Caring for a sick pet is no fun. It's even worse if you know your animal friend isn't going to get better. A new study, the first of its kind, suggests that caring for a chronically or terminally ill pet increases the risk of stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. For pet-lovers, that might sound like a "no kidding" conclusion—but it also might apply to veterinarians, who make a career of caring for ill pets and communicating with their owners.
A team of researchers from Kent State University wanted to study what's known as the "caregiver burden." The term encompasses all the emotional and psychological weight carried by people looking after a sick loved one. Usually that loved one is another person, but the team wanted to see whether sickly pets could impose a similar burden.
To do so, they recruited 600 pet owners to take an online survey; they all owned a either cat or a dog and took that pet to the vet. There were 238 people who completed the survey, which included assessments of the owners' stress, anxiety, depression, and caregiver burden, plus a questionnaire to measure their quality of life. Researchers also collected demographic data on the participants. They split the participants into two groups: 119 owners of healthy pets, and 119 whose pets had chronic or terminal conditions. They matched up pets by species and by the owner's age and sex to try to account for those variables.
Unsurprisingly, people with sick pets were psychologically worse off than their healthy-pet peers. They showed greater levels of burden and stress and had clinically meaningful symptoms of depression and anxiety. Their quality of life was poorer, and they showed poorer psychosocial functioning—the way our psychological state interacts with, and is influenced by, our environment. Owners of sick pets had particular difficulties with depression, especially if they sought out pet disease groups on social media. (That may mean they were more likely to seek out support, rather than that visiting such groups influenced their depression.)
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The authors acknowledge the study has limitations, namely that participants were mostly middle-aged white women, who were highly educated and members of a relatively high socioeconomic class. The researchers note that this might represent the type of person more likely to choose long-term caregiving despite the emotional and financial toll. Also, only about a third of respondents were cat-owners, so their experiences may be underrepresented. A more varied set of respondents may have produced different results.
Similarly, those who filled out the online survey may have been those especially invested in their relationship with their pets—and thus likely to be hit hard if their pet got sick. More research will be needed to suss out how other groups of people interact with their pets. Still, it's the first time anyone has looked into caregiver burden when it comes to pets, and Americans are increasingly pet-obsessed, with 95 percent of pet-owners saying their pet is a part of the family.
The authors also call for more study of how caregiver burden affects people, and how it can be reduced. A commentary on the paper by veterinarian Katherine Goldberg addresses how people can care for sick pets 24 hours a day, with no professional help, and still feel guilty for not doing more. "I hear myself saying, 'You are the assisted living facility' to my clients...on a regular basis," Goldberg writes. "Often this framing helps to provide clients with perspective around why daily life with their pet feels so hard."
Alleviating that guilt can fall to veterinarians, who carry their own burdens in communicating with owners of sick pets. If owners are stressed out, that might make vets' jobs more stressful, too. Goldberg recommends more training for vets around providing long-term care for ill animals, and tailoring treatments to better fit the owner's needs. She also suggests training for veterinarians to recognize when a client is distressed and how to offer the right mental health support (in the form of a referral; they're not suggesting vets start offering therapy).
Ultimately, the research suggests there's more to be done in understanding the burden of caring for a sick pet. Showing that the burden is real is an important advance. But it's just the first step in taking care of the people who take care of pets.
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