Easing Caretakers Guilt

Don't underestimate the stress and anxiety you may feel if you ever need to care for a chronically-ill pet. Working with a compassionate vet is a big plus.


cat owner

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Many people consider cats to be independent, aloof and mysterious creatures. However, according to a 2015 Harris poll, the majority of cat owners view their furry companions as family members. Most cat lovers will undoubtedly agree that when it comes to the feline species, there is nothing more stress reducing and enjoyable than a purring cat curled up in their lap.

“Cat people” are quite adept at communicating with their feline companions, even referring to a beloved favorite cat as a soul mate. They make a commitment to their cats to take care of all of their needs, which can change significantly through the course of a cat’s lifetime. And when a cat becomes chronically ill and requires complicated and often extraordinary treatment, the cat’s medical condition can be extremely upsetting and stressful for the owner.

According to a 2017 study published in the British journal Veterinary Record, “Having a chronically ill cat can cause owners to become highly stressed and anxious. They can develop symptoms of clinical depression and have a lower quality of life than owners of healthy pets, and all of these measures were closely linked to the caregiving burden.”

Focus on the present

“It’s natural for owners to feel anxiety and sadness when their cats are seriously ill. Sadness is appropriate, but guilt usually isn’t,” explains Michael Stone, a clinical professor of small animal medicine at Tufts. “Guilt may arise because owners feel they didn’t recognize a sign as early as they ‘should’ have, or that they don’t have the financial situation to afford diagnostics and treatment.”

A compassionate veterinarian will try to focus on the present, and not encourage feelings of guilt for the cat owner. “I try to understand the situation from the owner’s eyes. It may be easy in retrospect to realize that a particular sign was missed, which may have prevented an early diagnosis. In most cases, however, the earlier diagnosis wouldn’t have prevented the disease, only allowed its detection. The disease would still have been present,” says Dr. Stone. “I make a conscious decision to focus on the present and not the past. I must be very aware of and careful to avoid fueling feelings of guilt.”

And when cat owners consider their cat to be a family member —as opposed to just a pet — it’s very common for this lingering guilt to cause owners to become overly anxious, worried and preoccupied when their cat’s illness may ultimately be terminal.

“Some people handle illness differently than others. Most owners are appropriately concerned, and I embrace that concern. There are inappropriate responses to an illness that I look for, such as feelings of guilt and anticipatory grief,” explains Dr. Stone. “The common stages of grief are (1) Denial and isolation; (2) Anger; (3) Bargaining; (4) Depression; and (5) Acceptance. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of these, but most people experience one or more. I believe guilt is not helpful.”

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Medication challenges

Owners who are caring for a chronically ill cat can start to feel frustrated and even suffer from burnout. “Administration of medications can be difficult for both the owner and the pet. Cats that are reluctant to be treated may learn to avoid their owners,” says Dr. Stone. “Since giving medications can be challenging, I suggest to clients that administration of tablets is easiest when medications can be hidden inside treats.

“While some cats don’t seem to mind oral administration of medications, for some cats — much like my own cat — oral administration of medications is almost impossible. My own cat was easily medicated with daily injections for three years. Some medications can be administered by injection with an insulin syringe, which is practically painless. It is important to find the easiest methods for owners to administer medications, especially when needed long term.”

Financial considerations can also factor into the equation for many owners who genuinely love their cats — but can no longer afford the expensive treatment to extend their cat’s life. Having to make decisions based on financial constraints can be truly heart wrenching. “Financial considerations must enter every conversation I have with pet owners,” says Dr. Stone. “Veterinary medicine has advanced to the point where ultrasound, CT and MRI scans have become important for decision-making in many situations. Not all owners have thousands of dollars to spend on their pet. So I discuss all options and work with the client to find the best plan for their situation. Of course, it’s important not to allow people to feel guilt and shame surrounding financial decisions. I simply avoid judgment, make the best decision and move on.”

That said, Dr. Stone strongly encourages support for clients. “Any form of support is good; the Internet provides an opportunity for people in different locations to share their experiences on different forums. However, I encourage any owner experiencing a difficult time to speak with a professional. A support group is terrific, but not a substitute for professional guidance. At Tufts, we have a full-time social worker who runs a support group for owners.”

Although it is normal for cat owners to worry and feel anxious when their cat is seriously ill, working with a trusted, compassionate veterinarian who listens and understands your concerns — and factors them into his or her treatment plans — can help to lessen stress and worry. — Jo Singer


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