Managing a beloved pet’s chronic or terminal illness can take a lot out of us. Pet owners caring for a sick cat or dog often experience caregiver burden -- strain due to providing care for a loved one who is ill -- in a way that is similar to taking care of a human family member.
Social science has been examining burden in human relationships for decades, but this problem has only recently been measured in pet owners. Our research group showed that people with a sick pet report twice as much burden as those with a healthy pet. Importantly, higher burden is linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety, greater stress, and lower quality of life.
If you are reading this blog post, chances are good that you have been (or currently are) a pet caregiver. Choosing caregiving over euthanasia, as long as your pet has a good quality of life, is admirable and can be very rewarding. Still, many of us are “giving until it hurts.”
So what can we do about it?
That question was the starting point for our most recent study. If we want to minimize pet caregiver burden, we first need to determine its causes.
Obviously, some burden will come from factors that are not easily changed, like financial strain. Unless you invested in pet insurance before your pet's illness, advanced health care expenses quickly pile up. There is not much that can be done to reduce those costs.
Your pet’s symptoms and changes in behavior may also affect emotions. A normally cuddly kitty that just wants to be left alone, or a chow-hound that won’t eat—seeing these changes in a pet can be distressing. We expect they might lead to burden. But these are the problems you are probably already working on with your veterinarian.
So what other factors underlie burden in the pet caregiver?
One possible influence we wanted to look at was how a person reacts to their pet’s symptoms. For example, seeing your pet regularly regurgitate would be upsetting for most people. But now picture one pet owner who routinely needs to clean a mess on carpet compared to someone with easy-to-clean tile. Especially over time, the first pet owner may develop a more negative reaction to regurgitation than the second. The symptom alone is distressing, but in the first case, it is compounded by difficult clean-up.
Our personalities and personal resources may also determine how caregiving affects us. For example, coping skills like good problem-solving when new symptoms arise, confidence in your control of the situation, emotional support to lift you up when you are feeling down, or tangible support like a friend to look in on your pet on a long work day--all of these may boost your ability to deal with chronic or progressing disease in your pet.
We wanted to know how all of these factors relate to caregiver burden. We recruited 95 owners of a chronically or terminally ill cat or dog through a general veterinary hospital. As expected, pet symptoms were related to burden in the owner, especially weakness, a change in the pet’s personality like appearing sad, depressed, or anxious, the pet being in pain or discomfort, frequent urination, and excessive sleeping.
While greater ability to actively cope and having people to depend on for support were linked to lower burden, they were not as important as the pet owner’s reaction to their pet’s symptoms or their sense of control in the situation.
These findings suggest that in the face of a pet’s progressing symptoms or terminal disease, examining where our stress and emotions are coming from, and focusing on what can be done about the situation may be helpful. Interestingly, these factors were far more important contributors to burden than household income for the pet caregivers in our study.
We are still working on the best ways to reduce burden. Since important factors included coping through the use of problem-solving skills, and having a helping hand or shoulder to lean on, these will be closely examined in future work.
In the meantime, it never hurts to identify a trustworthy person (like a pet-loving friend) who can help you out in a pinch, and a knowledgeable resource (like a good veterinarian) to provide correct information. When the stress level is high, it may also help to step away from the big picture of your pet’s illness and focus on small actions you can take today to manage the problem directly in front of you.~
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.