Depression and anxiety - symptoms of “caregiver burden” - also present among people caring for their sick pets, a study suggests.

Just as having pets is found to be helpful  - especially for elderly people - caring for sick ones is just as devastating, according to a new research by the Kent State University in Ohio, United States.

The university researchers, in cooperation with veterinarians from the Stow Kent Animal Hospital and Metropolitan Animal Hospital, looked at 238 pet owners (of either dogs or cats) who were recruited via social media.

One hundred nineteen owners have healthy pets, the other half, also 119, have pets with chronic or terminal illness.

Both groups of  pet owners were assessed through questionnaires and testing scales, which were patterned from studies which tested caregiving relationships among humans.

The researchers assessed the pet owners’ stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety, quality of life and their level of caregiver burden.

It turned out that the effects of caring for sick pets are comparable to that of caring for family members with dementia, a wide range of symptoms associated with memory decline.  

“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,” according to Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph. D., lead researcher and clinical neuropsychologist, who’s also done studies on caregiver burden among family members with dementia patient.

This is the first study which analyzed the effects of pet caregiver burden to people.

She explained that caring for sick pets might be overwhelming for some, as there is constant attention, sleepless nights and weekly trips to the doctors. People might be having difficulty managing all these which lead to stress, anxiety and depression.

She noted that 85 percent of families with pets consider their pet as a family member.

“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,” she said.

Spitznagel signaled that more work should be done to help relieve pet caregiver burden on humans, but the initial step would be to make them realize that having a pet foremost will take personal toll on their own lives.

“They need to know it is okay to feel stressed out by the situation, acknowledging the stress doesn’t mean they love their pet any less,” she said. MIMS

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