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The Burden of Pet Caregiving

It’s a labor of love, but so very demanding
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2017, Updated June 2021

Taking care of sick and terminally ill family members takes a toll on the caregiver, but until recently, the extensive research on the subject only applied to taking care of human family members. Now, the same burden has been documented for people taking care of ill pets in the study “Caregiver burden in owners of a sick companion animal: a cross-sectional observational study”.

This research investigating the strain on caregivers was conducted by Mary Beth Spitznagel, a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University, along with several collaborators. Spitznagel was inspired by her own experiences caring for her dog Allo, who was suffering from serious health issues. She realized that she herself was suffering in the same way that people caring for human family members do.

The strain of caring for terminally ill humans or pets follows the same pattern—sleepless nights, endless medical visits, losing out on a social life, financial stress and so much more. It can lead to lower quality of life, anxiety and depression. This phenomenon of “caregiver burden” has been studied in the context of caring for people, and the parallel problem with pets now has a name: “pet caregiver burden”.

Spitznagel started a blog called that focuses on the science of caregiver burden in people caring for pets. The purpose of the research is to understand how the experience of guardians caring for chronically ill or terminally ill pets affects others, including the veterinarian and the pet. The research team’s goal is to help people decrease the stress of the situation and to make the most of the time they still have to spend with their pet.

Have you cared for a sick dog to the point that the effort seriously compromised your quality of life?

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life