I recently experienced an increase in my anxiety related to the flood of emotions I have been navigating in dealing with my aging, ailing dog. Only half-jokingly, I told my colleague, “I need to find my own therapist who specializes in ‘pet owner anxiety.’ ”
I’ve seen countless articles and research studies supporting the theory animals can help improve anxiety, stress, and depression, and I’ve heard of more and more people registering their pets as emotional support animals. However, it occurred to me that I’d never really come across information regarding the anxiety that can come with owning a pet, though it’s likely something many pet owners and animal lovers experience at some point.
Owning a pet can be wonderful. Pets provide great companionship and, for many people, animals are loyal, loving members of the family. But loving a “fur baby” comes with its hardships, too. There is the potential for stress with things like adjusting to owning a new pet, training a pet, acquainting new pets and existing pets, introducing pets and children, and finding solutions to various responsibilities in terms of help with pet sitting, dog walking, etc. But for me, the greatest anxiety has come with navigating the options, recommendations, and uncertainty after finding out my dog’s health is failing.
One of the most devastating parts of pet ownership is coming to terms with the fact we will likely have to say goodbye to our beloved companions whose lifespans just don’t equal ours. While many pets seem forever young, they do age, their health eventually declines, and we are faced with even more responsibilities as we take care of the additional duties and demands that come with caring for an elderly or sick animal.
About a year and a half ago, my dog was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Ever since, I’ve grappled with topics related to the uncertainty of death, the anticipation of grief, and the difficulty in having to make confusing and difficult decisions regarding his care.
Death and loss are never easy topics, but I find them to be particularly complicated with pets. For one, they cannot tell you how they feel or voice an opinion in their care the way many aging or ill humans can. Additionally, the knowledge pets are animals as opposed to humans can bring about confusion regarding what that means in terms of our devotion to giving them the best possible care while doing what is in everyone’s best interests.
There are differing opinions when it comes to the value we place on our animal friends. For some people, pets are “just animals.” The emotional attachment some have with their pets may not be understood or validated by those who don’t share the same love of dogs, cats, iguanas, or whatever your beloved pet may be. For others, pets are truly members of the family and losing a pet can be incredibly challenging and affecting.
While I share the sentiment that my dog is a beloved part of my family, I’ve found it overwhelming and difficult to navigate his diagnosis as I balance the discrepancy between doing everything we can versus doing what is realistic. Lately, I’ve wished I had a best friend who is a vet—someone who could give me an honest, unbiased opinion not from a business or professional perspective, but from a place of truly compassionate and candid advising to ease the helplessness and confusion I’ve faced.
I share this in hopes other pet owners who relate can recognize that the strong emotions they feel regarding their pet’s care, health, and life are valid. Pet ownership, rewarding as it can be, can be a source of great stress and anxiety and is a valid reason to seek support when needed.
Some of the greatest anxiety I’ve encountered has come from juggling the grief that comes with knowing my dog is reaching his life expectancy and dealing with an irreversible and fatal disease, all the while managing the guilt I experience when questioning whether it’s worth it to shell out $600-plus every six months, per the vet’s recommendation, for echocardiograms that will monitor the progression but not actually stop it. Being a first-time dog owner, I’ve struggled with nagging questions about whether I should be doing more; confusion as to whether various vets are giving me the best advice; guilt over my hesitancy at emptying my bank account for tests that won’t change the inevitable; and dread over what those final days will be like.
With our dying human relatives, we have no choice but to accept not knowing what the future holds as we await their final breath. With our pets, we’re faced with the potential we may have to make decisions and take it upon ourselves to assist in ending their lives. While it is said euthanizing a pet is one of the most loving and humane decisions you can make, it’s one that is never easy and it inevitably brings about an array of challenging emotions.
So as I struggle with the uncertainty of how things will progress, questions about what my next steps should be, and anguish over what’s to come, I find myself feeling a dreadful combination of anxiety, guilt, and helplessness. Thoughts of, “I’m never owning another pet again” creep in and I question whether the anxiety of anticipatory grief or actual grief is worse.
Rationally, I know it’s better to have loved and lost and that time will ease the pain. And I recognize the greatest factor in my anxiety is in anticipating my dog’s impending passing and knowing there is no course of action that will eliminate facing this hurdle. Yet I’m still struck by how stressed, lost, and guilty I’ve felt regarding truly knowing what steps to take between now and then—and how this dilemma, or any type of stress related to pet ownership, is something I’ve rarely heard others voice.
I share this in hopes other pet owners who relate can recognize that the strong emotions they feel regarding their pet’s care, health, and life are valid. Pet ownership, rewarding as it can be, can be a source of great stress and anxiety and is a valid reason to seek support when needed. While I haven’t come across resources specifically related to “pet owner anxiety,” I am happy to share that there are therapists out there who specialize in pet loss and there are resources and support groups around the country that focus on pet bereavement.
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