Pets, people and illness

Until a couple of years ago, I had four cats. Two came to us as kitten sisters, one each for our two boys. The other two, brother and sister Siamese, were adopted from a friend when they were about a year old. For many years we had that lovely time when they were healthy and easy to care for, and gave us lots of pleasure and purrs. But as they aged, the health problems begand to pile up, along with the vet’s bills. Decisions seemed to multiply – to investigate or not? Which tests? Whether to treat, and how? Is this a further decline? Do we need to go back to the vet? Is it worth continuing, or kinder to stop? And – the elephant in the room – how much is all this going to cost, and can we really justify that amount of money?

Now we have just one cat left. He survived a near-fatal episode of kidney disease two years ago (at huge expense, needless to say), and is now kept going by twice-daily injections of fluids to keep flushing his kidneys, and oral medication. Mostly he seems very happy and active, but it’s a lot of work, and a constant worry that ‘this might be it’ every time he looks a bit off-colour. I’m lucky that I have a friend who will take him on whenever I go away somewhere. No cattery will have him any more.

Last month we were in America, and she looked after both him and our 18-year old tabby girl. The tabby had bounced back from a couple of strokes last summer and was on thyroid medication, but we never thought it would be her to go first. But about a week into our stay, we started getting worried messages from our friend, reporting first a drop in appetite, then a puffy face. After treating for both an infection and a possible allergy, the vet eventually found what looked like a cancerous patch at the back of her mouth. Within another day her face was badly swollen and she looked increasingly miserable; when my friend sent a video showing her lying quietly and not really responding, we agreed it was time to put her to sleep.

I felt bad for my friend left with the responsibility, and awful I couldn’t be there to say goodbye. But at least we were fortunate that the decision became obvious so quickly. There really was no question. I have had other pets where the moment has crept up on us more slowly during a long chronic illness, and been all the harder to take as a result.

Strangely enough, while all this has been going on I’ve been involved in discussions with a group of researchers (based in Nottingham and Oxford universities) about developing a new research project around people’s experiences of illness and pet ownership.We’re a mix of vets and social scientists, and we’re interested in what happens when either pet or owner (or both) becomes ill, and how this changes the relationship and the daily routine of living with a pet. We are pet owners ourselves, so we have lots of ideas about what we might research, but we’d really like input from other pet owners too. We want to produce something that will be useful for pet owners and vets, and help give vets some insight into what it is like for owners. We’d welcome any replies on this post, and particularly your thoughts about:

What has it been like caring for a sick pet?

How has it felt making decisions about their health and vet care?

If you yourself have been ill, how did this affect your relationship with your pet?

Did having a pet affect your recovery or how you managed your illness?

What happens if you have to go into hospital as a pet owner?

If you have any ideas to contribute to the research, we would love to hear from you via the comment section below. You may think of other questions it would be important to ask. Please let us know!

We will only use the comments you share to help us design the project and we will not quote your posts in any research. We will only start looking for people to take part in the research itself later, if we are successful in getting funding. We’ll add another blog post when we are recruiting with full details of how to contact us.

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30 thoughts on “Pets, people and illness”

  1. Hi,

    I think this is a fantastic research topic- well done for getting it moving!

    I am an RVN & have had many pets through the years, some with chronic illness and have definitely become aware of a change in relationship between myself and pet. I know coming home from work & my cat rushing to get away from me as she had started to make associations between me & constant medication giving, was hard to deal with & made me question what we were achieving in her treatment.
    From such experiences I personally would be really interested to know how change in relationship can potentially impact client compliance, possibly a question for you to think about?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ooh yes, good question. Mine is strangely compliant with the injections, but oral medication is a wrestling match and he hides. It certainly makes me hate giving it to him.

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    2. I also think this would be a great question for you guys to focus on (great sounding project by the way!).

