Pet Caregiver Fatigue and Burnout - Exhaustion from End-Of-Life Care
Pet Caregiver Burnout
In a perfect world, we would have unlimited resources to care for our pets. We wouldn't get physically tired, or emotionally wrought; exhaustion wouldn't cause us to think slower or get easily frustrated; we would be able to indefinitely care for our pets, for as long as they needed us.
But we don't live in a perfect world. Even though we want to be there for our pets in every way possible, caregivers feel the weight, the burden, of trying to "do right" and do their best for their pets.
Caring for a sick pet can result in:
- Financial stress;
- Emotional stress;
- Mental stress;
- Physical exhaustion.
There's no question that money plays a factor in our lives and in the decisions we make - much as we may hate it. Even if supportive care is being provided - without additional treatment - it can still be costly. Senior pets may need repeat tests, medications (and refills), special equipment (dog ramps, mobility harnesses, incontinence pads, and more) ... as well as things not directly related to pets, but needed in their care. Things that aren't expensive on their own - such as carpet cleaner or incontinence pads - all add up.
It's a horrible thing to think about, but the costs of euthanasia and after-care are often on the minds of people caring for pets who are nearing the end of their lives. In-home euthanasia is preferred by many, but it's also typically more expensive. Many people also want their pets ashes cremated and returned to them - another cost that needs to be factored in.
Things You Can Do To Ease Financial Stress
- Shop second-hand for items your dog might need, like carpet cleaners, dog ramps, and other such items. Check local online classified ads (don't be afraid to post a 'Wanted' ad) and spread the word among your dog-walking friends that you're looking.
- Ask your vet if there is an equivalent, generic human medication that your pet can take. If so, ask him to send the prescription to your pharmacy where you can pick it up. Buying drugs from the human pharmacy can cost significantly less.
- Go for 'reusable', rather than 'disposable'. Disposable items like incontinence pads are much more convenient, but you pay for that convenience. Buy a few reusable pads instead and wash them / swap them out as needed. These washable underpads are a good value and work amazingly well.
- Buy the 'human version' of non-food items, if you can. Using the example above, an incontinence pad for people is often much cheaper (and come in a larger variety of sizes) than one specifically marketed to pet owners.
Physical Stress and Exhaustion
Many older pets become more restless at night, often times sleeping more during the day. They might need to be let out ... they might get "stuck" somewhere and need help ... they may vocalize more ... they may pace restlessly. There are lots of reasons why pet owners end up getting up during the night to attend to their pet's needs. Disrupted sleep, night after night, can make pet owners feel like zombies during the day.
Add to that, pets might need physical assistance too. Constantly picking up or assisting a dog with mobility issues can takes it toll on our bodies - especially if the dog is large or heavy. For small pets, bending down over and over again can be hard on the back and on the knees. And doing all of this while operating on a chronic lack of sleep can lead to clumsiness and tweaking a muscle or tendon while helping our pets.
The exhaustion can make things harder to deal with emotionally and more difficult to deal with mentally. It's normal, but it sucks.
Things You Can Do To Ease Physical Stress
- Take opportunities to nap - for example, nap when your pet naps. Even short naps can help you feel more rested.
- Use any available tools. Take the time to find the right ones, and learn how to use them. For example, find an assistive harness with a handle or strap that's the right height so that you don't have to bend down to help your pet, or awkwardly pull upwards. A dog ramp also helps tremendously when loading large dogs in and out of the car and can help save your back. Use washable underpads on floors and bedding of incontinent pets, to help minimize the amount of extra cleaning you need to do.
- Consider confining your pet to a separate room at night. Dogs showing signs of senility, such as those who are sundowning, can prevent owners from sleeping. Repeated pacing or vocalizing can also be very disruptive to sleep. It might be emotionally difficult at first, to make your pet sleep outside of your bedroom if he's always slept with you. But you may be surprised - you'll sleep better, and in many cases, your pet will sleep better as well.
It's not unusual for pet owners to feel isolated. Going out for dinner to just to hang out with friends isn't always possible because you need to be there for your pet - just in case. Talking to others about the challenges of caring for your pet can be difficult... you don't want to be a downer, and you also wonder if others will truly understand what you're going through. Or will they just secretly judge you for spending so much time and energy on your pet?
