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Giving Until it Hurts: An Examination of Pet Caregivers

Even when the gift is willingly given, providing care for a sick loved one can cause strain in multiple ways--mental, physical, social, and financial, to name a few. Caregiver burden is a term used to describe the stress a person experiences while providing care for a relative who is ill. A person in this situation often “gives until it hurts.”

Caregiver burden has been studied in family members providing care for loved ones with a variety of diseases. And even though pets are not people, more than 85% of us view Fido and Mittens as part of the family. So it would make sense that when a pet has a chronic or terminal illness—especially one that requires some form of daily care—the owner might experience burden, as well.

That was our starting point—we wanted to know if these pet owners actually do experience burden while caregiving for a sick pet, compared to those with a healthy pet. Our first study, published in Veterinary Record, asked 238 owners of a dog or cat about experiences related to burden. Do they feel stretched beyond capacity, like there isn’t enough time in the day? Do they sometimes feel angry at or embarrassed by their pet? Do they ever experience guilt that they are not doing enough for their pet?

We used a standard measure of burden called the Zarit Burden Interview (ZBI; Zarit et al, 1983)--of course, since the ZBI was created for people providing care for a relative, we had to make a few adjustments. For example, it is reasonable to ask if a sick family member requests more help than they actually need, but that question doesn’t make much sense if you ask it about a pet. We ended up abbreviating the 22-item questionnaire to 18 total questions.

Then we posed these questions in an online format, asking people to tell us about their experiences taking care of their pet dog or cat. Half of our respondents had a healthy pet, and the other half had a pet with a chronic or terminal illness, such as cancer, diabetes, renal failure, a seizure disorder, or other long-term disease that requires daily management. The two groups were almost identical in age—on average, 48 years old, and almost all female (nearly 98%).

It didn’t surprise us to find that the pet owners providing care for a sick pet described high levels of burden—in fact, on average, those with a sick pet reported a burden level that was nearly twice as high as those with a healthy pet (see below).

More surprising was that the level of burden experienced by our caregivers for sick pets was actually higher than the cutoff from the original burden measure, despite our removal of four questions! Pet caregivers described levels of burden that would be considered elevated if they were being reported in family caregiving for a relative.

We also looked at different psychosocial outcomes, like stress, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and quality of life. We saw a similar pattern—higher stress, anxiety, and depression, and lower quality of life in the owners of sick pets. All of these problems were very strongly linked to the presence of caregiver burden.

It is important to point out that caregiving for a four-legged family member does differ in many ways from providing care for a sick human family member in many ways (a topic of a future blog post!), but our work shows that there are similarities, too--and knowing this may help us identify the best ways to reduce feelings of burden among pet caregivers.

This study is cross-sectional, meaning we did not look at pet owners over the course of time, from the pet being healthy to becoming sick. So we do not know for certain that the burden of caregiving is the root cause of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another key issue that needs a closer look is possible selection bias--some people with a sick pet will choose euthanasia rather than long-term care, so by default, our sample of sick pet caregivers may be people with an especially close bond to their pet.

It is important to note that even if someone makes the choice to be a pet caregiver, that does not mean that caregiving is not stressful. Acknowledging burden and finding ways to reduce it may help us make the most of the time we have left with our pet. This first study sets the stage for further research to look at that question… and once we better understand pet caregiver burden, we can identify the best ways to treat or prevent it.~

The information offered on this website does not constitute psychological or veterinary medical advice. Please consult with an appropriate professional who can make recommendations for your specific situation.

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