      I’m an animal behaviour and welfare scientist and long-term cat owner. My cat is approaching 18, and was diagnosed as hyperthyroid when she was 11. We caught it in the earliest stage due to noticing her behaviour change, and opted for the ‘gold standard’ treatment of radio-iodine. However, I knew in my heart she would suffer from the 3-week isolation stay in the AHT but I thought I was doing what was best for her and I did it anyway. I have regretted it ever since. When we collected her she had lost weight from not eating (something she has never done before or since – that ones a food lover!) and her fur had fallen out in large clumps – both of which we were told were due to extreme stress. I have always had a strong bond with her, and she with me, more so than any other cat I’ve known. She hates being alone, and hates it when we leave her. This experience has now led to her being unable to stay in any veterinary cattery for tests, as she won’t eat, drink or pass urine whilst in there and her BP remains elevated. Even years later that abandonment has stuck with her and the guilt has stuck with me. I should have trusted my gut that she wasn’t ‘just a cat’ and that I knew her as an individual.

      Compliance in treatment is extremely hard when it starts to breakdown your relationship, and your pets trust of you begins to fail. Many of my family members have suffered extreme emotional distress over this, for example when your beloved cat crawls away from you on their belly because they’ve started to associated you with administering eye drops into their infected and inflamed eye (a recent experience of my Mum’s) it’s heartbreaking.

      Good luck with the funding!

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      1. Thanks for commenting, Naomi. I do agree some cats are just attached to their people (and vice versa) in a way others aren’t. And then that’s a real dilemma because you love them so much you want to try every treatment going, at the same time as fearing it may damage a very special relationship. My adored old Siamese hates oral meds and hides when he sees me coming with them. Fortunately he is very forgiving – and lets me do his subcutaneous fluids quite happily, thank goodness, otherwise I don’t know how I’d comply with treating him. While I was away earlier this year, he lost nearly half a kilo. My friend and both thought it was just his kidneys worsening – but actually since he’s been back home with me he’s put weight back on. Like you and your cat, he’s The Special One for me….

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  2. A very important topic. Getting a dog has been a massive part of my sister recovering from illness. The dog made her get out, even slowly with a stick, and he adapted his pace to what she could manage, particularly on steps. He’s not an assistance dog or specially trained. All the best with your project.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks – yes, the role of dogs in exercise and mobility is a good topic to explore. And maybe ‘getting out’ is about more than exercise – getting back into social life, re-establishing a routine etc?

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  3. Lack of information or inappropriate optimism is incredibly unhelpful. We need to know EVERYTHING (rather like needing to know about our own health: so many people have said it wasn’t the diagnosis of cancer that was so hard to bear, but the three week wait for the results while they didn’t know what was wrong, and could only guess). I had a cat become extremely ill and she was hospitalised for (eventually) over 3 weeks. Each morning I would call to ask how she was, expecting I could be told she had died in the night, but hoping they would tell me there was some improvement. The receptionist would put me on hold for about 3 mins (which felt like an eternity), then ask me to call back after 2pm. I was frantic, and felt physically sick all day, every day. At 2pm I would call, still get no information, and make an appointment to go in and see her around 4.30. By the time I got there I was a wreck. Some days she would be better, some days worse. I would go home relieved or depressed depending on how she seemed to me, because I still had no information from the vet. The lack of communication was appalling. I lost nearly a stone simply from worry, and I’m sure my work suffered. I should not have had to endure that level of stress. I also felt that I was having to be pro-active about treatment, suggesting things to try or options because the vet apparently had no idea what to try next. Most pet owners are not in a position to know whether their vet has done all that should have been done, or to suggest or ask about treatments, and we don’t need the additional stress of wondering if the vet is on the ball.

    The cat with kidney problems is fortunate to be on fluids that have made him feel so much better, but this is not a common treatment protocol in the UK, and with other owners/vets the cat would have been put to sleep, depriving his owner of considerable extra time, and the cat of a happy extra time of feeling well, though I agree that it’s a huge commitment. Although cats do run from medication if they don’t like it, they are often also incredibly forgiving, and once they know they have had it they come back full of love again.