You feel frustrated and guilty for asking others for help ... and they may tell you that they just can't help because they're not comfortable with the type of care required, or the amount of work involved.
You feel guilty for considering euthanasia because you're just so darn exhausted. When you bring it up with your family, there's tears and fighting because not everyone agrees that euthanasia is the right choice.
There's also the constant ups and downs with your pet. One day, he's perky and interactive and eating well; the next, he's just lying there, seemingly uninterested in life.
Things You Can Do To Ease Emotional Stress
- Connect with other sympathetic pet owners. Many will have gone through what you are going through now, and can lend an ear. You might find kindred spirits in the other dog owners you meet on walks, or you can find them online too.
- Accept that the range of emotions you feel is to be expected. It's an emotional situation, after all.
- On your dog's good days, try to 'live in the moment' just like he does. Enjoy the time with him without worry about what the future holds. Be joyful!
It can often feel like there's always something else to figure out, or another decision to be made. Problem-solving can be a constant source of stress. Is my dog panting because of pain or stress? Why is he favoring that leg - did he sprain something, is it broken, or could there be cancer? He's not eating his regular food anymore; what other foods should I try, or is there a topper I can use to encourage him to eat?
Is my pet getting better or is he getting worse? Are his good days outnumbering his bad days? Does he still want to be here? What else can I do to make him feel better?
Things You Can Do To Ease Mental Stress
- Get your pet thoroughly checked out by the vet. Ask questions. Knowing what you're dealing with, and what to expect next, can help you feel more in control.
- Prioritize. Decide which thing (or couple of things) is most important to deal with first, whether that's appetite problems or figuring out how to manage arthritis. Once you have a good handle on it, move onto the next.
- Try to let go of the things you cannot control. This can be incredibly difficult. It's a fact that all of us will die one day. We can't fix everything. We have to learn to accept that there are some things that will never get better, and that the goal should shift from trying to "cure" our pets to keeping them comfortable, happy, and with a good quality of life. And eventually we all have to accept that there will come a time when the kindest thing to do is to let our pets go peacefully.
Caring for the Caregiver: How to Cope With a Sick Pet
Pets are so attuned to our feelings. They don't want to feel like they are a burden to the people they love so much, and they don't want to feel like they're the source of our stress. We need to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally well to be able to provide our pets with the best of care.
End-of-life care is obviously going to be emotional - and yes, stressful. It's normal to feel these things ... the challenge is to be able to manage them well enough that the interactions you have with your pet are positive and loving. "Zombie-Dad" or "Hair-Trigger-Weeping-Mom" aren't the type of memories you want to leave with your pet - or with yourself.
Take Care Of Yourself
Feeling well will help you to provide the best care you can. Don't let your own health take a backseat. Continue to make healthy meals and eat regularly. Get fresh air and exercise. Get a good night's sleep. You will be no good to your pet if you feel sick yourself.
I struggle to eat properly when I'm absorbed with taking care of my pet, so I try to "pre-make" stuff whenever I can. Prepping a few nutritious meals once per week and freezing individual portions to heat up later can help, rather than resorting to take-out. There are many "convenience services" as well, like this superfoods smoothie service; I use them in a pinch when I need a quick and nutritious breakfast.
On the subject of sleep ... many older dogs become restless as they get older, often panting and pacing during the night while also sleeping more during the day. Dogs who are sundowning can cause severe disruption to daily sleep. It's difficult, but sometimes confining the dog to another room is necessary so that the caregivers can get some rest - and sometimes, it helps the dog rest better too.
Take a Time-Out, Just For Yourself
It's normal to feel like we can't leave our pets when they're not feeling their best. We want to be there for them, just in case they need us. Spend every moment as a caregiver can be much too draining. Take a break and do something you love and that you find relaxing.
- Read a book;
- Sit outside in the garden with your favorite beverage and enjoy your surroundings;
- Take a hot, relaxing bath;
- Watch a movie and share some laughs with a loved one;
- Meet a friend for a coffee;
- Go for a hike or a bike ride;
- Play games;
- Do something solitary and peaceful - paint, listen to your favorite music, meditate, anything you enjoy!
