Caregiver’s syndrome for special needs pets

Pet caregivers need care too

Whether they are dealing with chronic but not life-threatening health issues, or with the intense challenges of providing end-of-life care to a terminally ill animal, it’s just as important for caregivers to take care of themselves, and to let others take care of them, as it is for them to take care of their special-needs pet. Some things that I have learned:

Find or create a support network. This can be family, friends, other caregivers, your vet and his/her staff – whatever works for you. The Special-Needs Pets Support List is an online support network for caregivers who share advice, information, and emotional support; and elsewhere on this site you can find links to other lists as well, dealing with specific health issues, where you can also find support.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We can’t always manage alone. During our cat’s final illness, I was lucky enough to have a neighbor who would stop by my house at lunchtime every day while I was at work to check on her for me, and would call me if there was a problem. Just knowing that someone was looking in on her, took a huge weight off my mind during the long hours I had to be away from her during the day. I also asked my co-workers for help; I explained my situation to them and asked for their patience for those times when I might miss a deadline or have to leave work suddenly for an emergency vet visit, and I found all of them to be very understanding and supportive.

Give yourself some time off when you need it. Take a day or a weekend off and get away, even if it’s just to take a picnic and a good book to the park. Find a pet sitter who is qualified to care for your pet in your absence, if you have to.

Practice deep breathing. I have found that when I am under stress or am feeling anxious, it really helps to stop, sit quietly for a few minutes, clear my mind, and take several deep, slow, calming breaths. Inhale deeply on a slow count of four, hold it for a second or two, then exhale on a slow count of four.

Learn to forgive yourself. It’s been my experience that being a caregiver often has tremendous guilt associated with it. Remember that no one can do it all, and everyone makes mistakes. Just do the best you can – that’s all any of us can do.

“Caregiver Syndrome”

For those of us who are caregivers for a terminally ill or other special-needs pet, their death is a loss that can hit us doubly hard. I had a difficult time understanding why I was so devastated by Major Barbara’s death, until one day when I was in conversation with close friend who is a former AIDS hospice volunteer and a minister. I told him about the extremely difficult time I was having coming to grips with her loss – far more difficult than I’d had when I’d lost friends and family members in the past – and asked him “What’s wrong with me? Am I crazy?” His response: “You have Caregiver Syndrome, and what you are experiencing is completely normal”.

In a nutshell, Caregiver Syndrome is something that is a familiar concept in the AIDS hospice circles. Caregiver Syndrome happens when a person’s life becomes consumed with taking care of another person (or, in this case, a companion animal). We devote huge amounts of time, energy and attention to our sick pets, and when the pet dies, we are left not only with the “normal” grief of the loss of a loved one, but also the gaping hole left because we are suddenly bereft of that which has been such an all-consuming focus of our attention for so long. A friend of mine who was a caregiver to an AIDS patient expressed it this way: “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. My whole world revolved around taking care of him, and now he’s gone.” We become so wrapped up in our roles as caregivers, that when the object of our care is no longer there, we find ourselves literally having to re-assess and even re-invent our lives. Doing this takes time, patience and work.

Caregiver Syndrome isn’t a lot of fun to deal with, but I found that just knowing that what I was experiencing was normal for someone in my situation went a long way toward helping me accept what I was going through, and deal with it more effectively.

Coping with Pet Caregiver Syndrome 

Some possible strategies for coping when you’ve experienced the loss of a special-needs and/or terminally ill pet include:

  • Take a break from your “normal” routine. If your pet has died and you find yourself having difficulty adjusting to a life without the demands of providing care, take a short vacation and get completely away from your regular daily routine. You don’t even necessarily have to travel – you can go to movies, take a friend to lunch, go for walks in your local park or arboretum, or catch up on your reading. Do something nice for yourself, like treating yourself to a massage or a visit to a day spa. Use the time to rest and rejuvenate, to do activities that you enjoy doing, and to think about and plan for a new daily routine once your vacation is over.
  • Find a way to take the focus off yourself. Sometimes giving of your time to help other animals in need can help you adjust to the loss of your pet. Spend a few hours a week volunteering at a shelter or vet clinic, or contact local rescue organizations and offer to take a litter of orphan kittens or puppies to foster until they are old enough to be adopted. If you think that working with animals would be too painful, then choose another way to give of yourself.
  • Get counseling if you need it. Find a grief counselor for private counseling, or a grief support group, or a support group for caregivers, or talk to your minister. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Caregiver Resources

The Reading List includes some books for caregivers on how to deal with the emotional challenges involved in caregiving. I have not been able to find any books written specifically for caregivers of special-needs pets, but I have found some good general-interest books on caregiving that I think are helpful, and I have listed those that I like best.

The Flower Essence page includes some recommendations for flower essences for caregivers. I have found that these can really help with the emotional challenges of caregiving.

Starting Your Own Local Pets Support Group

As the creator of the Special Needs Pets Forum, I can say that it has been wonderful being able to meet interact with other people who truly understand the rewards and challenges of living with a special needs pet. Some people come needing information and help; others come ready to offer it. It’s a positive, informative experience for all of us to come together.

Getting the group started was actually easy to do. Here’s how you can do it:

  • Reserve a meeting room at a local public library branch that was centrally located and on a major bus route.
  • Create a flyer.
  • Get a set of mailing labels for local vets from the state veterinary association, and mail a cover letter explaining who you are and what you are about, and ask them to distribute the flyer to their clients.
  • Mail and/or drop off flyers at local pet supply stores and shelters.
  • Put a notice in the “community events” section of the newspaper.

We have learned that it’s important to publicize the group on an ongoing basis, so we continue to put notices in the newspaper, and we send out e-mail reminders to everyone who has attended or who has expressed interest in attending. We also regularly distribute electronic copies of the flyer to our growing e-mail list, and ask people to distribute copies in their own neighborhoods.

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