It’s widely known that tending to a sick loved one can lead to physical and emotional stress, a phenomenon known as caregiver burden. But as CNN reports, pet owners with ailing furry friends can also experience similar—but until recently, overlooked—feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression, according to a new study published in the journal Veterinary Record.
Researchers from Kent State University, Stow Kent Animal Hospital, and Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital in Akron, Ohio conducted the study, which involved 238 pet owners recruited through social media, along with their dogs or cats. The participants were split into two equal groups, one containing members who owned animals with chronic or terminal diseases and the other with members whose pets were healthy.
The researchers used questionnaires and testing scales to measure each pet owner's quality of life, their levels of stress and caregiver burden, and signs of anxiety and depression. These metrics were mostly borrowed from real-life studies on human caregiving relationships, save for an additional questionnaire that measured how well each pet owner adhered to his or her vet’s prescribed caretaking regime. (Owners with healthy pets could answer N/A to these.)
After analyzing the results, the researchers learned that pet owners with sick pets had higher levels of caregiver burden and stress, along with a lower quality of life. They also exhibited more symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Scientists have conducted little scientific research on the physical and emotional drawbacks of tending to a sick pet—which is why the study’s lead author, Mary Beth Spitznagel, whose own dog suffered from both Cushing's disease and cancer, decided to investigate the prospective effects. She claims that it’s the first study to take a close look at pet caregiver burden, and at pet owners' psychological experiences during this tough time.
"It turns out that the effects of caregiving for a sick pet—burden, stress, anxiety, depression, low quality of life—are in many ways similar to what we see in a person caring for a sick family member, for example, a parent with dementia," Spitznagel said in a news release. "In the case of this study, burden is at a high enough level that for some people, it could be causing symptoms of anxiety and, more likely, depression."
"There is a ton of research and support for those who care for humans, but virtually none for pet caregivers, even though 85 percent of pet caregivers consider their pets members of their families," Spitznagel added.
If you’re dealing with a sick or dying pet, Spitznagel says it’s OK to let yourself feel stressed out, acknowledge the toll it’s taking on you, and enlist friends or family members for support when you’re in need of a break.