If you have a hard time trying to tear yourself away from your pet, take your "me-time" opportunity when your pet is napping or comfortably relaxed.
Ask For Help
Ask a close friend or family member if they would be willing to watch your pet for an hour or two so that you can do something for yourself. If you have other pets, ask someone or hire a dog walker or a pet-sitter to take on those tasks for you.
Build a Support Network
Support from a good friend or family member can ease the caregiver burden tremendously. Talk to those who understand the bond between you and your dog. The understanding provided by others you trust can help to make you feel less alone. They might also provide you with insights from their own experiences. These may help you look at things from another perspective, or give you ideas on how to better help your pet.
Some people find online forums a great comfort. You might feel able to speak more freely about the challenges of caring for your dog, and find many kindred spirits willing to try to help or at least provide a sympathetic ear.
Don't Blame, and Forgive Yourself for Mistakes
Caregiving is incredibly tough. When you're feeling exhausted or overwhelmed, it is very easy to start trying to find blame. Maybe you should have done something different. Maybe the vet missed something or should have recommended another treatment. Maybe, maybe, maybe ... all the "what if" scenarios can make you crazy.
I'm all for learning from our mistakes - if one was made. Sometimes, things just happen and there's no one or nothing to blame. It just is. But if you did really make a mistake, learn from it and then try to forgive yourself. We are all human and that means we're not perfect. Berating yourself over and over again serves no purpose other than to make you feel bad. Remember that every day is a new day.
Enjoy Your Pet
Take pleasure in the little things (that's something dogs are so great at - we can learn so much from them!): lying quiet with him and listening to him breathe; the softness and smell of his fur; moments spent outside, basking in the sun; laughing at his silly antics or the funny faces he makes; the sight of him enjoying a favorite snack.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your pet. Remember that you love one another, and that you are both doing the best you can.
My nearly 17-year-old kitty. Symptoms of nasal cancer last summer, now neurologic problems, so assumed brain tumor with head tilt, ataxia, leaning, rolling, falling, incontinence. He still seems to enjoy life, so we've adjusted. Needs assistance with standing, walking, eating, drinking, and is wearing diapers. Sleeps more and eats less, so I wake him up four times a day for water and food, which I administer. For years before this began, he had severe separation anxiety after the death of his life-long buddy, so it's been a long haul. I cared for my mother at the end of her life, and it's pretty much the same amount of work! But until he tells me he's done, I'll be here for him...
My dog Ellie (14+) has incontinence, blindness, arthritis, and more over the last 1-2 years but at this point I think she's nearing the end. I'm 25 and a baker (get up early, long physical shifts, nevermind we've been short staffed for months) and even though I'm getting paid ok enough to get by, I'm short on time, energy, and money to care for her as much as I wish I could. Three months ago when my dad went into the hospital and died several weeks later, is also about the same time Ellie became fully blind and really declined, needing to be guided to her food and water with constant cleaning up. I haven't slept more than 4 hours in a row for longer than I can remember (obvious multiple contributing factors) and frequently have to work an 8-10h no breaks shift running on 2-3 hours of sleep. So to say that I'm "burned out" or exhausted is a hilarious understatement. It's hard to be patient and not "snap" but I really try.
I’m living this article. We adopted an adult JRT 8 yrs ago no idea of age/history, was a supposed “stray”. Quickly realized he has severe sep anxiety. We literally can’t go outside - he can see us through the window- but he has a total meltdown. Tried everything, nothing helped. We’d hire a sitter for the few outings we took, the sitter fee cost more than our outing! He is now a Sr (14?), with a long list of medical issues: thyroid cancer, diabetes (two shots a day), & lost almost all his sight. He’s become more clingy; if I leave the house for more than 30 minutes he cries/howls even though hubby is with him. I feel like a prisoner. We’ve got no family to help out. So exhausted/stressed! He must be watched constantly, carried down stairs (38 lbs) and helped with most things. Feel guilty for wondering how much time he has left because of cancer. He’s already 6 mos past what Dr said; Sleeps alot but eats etc, has energy when awake. Roller coaster of emotions & thoughts.
