Are you caring for a beloved pet who is aging, has chronic or special needs, or is facing a life-threatening illness? Do you feel isolated, exhausted, scared, overwhelmed? Do you feel that family, friends and co-workers simply don’t understand what you are going through? Do you feel a sense of pride and absolute happiness when your pet either feels better or is stable?
As an animal caregiver, you may find that you are grieving the changes in your animal’s health, behaviors, activities, as well as joyful when they are doing well. You may also be anticipating their death and grieving what you know is coming. This is called anticipatory grief and it is a very real experience.
As a veterinary social worker and someone who has personally navigated the ups-and-downs of being an long-term animal caregiver with my own pets, I find that unfortunately many people in this role are left feeling isolated, misunderstood, and lack the social support and self-care that they need.
Who or what is taking care of you while you are navigating the ups-and-downs of taking care of your pet? Self-care is absolutely essential…the better your self-care is, the better you can care for your pet.
So, how do you navigate being a caregiver and integrate self-care? Consider the following:
1. Your quality of life. Many caregivers think about their pet’s quality of life above their own. It is very important to also honor your needs:
- How much of your time is/will be dedicated to taking care of your pet (know this will change and need to be re-assessed given your animal’s condition).
- Do you have the physical, emotional stamina and day-to-day schedule required to be a caregiver for your animal? (for example, taking to multiple veterinary appointments, giving medications, special dietary needs, getting up/staying up during the night, cleaning up, assisting with hygiene/bathroom needs, etc.). Being an animal caregiver can be emotionally and physically taxing and simultaneously beautiful and incredibly rewarding.
- Do you have the financial resources to handle either short-term or long-term care?
- Do you have the emotional resources or social support system to help or to co-caregive with you?
- What other life stressors or obligations do you have in life right now? Can you shift or change these other areas?
- When you one day reflect back on this time, what do you want to remember? What is most important to you? What decisions can you live with, what will help you feel proud and grateful?
2. Get Back to Basics. Eat well, hydrate, sleep, incorporate movement or exercise. Consider other things to add to your toolkit such as: listening to music, writing, singing, photography, watching your favorite movies, reading, meditating, praying, taking deep breaths, surrounding yourself with beauty and nature. Find what works for you and do it.
3. What can you control? You cannot control your pet’s diagnosis or health condition. You can control your response, your action steps, and how you choose to cope with your feelings.
4. If you feel overwhelmed, hit the “pause button” and take a moment to BREATHE.
Take an slow anchoring breath – in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Repeat your anchoring breaths as needed and whenever you feel overwhelmed or triggered.
5. Live in the present with your animal. This is one of the most important things you can do. It is very tempting to worry about the future or feel guilt, regret about the past. However, living in the past or future is stealing away your present time…the here-and-now…with your animal. One of the most beautiful traits about our pets is that they live in the present. Embrace this gift they offer us every day and do the same for them.
6. Feel what you need to feel. You’re likely to feel a mix of shock, fear, grief, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness..as well as relief, joy, and gratitude. Be kind and forgiving of yourself. This is the emotional roller-coaster ride. Don’t resist or suppress it – honor it. And, know that you also need to take breaks from the roller-coaster ride. Trust that what you feel right now is normal and know your feelings will continue to shift.
7. Don’t be afraid to reschedule, cancel things, or put things “on hold”.
8. Prioritize what is most important to you. Create boundaries and communicate this to others.
9. Create a support system for yourself. Find someone who is a “generous listener” and knows how to hold space for you. Ask for help, seek out support from a counselor, a trusted friend, or a community of like-minded individuals. This may be others who have navigated being a pet caregiver or are currently navigating this journey. Different people in our lives can provide us with different types of support. Some cannot or do not have the capacity to provide the support we need. Figure out what support means to you and match that up with those in your life who are willing to give that to you. Be proactive about seeking out the people and things in your life that are calming and grounding supports for you.
10. Give yourself a break or respite from care giving. What replenishes, energizes, rejuvenates, and inspires you? It is imperative to take regular breaks (both daily and weekly).
If you are navigating this beautiful and painful journey, we are here for you. It can be incredibly helpful and supportive to connect with others who are on this path. At Summit Veterinary Referral Center, we offer a free drop-in monthly support group, specifically for animal caregivers. The group runs the 3rd Saturday of each month, from 10 am – 11:30 am. We hope to see you there.
Take Good Care ~
Rachel Wright, MSW, LSWAIC, CDP
Veterinary Social Worker
Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®