    So it’s not just about the animal and the worry we have for a family member we love, but our relationship with the carers in veterinary practices. Cheery optimism about a desperately sick animal can make things much worse, almost as much as having no information when we ask how our animal is doing. Some days the receptionist telling me she had heard my cat crying when she came in was the only way I knew she was still alive. (In case you’re wondering, she is fully recovered and still, happily, with me. On the plus side, I’m still half a stone lighter.)

    I’m aware that having long-term elderly and/or sick animals can be extremely stressful for their owners, which is why I’m prepared to care for them so that the owners can get away without worrying. I know the cat is going home, so it’s a short-term thing for me and therefore less exhausting, though I will always worry in case I miss something that might lead to a disaster — but that’s true of my own cats too. We are mindful of carer stress with human care, but I have friends who have not gone away for a holiday for decades because of their pets and nobody is offering them respite time! I wonder about their wellbeing. I hate going away because I worry, even though my cats are young and don’t currently have chronic health problems and I suspect my wellbeing is affected by the constant low-level stress of caring for my pets — I have too many and some days I just feel exhausted. I worry too about the stress for the pet when their lives change, either because of ill health or because their owners have to go away: with humans you can explain your absence to them and they can discuss their illness. With pets you can’t, and for all they know a short-term change is a permanent one.

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    1. Thanks – there are so many parallels with human illness and end of life care here, and the relationship with professionals. The issue of carer stress and respite care is a really important idea for us to think about, too. I’m glad she pulled through…

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    2. Thanks for these comments, Julia. Some fascinating comments and things I’ve not thought about. We’ve been fortunate to have had largely well pets and haven’t had this experience of hospitalisation. Trying to think about life (long and short term) from a pet’s viewpoint is also important.

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  4. Perhaps it is worth considering how chronic illness and disability (for people or pets) differ from short-term illness – and engaging members of the disability community?

    For myself, my pets (dogs and various reptiles) have helped manage isolation and depression resulting from my chronic illness – but have also caused me to struggle with my illness due to stress; when my older dog had a stroke, I ended up bed-bound with fatigue for several days after her recovery started.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, good points. I am sure you are right that chronic illness and disability raise very different issues. Do please sspread the word to anyone you know who might want to share their thoughts. Carer stress seems to be a bit of a theme emerging.

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    2. Couldn’t agree more, Emma. I think a strand of the research should focus on chronic illness/disability. Someone contacted me on facebook to say that she was worried about her autistic son who has a strong relationship with their cat who has kidney disease. The interrelationship between pets, people and disability/illness is very complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I broke my ankle and it was just myself and a very young (6 month) dog she became very protective. I couldn’t (so didn’t) move around much and she became my guard. She would sit at the end of our sofa staring out into the garden and if a cat or bird dared to enter the garden she would run straight to the door to warm them off with barks and so forth. She hadn’t displayed any of this behaviour before my ankle. She is a very loving dog but the protectiveness has remained even though my ankle has healed, which took about 3 months before I could move easily again.

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  6. I was recently quite unwell and my cats were a huge source of comfort and companionship. However, I do think that my own illness made me a hypochondriac by proxy – I worried a lot that they were ill, and my very patient vet did house calls and explained that they were ok and even cats get sick like we do. Certainly I am closer to my cats than before as I was off work for an extended period and they sensed how ill I was and wouldn’t leave my side.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kate – I’ve also had cats who won’t leave your side when you’re unwell. Intrersting though that we transfer our own anxieties onto our pets’ health. It sounds like your vet could see your needs as well as theirs.