Reading through these comments has made me feel so much better! Taking care of our 15 1/2 year old dachshund during this pandemic has exhausted me. I’m grateful she doesn’t have any major health issues, and I’m grateful she is still here. But at the same time it’s a lot of work cleaning up after her (she no longer can hold her bowels and can’t wear diapers).. Some days I spend so much time washing beds and blankets, cleaning her little bum and then she gets mad when I do. She loves her food but she doesn’t really seem to love us anymore which honestly breaks my heart more than anything. I’m so thankful we have a younger dog who reminds me of the good points of having a dog. Hang in there everybody!
I needed to read this. Thank you. My 16 year old hound mix has compounding health issues and is just barely mobile enough to get to her food dish and go outside to potty and this is so hard! I can tell she’s depressed and in some pain and I comfort her, keep her old doggie spirits up and give her treats, but man... I sure miss having a DOG. One that leaps into my car to go on adventures and vacations. She went everywhere with me and I miss that like I can’t even tell you, and I feel so so guilty for the little tinge of resentment I feel sometimes. I love my dog more than anything, but it’s so tough to see her deteriorate like this. All I can do is keep her comfortable and hope I’m doing all that I can. And yes, I do selfishly fantasize about a young healthy dog to go on adventures with me.
Thank you. I really needed this. I am really feeling overwhelmed with my 16 year old toy poodle. She's now incontinent so I have to use diapers and try to take her more frequently though more often than not she just goes. It's dirty diapers, dirty butts all the time. And she gets mean if there is any attempt to groom her. She cries when she's alone in another room. I'm at home for work all day. And I'm just so tired. I'm seriously crying in the basement just to get a moment.
I know this isn't my fault but I'm feeling so tired and alone rn with this situation.
Thank you for this article. I'm currently struggling with my 16 year old border collie. I hate that I get so frustrated at her because I know it's not her fault. She is starting to get bad arthritis and spinal issues, she falls over often and it breaks my heart. It gets to be so hard when there's not much else you can do for them. Like everyone else here, I haven't had a solid full nights sleep either due to her having to go potty in the middle of the night and pacing around at times. It's the worst when they're pacing because it's like " what do you need? are you in pain? or do you just need to go outside? are you bored? what is it?" It's exhausting
I hate that people say there's no such thing as "too soon" for euthanasia. There definitely is and I witnessed it as a kid. I vowed I'll never put an animal to rest too soon again, but I also don't know when the right time is.
Thank you for this article - almost every word is exactly what I’m going through and felt so alone about. I have been working remotely since March due to COVID which has given me precious time with my senior dog and made us even more attached than before. But lately, she needs almost constant care due to arthritis and a new injury, and I’m finding myself burned out and frustrated. I even snapped at her a few times (pacing and waking up at night), which is unthinkable to me! My partner is working in-person so simply can’t help or do as much as I can being home. Not going to work, limited options for socializing, shopping, or seeing family due to the virus has added an extra layer of stress to the caretaking process. This extra time with our pets is rewarding but at times also consuming and exhausting. I’m going to try to stay patient and focused on the positive.
Thank you for writing this article!!! I have a half Chihuahua/half Corgi that has arthritis in his back hip, cataracts in both eyes. He pants when he sleeps, gets restless at any time of day. A week ago we went through a constipation session. I cry so hard when I'm alone. I have to give his Cosequin by manually getting past his gag reflex with him fighting me. That is one of the very bads. Again, thank you for this article.
I’m so thankful I found this article, I now read it once a day just to remind myself that I am not alone! Caring for my 17 year old dog has consumed my entire life with both time , money, physically, mentally. And the worst part is he’s not dying or ready to be put down. He’s just old. My husband and I literally have zero plans. We can’t even make plans because we don’t know what the day will bring. I almost died when I took my dog for his last check up and the vet said maybe another year. I’m so tired and I don’t know how much I can handle. It’s just comforting to know I’m not the only one.
