Changing Roles

Some people look upon the relationship between a person and an animal as pet and owner.  Some people describe themselves as pet parents, and the animal as their furry child.  Others look upon the relationship as one between teammates, or partners, or friends.  But whatever we call ourselves, the truth is that we all fill many different roles in our pets’ lives.
We are their source of food and shelter.  We give them love and companionship, just as they do for us.  We keep them happy and healthy.  And, as they age or develop chronic or life-limiting illness, our roles in their lives change – we become their primary caregiver as well as, or sometimes instead of, their source of play and companionship –  and this can be challenging, both for them and for us.


While we always provide care for our pets, there’s a significant difference between feeding, walking, cleaning the litterbox, and otherwise maintaining a healthy pet and managing  multiple medications, appointments, nursing care, and household adaptations for an ailing or declining pet, and while we all know that bringing an animal companion into our life means agreeing to the former, very few people are prepared for the level of both emotional and physical labor involved in the latter.


Being the primary caregiver for any chronically ill being, human or otherwise, is challenging.  It takes time and money; it means dealing with bodily substances and putting in physical labor, whether that be carrying a pet that is no longer fully mobile or cleaning soiled floors or bedding.  It means paying attention to details of multiple medications, managing schedules to be home and available when they need you, and it often means changes to your environment as well, as you build ramps or move furniture or adjust the temperature of your home to provide for their comfort.   At the same time, it also changes your interactions with your pet – instead of being just a source of treats and cuddles, you’re now responsible for giving medications they may not want to take or providing grooming care that they may not enjoy.  And they may no longer be able to participate in shared activities that strengthened your bond, like going for walks or sleeping in the same bed.


All of these changes and challenges can create a serious burden for you as a caregiver, and can lead to feeling frustrated, hurt, overwhelmed, or like this is more than you and your pet can handle.  So if you are facing this situation, there are steps that you can take to help make such a transition easier and less stressful.


-Talk to your vet.

In this phase of life more than any other, it is critical to make sure that any care plan for your pet is designed around both your and your pets’ needs and abilities.  If you know, for instance, that your pet is hard to give pills to, ask for other treatment options.  If you have a strong objection to, or concerns about, a particular treatment, let them know.  Your vet can help work with you to make a plan for your pet’s care that is manageable and not overwhelming.


-Write things down.

If your pet is on multiple medications, make a chart or get a weekly pill minder to help keep track of what gets given when.  Make a calendar  to track appointments or non-medication treatments.  Use a chart or calendar to track any changes or observations you make about your pet.  Being organized can help avoid mistakes, and can also help you feel like you have control over your pet’s care.


-Find ways to maintain the parts of your relationship with your pet that you love.

When you’re spending much of your time with your pet giving pills or changing diapers or treating problems, it can be easy to feel like there’s nothing more to your bond with them.  Even if your pet is no longer able to engage in some of the activities they used to love, you can work with your family and your pet’s care team to find ways to bring those favorite activities into their life in new ways.  A dog who used to love chasing balls may enjoy lying outside and rolling a ball back and forth; a cat who is too fragile to go outside alone anymore may still enjoy time on a screened porch or in a playpen in the sun; for most of the things in our lives that bring happiness we can find a way to adapt them to our pets’ new lifestyle.


-Ask for help.

This is critical.  Nothing makes us feel more helpless than a lack of support.  Being a primary caregiver is an immense role, and we all need support ourselves.  Reach out to family members, friends, and neighbors – sometimes just having someone to give your pet their evening medications for a night so you can go to a movie can be an immense relief.  Likewise, finding someone to sit with your pet during the day once in a while can relieve worry about their condition and lighten the burden of their care.  Many older or chronically ill pets that need frequent care can even benefit from a pet-sitter or dog walker stopping in on occasion to check on them, keep them company, clean up after them, or aid in their particular care.  Don’t be afraid to make use of these resources, to help both your pet’s quality of life and your own.


The transition from ‘mommy’ or ‘best friend’ to ‘chronic caregiver’ is a challenging one, but it can also be incredibly powerful.  Let your friends, family, and veterinary team help you find your way through this new and challenging phase of your relationship with your pet.