Journal Scan: Studying the caregiver burden of owners with very ill pets


Its results seem intuitive, but this study sought to scientifically measure the toll that caring for a pet with a chronic or terminal illness takes on an owner. What researchers found could alter the way your veterinary team interacts with clients in such cases.

The worry over a weakened buddy. (Getty Images)Pets are now considered family members and, in many cases, considered as a son or daughter to the owners (“pet parents”). With this strong attachment to pets, one wonders how those owners would cope with caregiving should their pet face a chronic or terminal illness. Would they struggle with the same caregiver fatigue or burden that occurs when people are faced with the challenges of caring for a sick human family member? A recent study discovered that owners are, in fact, at risk for decreased psychosocial functioning when dealing with a sick pet, similar to the findings in human caregiving.

What they did

For the study, the researchers sampled a total of 238 owners of cats and dogs. Half were owners of healthy pets, whereas the other half owned a pet that was diagnosed with a chronic or terminal disease. Animal species, as well as human age and sex, were blindly matched for the comparison. The mental health of the owners was measured focusing on the differences in levels of depression, stress, anxiety and quality of life enjoyment (for the owner). This is the first study that has examined the toll of caregiving on pet owners using comparable measurements studied in human caregiving relationships to assess similarities.

What they found

The results of the study showed a greater level of caregiver burden and stress in the group caring for the sick pet with greater perceived stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the same time, this group scored lower on indicators of quality of life and enjoyment. The results aligned closely with those found in the human caregiving relationships.

An interesting additional discovery was that a large proportion of the group dealing with the sick pets were involved in social media pet disease groups.

What now?

This study provides solid evidence that pet parents face caregiving burdens. It's a great foundation for more research, particularly focusing on the domino effects the caregiver burden may have on the whole veterinary team. Continued research should be completed to examine the impacts of a caregiver's depression, stress and anxiety and its effects on the relationship between the pet caregiver and the veterinary team. If there is a transfer of negative emotions from client to veterinary care providers or if interactions between the two groups result in a highly charged emotional interaction, what ways can we buffer those effects or avoid them altogether?

There may be benefits for educational programs targeted to clients managing a pet with a chronic condition or terminal illness. Education on the disease, discussions about clinical signs the pet may exhibit and treatment side effects it might develop, and any helpful suggestions to navigate the struggles can provide additional support and allay the owner's stress and anxiety. Since many of the caregivers in this study were involved in a social media group, could it be that they were seeking support from others dealing with the same issues? Could a more formalized platform help those caregivers by offering a place for them to find support and information and to share their struggles and even build camaraderie with other owners of sick pets?

More research into the caregiver burden and how it manifests in our veterinarian-client-patient relationships will help our profession strengthen the bond between veterinary healthcare providers and caregivers of sick pets.

See Dr. Gardner's companion article, Helping clients face the caregiver's dilemma: How do I tend to a sick pet without losing myself?

Spitznagel MB, Jacobson DM, Cox MD, et al. Caregiver burden in owners of a sick companion animal: a cross-sectional observational study. Vet Rec 2017;181(12):321.

Link to abstract:

Dr. Gardner is a co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, a network of veterinarians around the country whose goal is to empower every owner to care for their geriatric pets. She is also co-editor and contributing author of the textbook Treatment and Care of the Geriatric Veterinary Patient.

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