I know exactly how you feel. Mine has four chronic conditions now, one of them is kidney failure. I’m on his fourth kidney diet because he’s over time refused to eat the others. I fed him his old food yesterday while waiting for the new food to arrive and had to take him out three times overnight. He still peed in the kitchen this morning and then fell in it so I had to give him a bath. I have to force him to take 7 pills a day (I can’t wrap them in lunch meat or cheese anymore and he refused all substitutes.) I have to take him out 5-6 times a day. He’s been sleeping with me so he won’t run around the house and pee all night but he cries for at least an hour before he goes to sleep now. The joy of dog ownership is long gone, it’s just bills and never ending grinding stress with the end nowhere in sight. I’ll never get another dog.
Have you tried the doggie diapers to help control the pee. We have a male dog and the wrap goes around the belly so any "accidents" are contained similar to a baby's diaper (whisked away) It may save you from having to let outside so much. Good Luck! You are not alone!
Thank you for this post. I am feeling utterly overwhelmed and exhausted caring for my two old dogs. They are several years apart in age but they are both at the same stage of needing a lot of care, a lot of cleaning up.
I wish I could talk to other people about this. I don't feel like I can. I tried to talk to a good friend once (she doesn't have a dog). She said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm sure this is terrible for you, but at least you can always get another dog." I felt so hurt. I feel like people won't understand, even other pet owners unless they also have an old dog.
I won't give up on my dogs when they are still loving life. When they are too sore, too tired, or too weak to do the things they love, I will steel myself and do the right thing for them. Until then, I will keep enjoying the sweet little moments I have with them. Thank you for providing a place for us to talk to others who understand.
I'm really glad I found this - I now realise what's going on with me. I'm not a mean person I just don't have much left in me. I'm crying while I read this. I lost my Koko at 14 in April and her brothers are 14.6 and almost 17. Both old boys have health issues which requires me to be here 24/7 and as much as I love them I am so exhausted. The only thing that keeps me going is their wagging tails. I'm so tired
I’m a 46-year-old single guy who lives 1,000 miles from my nearest relative (they’ve never considered helping) and really don’t have a support system.
For the past 5 years my wonderful, faithful best friend has been dealing with issues including cancer, a fungal infection, lost eye, arthritis and now dementia.
I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in months, spend most of my time checking on her and can’t remember the last day I didn’t break down in tears.
Thank you for this.
I don’t feel comfortable trying to explain my situation to others, so reading this has helped me realize that others also share my daily struggles.
I love my dog and hate the idea of saying goodbye to her, but trying to do it all on my own may put me in the ground before her.
Thanks again, it’s helpful knowing others are going through the same thing.
I'm sorry you are going through this. I understand, because I too have difficulty opening up to others about what I'm going through with my dog. I love her to bits but I see that I'm going to have to let her go soon. What has saved me is groups like this one where I can freely write what I feel, without having to deal with strangers reactions in person. I hope you continue to reach out. Good luck with your dog. Please take care of yourself.
Thank you so much. Everything you said in this article is exactly how I have been feeling for the past year since our now 13-year-old dog was diagnosed with kidney disease. He was given a 4 to 6 month prognosis, and it's now almost a year. As much as we love him, we don't want to prolong the inevitable. But he is in that in between stage - some bad days of sickness, other days enjoying walks and new smells. Not sick enough to put down. In the meantime, my husband and I are getting burned out and exhausted. We don't leave him alone at all, so it's like having a baby again. Trying to enjoy each day we have with him, as you say, but we have put a lot of things on hold as we wait for this season to be over. We just moved to a new area, so we don't have any support or anyone to ask for respite except each other. Frustrating to know, too, that as hard as we try to keep him comfortable, get him to eat, etc. Our diligence will not change the outcome.
Thank you, thank you, thank goodness for this wonderfully insightful post and the website in general!! It's a fantastic resource for information on how to care for your geriatric dog - what a Godsend!!! My Bailey is 16 and I love him as much as anyone loves their kid. Taking care of Bailey is a full time job and I couldn't do it without the help of my amazing mother. The veterinary care plus all of his medications are quite costly. He's almost totally blind now too, I think and it's taken a huge toll on me mentally. I feel like I have a terminally ill child. I live in constant fear of losing him. Of "that day". My anxiety has never been higher than the last two years. Before that, Bailey was perfectly healthy. I have tried to seek counseling for the anticipatory grief that I am experiencing (it was so good to find out that my fear and sadness had a name or label on it!!) I do enjoy every moment we have together and he is so spoiled and loved.