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Caregiving

Managing Caregiver Burden for People with Pets

If a pet has health or behavior issues, its guardian may get caregiver stress.

Key points

  • Similar to caring for a sick relative, caring for a pet who is sick or has a serious behavior issue can have effects on their guardian.
  • The difficulties of caring for a pet with a chronic or terminal issue have been investigated in people whose pets have a range of conditions.
  • There are several ways to cope with caregiver burden, including making sure to take care of yourself and seeking support.
Meruyert Gonollu/Pexels.
Source: Meruyert Gonollu/Pexels.

We tend to have a rosy perspective on pets and think of the many benefits they can bring to our lives. But for many people, sooner or later there comes a point where the pet is sick or has a behavior issue. As well as being hard for the pet, this is difficult for the pet guardian too. It’s one of the potential downsides of having a pet.

What is caregiver burden?

Caregiver burden is the name given to the negative effects of caring for a sick or dying member of the family—and it turns out this can also apply to times when we care for a pet with a chronic or serious illness.

Caregiver burden covers a range of negative impacts, including financial burden and time constraints, an increased risk of stress, anxiety, and depression, a lower quality of life, and feelings of guilt and anger about the situation or about the person or animal being cared for.

When it comes to caring for a pet, apart from your veterinarian or dog trainer, there can be few supports available. In an editorial published in Veterinary Record in 2017, Katherine J. Goldberg writes:

“I hear myself saying, ‘You are the assisted living facility’ to my clients—caregivers of seriously and terminally ill pets—on a regular basis. Often this framing helps to provide clients with perspective around why daily life with their pet feels so hard.”

What contributes to caregiver burden

Caring for a pet with a chronic or terminal illness or serious behavior issue can involve making changes to one’s schedule or lifestyle. As well as the initial shock of learning about the issue or diagnosis, there is the difficulty of coming to terms with it and the fact that life may not be the same again. There is the financial cost of vet visits and treatments, the challenges of giving treatments at home, and changes to what the pet can or cannot do. There may also be impacts on the pet guardian’s health.

Some of the potential impacts on people are shown in these quotes from research on caring for dogs with different conditions:

“Yes, I’ve changed, I don’t go on holiday unless she can come, I changed the way my routine [is], I’ve changed all the things I can do, that’s definitely affected things, but it’s alright, I don’t mind, it’s not her fault she’s got it and it’s my fault I bought her from a dodgy breeder.”(someone caring for a dog with epilepsy, from Pergrande et al 2020)

“I think the biggest thing is people who don't understand how severe a pet’s behavior problems can be. They may not understand the stress, the money involved, the restrictions, et cetera. and it is hard to explain to someone who has no idea what you are dealing with or what your pet is dealing with.” (someone caring for a dog with a behavior issue, from Buller and Ballantyne 2020)

As this latter quote shows, another issue can be that family and friends may simply not understand what it is like.

Positive aspects of caring

When researchers compared the effects of caring for a pet with a terminal illness to what it’s like caring for a relative with dementia, the level of burden was lower for those caring for pets (Britton et al 2018). At the same time, the positive aspects of caregiving, such as finding meaning in the situation, feeling needed, and feeling confident and competent, were greater for companion animal carers.

Things that can help with caregiver burden include looking for supports, including financial assistance, counseling, online groups for people whose pet has the same condition, getting help with giving treatments, considering the positive aspects of the situation, and making sure to take care of yourself (Britton et al 2018; Goldberg 2017).

Does caregiver burden stop people from wanting a similar pet in the future?

Sometimes, the difficulties of caring for a sick pet can mean that people do not want another pet, or another pet of the same breed, in the future. But sometimes people still want the same kind of pet again. This can be the case for brachycephalic dogs such as French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, and Pugs, for whom health issues because of the dog’s flat face can be very severe. One study found that people were less likely to recommend one of these breeds to someone else if their pet had had more health issues (e.g., more surgeries because of health issues related to their looks) (Packer et al 2020). But most of the people in the study still said they would choose the same breed again themselves despite the fact their pet had health issues.

Of course, for serious health and behavior issues, people may consider euthanasia for their pet. This means that caring for the pet is often a choice, and this may also affect the extent to which people feel it as a burden.

In many cases, people feel that caring for their pet through their condition is worth it. One of the participants in Belshaw et al’s (2020) study of people caring for a dog with osteoarthritis put it this way:

“We just all love her, and she's just like your old granny or something, she's just an old lady. We just look after her and make allowances for what she can do and what she can't do.”

Talking about caregiver burden

Recognizing the signs of caregiver burden can be the impetus to find help. One thing that might help is if people were more aware of the issue and willing to talk about it. Pets can be wonderful additions to our lives, but the other side of that is that when they become ill, it can feel very hard.

If you are having difficulties with your pet’s health or behavior, reach out to your vet, behaviorist, or suitably qualified trainer, as appropriate.

References

Britton, K., Galioto, R., Tremont, G., Chapman, K., Hogue, O., Carlson, M. D., & Spitznagel, M. B. (2018). Caregiving for a companion animal compared to a family member: burden and positive experiences in caregivers. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5, 325.

Buller, K., & Ballantyne, K. C. (2020). Living with and loving a pet with behavioral problems: Pet owners’ experiences. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 37, 41-47.

Goldberg, K. J. (2017). Exploring caregiver burden within a veterinary setting. The Veterinary Record, 181(12), 318.

Packer, R. M., O’Neill, D. G., Fletcher, F., & Farnworth, M. J. (2020). Come for the looks, stay for the personality? A mixed methods investigation of reacquisition and owner recommendation of Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs. Plos One, 15(8), e0237276.

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