Care-giving is stressful - for owners and for vets
The father brought his two teenage daughters with him to the vet when Soya, their ten year old female collie, was unwell. She had been losing weight and had lost her appetite, and they thought she might have some sort of simple infection. When I examined Soya, I could tell at once that she had advanced cancer, and she only had a few days or weeks to live. I had to break this sad news to Soya's three loving owners as gently as possible, but it was not easy. I felt deeply emotional as I explained to these unprepared folk that their adored pet would only be with them for a short period more.
Animals are not the biggest source of stress in my life as a vet: the most stressful incidents happen with humans. And this isn't because those humans are "difficult" in any way. The stressful episodes happen because humans are emotionally involved with their pets, and when their pets are ill, their owners understandably can find it very difficult to cope. And as a vet, it isn't easy helping people through these challenging times.
Telling Soya's owner the bad news is just one example of the type of stress encountered by vets. There are many other unhappy situations that make up part of a vet's normal day.
I remember one occasion when a healthy dog had to be euthanased because it had badly bitten a visiting child. There was no other option, even though the bite had been completely out of character with the dog's normal behaviour. The dog's owner was devastated at having to end their dog's life, but they had no choice.
Another case involved an eighteen year old dog who had finally reached the end of her life. I had to tell her owner that in the interest of the animal, it was kindest to carry out gentle euthanasia. The owner had dedicated her life to caring for this dog over recent years, and I witnessed her crumbling emotionally as I explained that we had reached the stage when she would have to say a final goodbye to her friend. It wasn't easy for either of us.
I feel so sorry for people in these situations: their psychological suffering is immense. And as vets, we have a professional responsibility to help people through these episodes. This can never be done lightly or easily: it's impossible to help without sharing their suffering at some level.
The stress that people feel when caring for others has been recognised and even given a title: "The care giver's burden". This term has traditionally only been applied to human situations. When a human family member falls ill, the healthy humans who care for the sick family member often begin to suffer from serious stress, with increased anxiety levels and a higher risk of depression. And the doctors who care for sick patients suffer from a different type of "care giver's burden".
It's not surprising that when pets fall ill, their owners and their vets also go through a similar type of psychological challenge.
Recently published research has investigated the impact that caring for a sick pet has on their owner. The research was carried out in a well-planned, systematic fashion. Over a hundred owners of sick dogs or cats completed questionnaires to assess their psychosocial function, and the results were compared with owners of healthy dogs or cats. The results confirmed that people living with sick pets suffered from significant stress, with symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as having a generally poorer quality of life. So the emotional suffering is not confined to the sudden episodes of learning bad news or having to go through euthanasia of a pet: people living with pets with chronic illnesses suffer long term stress from the challenge of caring for their animal.
This research was reported in a veterinary journal for a good reason: it's important that vets are aware of the stresses that their pet-owning clients are going through. This knowledge gives vets a fuller understanding of the pet owner's perspective, and it should help vets to be more sensitive to people's needs at these difficult times.
If you know someone with a sick or elderly animal at home, you should be aware that they are feeling stressed, and they may be more prone to anxiety and depression. If you can help them in practical ways, you may be able to make a big difference to their lives. And if such a person behaves erratically, perhaps becoming irrationally upset or angry about minor issues, it's worth remembering that this could be directly connected to their animal care-giving responsibilities at home.
Having investigated the stressful effect of care-giving on pet owners, the researchers are now talking about carrying out research into the next level: the impact on vets of the stress of working with care-giving pet owners. Many people have an idyllic view of the life of a vet, but the truth is that the veterinary profession suffers from a high level of stress-related problems. Vets are four times as likely as the general public, and twice as likely as other healthcare professionals, to die by suicide. It's difficult to know the full reasons for this sad statistic, but the general stress of the job is thought to be one of the main factors.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but by understanding more about what causes it and the effect it has on people, perhaps we can all get better at dealing with it.