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Your Mental Health Suffers When Your Pet Gets Sick

Your Mental Health Suffers When Your Pet Gets Sick
svetikd via Getty Images
svetikd via Getty Images

The idea of losing a pet can hurt just like it would with any other family member ― so much so that your mental health could take a hit.

A recent study published in the journal Veterinary Record found that animal owners experience increased stress, anxiety and depression when furry friends aren’t in good health.

The study authors examined self-reported questionnaires of 119 people who owned a sick pet and 119 whose pets were healthy. The surveys aimed to measure the psychological state of the pet owners, featuring questions that determined their levels of depression, anxiety and general stress.

Those who had sick pets had higher scores for mental health issues than those whose pets were in good health. The owners’ quality of life was also impacted: Those with ill animals reported feeling less satisfaction at work and in their relationships, and also said their mood and health were poorer.

The phenomenon is what researchers call a “caregivers’ burden.” Those who have to look after sick loved ones ― whether the ill are human or animals ― feel excess psychological distress.

This may also extend to veterinarians, according to experts. Katherine Goldberg, a professor of veterinary medicine and palliative care at Cornell University, wrote in an editorial about the study’s results that vets need to pay attention to owners’ needs ― as well as their own.

The emotional labor of veterinary medicine is significant; much of this emotional labor is related to client interactions, which can be particularly intense surrounding serious or terminal illness,” Goldberg, who was not affiliated with the study, wrote about the results.

Now, the outcome of the study is purely based on self-reported responses. Researchers didn’t measure the increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression in the participants themselves. This makes it difficult to know if that’s actually occurring or if it’s just the volunteers’ perception.

However, the results certainly don’t come as a surprise. There’s a very real grief experience surrounding the loss of a pet ― and it’s nothing to be pushed aside or shamed. If you’re going through a time with a terminally ill pet, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Take as much time as you need to mourn.

Even if they’re not quite gone yet, you’re still dealing with potential loss. That can take a toll on your emotions and there’s no timeframe on how long it will take to move on, grief expert Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and chair of the American Psychotherapy Association, previously told HuffPost.

Prioritize self-care.

It can be hard to think about what you need when you’re caring for another living being ― but it’s absolutely vital. Taking walks, spending time with friends and reading a good book have all been shown to be mood boosters. Here are some other realistic self-care tips to help you, too.

Seek support if you need it.

Mourning the illness or a loss of a pet is just as valid that of a person, according to Reidenberg. If you’re experiencing excess anxiety or depression and it’s interfering with your daily life (i.e., similarly to how the respondents in the study felt), consider reaching out to a pet loss group or a mental health professional for support.