Your Mental Health Suffers When Your Dog or Cat Gets Sick, Study Finds

A new study is the first of its kind to examine the psychological toll on pet owners coping with the needs of an ailing animal. Bogdan Cristel/REUTERS

Pet owners often say that the cat or dog living in their home is another member of their family. New research published Monday adds validity to that claim, finding that owners of seriously or terminally ill pets are at increased risk for stress, anxiety and depression.

The study, published in Veterinary Record, suggests the well-established "caregivers' burden" endemic to family members who may be taking care of, say, a sick child or parent, also extends to an ailing furry friend. The researchers say this is the first study of its kind to examine the psychological toll seen in pet owners coping with the needs of a sick animal.

For the study, researchers at Kent State University in Ohio compared the mental health states of 119 owners of animals diagnosed with a chronic or terminal disease with 119 people with healthy pets who were recruited through social media. Through self-reported questionnaires, the researchers measured the psychosocial health of the pet owners, assessing participants for levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

The researchers found that owners with sick pets scored higher on questions about stress and anxiety levels and depression than those who had healthy animals. They also scored lower on indicators of quality of life, a measurable degree of enjoyment and satisfaction in daily routine including mood, health, work and relationships.

An accompanying editorial suggests that the findings are also significant when considering the mental health risks of people who work in veterinary medicine. "Arguably, the greatest stressors and most difficult moments for vets have little to do with the animal-related aspects of professional life, but rather the people related ones," wrote Dr. Katherine J. Goldberg, professor of veterinary medicine and palliative care at Cornell University. "The emotional labor of veterinary medicine is significant; much of this emotional labor is related to client interactions, which can be particularly intense surrounding serious or terminal illness."

Goldberg said the research indicates that veterinary education programs should include training on how to have "goals of care" conversations with pet owners. This is already an area of training that figures heavily into human palliative medicine, as doctors initiate a conversation with a patient and family member to review end-of-life decisions and last wishes. But there is no formal education on how vets should conduct these conversations with pet owners.

"Too often, treatment recommendations are made without asking clients what their preferences and limits are," Goldberg wrote. "If a client says that three times a day meds are impossible, listen to them. If oral meds are a struggle, but a client is comfortable giving injections, perhaps that's someplace to start. To learn what client preferences are, we first need to ask."