It is well known that looking after a seriously ill person is a stressful endeavor that increases the risk of anxiety and depression. However, is the same true for caregivers of terminally ill pets? Scientists investigate.

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A new study confirms that pet owners looking after poorly animals are exposed to high levels of stress and exhibit symptoms of depression.

Caring for someone with a chronic or terminal illness is usually a very stressful task, whether you are a healthcare practitioner or a concerned relative, partner, or friend. This type of stress has a medical name, "caregiver burden," and it can expose the carer to depression, social isolation, and a poorer overall quality of life.

But although caregiver burden has previously been studied in humans looking after other humans, it has rarely - if ever - been addressed in the case of pet owners or veterinarians.

That being said, many pet owners think of their animal companions as legitimate family members, and previous studies have shown that veterinarians are exposed to the same high levels of stress that other healthcare professionals face.

Taking this into account, Dr. Mary Beth Spitznagel - in collaboration with colleagues from the Kent State University in Ohio - investigated the link between caregiver burden among owners of pets diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness and the risk of anxiety and depression.

The researchers also reflected on the impact of caregiver burden among the vets who support both the animals and their humans through the experience of illness.

The results of the study were reported yesterday in Veterinary Record.

Pet owners exposed to elevated stress

For the study, the team initially recruited 600 dog or cat owners. They then narrowed this down to 119 owners of a dog or cat that had been diagnosed with a chronic illness, or one in its terminal stage. These were matched to a further 119 participants who owned healthy cats or dogs (the controls).

The participants in the two groups were matched for age, sex, and the species of the pet that they owned.

Next, Dr. Spitznagel and team assessed the participants' levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and their quality of life. A version of the Zarit Burden Interview - which is a questionnaire aiming to evaluate caregiver burden among people typically providing care for the elderly - was used.

They found that the owners of cats and dogs that were chronically or terminally ill were, as expected, exposed to high levels of stress and exhibited symptoms of anxiety or depression. These pet owners also reported having a much decreased quality of life.

The detrimental effect of caregiver burden on owners of sick pets also impacts veterinarians, the researchers suggest.

"If burdened [pet owners] have difficulty separating their own distress from medically necessary and appropriate veterinary attention," the study authors explain, "service overutilization may occur, [...] contributing to longer hours for the veterinarian."

"Additionally," they add, "a client's emotional distress could manifest as anger, such as expressions of disappointment or grievances, effectively transferring the client's burden to the provider."

This "transfer of burden" warrants further research, say Dr. Spitznagel and her colleagues, so that a better care and self-care trajectory for veterinarians can be developed in the future.

'Inaugural exploration of caregiver burden'

Some study limitations are also acknowledged by its authors, including the fact that the sample of participants was generally homogeneous. Most of the recruited pet owners were "highly educated and of relatively high socioeconomic class."

They also note that it remains unclear "whether elevated burden leads to poorer psychosocial functioning, or if companion animal owners with greater levels of stress [...] before the companion animal's expression of disease are experiencing caregiving as more burdensome."

Nevertheless, an accompanying editorial published alongside the original study emphasizes the pioneering role of this research in the context of veterinarian care, as well as the importance of conducting further studies in this direction.

"This inaugural exploration of caregiver burden within a veterinary setting is the first step in assessing the impact of veterinary caregiving on clients, as well as the impact of client emotional distress on veterinarian well-being. It is my hope that with continued dialogue, we will continue to build the literature in these essential areas."

Editorial author Dr. Katherine J. Goldberg