“I love my pet. Why am I so stressed out?” If you’ve made a decision to provide care for your cat with renal failure, or manage your dog’s diabetes—you’ve made a choice that not every pet owner makes. You have chosen caregiving over euthanasia.
A common reaction from pet caregivers when the topic of burden comes up is, “I love my Rover, and I want to take care of him!” Research shows that making the choice to provide care to a sick loved one may give a person a sense of purpose, a greater appreciation for their own strengths, and an opportunity to practice patience and tolerance. And as long as a pet has a good quality of life, the choice to provide care for a pet rather than euthanize is admirable.
But that doesn’t necessarily make pet caregiving easy.
What is Burden?
Caregiver burden is the stress or strain felt by a person who is taking care of a loved one with an illness, facing the problems and challenges of daily life encountered while providing care for a loved one with an illness. Although caregiving situations differ, certain experiences are somewhat universal. So how do you know if you are a burdened caregiver?
Have You Noticed Changes in Mental or Physical Well-Being?
A burdened caregiver may feel angry or strained when they are around their loved one, but part of that anger may actually come from fear or uncertainty. For example, a caregiver may feel afraid of the future, or uncertain about what treatment choices to make. Experiences of guilt are also common—the caregiver may believe s/he should be doing a better job, or doing more to provide care.
Another common experience is to feel psychological distress. A review of caregiver burden in those providing care for older adults reports high levels of anxiety, and that about one third of caregivers actually meet criteria for a diagnosis of depression. These mental changes can affect physical well-being, too--daily stress is a known contributor to problems in physical health. Caregiving is associated with several markers of reduced physical functioning, including reduced attention and higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Our recent work showed similar psychological distress and quality of life changes are present in pet caregivers, too.
Has Your Social Life Become More Limited?
There can also be changes to the caregiver’s social life. Most family caregivers do not quit their jobs or take time off from providing for other family members, just to focus on the sick family member. The time investment of caregiving is usually stacked on top of everything that person is doing in their life. Although this question has not been specifically researched in regard to pet caregivers, it is probably safe to guess that most pet owners do not quit their jobs in order to be caregivers. That means there will be a strain between the responsibilities of caregiving and other commitments. The caregiver is apt to feel like s/he does not have enough time in the day.
For someone who is already pressed for time between caregiving for a sick family member, other family responsibilities, and work, a person's social life may be the first to go. But being short on time is not the only way in which the social life may be diminished. Providing in-home care to a sick loved one, as is typically the case in pet caregiving, can make it difficult to entertain in the home. Changes in the home to accommodate specific health issues, unpleasant smells associated with incontinence or gastrointestinal problems, or even embarrassing behaviors that are a direct manifestation of an illness—all can make the caregiver uncomfortable inviting friends over. Naturally, these problems could have an effect on relationships, weakening ties to others.
Are Your Finances Strained?
Caregiving, regardless of who the care recipient is, can become expensive. Treatment for chronic (e.g., diabetes, renal failure) or terminal conditions (e.g., cancer) in a pet can easily run over $1,000, and may cost $10,000 or more. Financial decisions in pet health care are not easy. In the opinion of human-animal bond expert, Dr. Hal Herzog, money spent on veterinary care should not substantially burden the people in your life; specifically, pet care should not come “at the expense of feeding your children or paying the rent.”
While most would probably agree on the importance of feeding your family, financial strain exists on a spectrum. The decision as to what constitutes significant financial burden must be made on an individual basis. But how much money is spent may not factor into overall stress so much as having the sense that you do not have enough money to pay for a pet's health care, or that you will not be able to financially support your pet's care for much longer. The feeling that there is not enough money to cover expenses may be a larger factor than the actual dollar amount.
Caregiving can be a very rewarding experience, but it is also easy to give until it hurts. If you identify with the experiences above, you may be a burdened caregiver. Just as family caregivers sometimes become overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving, so, too, do pet caregivers.
Acknowledging burden does not make you weaker, uncaring, or any less committed to the care of your pet. But identifying it does allow you to reflect upon how these issues may be affecting your life, and consider things you might do to manage or even improve 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.