small black and white terrier looking up

Pet Caregivers Suffer Burnout Too: Relief and Grief

A few days ago I had to say goodbye to my little terrier, Madegan. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure over a year and a half ago, but had been doing okay with medication. Recently, however, as she weakened, I had to make more and more accommodations for her failing health since she no longer could safely tackle the stairs. She also became difficult to feed as fewer foods temped her palate. 

When she could no longer navigate the stairs, I was on alert to see when she needed to be carried outside. When she didn’t eat, I zealously searched out tidbits of food to entice her. Her needs became more exhausting, awakening me at 4am for potty breaks and “false alarms” carrying her up and down stairs. But of course I was happy to do it as long as she had quality of life.

One day, Maddie made it clear to me that it was time to go. I immediately made arrangements since I did not want her to suffer even for a day or so. 

small old dog in her bed

Afterwards, I was sad. Empty. I missed seeing her in her bed by my reading chair, within easy reach to stoke her head. I missed the sound of her toenails on the hardwood floor, waking me each morn and her constant presence by my side. After she was gone, I still felt the need to care for her. Whenever I left the house, I felt a nudge that I should check in case Maddie needed to go out first if I planned to be away. In the evening, the pill and care routine no longer necessary felt as if I were forgetting something. I was still being triggered to act on something that no longer needed doing. 

That’s when I felt it. A twinge of relief that I quickly squelched, because it rode in on a tide of guilt. How could I feel relief? That would mean I was happy she was gone, right? That would make me a terrible person. I pushed that feeling away, but the shame lingered.

But I did feel relief and it was then that I realized I’d been living for quite some time in a state of constant high alert. I was anxious, worried, looking for signs of advancing illness, fear of missing a critical need, always having a refrain running in the back of my head to check, check, check on her. But of course I was happy to do it as long as she had quality of life.

But now that she is gone, I understand to some small degree the toll constant vigilance takes on a caregiver…even a pet caregiver. Pet caregivers also suffer from burnout. According to the Cleveland Clinic, caregiver burnout is described “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that happens while you’re taking care of someone else. The symptoms of stress may manifest as fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Extreme cases of burnout may entail changes in sleep patterns, appetite and/or weight, inability to concentrate, and increased incidents of illness.” It does damage emotionally as well with feelings of anxiety, anger or frustration, guilt, and negativity. The long-term fall out is the inability to take care of yourself as well as the individual in your care. 

Although there are resources to diagnose and treat caregiver burnout for people, there is nothing to help pet owners. Therefore, we must rely on the same advice to take breaks, get help, care for yourself, and talk with others in the same situation. 

After your pet passes, don’t feel guilty that you experience feelings akin to relief or freedom. It does not mean that you loved your pet one bit less. Lean into your emotions and let yourself feel relief from the constant worry along with the grief.

For my other messages on dealing with pet loss, moving past the grief, and opening your heart again (perhaps) to a new companion, see After Tragedy, Leaving the Stall Door and Your Heart Open.

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2 Comments

  1. Pets are family just as much as people are. While it’s easier to carry a little pup up & down stairs than to do the same for a human, the emotional toll is much the same. *Of course* the aftermath is similar for caregivers. I hope that your Maddie memories give you comfort. She certainly was a sweet-faced pup.

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