As part of the veterinary social services I provide, I work with pet owners who care for pets with behavior problems. While there is a lot of wonderful professional support available for the animals’ needs, the impact on the pet owners often isn’t acknowledged. Dr. Kelly Ballantyne and I are conducting a research project on this topic, and our initial findings echo what I hear from the pet owners I work with – there are three areas of impact: emotionally, day-to-day life, and on their relationships.
1. Emotional impact:
Owners caring for a pet with behavior problems often report feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions. First and foremost, I want to make clear that these owners love their pets. They feel joy, pride, and happiness. However, they also feel a lot of stress, frustration, sadness, worry, hopelessness, and guilt. Often times they feel isolated from others, and feel a lack of understanding and outright judgment from others. They can feel these conflicting positive and negative feelings all at once! It can be an emotional roller coaster caring for a pet with behavior problems.
2. Day to day life:
Owners who are caring for a pet with behavior problems often have to re-adjust their own day-to-day life to meet their pet’s needs. Many owners do this and do this with love, but it can still be a great source of stress for them. Daily care can include management and training, giving the pet medication, and both the mental preparation and practical planning for situations they may encounter with the pet. For example, if a pet has separation anxiety, an owner may need to plan strategically about how to get out of the house in such a way that causes the pet the least amount of distress. This usually involves not being able to go back into the house if they forgot something (so spending their day without their cell phone if they forgot that inside!). Or, if a pet has reactivity issues to unfamiliar people it means deciding what management plan will be put in place when a new house guest comes over in order to reduce the pet’s stress, while also ensuring safety for the visitor.
Caring for a pet with behavior problems can have an impact on relationships within the household, as well as between the owner and their family and friends. Household members can be a huge support to each other as they work together caring for a pet, but many times the stress of caring for the pet can also cause stress within these same relationships. Pet owners also share how much they appreciate friends and family who are understanding and supportive. Alternatively, it’s particularly stressful when friends and family don’t understand or even worse, are judgmental of their pets. Owners also experience judgment from strangers on the street which is hurtful.
There are many ways that caring for a pet with a behavioral issue can impact owners. From the stress of day-to-day caregiving to strains on important relationships, pet owners are likely to experience a wide range of emotions that may take a toll. It’s important for people in this situation to know that they are not alone and that there is support available. Stay tuned for future posts about finding help for your pet and caring for yourself! And join us on VetVine for a Roundtable Discussion on April 26th about the Emotional Impact of Caring for a Pet With Separation Anxiety – more details here.
In the comments, tell us: what impact has your “special needs” pet had on your life?
Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby. For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.