By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
As many of you reading here are painfully aware, caring for a seriously or terminally ill pet is a heart wrenching labor of love. But what many people don’t realize is just how big a toll it can take on the caregiver’s emotional health.
Study Shows Caregivers for Very Sick Pets Suffer Stress, Anxiety, Depression and Diminished Quality of Life
A team of researchers that included three veterinarians and was led by Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D. of Kent State University set out to evaluate the phenomenon of “caregiver burden” and psychosocial function in 238 pet owners, half with a dog or cat with a chronic or terminal disease, and half with a healthy animal.1
The researchers measured symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, along with quality of life in each participant. The results showed that owners of ill pets had greater caregiver burden, stress and clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety than owners of healthy pets. They also had a poorer quality of life and diminished psychosocial functioning.
Interestingly (but not surprisingly, in my experience), the researchers also discovered that a large percentage of the people caring for a sick pet were involved in social media pet disease groups. This is the first study to examine the toll of caregiving on pet parents using the same measurements used in human caregiving relationships. It may also be helpful for veterinarians in offering counsel to clients with seriously ill pets.
“There may be benefits for educational programs targeted to clients managing a pet with a chronic condition or terminal illness,” writes veterinarian Dr. Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice in an article for veterinary journal dvm360.
“Education on the disease, discussions about clinical signs the pet may exhibit and treatment side effects it might develop, and any helpful suggestions to navigate the struggles can provide additional support and allay the owner’s stress and anxiety.”2
Gardner believes that since many of the caregivers of sick pets in the study belonged to social media groups, they were probably seeking support from others in a similar situation. She thinks a more formalized platform might give them a place to find support and information, share their struggles and build camaraderie with other owners of sick pets.
Five Ways to Stay Emotionally Healthy When Your Pet Is Terminally Ill
1. Stay present in the moment
It’s easy to occupy your mind with regrets about the past or fear of what’s to come, but when you let yourself go there, you’re missing the here and now with your pet. Your animal companion, by example, can help you stay present and live for today. Dogs and cats experience each moment of life as it arrives, and so can we if we follow their lead. As licensed professional counselor Chris Corrigan Mendez points out in an article for Dogster:
“… [Y]our ailing pooch may still be experiencing fun walks with you, enthusiastic mealtimes, and exciting adventures to the park, but you may not be really ‘there,’ enjoying them with him or her.”3
When you’re with your pet and your mind is elsewhere, take some slow, deep breaths and refocus on your furry companion. Use your senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch to bring yourself back to the present, appreciate what’s happening right now and reconnect on an emotional level with your dog or cat.
2. Remind yourself that you’ve always done the best for your pet
It’s very easy for the caregiver of a sick pet to engage in a lot of “woulda coulda shoulda” and self-blame about their dog's or cat's health. Our animal companions are 100 percent dependent on us from their first day in our lives till their last. That’s why it’s easy to feel your pet’s illness is your “fault.”
“It can be difficult to accept the terrible illness as a ‘no fault’ occurrence or mystery,” says Mendez. “However, you can divert yourself from this path of self-blame. You can think honestly and positively about how you prioritized your beloved pet through caring actions: the medical care, quality food, exercise, socialization, affection.”
She recommends using affirmations to strengthen positive thinking:
“Five to ten times each morning, midday, and evening, speak words such as, ‘I am continuing to do the best I can for my beloved pet,’ or ‘I am a loving pet parent. I am making our remaining time together the best it can be.’ As a result of these affirmations, you may find your self-judgment softening and the belief in yourself as a supportive pet parent strengthening.”
It’s important to always remember that no one has, or ever will, love and care for your pet in the same way you do.
3. Take time each day for meditation and deep breathing
It can be quite hard when you’re feeling sad and also slightly overwhelmed by all that you need to do, to take time to “do nothing.” But believe it or not, it can be extremely beneficial to set aside a few minutes to do nothing each day. Take a few minutes to do deep breathing exercises and guided meditations. There are even guided meditation apps you can download to your cell phone that allow you to select how long you want to meditate, the music you want to listen to and more.
Setting some time aside each day to relax your body and quiet your mind can help bring you back to the present moment. It’s also a great way to bring your stress level down as well. I also find taking homeopathic Ignatia and the Bach Flower remedy Honeysuckle to be very beneficial.
4. Reach out for kinship and support
Thankfully, more and more people today are becoming aware of the importance of pets in our lives, and there’s also increased understanding of the tremendous grief and sense of loss many people feel when they lose an animal companion.
There are resources available if you need them, including veterinary hospice, articles, books and websites dealing with the loss of a pet, and pet loss grief counselors and support groups. Reach out for information and support if you’re feeling isolated or confused.
These resources are available, as Mendez points out, “… to help you feel more informed and supported as you move through the illness period with your beloved friend, arrive at the final journey decision, and then grieve, mourn, and heal.”
5. Express your thoughts and feelings
“For many pet parents, keeping everything ‘inside’ significantly contributes to emotional distress,” says Mendez. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind there are people out there who can empathize with your experience and help you cope. One way to dial back negative emotions is to write down your painful thoughts and feelings in a personal journal, or share them with a trusted family member, friend or support group. You can also consider talking with a professional counselor.
The benefit of this type of processing, says Mendez, is that it can help you “… gain understanding, acceptance, and space in your mind for the positive beliefs and emotions that also deserve to be included. And with strengthened emotional health, you will be better able to fill the time you have left with your beloved friend with true connection, love, and joy — making it the best it can be.”