Caring For Yourself While Caring For Your “Special Needs” Pet

Caring for a pet with “special needs” can be really stressful. Last post we talked more about the different ways having a pet with behavioral special needs can impact an owner emotionally, in their day to day life, and in their relationships.

Here are a few ideas of what you can do to take care of yourself while caring for your pet with special needs:

1. Find ways to express your feelings

Whether you are feeling stressed out, exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, sad, wherever you are at – find a way to let it out so it doesn’t get bottled up inside. Ideally you want to find a “healthy” way to express it – a way that both gives voice and relief to the feeling while also not causing someone else (or yourself!) more distress. For example, if you feel like you just need to scream for a second, maybe do that in a wide open field or in a room with a closed door by yourself, rather than at your partner or your pet! The sky’s the limit on strategies – journaling, talking to a good friend, going for a long walk, therapy, crying, laughing – find what works for you.

2. Tend to your needs

Being a caregiver can often mean putting the needs of others (including your pet’s) above your own. But like they tell us during the airplane safety demos, you’ve got to make sure you have your oxygen mask on before you’ll be able to help someone else. So find ways to identify what your needs are (and start with the basics – food, sleep, exercise!) and how you can make sure you are taking care of yourself. I’ve found with caregiving, having an option of some kind of respite is often a key part of sustaining yourself in that caregiving role. Examples of this might be hiring a professional pet sitter, or asking your partner to stay at home with your pet while you have an afternoon away.

3. Develop strategies that help to manage (or reduce!) the day to day stress

Find the caregiving routines that work for you and your pet!  The fewer decisions you have to make every time a situation arises, the more that can help you manage your stress.  For example, if you have a dog that is reactive on leash and you decide that it is easiest to stay away from other dogs, you may decide to cross the street every time you see another dog.  Now there is no pressure on yourself to decide each time how close you should get, what you want to do – just stick with your plan.  Or you find that your picky-eater dog likes taking her morning pills in smelly liverwurst more than the big bag of pill pockets you just bought – so just do liverwurst every time (until, of course, her precious self decides that only goat cheese will do! I might be speaking from experience here…).  Use a strategy for as long as it works, and then update as you need to.

4. Find support in others

We all know that there are people who will not understand the level of care we are willing to give our pets and the extent to of which we are adjusting our lives for them. Find folks who do get it. There are more of them than you might think! Find people who can both support you in your choices and will also remind you to take care of yourself at the same time you are caring for your pet.  At VetVine we are running a series about The Emotional Impact of a Pet’s Behavior Problem on the Caregiver (our last roundtable call on Wed, April 26th, we talked about separation anxiety, details here!). There are also support groups for pet owners, here is a link to more info about ongoing groups.  And Jessica Dolce of DINOS has developed a wonderful online resource “Living With DINOS” to connect with others and find support.

\What strategies have you found to be helpful in caring for yourself while caring for your “special needs” pet?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

3 Ways Owners are Impacted by Pets with Behavior Problems

As part of the veterinary social services I provide, I work with pet owners who care for pets with behavior problems. While there is a lot of wonderful professional support available for the animals’ needs, the impact on the pet owners often isn’t acknowledged. Dr. Kelly Ballantyne and I are conducting a research project on this topic, and our initial findings echo what I hear from the pet owners I work with – there are three areas of impact: emotionally, day-to-day life, and on their relationships

1. Emotional impact:

Owners caring for a pet with behavior problems often report feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions. First and foremost, I want to make clear that these owners love their pets. They feel joy, pride, and happiness. However, they also feel a lot of stress, frustration, sadness, worry, hopelessness, and guilt. Often times they feel isolated from others, and feel a lack of understanding and outright judgment from others. They can feel these conflicting positive and negative feelings all at once! It can be an emotional roller coaster caring for a pet with behavior problems.

