When caring for a sick pet becomes too much

IMAGE: Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D. (right), a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor at Kent State University, talks with a pet owner. Spitznagel co-authored a new article that examines pet caregiver burden...

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Kent State University

The mental and physical stress on individuals caring for elderly loved ones with chronic and terminal disease is well-documented and known as caregiver burden. It is linked to depression, anxiety and poor quality of life. There are ways to prevent and treat it. But what about caregivers of pets with chronic and terminal diseases? Do they carry the same level of stress and burden?

Until recently, very little scientific research has been published on what these caregivers go through and how they handle the stress.

It took Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in Kent State University's College of Arts and Sciences, experiencing it firsthand with her own adopted dog, Allo, to realize she in fact was suffering from caregiver burden. She was subsidizing Allo's quality of life with her own. It inspired her to study the topic further and publish the results of a collaborative study in the journal Veterinary Record.

The article, "Caregiver Burden in Owners of a Sick Companion Animal: A Cross-Sectional Observational Study," was co-authored with veterinarians at Stow Kent Animal Hospital (Dr. Mark Carlson and Dr. Melanie Cox) and Metropolitan Animal Hospital (Dr. Dana Jacobson). Carlson is Spitznagel's trusted veterinarian who has treated her dogs for years, including Allo, who passed away a year ago after a difficult bout with both Cushing's disease and transitional cell carcinoma in the bladder. Read her blog post "Allo's story."

Spitznagel said that this is the first study that has ever examined pet caregiver burden and the pet owner's psychological experience in the context of sick pet caregiving. She created an online questionnaire using previously validated measures from human caregiver burden research and put it out on social media with general posts and specific online pet disease support group posts. She got an overwhelming response from 600 pet owners.

"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 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."

Spitznagel created a science blog, http://www.petcaregiverburden.com, on this topic and is doing additional studies with a veterinary clinic clientele and pet disease support groups. She also has four additional papers in the pipeline.

"Something striking in this study participant group of pet caregivers is that a good number of people feel stressed out but don't stop to think about why," Spitznagel said.

Caregiver burden was not a new topic for Spitznagel. During her training as a clinical psychologist, she worked on a federally funded project examining family members providing care for people with dementia. In recent years, she has held clinical privileges at Summa Health System in Akron, where she provides patient care, working with dementia patients and their families, one day per week.

"It can be overwhelming for some - the burden of almost constant attention, sleepless nights and weekly trips to the doctor," Spitznagel said. "Difficulty managing that stress contributes to anxiety or depression for many. Over the years, I've worked with dementia caregivers who seek counseling for these issues, and I've heard similar comments from some of our pet caregivers."

During her journey of caring for Allo, Spitznagel joined a social media support group for pet owners going through similar experiences. While it helped to share and cope with the stress, it also made her realize the bigger picture.

"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 said. "I could see, as a group, we were coping. But, we were all hanging by a thread."

"The strain on individuals caring for human patients is well-documented and taxes the caregiver both mentally and physically," Carlson said. "Since our pets have become family, the hypothesis is that those same struggles plague pet owners also. Compounding this is the fact our pets can't tell us what's wrong, which adds to the stress. The more difficulty the owner experiences, the harder it becomes to care for the pet and a vicious cycle ensues."

Spitznagel said more work is needed to determine how to best help burdened pet caregivers, but the first step is to help people recognize that taking care of their pet is likely to take a personal toll on their own lives.

"They need to know that it is okay to feel stressed out by the situation," she said. "Acknowledging the stress doesn't mean they love their pet any less.

"I would also recommend that the pet caregiver takes stock of how much help they are getting from others in the household - are there other people who could pitch in and provide some respite for the primary pet caregiver?" Spitznagel continued. "But if someone is experiencing significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, enough that it interferes with daily functioning, it may be a good idea to consult with a mental health professional."

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Kent State University