‘Caregiver burden’ affects people with sick pets, too

Dog and cat owners may experience “caregiver burden” when taking care of their sick animals, a new study shows.

This type of stress, which occurs when taking care of a loved one, is linked with depression, anxiety and poorer quality of life, the study authors wrote in the journal Veterinary Record.

“The majority of pet owners consider their pet to be a family member, and prior research has demonstrated that many pet owners experience significant grief when a pet passes away,” coauthor Dr. Mary Beth Spitznagel of Kent State University in Ohio told Reuters Health by email.

Her team expected that people with chronically or terminally ill pets would show greater caregiver burden, but “we did not anticipate just how high the level of burden would be,” Spitznagel said.

She and her colleagues studied 119 adults with chronically or terminally ill dogs or cats, along with another 119 adults with similar animals that were healthy although significantly younger, on average, than the pets in the illness group.

Pet owners in the study were primarily well-educated, well-off middle-aged white women. Many owners of ill pets belonged to a social media group related to their pet’s disease.

In general, pet owners with chronically ill pets had higher levels of burden, stress and anxiety and lower levels of functioning and quality of life. Interestingly, owners who were part of a social media pet disease group had higher level of depressive symptoms. The research team didn’t find any differences based on owner age or gender.

“As our relationships with animals are changing, studies like these help to further explore the ways in which human health is affected – and not always in a positive direction,” said Dr. Katherine Goldberg of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics and Hospice Services in Ithaca, New York. Goldberg, who wasn’t involved with this study, wrote an accompanying commentary about caregiver burden in Veterinary Record.

“I think there is quite a lot of popularization of the notion that pets are ‘good for you’ and that strong attachments to animals are generally desirable and even therapeutic,” she told Reuters Health by email. “But this study points to the complexity of human-animal relationships.”

Future studies should investigate how caregiver burden affects veterinarians, the study authors said. Stressed pet owners likely need more communication and time in the office. Plus, more time in the office could mean more work burden and stress for veterinarians.

“A burdened pet owner might be more likely to attribute a small change in their pet’s behavior to the disease,” Spitznagel said. “Their stress may cause them to worry more and seek support from the veterinarian that goes beyond the pet’s treatment.”

Including caregiver burden in veterinary school curriculum could help address this, Goldberg added.

“As I tell my students, ‘None of your patients will drive themselves to your clinic,’” she said. “A commitment to developing human helping skills . . . is really critical.”

Some veterinary practices are incorporating social workers into their team, and Goldberg sees the trend becoming more prevalent in the next 10 years.

“The take-home for me is not doom and gloom regarding how stressful life can be,” she said. “Rather, it’s to use this as a catalyst for discussion . . . What kind of support would make this experience feel more manageable, and what does that look like?”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2wRYidw Veterinary Record, online September 4, 2017.

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