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Owners of ill pets suffer stress and anxiety, study shows

Vets could partner with mental health professionals

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Owners of seriously or terminally ill pets are more likely to suffer with stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, a report* finds.

Published in Veterinary Record today, a study reports on the ‘caregiver burden’ — the response to problems and challenges encountered while providing informal care for a sick family member. 

As little had been known about the impact of caregiver burden on owners of animals with chronic or terminal diseases, a team of researchers, led by Mary Beth Spitznagel at Kent State University in Ohio, set out to assess caregiver burden and psychosocial function in 238 owners of a dog or cat.

They compared 119 owners of an animal diagnosed with a chronic or terminal disease with 119 healthy controls blindly matched for owner age and sex and animal species.

Symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression were measured using recognised scales, and quality of life was assessed by questionnaire. Owners’ demographic information was also recorded.

Results showed greater burden, stress and clinically meaningful symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer quality of life, in owners of animals with chronic or terminal disease. Higher burden was also related to poorer psychosocial functioning.

The authors outline some study limitations which could have introduced bias, but they say their findings “may help veterinarians understand and more effectively handle client distress in the context of managing the challenges of sick companion animal caregiving.”

In a linked commentary,** Katherine Goldberg calls for improved training for veterinarians around provision of long-term care for serious illness. This includes tailoring treatment plans to client preferences, recognising when clients are distressed, and partnering with mental health professionals to provide support.

* Spitznagel MB, Jacobson DM, Cox MD, Carlson MD. (2017) Caregiver burden in owners of a sick companion animal: a cross-sectional observational study. Veterinary Record, published online first: 04 September 2017. doi: 10.1136/vr.104295

** Goldberg KJ. Exploring caregiver burden within a veterinary setting. Veterinary Record, published online first: 18 September 2017. doi: 10.1136/vr.j4156

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