Puppy love can be tough when your pet is sick

January 2, 2018 Providence Health Team

Caring for a loved one can be stressful--and that goes for pets as well as people.

Pets aren't just cuddly companions--they can change your health for the better. Those benefits are well documented, ranging from decreased feelings of depression and anxiety to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Pets' unconditional love is a balm for humans. But that deep animal/people connection has a flip side--a critically ill or dying pet can cause you to feel profound grief.

In fact, a recent study in Veterinary Record indicates that caring for a sick pet can trigger similar stress, or caregiver burden, that people experience while tending to an ill family member or friend.

Guilt, anger, worry, sadness--those are all common feelings you can experience as a caregiver. It can also be taxing on the brain, which can affect your decision-making capabilities. And of course, the resultant stress of caregiving can have a negative effect on your physical health--you may not exercise or eat as well as you should, or you lose sleep and can't function well during the day. So if you are a pet caregiver, it's important to find ways to take care of yourself.

Get someone to talk to. One of the tough things about caring for a pet is that there's no verbal communication--pets can't talk to you. Finding an outlet for emotions is necessary. Veterinarians can be a good source for referrals to support groups, which can meet in person or online. Find a sympathetic friend who will listen to you--and may even pet sit for an hour occasionally so you can have a break.

Learn all you can about your pet's illness. A terminal diagnosis can be overwhelming at first, but if your pet has weeks or months to live, you'll need to know how to care for him--medications to be administered or special diet or exercise regimens, for instance. You'll also want to know the side effects of medication or what symptoms can occur so you know what to expect, which can help ease some stress. If your pet will be vomiting or suffer incontinence, you'll want to be prepared.

Be honest about finances. Pet care can be expensive, especially if pet health insurance hasn't been purchased. It can be emotionally draining to face thousands of dollars in veterinary bills--you want to do right by your pet, but at the same time you can't let other areas of your life suffer financially. Don't put that extra strain on yourself. Figure out what you can afford for pet care and talk with your veterinarian about options, whether it's payment plans or different courses of treatment.

Find a helping hand. Ask your veterinarian for referrals of reliable pet sitters who could fill in if you have to work, run errands, or take some time for yourself. It can also be good to find help with house cleaning if your pet's illness causes side effects that result in smells or messes inside the home.

Whether for pets or people, caregiving can cause similar stress, so know how to care for yourself, too. Visit our health library for practical tips on healthy living.

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