When Caring for a Sick Pet Becomes Too Much: how to cope + avoid caregiver burden

If your pet is sick, you invest so much time, energy, and money into caring for them.

This can take a real toll on you, as their owner and family.

Make no mistake, there is a real chance you could become stressed, depressed, guilty, anxious or even angry.  All of these will affect YOUR quality of life, not to mention affect your ability to give your dog or cat the best care possible. It is so important you look after YOU as well!

"Caregiver burden" is a well-recognized syndrome in people who care for chronically ill family members. It has only more recently been recognized in owners looking after their sick pets.

 
 

In today's post, rather than talk about your pet's health, I want to talk about how important it is to actually look after yourself when you are caring for a pet who is sick, especially if they are suffering from a long-term, chronic illness. 

Your pet is going to be unwell for a long time, and while a short illness can definitely be stressful, it is long-term caring that can really take so much out of you.

Your Vet’s Role

I think that as a vet, we play a really important role in helping you stay as happy and unstressed as possible by helping to take some of the load away from you when your pet is unwell. As a veterinarian, I feel it is my job to help take some of the uncertainty away, giving assurances that what you are doing is the best for your pet.

And when difficult decisions need to be made, trying to help guide you through those decisions so that you can be as happy as possible and know that you are making the best choice for both you and your pet.

Caregiver Burden: a case study

This post was triggered by a reader who got in touch with me wanting some help to work through a difficult situation that they had been subjected to. This person (who wished to remain anonymous) really wanted me to publicize their story so that other pet carers could learn without having to go through the same experience.

They had a really old dog who was unwell for a long time with multiple health issues. It was clear to me, on hearing the story, that this owner had done an amazing job of taking care of their dog for a significant number of years. In fact, their life had revolved around caring for their pet.

One morning this little dog was found tangled up in their sleep sack, struggling for breath. They were clearly very unwell and were barely conscious when found.

The owner called the veterinarian, a mobile vet who came straight round. The recommendation was that this little dog was euthanized, and quite rightly so from the information that I subsequently learned and asked about.

The real challenge with this sad turn of events was that the owner felt that, on reflection, that the strain of long-term caring, stress, and worry had impacted her well-being and actually had an impact on how her dog was cared for towards the end of their days.

Before talking to me, this owner was actually blaming herself for the fact that she was so tired, and so she didn't hear that her dog was struggling while it was wrapped up in their sleep sack. She ended up with the feeling that she was actually partly responsible for what happened, even though it was clear to me she had done an amazing job for a number of years.

And this brings us to caregiver burden.

The real story here is not the fact that this little dog was unwell and had multiple long-term health issues. It is the fact that this dog's owner cared so much about doing the absolute best that she could to look after her dog. So much so that it was actually detrimental to her physical health and also to her mental well-being.

 
how to look after you while dealing with a sick pet
 

What is Caregiver Burden

This brings me onto a condition called caregiver burden.

Caregiver burden is a very well-recognized situation, where long-term carers of unwell people but also unwell pets get stressed out. Their health suffers. They develop a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression and can themselves become very unwell.

In fact, caregiver burden was first described in people caring for people where it is defined as:

“Caregiver burden can be defined as the strain or load borne by a person who cares for a chronically ill, disabled, or elderly family member”

The name says it all really. Being a caregiver can be a real burden. You are trying to do the absolute best that you can for someone (or in our case your pet). They are relying on you so much to try and keep them as healthy and comfortable as possible.

Very often we do such a good job that caring ends up being detrimental to our own health. This is then a double-edged sword as if you are unwell then how can you hope to best care for your dog or cat?

Symptoms of caregiver burden

The toll of being a long-term caregiver can creep up on you slowly. Just like the chronic disease your pet could be suffering from.

Take a minute to self-assess your current state by running through these caregiver burden symptoms:

  • Being worried all the time

  • Feeling overwhelmed by your pet's situation

  • Feeling tired all the time

  • Sleeping too much or not enough

  • Changing weight (more or less)

  • Frequently becoming easily irritated or angry

  • Losing interest in hobbies

  • Feeling sad

  • Suffering from frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other illness

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications)

If you identify with any of these symptoms you need to take action to look after yourself now.

Avoiding Caregiver Burden

It is very important that, if you are in the situation of caring for your pet (or another member of your family), you are aware of the risk of suffering from caregiver burden.

By knowing this, as well as recognizing the first symptoms of problem, you can take steps to avoid suffering from significant caregiver burden There are actually some steps that you can take to try and make sure that you don't end up suffering from caregiver burden yourself.

  1. Let go of what you can’t control

  2. Reach out for help

  3. Join a community

  4. Take a break

  5. Maintain your hobbies

Let Go Of What You Can’t Control

My first suggestion for avoiding caregiver burden is to let go of what you can't control. 

Blame and Guilt

If your pet has become unwell or they've been injured,let go of the fact that this has happened to your pet.

