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What Science Tells Us about Helping the Distressed Pet Caregiver

Motley came into Jeff’s life when she was three years old. She was a sweet, stoic, strange looking girl. White with black ears and spots, her head was broad and her smile huge. Fifty pounds but no higher than Jeff’s knee, Motley was, not mincing words, fat. Jeff brought her home and together they started an exercise routine.

Mid-Sausage Stage Motley

Within the year, Motley had walked her new owner more than a thousand miles, found her waistline, and was the picture of health. But one evening, when bounding up the stairs, she stopped suddenly. Motley slowly finished the steps, but refused to eat or go for her walk the next morning. Despite the veterinarian’s poking and prodding, stoic Motley wouldn’t tell anyone where it hurt. Radiographs didn’t help. She recovered with cage-rest and anti-inflammatories, but when the episode repeated a few months later, the veterinarian told Jeff that Motley's years of being overweight had taken a toll--she likely had a chronic disc condition. Someday she would need surgery.

That day came one Thanksgiving morning. This time when poked and prodded, Motley whipped around and snapped—the closest this laid-back dog would ever come to biting someone. MRI showed a bulging disc. A hemi-laminectomy was scheduled.

Surgery was uncomplicated, Motley had a thorough discharge plan, and the veterinarian provided Jeff with great online resources for rehabilitation. But life was not the same when she came home. Initially on strict cage-rest, he had to put a sling under Motley’s belly so she could amble outside to squat. She eventually walked on her own, but could no longer keep up their daily routine. Even on pain medication, she groaned when moving and often skipped meals. She was still hurting. Trials of different pain medications followed. Jeff changed his work schedule to come home and administer medications four times per day. He briefly walked her each time to keep her joints moving. When she lost her appetite he would try various solutions to get her to eat--different types of food, adding broth or tasty treats to her bowl, even heating up her kibble to make it more appealing. For the next seven years of her life, Jeff worried about Motley constantly, watched for every sign of pain, and felt guilty that he couldn’t do more for her.


The details may differ, but Jeff’s experience is similar to that of so many pet caregivers. Recently, popular media has picked up on research examining the stress of pet caregivers, and many articles give tips for reducing the stress of pet caregiving.

What are those suggestions based on? Sometimes they are borrowed from human caregiving (e.g., caregiving for a family member with cancer or dementia), but human and pet caregiving differ in many ways. Often times recommendations are based simply on the writer’s good intentions.

But what have we actually learned about how to reduce stress from research on pet caregiving? How can a pet owner ease the struggle associated with caregiving? How should the veterinarian support their client? Our recent publication in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice gives several recommendations that are based specifically on pet caregiving research. We’ve broken these down into tips for the owner and suggestions for the veterinarian here.


What Can the Pet Owner Do?

Seek knowledge from the right sources. Education is a necessary first step to feeling a sense of control in this situation, which is linked to lower burden. But the blessing of the internet can also be a curse. With so much misinformation at our fingertips, it is easy to be led astray. Don’t believe everything you read—check the source! Like Jeff, use resources that are provided by your veterinarian.

Collaborate on your pet’s care plan. Your veterinarian has a lot on their mind! Listening to your concerns, examining your pet, running and interpreting tests, and designing a treatment plan. They are working hard to make sure your pet gets everything it needs. Especially as things change over time, they might not notice when a prescribed care plan becomes too complex. Research shows that caregiver distress is greater when a pet’s care plan is very challenging. It may well have been necessary for Jeff to change his work schedule for Motley’s medications, but he never asked the veterinarian if there was any wiggle room. If your pet’s care plan is very difficult to follow, talk with your veterinarian to see what options might exist.

Become an active problem-solver. Pet caregiver stress is related to how often the pet shows problems related to their illness. Work on your problem-solving skills through scientific method! Identify the problem of greatest concern. How often does it happen? Develop a list of possible solutions (consult with your veterinarian if a change to your pet’s care plan is involved). Choose one, and stick with it long enough to assess if has reduced the problem. If it has, great! If not, on to the next solution. This method has the added bonus of giving you a sense of control, which may also decrease stress. Jeff saw that Motley wasn’t eating, and developed a plan. It changed over time as Motley’s needs shifted, but each time a solution worked (even if briefly), he probably felt a boost of confidence.


What Can the Veterinarian Do?

Treat every client as an individual. Most research studies of pet caregiver burden find that just about half of owners of a sick pet experience elevated burden. So caregiver distress is common in this situation, but it is not universal--do not make assumptions! Choosing to become a caregiver can be stressful, but can also lead to wonderful things, like a greater sense of purpose, or appreciation for one’s own strength. These positive aspects of caregiving are actually higher in pet caregivers compared to human caregiving samples.

Avoid minimizing the client’s feelings of burden. Although not all of your clients with a sick pet are burdened, a client who does share their distress is placing their trust in you. Tell them that it is common to feel overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving. Experiencing this stress does not make them weak or uncaring. It also does not mean that their pet is a burden—the challenges of caregiving are the burden. Sharing this blog site may help them feel less alone:

Offer encouragement. Because the client’s sense of control is linked to lower burden, be sure to tell your client when they are on the right path—especially if they have shown some good problem-solving! Remember that you are the expert--your stamp of approval goes a long way toward strengthening their sense of competence. That alone could help reduce feelings of burden.

Stick within your competence. And an ethical tip more than a research tip: While a veterinarian needs to understand pet caregiver burden in order to understand the client, leave mental health counseling to the professional! Only a person with an advanced degree and license to practice in a mental health field should attempt to provide counseling.

A Note About Social Support

Social support seems like a natural solution, and several trade articles and popular media pieces suggest that the distressed pet caregiver look to the people in their lives for support. A weak link does exist between social support and pet caregiver burden, but research shows that greater social support does not actually contribute to lower caregiver stress when your pet is sick. Even the research in human medicine is very mixed in this regard!

If someone has a strong social support system in their life, that is fantastic! A trustworthy person who is willing to listen or lend a helping hand is worth their weight in gold.

But even our closest friends do not always agree with us. Not every pet caregiver has people in their lives who understand their decision to provide care for a sick pet. Encouraging someone to draw water from an empty well could lead to disappointment and frustration.


Continued work is needed to identify the best ways to help our pet caregivers in distress. In the meantime, these research-based recommendations may be helpful. Stay tuned as we continue on this path, trying to help pet caregivers and the veterinarians who work with them! ~

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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