2. Day to day life:

Owners who are caring for a pet with behavior problems often have to re-adjust their own day-to-day life to meet their pet’s needs. Many owners do this and do this with love, but it can still be a great source of stress for them. Daily care can include management and training, giving the pet medication, and both the mental preparation and practical planning for situations they may encounter with the pet. For example, if a pet has separation anxiety, an owner may need to plan strategically about how to get out of the house in such a way that causes the pet the least amount of distress. This usually involves not being able to go back into the house if they forgot something (so spending their day without their cell phone if they forgot that inside!). Or, if a pet has reactivity issues to unfamiliar people it means deciding what management plan will be put in place when a new house guest comes over in order to reduce the pet’s stress, while also ensuring safety for the visitor.

3. Relationships:

Caring for a pet with behavior problems can have an impact on relationships within the household, as well as between the owner and their family and friends. Household members can be a huge support to each other as they work together caring for a pet, but many times the stress of caring for the pet can also cause stress within these same relationships. Pet owners also share how much they appreciate friends and family who are understanding and supportive. Alternatively, it’s particularly stressful when friends and family don’t understand or even worse, are judgmental of their pets. Owners also experience judgment from strangers on the street which is hurtful.

There are many ways that caring for a pet with a behavioral issue can impact owners. From the stress of day-to-day caregiving to strains on important relationships, pet owners are likely to experience a wide range of emotions that may take a toll. It’s important for people in this situation to know that they are not alone and that there is support available. Stay tuned for future posts about finding help for your pet and caring for yourself! And join us on VetVine for a Roundtable Discussion on April 26th about the Emotional Impact of Caring for a Pet With Separation Anxiety – more details here.

In the comments, tell us: what impact has your “special needs” pet had on your life?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

What in the world is veterinary social work?

When I tell people that I provide veterinary social work services, I almost always get a confused look, sometimes a disbelieving smirk, and the question “what is veterinary social work?” It’s a fair question, and I’ll do my best to answer it.

The term “veterinary social work” was coined by Dr. Elizabeth Strand (my amazing mentor!) as a way to name the work social workers and mental health professionals have been doing in different ways for years – supporting the human in the human-animal bond. As veterinary social workers, we take the following oath:

“Specializing in veterinary social work, I pledge my service to society by tending to the human needs that arise in the relationship between humans and animals. From a strengths perspective and using evidence-based practice, I will uphold the ethical code of my profession, respect and promote the dignity and worth of all species, and diligently strive to maintain mindful balance in all of my professional endeavors.”

 Basically, we honor the significance of the human-animal bond and provide support to the people who love and care for animals.

I came to veterinary social work because of my interest in supporting people who have pets with behavior problems. My veterinarian behaviorist (and now colleague and friend) Dr. Kelly Ballantyne was the first person to tell me about the field of veterinary social work. (More about my story here). I soon signed up for University of Tennessee’s Certificate in Veterinary Social work course, which I completed in May of 2016.

In veterinary social work training, we study the four pillars of veterinary social work:

  • Compassion Fatigue & Conflict Management
  • Animal Assisted Interventions
  • The Link Between Human & Animal Violence
  • Animal-Related Grief and Bereavement

You can find mental health professionals attending to the human-animal bond in all types of ways. Some veterinary hospitals have vet social workers or counselors on-site to support both staff and pet owners. Some therapists utilize animal assisted interventions in their work with clients. Others work on research about violence against animals & intimate partner violence. Many communities have pet loss support groups facilitated by mental health professionals. Others focus on promoting the mental health wellness of veterinary professionals. And the list goes on.

In my work as a private practice therapist, my passion is in providing the following veterinary social work services:

  • Support groups for pet owners who have pets with “special needs” (specifically behavior problems)
  • Pet loss counseling
  • Presentations about compassion fatigue & self-care for professionals in the veterinary, behavior and training, and animal welfare fields.

What I love most about the field of veterinary social work is how broad reaching it is – anyone who wants to find a way to incorporate their passion about the human-animal bond & their social work skills can find a way to do that within the veterinary social work certificate course and become part of this incredibly supportive vet social work community.

