Stress of Caregiving Can Take Toll on Pets

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • The two weeks that marked my mother's final decline proved to be anguishing, not only for family and friends, but also for the four-legged members of our family. Case in point: my miniature schnauzer, Zoe.


    Zoe often accompanied me to the nursing home to visit Mom. Because Zoe had a long relationship with Mom (who actually selected Zoe from the litter as my parents' birthday present to me 13 years ago), they had developed a special bond. And Zoe's temperament was such that I could take her to visit the nursing home without worrying about her barking, getting unruly, or becoming aggressive when other residents wanted to pet her.

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    When Mom went into the hospital in mid-September 2007, Zoe could read the increased stress that I tried so hard not to exhibit. When I would get home from the hospital, she would go grab her favorite toy and try to get me to focus on chasing her around the house. Since I was preoccuped with Mom's condition and wouldn't play, Zoe would instead join me on the couch and lean against my leg. Her presence was comforting during Mom's last hospital stay.


    By Thursday, Mom was released and the situation appeared to be on the upswing for the next two days. On Sunday, I decided to take Zoe with me on my visit to the nursing home. We found Mom in her wheelchair in the foyer with a half-glazed look in her eyes. Mom really didn't acknowledge my presence, but when I placed Zoe on her lap, Mom carefully rubbed Zoe's head, saying, "My dog, my dog." As Mom's hand clumsily stroked Zoe's ears, my dog looked at me with wide eyes, intuiting before I did that Mom's situation had taken a turn for the worse. About a half hour later, I scooped Zoe off of Mom's lap and told Mom goodbye, with the promise to bring Zoe back to see her shortly.


    That promise would end up broken. Six days later early on a Saturday morning, Mom died. Zoe was right by my side as I took the call from the nursing home at 2:30 a.m. to inform me of Mom's passing. She joined me in the guest bedroom as I told my brother what had happened. And she was in my lap during an impromptu "wake" at 3:30 a.m. when my father and his dog drove over to my house so as not to be alone.


    By that evening, Zoe found herself having to deal with a variety of visitors (my dad, my brother and my cousin, as well as my dad's dog), all of whom were displaying a lot of emotion. And I was numbly going through the motions of taking care of guests, not sure what I felt at all.


    As my company left that evening, Zoe finally succumbed to the stress of those two weeks. Already suffering a disease that causes some incontinence, Zoe jumped into a chair and promptly urinated with a huge gush. Sheepishly, she looked at me, expecting to be admonished. But in my mind, Zoe's accident was in response to all of the stress she had experienced. I quickly coaxed her outside to finish any other "business," and then proceeded to clean up the chair. When she came back in, I gave her a hug. We took time that night for a little extra petting since she had received very little attention during the past two weeks, much less during that Saturday.


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    I tell you this story because I want you to realize stress's impact on not only our own emotional, mental and physical well-being, but also on our pets. Zoe played a key role in helping me get through Mom's final two years, but it wasn't until the evening following Mom's death that I realized what a toll caregiving had taken on my dog.



Published On: April 07, 2008