Health

Caring For My Sick Pet Was Agonizing, Yet Talking About It Felt Taboo

How can you know you're making the right choices?

On a snowy night in January 2006, I walked out of The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago carrying a cardboard box. I hailed a cab and directed the driver to my studio apartment, all the while speaking in low, comforting whispers to the shaking ball of fur inside of the box on my lap.

On a humid day in July 2015, I said goodbye to the same shaking ball of fur, petting her through tear-blind eyes and saying “Thank you” over and over again as she slowly left this earth.

For almost 10 years, The Cat (as we called her) was part of my daily existence. She gave us everything she had, all of her love, affection and kindness. In turn, I tried to repay her with little trinkets of my affection: expensive cans of gourmet cat food, her favorite deli meat, soft blankets piled carefully in the sunny spot by the window.

And when she got sick, I redoubled my efforts. She was refusing to eat, but that didn’t stop me from wandering through every aisle of the pet store, trying to find the most tempting cans of food to offer her, or from gently heating each option in the microwave to make it more potent-smelling and tantalizing. That didn’t stop me from rearranging our living room into the perfect “sick room” for her, with heating pads and pet stairs and multiple bowls of food and water.

But even as I was playing nursemaid to my sick cat (she had FIV, a virus that affects millions of cats worldwide), I rarely spoke of the situation to my family or friends. I didn’t think they would understand the time or the money I was spending, the days at the vet or the countless hours I spent on FIV support websites. I didn’t mention it because, to everyone else, she was just a cat. But for my husband and I, she was The Cat. She was ours to care for, ours to nurse, ours to mourn.

In keeping my emotions bottled up inside, I found myself struggling to cope. I felt pressure to continue my life normally, to keep up a smiling facade and not “bring everyone else down” by talking about my sick pet, even as I was inwardly wracked with anxiety and guilt about her future (What if she dies when I am out with my friends? What if her FIV could have been caught sooner? How am I supposed to know when she is ready to pass?).

It turns out I’m not alone in this struggle. A recent study found that the emotional struggle of caring for a sick pet is similar in nature to the emotional struggle that caregivers face when caring for sick relatives.

Bridget Sharkey

The author of the study, Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, says:

“It turns out that the effects of caregiving for a sick pet—burden, stress, anxiety, depression, low quality of life—are in many ways similar to what we see in a person caring for a sick family member, for example, a parent with dementia. In the case of this study, burden is at a high enough level that for some people, it could be causing symptoms of anxiety and, more likely, depression.”

The study is one of the first of its kind. While numerous studies have delved into the impact caregiving can have on a person’s emotional and physical health, these studies have all focused on people who were caring for human beings, not pets. But ask most pet owners and they’ll say they consider their pet a part of their family. We can’t discount the pain and suffering they endure when caring for a sick animal.

Bridget Sharkey

Spitznagel says that talking about this struggle will be invaluable for pet owners who are coping with an unwell pet. She advises pet owners to make sure they’re getting enough assistance in caring for the pet, whether through involving other members of the family or hiring outside help from a pet-sitting site. (Note: You should look for someone who has experience in dealing with sick or elderly pets.) You can also check out Day by Day, a web site devoted to offering pet caregivers a place for support and advice.

And remember: It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to lean on your friends and family and to admit how scary and hard this situation is. As hard as the journey is right now, you will get through this.

And though I still mourn The Cat everyday, I am comforted by the knowledge that I did everything to make her last days as sweet and peaceful as possible. And maybe, someday, we will be ready to welcome another ball of fur into our family, even though no pet could ever fill the hole left by The Cat.

Bridget Sharkey

[h/t: The Cut]