Caring For Yourself When Caring for a Sick Pet: One Researcher’s Mission

Currently, the United States is the top country for pet ownership with 76 million domestic dogs and 58 million domestic cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

We never want to consider the possibility of our pets getting sick, but when they do, it places caregiving responsibilities on the owner. What pet owners may not have considered is the burden and stress that can come with caring for a pet with a chronic illness.

Spitznagel with Allo, the dog who inspired her research
Spitznagel with Allo

Kent State University professor of psychological sciences Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D., has experienced this burden of caregiving when caring for her beloved dog, Allo, who developed bladder cancer. This influenced her research into how a pet with chronic illness can affect caregivers.

Spitznagel describes the burden of caregiving in two ways: objective challenges and subjective challenges. Objectively, a difficulty of caregiving for an ill pet can include time management. Often ill pets will require medication, specific meals or other necessities that can be challenging to incorporate into a person’s schedule. In contrast, subjectively, caregivers are often affected emotionally and may feel guilt or anger around the illness of a pet.

“So many of us are pet owners,” Spitznagel said. “Whether you have a cat or a dog, the vast majority of pets are animals that don’t live as long as we do. So, we have a lot of them, and this is something we take on and do over and over again.”

Spitznagel’s original research on this topic examined people who were caring for a seriously ill pet compared to demographically matched owners of a healthy pet. What she found was that there were significant levels of anxiety, depression and stress in about half of the population of pet owners who were caring for a sick pet.

“It begs the question, what drives the burden?” Spitznagel asked. “Why do some people experience this caregiver burden but not everyone?”

The answer may be multifaceted. Spitznagel has continued to examine certain factors such as how the animal physically presents, the clinical symptoms of the animal or even how challenging the treatment routine may be. All of these factors play into how burdened a caregiver may feel.

Recently, Spitznagel received funding from Zoetis, an animal pharmaceutical company, to continue her research.

“They’ve been really great supporters of the caregiver burden research that I’ve done in recent years,” Spitznagel said.

In past research, Spitznagel has only been able to look at a snapshot of caregiver burden. This entails taking one point in the timeline of a caregiver's burden and looking at how it affects an owner in that one moment.

The hope is that with this research funding, Spitznagel will be able to look at caregiver burden over time to see how different factors develop as time passes.

Spitznagel and pet“I’d like to look at caregiver burden in a longitudinal way,” Spitznagel said. “If we have a good understanding of the best predictors of caregiver burden over time and an understanding of determinants and predictors, that gives us a good idea of what we might be able to try for interventions.”

If these determinants and factors can be identified over the course of an animal's diagnosis and illness, Spitznagel says it will make it easier to develop interventions that can be implemented to help caregivers adapt to their pet’s illness. A few of the early ideas of what this intervention may look like are social media support groups or information pamphlets.

“If we can better understand why caregiver burden develops,” Spitznagel said. “it gives us a much better chance at targeting the specific mechanisms for that burden that may help us alleviate it.”

Aside from research on caregiver burden, Spitznagel also offers workshops and training for veterinarians on how to work effectively with caregivers and how to handle their distress from the doctor's perspective.

Visit Kent State’s psychology program to learn more.

POSTED: Friday, March 3, 2023 11:14 AM
Updated: Tuesday, March 14, 2023 05:29 PM
Taylor Cook, Flash Communications