Pet Owner Anxiety: The Challenges Associated with Loving a Pet

Shiba Inu with eye half closed lying on pillow in living room relaxingI 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.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Elissa

    August 14th, 2017 at 10:48 AM

    Owning a pet for me has been one of the single best experiences of my life. Yes they are messy and yes it is like taking care of a toddler, but where else can you find such unconditional love and affection as that given by a pet?

  • Bowen

    August 16th, 2017 at 10:43 AM

    My dog Susi just died a few weeks ago after a long brave fight with cancer. She fought the good fight but in the end it got the best of her and as a loving owner I just couldn’t let her suffer or have to fight through it anymore. She was an angel and we tried everything that the vets could recommend, but in the end I just thought that it was time to allow her to cross that bridge with dignity and on her own terms. It was one of the toughest things that I have ever had to do, but I know that she will meet me again someday, so I hold onto that.

  • NIckie

    March 12th, 2018 at 7:16 AM

    This article truly hit home for me. It was only a year ago that I had to make the heartbreaking decision to let my fur baby go due to failing health and a very grim diagnosis. The decision still haunts me but deep within I know it was the most compassionate thing I could have done for her. She had various health issues for some time, but it wasn’t until the end that I knew how severe they really were despite numerous visits to the vet whom I was also in constant contact with, thousands of dollars, medicines, special food, the bit. Only to come home one day without her. I had feelings of anger as well. I experienced tremendous anxiety for the few years prior to her passing. Getting little sleep due to checking on her through out the night, worried that I would come home and find her. Worried about the financial stress it was causing. It was a stressful time. And I felt that very few people understood what I was going through as they would look at me funny if I talked about my anxiety related to her. As a therapist myself, I knew what I was feeling was normal but it was hard to deal with often alone. The help of my own therapist really made a difference in that time of my life. The anxiety I experienced due to my worry about her spread into other areas of my life. And even though she is now gone, and I am doing better, I still deal with the aftermath of that loss. She was a very significant being in my life. She was with me for 14 years and had arrived in my life at a difficult period in my life where she became therapy for me. I will never forget the difference she made and I often struggle with feeling as if I failed her somehow despite all I did to try and help her. It is a process, but I do know now she is no longer suffering. Anyone who makes that decision is truly brave. And the anxiety is very real. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. But there is help and support out there.

  • Tracy

    January 6th, 2019 at 5:26 PM

    Two years ago my mini-schnauzer was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis. This entire article speaks directly to my experiences with her. For the past few months her condition has begun to deteriorate and the vet bills are getting more expensive every month. In addition, the stress of making decisions about her health and care has resulted in my own anxiety becoming unbearable. She has good moments throughout the day, still enjoys her walks, plays with her toys – most of my family and friends comment that she appears to be in good health. However, her condition requires multiple medications daily, intermittent small meals, and regular bloodwork and checkups. Each time she becomes ill with some new infection (due to her reliance on steroids and other immunosuppressants) I pay hundreds of dollars for more bloodwork and more prescriptions. It’s gotten to the point where I cannot leave the house for longer than 3 hours at a time in order to maintain her schedule of food and medications.
    Thank you for the article. I’m getting to the point of making the decision to euthanize her but still struggle with it every day – how do I put her down when she’s clearly still getting enjoyment from life? When is it okay to put my mental health ahead of my dog’s life? It helps to know I’m not alone in my anxiety, thank you for sharing your own experience.

  • Alex

    August 8th, 2019 at 5:13 PM

    Thank you for writing this, I haven’t been able to label what I’ve been feeling related to my dogs and pet owner anxiety is just that. My family, due to both financial and perhaps cultural reasons, has never been one to care for dogs as much as I know they truly should. This has involved simply making all dogs outdoor dogs, regardless of the breed, and perhaps more significantly not getting them professional care regularly and when they really needed it. I don’t blame them because it is a sort of quietly widespread approach to having pets and we had never really seen any different among the people we knew. In the last few years, as I matured and met more dog owners and saw how they treated with much more care and equality, I have increasingly developed a better idea of how dogs should actually be treated. This contrasted of course with what was going on around me, and with my pets in particular, which has lead to me having constant stress about their life circumstances and conditions. Recent;y my 9 year old boxer has been having a recurring paw issue due initially to a thorn wound of some kind. It wasn’t treated initially because although I expressed my desire to take him to a vet, my loved ones didn’t agree and I backed down and the issue seemed to go away on its own. In the last few months it has come and gone, and I ended up taking him to the vet and it cost me more than a thousand dollars to get him treated for it, and along with the treatment came months of having to keep him indoors in a cage to limit movement and having to keep him on medication. It essentially has cost me all of my money and time this summer and although I don’t regret it, it has been such a stressful and depressing time. I hate seeing him debilitated and I hated feeling trapped in the house having to take care of him for weeks on end. My other dog began having issues as well and thus the cycle continued. Again, after more than a month of uncertainty and worry and pain for me and my dog, my boxer’s issue has come back just the same and the cycle is killing me, it feels like. I feel like a terrible dog owner although I am doing what I truly can, handling expenses on my own and treating him as recommended, and I am constantly depressed and worried and anxious and uncertain. It feels like a never-ending nightmare honestly. I am facing confusion too, as to what the future might hold and how I should deal with it being a student with limited financial and temporal means (I live away from home for most of the year). I wish they could just be okay but I find it hard to see a good future for them although their lives have improved in recent years. All I feel is anxiety for them and myself, and I constantly feel alone in the process although my mother helps me when she can. It is a hard time for me and my dogs and I want it to all get better, but the anxiety kills me inside and leaves me feeling so hopeless. I need to learn how to deal with it somehow but I don’t know how. I don’t want to surrender them but sometimes I feel like they’d be better off with someone else. I love them to death and I express it to them and make sure they have their basic necessities met, but the medical issues have really been damaging to everything. I will be strong for them while they battle things out, but I wish things could just get better

