Anna speaks about their experience with having pets and how not only they adjusted to a life with chronic illness, but how their pets did too.
As a person in my early twenties, living with mental and physical illnesses is quite challenging. I often struggle to complete activities of daily living and this takes a toll on my mental health. It makes me feel different from my peers and like there’s something wrong with me. But getting a cat and dog helped my mental health immensely. I always had good company around and laughed more than I did before. Having a high-energy dog also forced me to leave the house regularly, be active, and socialise with others.
For the first couple of years after getting Billy (cat) and Lucky (dog), I got by with little to no issues. I used to feed them supper (my mom would give them breakfast), clean Billy’s litter box, walk Lucky every day, take Lucky out multiple times a day to go to the bathroom, brush their teeth and fur, clean their ears, remind my sister to trim Billy’s nails (it used to make me anxious), take Lucky to get his nails trimmed, play with them, and, along with staying on top of their vaccinations, book vet appointments as needed. Doing all of this felt like no big deal.
I had declared every Wednesday and Sunday “Grooming Days,” where I would brush their teeth and fur and clean their ears and paws as needed. I would also set aside time to play with my pets every day. My pets and I had a regular schedule for the most part. Sometimes, due to my mental illnesses, I would stray from it, but I always found my way back to it.
However, after a couple of years, I started experiencing symptoms related to ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia. These symptoms included gastrointestinal upset, lower back pain that radiates down to my feet, fatigue, brain fog, and heightened pain sensitivity. The symptoms worsened so gradually that I didn’t realise I was struggling until about a year and a half later. One way I realised I was struggling with my physical health is that no matter what, I could not maintain a regular schedule with my pets anymore.
The changes in routine became apparent when “Grooming Days” turned into “Grooming Day.” That later turned into grooming my pets whenever I felt up to it, which was sporadic and inconsistent. I often asked my dad to feed them supper and asked my sister to take Lucky on walks. My family did what they could when they could, but this often meant that supper was given at random times in the evening, and Lucky, accustomed to daily walks, could only go on walks every other day.
I also stayed in bed longer due to stiffness, pain, and fatigue, so I couldn’t play with them as much. My sister played with them when she could, but there was no longer any routine. This made me feel like I was a bad pet owner. It made me feel like I didn’t deserve to have pets. Sometimes I thought they’d be better off in a different home, with owners who could give them what they needed and care for them as they needed. This view was onemuch of society also believes and internalised ableism made me believe it too.
However, animals are very resilient and adaptable. When I could not do as much with them, they got used to going about their days differently. I spent much more time in bed, so my cat and dog spent more time cuddling with me. I experienced new dimensions to my depression and anxiety when I became chronically ill. My usual coping methods didn’t help anymore, so having my pets around meant I never felt alone and always felt loved and cared for.
As my pets adapted to my chronic conditions, so did I. With this newfound balance, I was also able to develop a new routine with my pets. Instead of having designated days for grooming, I decided to do a bit of grooming every day. I would brush my cat's fur one day and my dog's fur the next day. I cleaned their ears one day and brushed their teeth on another. So, I did a little bit of grooming every single day. Breaking grooming up into chunks was more doable and manageable, given my limited energy and pain levels.
Most importantly, I was understanding and kind to myself. If I had planned on brushing their teeth one day but didn’t feel up to it when the time came, I decided to try again tomorrow or gave them treats that helped clean their teeth. I also put on bird videos for my cat when I didn’t have enough energy to play with him and played with my dog for shorter periods while sitting down. My dog would shed a lot, so brushing his fur was arduous, even when I didn’t have these conditions. So my sister would sometimes offer to brush his fur. I also bought a vacuum brush to make it easier for me to brush him by reducing clean-up and speeding up the process in a low-impact way.
Becoming chronically ill taught me that sometimes I need help and that’s okay. This also applies to pet care. I enjoyed caring for them myself, but also knew I needed to enlist some help. I would ask my mom to clean the cat’s litter box about half the time. I’d ask my sister to walk the dog or I’d let him play in the backyard for longer. I also asked my parents to feed the cat and dog when I didn’t have energy. Other times, I would ask a loved one to take my dog on a drive so he could still get out of the house and have a good time. Asking loved ones to help me was beneficial for me and my pets. I felt way less guilty when I knew they were properly cared for.
There are also options to pay for pet care. I opted to ask loved ones to help me because I did not have the means to pay for these services, but they are helpful if you can afford them. There are services who can do it all for you, for example, grooming your pets, walking them, vet home visits and delivery services for pet needs. Some of these options are expensive, making it challenging for disabled pet owners to use. However, using these services now and then might be worth exploring. While using paid pet care services was not doable for me, it could help others greatly.
By adjusting my expectations of myself, enlisting help, using pacing techniques, adjusting and modifying activities, taking breaks, and resting, I found ways to adequately care for my pets without exacerbating my symptoms. My days with my cat and dog never looked as good as they used to, but we found a happy compromise. Caring for pets when you are disabled can be hard. It looks different from how able-bodied people care for pets. But that doesn’t mean we’re not good pet owners. There are many different ways to care for pets and disabled people deserve pets just as much as anyone else.