The Caregiver Burden in Pet Parents With Chronically Sick Dogs and Cats

Updated Aug. 30, 2022

Taking care of a pet who is always sick or debilitated can be a huge burden on a pet parent. Any pet parent who has cared for an animal that is chronically ill can tell you that while it can be rewarding, it can also be incredibly draining and lonely at the same time.

If you are already tapped out from giving to other people or simply trying to “adult” in our stressed, fast-paced society, the addition of caring for a chronically sick cat or sick dog may be enough to put you over the edge. And this is especially true if you are unaware of how the stress from caregiver burden can affect you.

A sick dog or a sick cat requires more from their humans than a healthy animal would—more time, more attention, more money, more patience, and more of your mental and emotional space. Pet parents with sick pets often feel all alone, unsupported and unsure if their feelings are normal. I’m here to tell you that they are, it happens to a lot of people, and it is called caregiver burden.

What Is Caregiver Burden?

There is a fair amount of information on caregiver burden in humans caring for other humans. In a 2000 study entitled, “Can Aging Baby Boomers Avoid the Nursing Home: Long-Term Care Insurance for ‘Aging in Place,’” caregiver burden is defined as the strain or load borne by a person who cares for a chronically ill, disabled or elderly family member and is due to the physical, emotional, psychological, financial and social stress associated with caring for somebody who is sick, disabled or elderly. Stress in the caregiver is often due to not having enough time to pursue his or her own interests, sadness over the situation, an ardent desire for recovery, and the emotional, mental and physical costs of care.

How Does This Apply to Pet Parents?

Pet parents with chronically sick pets can experience many of the same challenges. Pet parents deal with many internal conflicts, such as justifying the care because of the “it’s just a dog” or “it’s just a cat” mentality and dealing with judgment from friends and family for their choices surrounding the care of a sick dog or sick cat.

Struggling with their pet on a daily basis to give required pet meds can also cause stress for pet parents. I can tell you from personal experience that pet parents who enjoy pilling their cat are few and far between, and with good reason!

Euthanasia also hangs over the pet parent’s head. Many pet parents add stress to their lives wondering if they should euthanize their sick pet or if they should wait, or worrying that they have waited too long.

To make matters worse, pet parents with chronically sick pets also deal with having to pay out of pocket for all veterinary care because most pets don’t have insurance. Even if a pet does have insurance, it doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions. This adds the stress and shame of sometimes having to make tough choices between paying for large veterinary bills or buying groceries for the week.


The Correlation Between Mental Health and Chronically Sick Pets

If you are experiencing any of these challenges, I want to assure you that you are not alone, and it is not all in your head. Pet parents commonly experience caregiver burden, and clinical neuropsychologists have recently started studying this phenomenon.

In a recent observational study headed by Dr. Mary Beth Spitznagel and a team of veterinarians, researchers followed 238 owners of dogs or cats to observe their mental health. The team found that greater burden, stress, symptoms of both depression and anxiety, and poorer quality of life were all present in owners with terminally ill or chronically sick dogs and cats as compared to owners of healthy dogs and cats.

Take Charge of Your Mental Health

If you are caring for a pet who is always sick or needs additional care, it is imperative to be aware of the effects of caregiver burden and take proactive steps to maintain well-being in order to protect your mental and emotional space.

There is no shame in getting the support you need. Set aside time to engage in activities that lift you up, go to therapy, maintain and develop a supportive community, and have a lot of grace for yourself if you find yourself getting stressed.

One way to develop a supportive online community is by creating a care corral through This unique platform is free, helps remove emotional barriers and allows you to build support when you need it the most. Caring for a sick pet is hard, and you aren’t meant to do it alone. I could also add that you can’t pour from an empty cup, so please take care of yourself while you are caring for a chronically sick or debilitated pet.

Featured Image: Tatiana Chekryzhova/

Sarah Wooten, DVM


Sarah Wooten, DVM


Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists,...

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