  • Pauline

    January 6th, 2020 at 11:09 AM

    I can relate to this completely (I found this thread because I googled ‘always worrying about pets’). One of my (young) cats was killed in September when my ex accidently closed our garage door on her. I was utterly traumatised and have since moved house. But I find I am constantly worrying now about my other 2 cats. I don’t let them outside when I’m not home and when they are out, I worry all the time about where they are. If I hear a loud noise I rush to check that they’re ok. To make matters worse, they have respectively been diagnosed with kidney and gastric issues over the last few months – it feels like I have been to the vet almost weekly since we have moved and it has cost me a fortune (which in turn has added to my worries). I rush home from work as fast as I can to make sure I can check on them before the vet’s closing time. I know it probably isn’t good to be choosing to stay home so that they can have company and outside time, but I feel so much guilt whenever I leave them. I adore my girls, but I am finding myself so stressed about their well-being. Losing Pepper has affected me so badly and I don’t know how to settle the sense of dread about the others.

  • Sar

    September 20th, 2020 at 5:36 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had trouble putting names to what I’m currently feeling, with a 14 yr old dog who is experiencing mild dementia, bad anxiety, lameness and a degenerative larynx condition. I think we feed off each others anxiety and I’m starting him off on natural anxiety meds, but the anticipatory grief will still linger. Your article really hit home for me and I feel like it was the perfect article for me to read. Thanks again.

  • Mary R

    October 16th, 2020 at 10:41 PM

    Dear Megan, I know you wrote this article several years ago and I hope all is well with you. I have been a pet owner for more than 50 years, and have welcomed fish, turtles, birds, cats and dogs into my home. They all become an integral part of the family, and their loss is always a time of much grief and anxiety, but those feelings only show how much we have loved them. I have buried many of my dearest beloved companions, I have fought the good fight with them through multiple diseases, I have paid thousands of dollars to try to make them well again. I think that suffering through the loss of pets is one of the most difficult experiences we may have, yet we learn from this how precious life is, and how unique each creature is on this globe. Our tears remind us that the joy we shared is now a memory, and we mourn the loss of our daily interactions of caring, loving and being loved. All of my animal companions have a special place in my heart and mind forever.

  • llwyd

    March 31st, 2021 at 6:49 AM

    I think the most anxiety provoking is that you are unable to verbally communicate and reassure the troubled pet. It’s frustrating and saddening. For some pets we are their only care giver and without us they would perish. It’s why emotional people feel so compelled to maintain their safe and happy existence. I am against breeders, when there are already so many abandoned pets without owners.

  • Leanne

    June 13th, 2021 at 11:20 PM

    I have had a lot of losses lately (and over the years). I am in a sad and anxious spot with the anticipation of grief but I am trying to be present with my older cat. I might be getting some bad news tomorrow or maybe he is fine, I do not really know right now. I have to say, I am all about him not getting to a place of suffering, I want him to be comfortable. Of course it is hard to pay hundreds of dollars for medical bills but I would do it for any human I love so I will do it for my pets. It is just that hearing my vet say his test results may not be good is just making me so depressed. It has all been worth it, this journey with all of my pets but the losses are so hard and it is also hard when people in your life dont acknowledge it.

  • Danielle

    March 4th, 2023 at 3:05 AM

    Thank you for writing this blog. I have a hamster, Moon, (I am 39 FYI) and she is adorable and what I think about more than most other things. I have had two hamsters before and my last hamster Dododo got very sick for months before I eventually had her put to sleep. It was so painful and stressful and I felt so guilty. I still feel guilty about Moon even though she is fit and well and living in hamster luxury, I worry all the time that I’m not providing enough care for her or the worst is when I feel carrying out my daily chores for her is a burden. I keep thinking that this is just a learning but it’s a draining experience. I adore Moon and am so happy I have her but I wonder if I am going over the top because I am scared of neglecting her. When I say all this out loud I fear I sound completely bonkers and that’s another part of it I guess. Anyway, I wanted to say I often talk to my therapist about Moon and my worries for her and I really appreciated your words.

  • Waynona

    June 5th, 2023 at 12:35 AM

    After reading all these entries, I now know I’m not the only person that has severe anxiety over my pets. I worry so much about my 2 dogs sometimes that I get in an awful shape. I search the internet for answers to my concerns sometimes for hours at a time. I call their doctor and address my concerns with her. Sometimes it helps me and other times it makes the anxiety worse. Just reading these entries has soothed my soul for now.

  • Melody

    March 12th, 2024 at 5:45 PM

    As my beloved dog struggles with spleen cancer, I am finding solace in having found a way to give her agency in the medication process. I started giving her pain medication in the evening so she would at least have rest at night. At first she resisted (she’s like that). I stopped for a week. When I reintroduced the medication in the evening she no longer resisted, letting me know that she understands its effect. In turn I had communicated my respect that she has the right to choose the absence of pain vs, the clarity of being medication free. She knows change is coming and we have an agreement how to cope with it. So far, she chooses not to have the medication in the morning and acts fairly normal all day except for sleeping more than usual. I feel so much better that we are sharing this process.

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