Nov
6
2017

Taking care of a chronically or terminally ill family member takes a terrible toll on the caregiver.

Until recently, research into what’s commonly called caregiver burden was largely limited to people taking care of human family members. But a recent study shows the same kinds of stress apply to people taking care of sick family pets, too.

And that stress can spill over onto their veterinarian.

In the study, published online in the journal Veterinary Record, researchers at Kent State University in Ohio found that owners of seriously or terminally ill pets were more likely to suffer symptoms of depression than owners of healthy animals.

The team studied 238 pet owners recruited through social media. Of these pet owners, 174 had a dog; the rest had a cat. Half of the pets were examined and found to be healthy. The other half had been diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness.

The owners were then evaluated for signs of stress, anxiety, depression, and for quality of life. Almost all were female and Caucasian. Their average age was 48.

The findings indicated an increased emotional burden and heightened stress in the owners of the sick pets, as well as clinically relevant signs of depression and anxiety. Those owners also demonstrated a poorer quality of life.

Those are the same signs of caregiver burden that affect people caring for human family members.

But the study is the first general study to link the signs of caregiver burden to owners taking care of chronically ill pet, said the study’s lead researcher, Mary Beth Spitznagel, associate professor of phycological sciences at Kent State.

“Our work shows that caregiver burden in the owner of a sick pet is linked to stress and anxiety,” Spitznagel said.

The researchers suggested that better management of stressed-out clients can lead to improved veterinarian wellbeing, as well.

In fact, Spitznagel said that future studies will focus on how caregiver burden affects veterinarians—because it’s likely that stressed pet owners could lead to stressed veterinarians.

Spitznagel said it would make sense if a stressed and anxious client would seek more frequent assurance from the veterinarian, reaching out with questions and worries. “That is likely to take the form of extra email or phone contact, or longer conversations during appointments, contributing to the veterinarian's already long work day,” Spitznagel said.

She added that depression linked to caregiver burden can lead to angry outbursts. “It is possible that the burdened caregiver would be more likely to react to a disappointing situation by lashing out or making a complaint, which is likely to be stressful for the veterinarian, as well.” 

But communication with stressed clients goes both ways.

Spitznagel said it’s important for veterinarians to be informed about caregiver burden in clients. “It allows for a fuller appreciation of the client’s perspective. That understanding is an important stepping stone to empathy and effective communication.”

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