Pets Can Help Care for the Caregivers

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by Colleen Steele |

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Pulmonary Hypertension News |

Three of my family members are very high maintenance. They rely on me for just about everything, and whine if I don’t help them right away. They constantly do things that distract me from my responsibilities and have no sense of personal space.

Ours might sound like a toxic relationship, but in fact, it is a healing one.

pets and caregivers | Pulmonary Hypertension News | Colleen's two dogs, Harmony and Mellow, one a husky and the other a Jack Russell terrier, pose one a bed

Harmony and Mellow patiently wait for Colleen to finish work one afternoon in November 2021. (Photo by Colleen Steele)

I’m talking about my family pets: Harmony, the husky, Mellow, the Jack Russell terrier, and Willie, the orange tabby cat.

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) ravaged my son Cullen’s heart and lungs to the point that he needed and received a transplant in 2014. In a previous column titled “The Therapeutic Benefits of Owning a Pet,” I shared how Cullen’s second chance at life led to Mellow’s adoption, and how emotionally supportive she has been to him since then.

In another column, “Pets and PH: Furry Friends Are PHamily, Too,” I further elaborated on the healing powers an animal’s love can provide to patients. I was candid about the responsibility that comes with owning them. If you are a caregiver, you can probably guess where a lot of that responsibility falls.

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pets and caregivers | Pulmonary Hypertension News | Colleen hugs Harmony, the husky, on a snowy and cold day in February 2021.

Colleen and Harmony enjoy a snow day in February 2021. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

Don’t let this discourage you from adding a fur baby to your family. Think about your answers to the following questions as you read about my personal experience with owning pets.

Answer honestly

Do you sometimes feel emotionally drained from caring for and watching a loved one struggle with an illness?

When you get sick, do you have anyone who can safely be near enough to comfort you?

How often do you take naps, go for a walk, laugh out loud, or feel relaxed?

Are you aware that you are loved as much as you are needed?

I take care of our pets, and they take care of me

A few years ago, Cullen transitioned from pediatric to adult care at a hospital close to home. Before that, I drove him from Washington state to California several times a year for follow-ups with his PH and post-transplant specialists.

During that time, we owned a black Lab named Rosie who was prone to seizures triggered by stress. And watching us pack our suitcases always caused her stress. She knew the suitcases meant we were going somewhere for what must have felt like an eternity to her.

Without fail, poor Rosie would go into a seizure before we made it out of the driveway. We tried to comfort her, but eventually we’d have to leave Rosie to the care of my husband, Brian, and our other son, Aidan.

It was heartbreaking and a powerful reminder of just how much she loved us. Thankfully, animals don’t hold grudges, so the reunion was always joyous, which is what both Cullen and I needed after a lengthy hospital stay.

Thank God our other pets don’t experience separation anxiety in the form of seizures, but they will howl and go crazy with excitement when I return from even just a brief departure to run errands. It feels good to be missed to that extent and greeted with so much love every time I walk through the door.

pets and caregivers | Pulmonary Hypertension News | A close-up of Colleen's husky napping on her computer keyboard

Harmony naps on Colleen’s keyboard during a workday earlier this month. (Photo by Colleen Steele)

But sometimes their affection can feel distracting, perhaps even annoying. For example, it can feel frustrating when Harmony takes a nap on my keyboard while I’m writing my column or taking part in the Pulmonary Hypertension News Forums. Or when Willie sits on my keyboard and blocks the camera lens just when I’m about to start a Zoom meeting.

pets and caregivers | Pulmonary Hypertension News | A funny, distorted close-up facial shot of Colleen's orange tabby cat as it blocks a Zoom meeting on her computer

Willie distracts Colleen from a Zoom call in December 2021. (Photo by Colleen Steele)

pets and caregivers | Pulmonary Hypertension News | Colleen's smaller dog sleeps on Colleen's head in a bed when Colleen was sick with the flu

Mellow comforts Colleen while she sleeps off the flu in October 2021. (Photo by Cullen Steele)

If a person got into my personal space like that, I wouldn’t be so easy to forgive, but my annoyance is brief when my pets do it. They make me laugh and encourage me to take breaks. Because of them, I get outside more often in all kinds of weather. Rather than bother them while they are napping, I sometimes take one, too. 

They remind me to take care of myself and comfort me when I’m not able to. Like many others, I struggled with emotional and physical health challenges in 2021. Through it all, my pets were at my side, always seeming to sense when I needed their therapeutic snuggles the most.

Yes, they have a lot of needs of their own, like being fed, groomed, and exercised, but they have a way of making me feel like their love is always unconditional.

I am loved as much as I am needed. When my human family is too distracted by life’s challenges to remind me, my furry family will.

Caregivers, if you don’t have a pet already, consider adopting one for your patient’s therapeutic benefit and your own!

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Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.

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