver burden.