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  7. I’ve had a rescue dog for a few years and we’ve both had a few health issues in that time, she’s my shining star and worth any worry she has caused. I don’t leave her in kennels anymore but bring her away with me.
    Sounds like I’ve been fairly lucky with vet treatment for her but the receptionists should really appreciate that communication is important. I definitely prefer calling the vets out of hours when you get straight on to the vet instead of getting the brush off. I’ve had to do a lot of self education to manage her health as I’ve very limited funds. I’ve had to dig deep cos sadly like the human health care I’ve experienced my dog’s illnesses were treated in isolation rather than trying to form a bigger picture. I’m not completely sure I’ve resolved her health situation but she’s happy and healthy for the last few months and until I can afford to return to the vets that’s all I can ask. If you saw her running around these days you would find it hard to believe she had to fight very hard for her life last September.
    She’s an incredible support to me and I hope someday soon support animals are registered here as that would help enormously.

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    1. Thanks. It seems we’re hearing a theme here about communications, as well as parallels between experiences of care for animals and humans. I’m glad to hear your dog is well – when you see an animal return to health it can all seem worth it, but it’s so hard to make a judgement at the time, particularly when you have limited funds.

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  8. I have chronic illness, and my cats and dogs got me through the worst of it. Because of them I fought to be as well as I could possibly be. My older dog had spinal problems and ended up needing 18 months of physio, hydrotherapy and walking in a sling. It was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting but I would do it 100 times over. A tumour ended this fight.
    My young cat developed FIP, and nursed her at home 24/7 for 3 weeks, when finally it became unfair to carry on. My animals happily allowed me to administer medications, bed baths and physio, total cooperation,because we had such a trusting bond. It was a privilege, and a heart break, to have that trust.
    My years of pet ownership has shown me who I am in a way human relationships never have. I’d like to see that explored more. I find unconditional love more easy to believe from an Animal than a person, hence the close bond

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    1. A privilege, and a heartbreak – what a phrase. There is definitely something in the idea that animals give us a reason to keep going and to fight for our own recovery as well as theirs.

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  9. Hang in there for the bit about pets….this is a bit of a saga!

    In 2000 my father died suddenly of a heart attack and I had to return home to London, living in my family home again, from Glasgow where I had been doing my PhD, to be near my mother who had progressive multiple sclerosis. There was a whole legal drama that came with my father’s death and that related to my mother’s care. My mother had been incorrectly assessed as being ineligible for NHS care, so had to pay for her specialist nursing care (she was in a nursing home for the last few years of her life). When my Dad was alive the situation was quite simple: he was authorised to look after her finances and the family home was protected. However, upon his death the situation became quite grim.

    I had to apply to act as my mother’s legal representative through the Court of Protection, as she was no longer mentally capable of looking after her own interests. The CoP appoints an official solicitor (OS) to represent my mother’s interests. got a rather stern letter asking me to explain why I had chosen to move back to the family home “without asking permission” from the OS (it hadn’t occurred to me I would have to!). I felt really unsettled from that stage on. Once the legalities for my mother had been sorted, we then faced the legal nightmare of trying to cling on to the family home, which also happened to be the only roof I had to keep over my head at the time.

    We knew my Dad had a will leaving everything to myself and my sister but no-one knew where it was. We wrote to every solicitor’s firm in London, banks, everything, nothing…In the absence of a will we knew that his old will, made before my mother had become ill, in the ’80’s, would be actionable. This unfortunately meant that the local Council would be able to claim the family home and sell it to pay for her care. I can’t really explain the rage I felt during this time and all the outrageous things the Council said and did – anger propelled me through these years. The legal case was super complex, because of my mother’s incapacity and her rights to the estate, but after two years of fighting we did win (our own solicitor told us repeatedly that we wouldn’t!). The Court agreed that there was sufficient evidence to change my father’s will and leave the estate to myself and my sister. Phew. Although, only for a few seconds, because the Council mounted a challenge, which took another year to fight (we won that too). Phew again.

    Although phew at a considerable cost. This period of my life was hell. I was so seriously depressed I never thought I would be OK again. I was so fucking angry I can’t even begin to explain. The anxiety of living with the prospect of having my home taken away from me was particularly corrosive. Probably because at that stage it felt like the only thing that hadn’t been taken away from me. Writing about this now, this feels like a lifetime ago, as I feel so so different.