Don't blame yourself. Don't cling onto the fact that maybe if you'd done something else things would've worked out differently. What's done is done. In the vast majority of cases, there is absolutely nothing that you did wrong. Nothing that you could have done could prevent it.

Let go of any sense of blame or guilt, and accept that there are some things that are just out of your control.

If you are worrying about things that are out of your control then these thoughts are taking up valuable head-space and valuable time that could be put to better, more constructive use. It is doing neither you or your pet any good.

Treatment Optimization

Let go of the responsibility of making sure your pet’s treatment is optimal.

You should ideally already have a good relationship with your vet. I frequently say that having a trusting relationship with your vet is one of the most important relationships that you can have when it comes to your pet's health. This means you should be trusting your vet to have open and honest discussions with you. To clearly lay out all of the treatment options, diagnostic options, and help you make any decisions that need to be made. 

Your responsibility is to ask questions and actually make a decision about which option you want to take. But it is my responsibility as a vet to make sure that you've got the options laid out clearly in front of you. Not just that, but that you also understand what each option involves, including the risks, benefits and likely prognosis.

 
If you’re running around all anxious or depressed, or can’t get out of bed because you have a sick animals, how are you supposed to help your sick pet?
 

Reach Out For Help

This brings me nicely onto the next strategy for tackling caregiver stress, which is to reach out for help.

Family and Friends

Let your friends and family know that you are struggling. Let them know that your dog or cat is unwell, that you are worried, anxious or stressed, and that you might need some extra help or support.

They will be all too willing to help out in whatever way they can, even if it is just a friendly ear to talk to.

Talk to Your Vet

If you are struggling with decision making or finding a particular treatment challenging then let your vet know. It might be that you are having trouble administering tablets, performing particular physical interventions, or are having difficulty with other management aspects of your pet's condition. Whatever it is, let your veterinarian know.

I can't make changes to a treatment plan if I don't know that there are problems with the current one that’s previously been decided upon.

Don't be ashamed. Don't think that you failed. It is difficult looking after pets with certain conditions. It's difficult to give medication to a lot of dogs and cats. It’s had to physically manage a heavy or uncooperative pet.

Don't feel that you have failed or that you’ve let them down.

Just let your vet know so that together you can come up with plan B.

Join a Community

If you've not got anyone close to you who seems to be able to help or understand the situation that you're in, joining a community of like-minded pet owners can be a great way to share your experience. 

Talking to people who have gone through similar situations to you, who have had the same struggles will help provide you with emotional support and encouragement. You may also come across some useful “tips and tricks” to better care for your pet.

You do though have to be a little bit careful with forums online. Some of them can be quite toxic and quite critical of people who don’t follow their particular way of thinking. In others, despite being well-meaning, people can give really poor treatment advice or can even add to your stress by needlessly (and sometimes completely wrongly) questioning the way you are currently caring for your dog or cat.

With all that in mind, heading online to find a place to share your experiences and to get some moral support can be a fantastic option.

Professional Help

The final option, and one that everyone who is already struggling should at least consider, is to seek professional help.

If you are already feeling anxious, angry, or depressed then talking to a professional will give you the best chance of staying healthy. And if you have a history of depression or other mental illness then be sure to reach out at the very earliest opportunity.

Self-Care

While seeking help and support from others is vitally important, helping yourself stay happy and healthy is an equally important step.

Hobbies

It’s all too easy to miss that one club meeting or get-together because you feel too tired or just don’t feel like heading out. That one missed meeting can soon turn into a permanent feature.

Deep down you know that you enjoyed your hobbies before this all started and you really should try and remain an active participant in any group or club you belong to. The feeling of camaraderie is often like no other group could provide you.

Prefer more solitary hobbies? The same applies! Make the effort to head out or set aside time to 

Time Off

Taking your time off, away from your pet, is really important.

Depending on the illness is, it might be that you end up spending lots of time with your pet. It might be that you cancel normal activities or normal appointments that you would otherwise carry out regularly so that you are always there for your pet should they need you.

This is not healthy. And if they really do need that level of continuous care it is likely that they are either in need of hospitalization, or you need to think hard about their quality of life.

Being a constant-carer is not simply a big inconvenience or day-to-day disruption. It is going to fast-track you to suffering from a serious case of caregiver burden.

In the vast majority of cases, your dog or cat is going to be just fine to leave for half a day or more. If you really doubt this then just ask your vet if that would be okay. If they really do need such a high level of supervision then a day's hospitalization fee at your veterinary clinic is going to be money well spent. You’ll know your pet is in safe hands and this will allow you to get the most value from your “time off”.

Other alternatives, especially for longer trips away, including pet sitters, kennels, and doggy daycare facilities. It could be that your local veterinary clinic has got a vet nurse or a veterinary technician who also pet-sits on the side. You can have a highly qualified carer look after your pet and be certain that their needs are being met.

Taking time off is so important. Remember, if you are getting stressed, run-down, depressed, anxious or sick because of the fact that you're having to care for your pet, then you're not going to be able to provide them with the care they need.

You need to take care of yourself first, and in doing so avoid the risk of developing caregiver burden.