Pet Love Is "Furever," Even When They're Sick or Die

M.A., Health Writer
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Sometimes it feels like I can’t catch a break because my cats can’t either. Right now, I’m treating my super-intuitive and nearly-human Tux 2 for a repeat bout of meningitis, first diagnosed in January 2017  by an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and a spinal tap. He's still “not right” and I’m really worried. He’s the dude.

Stubbie has diabetes for which he receives insulin twice a day and regular blood sugar checks by me. He also has chronic pancreatitis and herpes. I try to control his diet for his pancreas health, and when his nose changes color or his eye leaks, I use high doses of the antiviral medication Famciclovir to fend off a potentially deadly outbreak.

Buzy currently lives with three meningiomas (brain tumors) that will worsen. Since I brought her from New Zealand, she’s experienced a host of unrelated, acute medical issues and undergone surgeries.

Audet’s chronic and upsetting gastro issues — I’ll spare the details here — are somewhat under control. But it’s been awful, with many trials of different foods to determine allergies and two fecal transplants done with pills.

I am in regular phone and email contact with my cats’ internist, neurologist, ophthalmologist, and dentist. When symptoms warrant, I don’t hesitate to take the cats to the veterinary ER. I live for days when everything’s fine — including my bank account and my stress level.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I chose to adopt these cats. They bring me consistent joy. I appreciate their intelligence, level of emotional engagement, affection, and playfulness more every day. They’re absolutely, positively family.

The caregiver burden with pets

If you love a pet that’s sick, the results of this study published in September 2017 in the Veterinary Record won’t surprise you. “Clients providing care for a companion animal with protracted illness are likely to experience ‘caregiver burden’ and reduced psychosocial functioning, which may ultimately lead to increased veterinarian stress,” the authors write.

“Caregiver burden” refers to the strain you feel while providing care for a sick loved one, explains lead author Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University in Ohio. In an email to HealthCentral, she notes that her team’s work did not address the more frequently studied topic of grief in pet owners or the emotional response to loss.

The scientists say that, in studying the owners of sick pets, they observed psychosocial outcomes such as stress, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower quality of life: “All of these problems were very strongly linked to the presence of caregiver burden.”

This innovative research group has developed a website dedicated to helping pet owners and veterinarians understand the stress of managing a beloved pet’s chronic or terminal disease. The idea is to reduce that stress so we pet guardians can make the most of our precious time with our pets.

Managing your loss and love

The human bond with pets is a pure one, says Adam Clark, LCSW, AASW, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. In a telephone interview with HealthCentral, he said, “You as a pet owner really can experience a surprising level of pain in the absence of your pet’s presence. You’ve built a routine around your animal who depends upon you and suddenly, you lose the ability to be their caregiver.”

People are quick to want to fix each other’s pain, he says. “But you want to move through this experience and not just leave it behind. Your animal, and the experience, really mean something to you and meaning is so important.”

When you’re the one grieving, consider his suggestions here:

  • Know there may be guilt. “Owner guilt almost always accompanies euthanasia, when it’s really a selfless act. Your pet wouldn’t judge you for the choice you made. Their love was unconditional. You made a kind choice to reduce or halt their suffering — although that may not lessen your pain.”

  • Know some other people just can’t understand. “Some people can’t feel or express love so they won’t understand your relationship with your deceased pet. Maybe that person was abused or even assaulted, and they’re closed off and can’t imagine how to let someone in, even a loving pet.”

  • Take the risk. “Opening your heart means exposing yourself to pain. It’s part of the human condition. We love our four-legged pals, knowing it can end at any moment. Pets’ shorter life spans raise that risk.”

  • Grieve wisely. “Don’t do it with alcohol, drugs, or other methods of self-harm. Crying alone on your couch is normal, a way of healing as you release your pain. Get sufficient sleep, get some exercise, eat well, and take care of the whole you. If you’re not making progress, ask about professional help.”

  • Use this experience. “Although grief occurs at a time when you’re most vulnerable, it can be a powerful catalyst for change. You can grow from this — stronger, more loving, and more grateful for each new experience that enters your life.”

When someone else grieves

Here’s how Clark says we can help someone else grieve pet loss:

  • Watch what we say. “When people say, ‘You can just get another one,’ they don’t grasp the reality of the human-pet connection. We can bond more with pets than with family members. This is a more appropriate comment: ‘It makes sense that you’re grieving this much because the love between the two of you was immense. Why don’t you share a favorite memory with me?’”
  • Just be there. “Allow people to choose whether to reach out to you and others. Don’t say, ‘I get what you're going through,’ because you really can’t. Try saying ‘I am here if you need me. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Would you like to tell me about it?’”

  • Show you care. “Ask them, ‘Have you eaten?’ or ‘Would you like to go for a walk in the park?’ or ‘Can I sit with you as you cry?’ It's beautiful and healing to have another caring human share that space, though the pain may make you uncomfortable.”

Some companies now grant time off for grieving pet loss. It’s about time. An early study about pet loss found that just under a third of owners said they grieved for at least six months.

I grieve each time I look at the cabinet in my office that has six little cedar boxes in it. I replay those heart-wrenching, unbearable final moments over and over. I’m sure I'll never stop doing that. I miss them.

See more helpful articles:

Death and Grieving

5 Ways Pets Influence Your Health

Asthma and Pet Allergies