    Anyway, to the bit about pets! The first thing I did, when I heard we had won the legal case (we being my sister and I; the dream team :-)), was to go and get two stripey ginger kittens that I named Reggie and Ronnie. It was my way of celebrating. To me it symbolised I had a home again (home to me always has pets!). I was quite taken aback how therapeutic it was having these little tiny furballs in my life, how great it was to feel joy and love (rather than rage!) and having something sweet to nurture rather brooding darkly. I really do think this was an important beginning in re-engaging in the good things in life and recovering from the depression that had taken hold. Some years later I was diagnosed with cancer and the two grown up furballs were there as a comfort to me as I recuperated. Nothing like a purring cat I think to make the world seem like a comforting place. Neighbours were fab and looked after them while I was in hospital, so I didn’t have to worry and they wouldn’t have to go into cat prison. Ronnie lived to 13, dying (mercifully very quickly) of liver cancer and his brother Reggie is still going strong at (almost) 15 (he’s sitting beside my keyboard as I type) and says ‘miaow’.

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    1. Dear Rosaleen, thanks for sharing what must have been an awful experience. I love the idea that the kittens represented home and hope after darkness and uncertainty. I keep wondering about the term ‘pet owner’ – it’s a good shorthand but it sounds so hierarchical and doesn’t capture the equality of the relationship and mutual dependence people often feel with their animals. (Hi Reggie, virtual strokes!)

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  10. I’m disabled (neurodivergent & have chronic illness causing mobility difficulties). I have almost exclusively chosen older or disabled cats. Pythagoras had three legs and a digestive problem; he had been in the cat rescue place a long time – he was a wonderful cat, who sadly died of cancer a couple of years ago. Merlin was an elderly cat whose owner died and was going to be put down because no one else would take him – I took him despite already having two cats at the time; he needed a lot of taming but had a very happy two years with us once he settled down. I’m known for choosing the oldest cats in the shelter – I currently have Dilly, who is 16 (and so loving!), who was in the shelter for two years because she was “too old” for most people. She loves to sit with me when I’m in bed or in a chair – a younger cat would be much less likely to do that. We’re very well suited. I also have Milo, aged 9, who’s a cutie but just too healthy to be bothered with slow little me! Fantastic research project – if you interview people, I’d be up for taking part. – Naomi

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    1. Thanks Naomi – if we get funding we will post again and invite people to contact us if they’d like to be interviewed. The project is generating a lot of interest, which is great. Deliberately choosing elderly/disabled/sick animals is another whole angle we hadn’t thought of.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. We’ve had two cats die relatively quickly of age-related conditions. Both instances were very sad and one of us mourned far longer that the other. We were very lucky in living virtually next door to a cat clinic, whose verts were very supportive in helping with the decisions to euthanase. In the second case, we were able to contribute to the clinic’s rolling display of cat photos, a wistful (to us) picture of the cat looking back at us in the middle distance in our snowy garden, where both cats are buried. We’ve had five cats over the past twenty or so years, three of which just vanished. Vanishing is easier to deal with than a witnessed death.

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    1. That sounds like a place I know, Grant! It’s interesting that you found vanishing easier. When one of mine vanished I was bseide myself till his body was found. But equally I know just how upsetting it can be watching a cat go and feeling you are responsible. My poor friend has taken charge of two of my cats being put to sleep now, and I suppose that’s been a bit like a form of vanishing where I haven’t had to ‘do the deed’ myself. The question about differing levels of grief also makes me think not just that different family members may love a particular animal more or less, but also that I personally have been more attached to some than others. There are some where the bond is particularly intense. But we perhaps don’t like to acknowledge that.

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  12. My cat developed diabetes 4 years ago and it has been a big commitment to look after him with lots of ups and downs along the way for both of us. I also recently was diagnosed with a fairly major medical condition and take great comfort in his company and our shared medical experiences. I would love to participate and provide more info on a less public forum .

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