At Your Wits’ End: Trigger Stacking as a Pet Parent

As I fell asleep, I had no inkling of the perfect storm that was brewing for my morning. Our dog Boon, who operates much like a rear-end paraplegic, has been having neuro-muscle spasms (think uncontrollable Charlie horse cramps). All of us know cramps are painful and we probably have a variety of strategies to make the acute situation resolve. I don’t know what’s worse for Boon: the pain or the panic that ensues as maybe it feels like a body snatcher has invaded her body. I’ve tried a lot of things to calm her down; what works is to tightly swaddle her into a baby carrier with her head propped on my arms. So here we are at 4am, me watching mindless TV shows, holding her, and hoping it resolves by the time I need to get going with work stuff in the morning.  

Did I mention that the perfect storm was a trifecta? Boon’s spasms were resolving, so maybe I wasn’t paying close attention as her legs started to move slightly. It’s times like this when I wish our dogs could use words, as her movement was actually her whisper to me: ‘Hey Mom, I’m about to have massive diarrhea. Do you think you can get me out of this tightly wrapped baby carrier?” Maybe because I’d been up since 4am, I missed her message. I won’t describe the disaster. I said it was a trifecta right? Shortly thereafter, our dog who never throws up added that to the morning’s wins.  

Anyone reading this who is a parent may be having flashbacks to when you dealt with a lot of infant bodily function stuff at inopportune times and times when you wished you could explain in words to your infant that things will be better. Well, caregiving isn’t just for parents of youngsters, or adult children of aging parents, or of other humans in our care; it’s also a thing for pet parents.  


When does caregiving lead to a sense of burden?  

Burden can be described as the physical, emotional, and financial strain of providing care, and while the label has been applied to humans caring for other humans, it can also be applied to humans caring for their pets. Studies focused particularly on family caregivers find a number of negative effects of burden on mental health and an overall reduced quality of life, as well as physical, financial, and social repercussions. Guess what: it probably applies to pet parents too. Britton, et al (2018) is one of the few studies to examine caregiver burden among pet parents.  They recruited caregivers of a seriously ill pet and those of a family member with dementia and found both groups to have a higher perceived level of burden; both groups reported concerns about the future, financial strain, and stress. Shaevitz, et al (2020) similarly found caregivers of pets suspected of having cancer to report burden associated with stress, symptoms of depression, and perceived lower quality of life. Spitznagel and colleagues (2018) created a short tool to assess caregiver burden related to pets which can be used in, for example, veterinary practices to gain a greater understanding of the client’s experience and facilitate communication regarding care decisions.


Mornings like today bring caregiver burden directly home

Some days I have a higher tolerance for managing all that needs to be done caring for two special needs dogs and some days it’s a challenge. Caregivers, just like all individuals, have different thresholds for what constitutes an adverse stressor or is perceived as burden and those thresholds can change depending on what else is happening in our lives. I try to recognize when I’m “approaching threshold” and take steps to address this. We talk about dogs approaching threshold and skills we can build in them to de-escalate. Recognizing when our caregiving plate is about to overflow and taking steps to prioritize self-care or implement another strategy is itself a skill.  

Things that can help with caregiver burden include:

I used to feel guilty about the latter until I realized caregiving is more like a marathon than a sprint and if I didn’t take a break, I’d be toast–or at least hitting the wall on a regular basis. And we all know that’s not good.  Developing a plan to meet your needs is an important act of self care that will allow you to better care for your pet.


How do you ask for help?

Being a caregiver by default suggests that we are on the giving end of things. Recognizing that you can’t do it all by yourself and asking for help is another skill that I had to learn. The lesson hit home when I had a freak accident and fractured multiple vertebrae. No longer could I swaddle up and tote the 20 pounder or take her for an outing on her wheels. I had to reach out of my comfort zone, ask for help, and not have an all consuming sense of guilt for the entire time I was laid up. I’m proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks, as they say; that life phase helped me recognize that asking for help is not a sign that I’m not capable, shirking responsibility, or putting my burden onto someone else. Asking for help was in the best interest of my pets and me.  We all matter.  


The upside of pet caregiving

The Britton (2018) study found a distinction with pet caregivers reporting more positive ‘appraisal’ of caregiving than their counterparts caring for family members with dementia. As someone who also held a caregiving role for an aging parent, their finding truly resonates with me. Our two dogs bring a lot of intangibles to our family and household. Yes, they have special needs that require a lot of extra care, and in the midst of a trifecta morning, caregiving burden becomes a real thing. But on the other side of the coin is their companionship and the joy that their personality and quirks bring to us. They both make me laugh, sometimes at what they do, how they look, and also, at times make me laugh at myself. As our definition of family grows from a biological one to the notion of a chosen family, perhaps in the future it will be commonplace to include non-humans as part of our family constellations of who we choose to call family.     


Now what?

4 thoughts on “At Your Wits’ End: Trigger Stacking as a Pet Parent

  1. I love the practical strategies presented here and am bookmarking this blog for my clients and for me (two of my dogs are just edging into senior territory). It’s also great to acknowledge the upside of pet caring – many intangibles indeed!

  2. Thank you Tracy. The resources are very helpful. I do find myself getting frustrated and exasperated with my anxious reactive girl. The support group resource looks like a valuable tool. I am happy to see a shift in considering the human side of animal companion care giving. If we want humans to be compassionate with animals, we must be compassionate with their humans.

    1. Totally agree, Becky. Thanks for all you do to be supportive of humans and dogs!

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