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Pets are Family, Too: Comparing Human and Animal Caregiving

Debbie may not be a professional caregiver, but she sure is expert at the job. For nearly 10 years, she provided care for her father with Parkinson’s and her mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Both passed away last year. Having laid her parents to rest, Debbie figured her days of caregiving for a loved one with dementia were behind her. “Not sure I got that one right,” Debbie laughs, more irony than mirth.

Beside her sleeps Buddy, a fawn colored corgi with a white muzzle striping up his face to fox-like ears, smiling in slumber. Buddy has lived with Debbie for all of his 13 years. He was there through her caregiving ordeal with her parents, her backbone when she needed support. Until recently, he was a lap dog and cuddle buddy. “I’m not sure why he doesn’t want to sit on my lap anymore, but any time he sleeps is good, so I’ll take it.”

Buddy was diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction about 4 months ago. He began staying up at night, pacing and circling like he couldn’t get comfortable. He started having accidents in the house—something that had not happened since he was a pup more than 12 years ago. During the day, Debbie sometimes finds him trapped in kitchen chair legs. He slinks under the table for crumbs, but becomes confused navigating back out.

Worried, Debbie sought an explanation from her veterinarian. After work-up to rule out other causes, the diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction came back. Learning that Buddy has doggie dementia was an especially crushing blow for Debbie after so many years of caring for her parents. She notes the sleepless nights, cleaning up after accidents, feelings of frustration and worry. “In some ways this is just as hard as taking care of my parents!”

Of course, caregiving for a sick pet is not exactly the same as caring for a human relative. Human caregiving research has been going strong for 4 decades, so we know a lot about how to help the caregiver in this situation. But how do pet and human family caregiving experiences differ from each other, and what can that tell us about how to help stressed pet caregivers?

This question was the starting point for our most recent study, published in Frontiers of Veterinary Science: Veterinary Humanities and Social Sciences. In this new research, we compared the experiences (good and bad) of sick pet caregivers to those providing care for a human family member.

As described in a prior blog post, pet caregivers often experience emotional changes like feelings of guilt or anger, or an impact on physical health from the stress of caregiving. Dividing time and attention between caregiving and work can result in scrambling to meet responsibilities on both ends. No time leftover for socializing, the caregiver may feel less supported by or connected to people in their lives. With out-of-pocket vet bills, financial strain is usually in the mix, too. Combined, these are considered the "burden" of pet caregiving, and it can take a toll.

But most caregivers will tell you--it is not all bad! Many describe positive experiences in caregiving, such as feeling needed and appreciated, personal and spiritual growth, a sense that you are fulfilling a duty, even a greater appreciation for life.

In fact, experiencing a lot of these “positive aspects of caregiving” tends to be negatively linked to caregiver burden—that is, people who find a large number of positives in caregiving usually feel less burdened. For that reason, a cornerstone of some interventions to help reduce stress in human caregiving has been to work with the caregiver to identify and focus on these good parts of the caregiving experience.

So can we apply what we know about human caregiving relationships to pet caregiving?

In our most recent study, we compared burden and positive aspects of caregiving in 369 pet or family caregivers. Because we expected some basic demographic differences in these groups (for example, we expected that on average, pet caregivers might be younger), we also compared a subsample (75 per group) of caregivers who were similar in age, education, gender, race, income, living situation, and length of caregiving.

We found that burden was high across the board, but higher in those providing care for a human family member. In contrast, pet caregivers identified more positive aspects of caregiving. Interestingly, the groups experienced similar levels of guilt (feeling like they should be doing more for their loved one), fear of what the future holds, and financial strain.

This study suggests that although both groups face burden in caregiving, the overall caregiving experience is not exactly the same.

Why do pet caregivers show lower burden and more positive caregiver experiences than human family caregivers? We don’t know for certain, but the option of euthanasia in pet caregiving could be one explanation. Taking on the caregiving role for a human family member is not always optional—sometimes there is simply no one else to do it. But for pets, euthanasia is an available alternative. The pet owners in our study are people who, when faced with a significant illness in their pet, decided to provide care. That might positively influence how they feel about being a caregiver.

What is the take-home message for pet owners and veterinarians?

For starters, pet owners already have a fairly positive mindset about caregiving. That means that it won't do much good to simply say "focus on the good parts of caregiving!" -- the pet caregivers in our study already do just that, and they still experience a high level of burden. So we turn to our prior research for some answers.

Our past work suggested that identifying ways to regain a sense of mastery in the situation might be a good way to help reduce stress. Pet owners should be well-informed about their pet’s illness—keeping in mind that a lot of incorrect information exists on the internet. Check with a veterinarian for reliable sources!

We also need to acknowledge that some things in life cannot be controlled, and choose to focus on things that can be. For example, even working with her veterinarian, Debbie might not be able to stop Buddy’s pacing and circling at night. Instead of focusing on the sleep she is losing, could she view this as an opportunity to practice patience, or a chance to give back to Buddy, who supported her during her own difficult times?

Overall, this research makes it clear that there are some similarities between human and pet caregiving experiences—we all experience feelings of guilt, are worried about our loved ones, and financial strain is common. But there are probably too many differences to simply take recommendations from what we know about stress in human caregiving and give that advice to pet caregivers. Check back with our blog site as we continue working with pet caregivers and veterinarians to find the best methods to reduce stress in the pet caregiving situation, and bring our findings to 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.

How do you reduce your own pet caregiver stress and burden?

 

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