One of the most common symptoms or side-effects I see in pet parents who have just lost their pet is exhaustion.
With the aging of the baby boomers we all know someone who is caring for an elderly or disabled relative. Yet, how many of us recognize that our friends, relatives or co-workers may be providing around-the-clock medical care for their aging or ailing pets? Just like those caregivers who are caring for humans, caregivers for pets can experience Caregiver Syndrome, or Caregiver Stress (1), which includes fatigue and insomnia.
A few months ago, a single artist in her 40s came in for a final viewing of her cat, who had been her confidant and muse for many years. Her cat had been suffering from an assortment of medical complications, but the last month had been especially difficult for the pet parent due to last-ditch-effort and around-the-clock care. The pet parent hadn’t slept much, if at all, during the weeks leading up to the cat’s death. Her grief was immense, but it was further complicated by physical exhaustion. Yet, I’m not sure I would have recognized her exhaustion had she not told me about it. She, like so many other pet parents, had been running on adrenaline and successfully keeping up appearances, when in fact she was physically and emotionally exhausted.
Just yesterday, a pet parent came to me with her beloved senior dog who had just been euthanized. The gal had literally spent the entire previous night awake, debating with herself about whether or not the time had come to let her little girl (who was dying from a rare and terminal disease) go.
These stories are not exceptions. Pet parents, who are caring for pets with end-of-life medical complications, often suffer from lack of sleep.
During the last year of his life, our 14-year-old Brittany, Baby, suffered from a chronic cough. We took him to veterinarians and veterinary specialists in Texas and Washington, spending about $10,000 on tests and treatments. For a year, all day and all night, Baby coughed. We gave him treatments via nebulizer every 4-6 hours, and I spent my lunch breaks at home with him. When Baby tore one of his Achilles tendons in two places, just by stepping off our front porch, we began to think about letting him go. I remember sitting on the living room floor with Baby laying at my side, feeling exhausted and knowing that Baby was tired, too, but also knowing that Baby was the type of dog who would have fought the good fight until his body gave out. I, on the other hand, was feeling battered, and not sure that it would be good for anyone, including Baby, to prolong his life. His quality of life was clearly in decline. So, through tears, I asked for his forgiveness, called my husband, and then called our veterinarian.
Other than overwhelming sadness, the thing I remember most from that period is just how tired I felt. I still wonder if our decision to let Baby go was in part just to get some relief from our exhaustion of caring for him around-the-clock, and not sleeping very much due to his incessant cough. (It is very normal for a pet parent to feel guilty, even years after the fact, for making the decision to euthanize a pet, even if their pet was chronically or terminally ill.)
We as humans are doing a better job of acknowledging a pet parent’s grief when a pet dies, but I think we also need to look for, acknowledge, and then offer help to pet parents who may be suffering from exhaustion related to end-of-life care for their pet.
(1) Wikipedia, “Caregiver Stress,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caregiver_stress.