Anyone who has ever cared for a sick pet knows it can be exhausting and challenging... and sometimes heartbreaking, if the pet never gets better. And now, new research publicly suggests what you may have already privately suspected — that a pet's illness can affect the owner's mental health.
A new paper published in the journal Veterinary Record links the burden of being a caregiver of a sick pet to elevated stress, general symptoms of depression and anxiety, and poorer quality of life. As you might notice, these symptoms are not unlike those that you may experience while caring for a special person in your life who is very sick. Many pet owners consider their pets part of their family, so if you think about it, these findings may not be so shocking.
The paper looked at 238 pet owners, who the researchers then separated into two evenly split groups: owners with healthy pets, and owners with pets that had a a chronic or terminal disease. Then, the researchers used questionnaires and testing scales to measure the owners' stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and quality of life. They found that, overall, higher stress levels, greater symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lower quality of life were present in owners of sick pets than in those with healthy pets.
The paper's lead author, Mary Beth Spitznagel, said these findings are the first to show how caring for a pet each day can affect the owner. And she has a message for anyone reading it for the first time.
"It is important that we do not minimize what family caregivers are experiencing in human caregiving relationships. I would not say that pet caregiving is the same, for example, as providing care for a parent with dementia or a spouse who has had a stroke," Spitznagel said. "But pet caregiving in the context of a chronic or terminal disease is clearly stressful for the pet owner, and we can probably learn a lot about how to help people in this situation by looking at what helps reduce stress in human caregiving."
While more research is needed to measure this "caregiver burden" among a more diverse range of pet owners, and more research is necessary for giving the best tips to help pet caregiver, the paper is a start.
In the meantime, please remember that you should never feel ashamed or guilty about grieving the sickness or loss of a pet. They are important to you for a reason — and furthermore, you're not alone in feeling this way.