Have you ever taken care of a seriously ill pet? If so, you’re likely to agree with the results of a recently published paper that found that owners of seriously ill companion animals experience a “caregiver burden.” Specifically, these pet parents self-reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in comparison to owners of healthy companion animals. These results aren’t surprising. When a beloved pet is ailing, of course we suffer emotionally and psychologically, but it is still helpful to know that we are not alone in having those feelings.
The caregiver burden is an acknowledged fact in the human medical community, but this is the first research I’ve seen that addresses it in the veterinary world. In an editorial about this paper, Dr. Katherine Goldberg, founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics & Hospice Services in Ithaca, New York, compared the experiences of caregivers looking after sick people and animals this way:
Few people in contemporary society would consider providing 24-hour care for our ailing family members without professional help. Yet, this is what we expect of ourselves for our pets and then feel guilty when we struggle or cannot do it at all. On the human side of health care, we have options when people require support beyond what can reasonably or safely be provided at home by family members—assisted living facilities, in-home health care aides, visiting nurse associations, memory care centres and, for better or worse, nursing homes. I hear myself saying, ‘You are the assisted living facility’ to my clients—caregivers of seriously and terminally ill pets—on a regular basis. Often this framing helps to provide clients with perspective around why daily life with their pet feels so hard.
Caregiver Support: Asking for Help
I have ample experience with the caregiver burden, having taken care of many of my own animals at the end of their lives and helped many owners through the process as a veterinarian. Let me share a few things I’ve learned.
Caretaking duties seem to primarily become the responsibility of one person. If this person is you, please ask for help. Giving seriously ill pets all the care and love they need is very hard work. It’s simply impossible to do it well over an extended period of time without also taking care of yourself. If you don’t have family or close friends who can take over from time to time, reach out to your veterinarian. Perhaps a technician or assistant would be willing to come to your house and “babysit.” Or, if your pet needs to visit the clinic for a checkup or procedure, ask whether you can take advantage of a few hours of day care so you can go for a walk, get a massage, or take a nap.
If you are uncomfortable delegating the care of your sick pet, ask for help in other aspects of your life. Could friends, family members, neighbors, etc., cook you some easy-to-reheat meals, take your other pets or kids out for a play date, do your laundry or errands, clean your house, or manage any of your other responsibilities? People love to help but often don’t know what is needed, so speak up.
Finally, take a moment every now and then to assess how you are doing. If you are having trouble coping, know that help is available through veterinarians, physicians, counselors, religious or spiritual leaders, and pet loss support groups. You don’t have to face this alone.