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Caregiving for a Sick Pet

by Melissa Caravella

Few things are worse than knowing your loved one is sick. That doesn’t change when the loved one who’s suffering has four legs and fur. Caregiving for sick pets can take a toll, too: Making sure they eat, feel comfortable, and get their medications can take as much time and effort as caring for any other loved one. Many older adults care for pets on their own.

While the stresses of “caregiver burden”—the stress or strain that caregivers experience as a result of caring for a loved one—are well documented in humans caring for other humans, less is known about the experience of pet owners caring for their furry companions.

Caregiver burden in pet owners

A 2017 study in Veterinary Record documented the toll long-term caregiving can take on owners, especially when a pet’s disease is serious. Compared with people who had healthy pets, those caring for chronic or terminally ill dogs or cats scored higher on measures of depression and anxiety, and lower on well-being tests. Researchers adapted a test used to measure caregiver burden in human relationships—replacing the word “relative” with “pet”—which suggested that levels of caregiver stress in pet owners might rival those of stress in caregivers of humans.

One reason for these alarming levels might be that pet caregivers lack the same level of support and resources available when caring for another human. While no one would expect a person to be able to take care of a sick family member 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that’s often the case for those caring for sick pets. When the sick loved one is a human, others may be quicker to offer help, recognizing the toll that ongoing care can require. And while respite programs and adult daycare services can help provide much-needed temporary relief from caregiving duties, few programs exist to support pet owners in caring for sick animals.

But that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to stress and anxiety as a part of the caregiving process. Here’s what you can do to take care of yourself while caring for your loyal companion:

  • Create your own respite network. Consider asking a friend or a family member to help with your pet occasionally so you can take a break. If you don’t have any nearby support, many veterinary technicians provide pet care services or know of people who do. Alternately, consider hiring out other tasks, such as housekeeping or grocery shopping, to ease the burden.
  • Keep notes. Part of the emotional burden comes from having to remember—and worry about forgetting—your pet’s medication schedule and keeping track of eating and bathroom habits. Create a simple log so you can rely on pen and paper instead. You’ll also be able to pinpoint any changes in behavior more easily.
  • Take care of yourself, too. You’ll be the best caretaker if you’re healthy yourself. Be sure to get enough sleep, maintain a healthy diet, and stay active. Even if you take a short stroll around the block or cut back on soda or candy, every little bit helps.
  • Discuss treatment options and goals with your vet. Have an honest conversation about what your expectations should be for your pet’s quality of life and care needs. Schedule regular care conversations, which should include your preferences, values, goals, and fears.
  • When the time comes, consider palliative care and animal hospice. When your pet has a terminal diagnosis or a progressive disease, palliative and hospice care seek to maximize your companion’s comfort and quality of life by relieving suffering. Only you and your vet know when the time is right to focus less on curative treatments and more on helping your beloved pet feel comfortable. Ask your vet to help set you up with hospice care or services.

Should You Consider Pet Health Insurance?

Health care services, whether for humans, canines, or felines, are increasingly expensive—and understandably, many pet owners don’t want healthcare decisions driven by finances. Enter pet health insurance. Here’s how to evaluate potential plans.

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.

Also see Pawsitive Thinking.