The Emotional Burden of Caring for a Sick Pet

caring for a sick pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Caregivers of sick pets feel greater burden, stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer quality of life, than owners of healthy pets
  • Caring for a sick pet is linked to reduced psychosocial functioning
  • You can’t care for your pet unless you care for yourself first; practice positive self-care, from eating right to getting enough sleep, and reach out for support when you need it

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Sharing your life with a pet brings immeasurable amounts of joy and unconditional love, but when your pet becomes ill, caring for your sick animal can take a toll on your mental health. Researchers assessed what they called “caregiver burden” in 238 owners of a dog or a cat. It’s well known that caregivers of human patients facing a chronic or terminal illness experience heightened levels of stress, depression and anxiety, so the researchers set out to determine if the same held true for pet caregivers.

As you might suspect, the answer is yes. Compared to owners of healthy animals, the results showed greater burden, stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer quality of life, in owners of pets with chronic or terminal disease.1 In turn, the feeling of higher burden was linked to reduced psychosocial functioning.

When You’re the ‘Assisted Living Facility’ for Your Pet

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Katherine Goldberg, founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics & Hospice Services in Ithaca, New York, brings up an important point, which is that:2

“Few people in contemporary society would consider providing 24-hour care for our ailing family members without professional help. Yet, this is what we expect of ourselves for our pets and then feel guilty when we struggle or cannot do it at all.

On the human side of health care, we have options when people require support beyond what can reasonably or safely be provided at home by family members — assisted living facilities, in-home health care aides, visiting nurse associations, memory care centers and, for better or worse, nursing homes.”

Yet, when your pet becomes ill, “you are the assisted living facility.”3 While there are some providers of hospice care for pets, U.S. veterinary students generally don’t receive such training. As such, your veterinarian may not be much help when it comes to helping you understand how to best care for your pet in his final days. When your pet becomes terminally ill, and ideally well before that, take some time to prepare for your pet’s death.

Although it sounds morose, preparing and planning will help you to relieve your fears and stay present when the time comes so you can be there for your animal while he makes the transition. If you’re new to the process, my Winding Down webinar covers many of the difficult topics involved in the death of a pet, including what to expect from her aging body, when and how to transition from preventive to comfort care and the dying process.

Taking Care of Yourself While You Care for Your Pet

While it’s difficult to face end-of-life issues with your pet, most pet owners would agree that it’s a sacrifice they’ll gladly make in exchange for the years of happiness their pet created. Still, it’s important to remember that you can’t care for your pet unless you care for yourself first. Practice positive self-care, from eating right to getting enough sleep, and reach out for support when you need it.

For many, the emotional toll is the hardest part of caring for a sick pet, which is why expressing your thoughts and feelings is crucial. You needn’t keep your emotions bottled up; what you’re feeling — perhaps failure, frustration, inadequacy or guilt — is valid and by sharing your thoughts — in a journal, with a friend or in a support group — you can ultimately move past them and let them go. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) states:4

“We encourage you to reach out to like-minded individuals in your community and online who have experienced similar situations, and ‘get it.’ Look to your local animal shelters, veterinary association, and pet funeral homes for pet loss support groups. Human hospice programs in your community offer grief and bereavement services to the public (interview them for their views on pet hospice first).”

In addition, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with decisions and information regarding your pet’s illness, ask for explanations from your veterinarian, and realize that you don’t have to shoulder the burden alone. If you need a moment to regroup, ask a close friend or family member to care for your pet so you can focus on stress relief.

“[T]he ability to think clearly will directly affect how effective you can be in your care for your animal companion,” IAAHPC notes. “Respite, or some time away from caregiving, can be important to your continued well-being.” Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at Kent State University, who authored the featured study, noted many similarities between caring for a sick pet and caring for a sick human family member.

“It turns out that the effects of caregiving for a sick pet — burden, stress, anxiety, depression, low quality of life — are in many ways similar to what we see in a person caring for a sick family member, for example, a parent with dementia,” she told U.S. News & World Report.5

However, despite the stress and, oftentimes, uncertainty, there can be great solace in being there for your pet when he needs you most. Sometimes, if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed the best thing you can do is to simply sit and be with your pet in the present moment. Take some deep breaths, practice mindfulness or meditation and your calmness will likely be felt by your pet as well.