What questions do you have about veterinary social work?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work who lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit To find a veterinary social worker in your area, call 865-755-8839 or email [email protected].



My path to veterinary social work

[Re-posted on Jan 21, 2017]

When I was little I wanted to be a veterinarian and a ballerina. I recently found an old photo of my fourth grade bedroom and the walls were covered from floor to ceiling in animal calendar pictures. I had actually forgotten about that time in my life – my memory of my childhood bedroom that had stuck with me had been the trying-to-be-angsty teen years, CDs from BMG scattered across the carpet and posters of bands I thought I should like hanging on the walls.

I didn’t become a veterinarian, or a ballerina. Both faded away – I was not interested in the medical field, even with animals, and when I discovered soccer I said goodbye to dance classes. I grew up and became a social worker. I had found my passion and dove into the work of working with others, from a domestic violence shelter in Chicago to communities in Cambodia, and most recently at a community counseling center back here in the city. I love social work. I love the way being a social worker encourages me to think of the layers, the connections and systems, the relationships, the injustices, the healing, and the feelings involved in each situation. I love that as a social worker I am a therapist, a researcher, a trainer, and a learner.


And then this skinny-legged, big-eared Cambodian puppy stole our hearts. I’ll tell the Buddy-story another time, but the long and the short of it is that this little pup grew up to be our pet with behavior problems; our dog has changed my life. It was because of Buddy and all the help we sought out for him that I met the amazing Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian in her behavior residency at the time. And she is the one who introduced me to the field of veterinary social work. And everything clicked.

There is a way to combine my love of social work and my love for animals. I can be a support to pet owners through the ups and downs that happen for all of us when we have a furry little creature in our homes and our hearts. And because of Buddy, my special interest is on how living with and loving with a pet with behavior problems impacts owners and discovering what supports people need and how to help them get that. Now, with a clarity of my fourth grade and my grown-up self, I know – I want to be a veterinary social worker.

Finding Peace: Learning to be mindful

I am just finishing my mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) class, and I’m sad it is ending. Once a week for the past two months, I’ve looked forward to the trek downtown on Tuesday evenings (even in the cold Chicago winter, which is saying something!). I knew I’d come away with something each class, and I did. Sometimes it was a morsel of wisdom from our wonderful teacher, Chris. Sometimes it was the words of a poem or a story that was read. And every time it was the peace of the practice, of taking the time TO take the time and just be. In my body, in my breath, and in my head (which is such an oh-so-noisy place!).

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained scientist, started teaching mindfulness through meditation to people suffering from chronic pain and illness. That program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is now used in more than 700 hospitals worldwide, helping people in chronic pain as well as those of us who are looking for tools, such as yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices to help us cope with the demands of our busy lives.

I did my best to do the daily practices each week – body scan, yoga, siting meditation, and just “being mindful.” Having the group experience (my “Sangha” was such a neat mix of people!) was so important. As a group, we created a space to practice together. When my friend, Jessica Dolce, encouraged me to take the course, she pointed out that when you’re meditating in a group it’s a lot harder to jump up off your cushion and give up. She was right! And it helped knowing that when I was practicing at home and struggling that everyone one else from class was also at home trying their best at doing the practices too.

I had decided to take the class because I thought, ‘If I’m going to be telling my therapy and veterinary social work clients that mindfulness could help them, I should probably practice what I preach!’ I thought this course would be something I’d be doing for my work. At the initial class when Chris encouraged those of us who were “helpers” in the room to first take in this experience and apply it for ourselves first, I hung on to that. And I’m glad I did.

This research says that my brain is better for it, 8 weeks later. And my body, soul, and mind agree. I’m going through some big life changes right now – leaving agency work and going into private practice full-time. My meditation practice has become an important way that I’m learning how to stay present in each moment, through all of the changes and challenges.

I sit on my cushion and I drop into my body, into my breath. Then I take that moment of peace with me back out into the world.

donut meditation comic