Pet owners, on the whole, are deeply attached to their pets. The owner values the emotional bond and the positive contribution to their wellness, such as having lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing stress, and combating isolation and boredom.
That said, purchasing a pet – especially for an elderly loved one –should not be a decision entered into lightly. You may want to weigh the benefits of pet ownership and the potential drawbacks before you select a pet. The following are a few things you should consider:
Living arrangements: Will the pet be in the elderly individual’s own private home, your home, in a nursing home, or in an independent or assisted living residence? If the latter, is it pet-friendly? If so, what is the policy regarding ownership of a Fido, Clementine, Polly Parrott or Goldy the fish? Does the facility have a Pet Coordinator? What are the rules if the furry companion – now at senior status—starts becoming a bit sick, having kidney failure or arthritis and needs pain medication or nutritional supplements? Does the veterinarian make house calls? What about pet odors or stains?
What does your elderly relative want? Springing a new pet on someone who never has had one is probably not a good idea. Neither is surprising your loved one – a veteran of cat-raising in her forties and fifties — with a new companion. Consider the individual situation. Is the elderly relative in a hurry to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet? Can another member in the family help with the pet’s care? What sort of pet would the relative enjoy? As the relative ages, will s/he find it difficult to keep up with the care of the pet? How much energy and expense can s/he devote to the pet? So … discuss the proposal with your relative before making the final choice.
Cost of pet ownership: Aside from all the initial expenses – including spaying/neutering, litter box for a cat, leash and crate for a dog – the regular annual expenses should be considered. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that the annual cost of maintaining a cat is $670, while a small dog costs $580 and a large dog is $875 each year. Prices will also differ region to region. In contrast, a small bird results in annual expenses totaling $200, while a fish can be maintained for only $35. Of course, there may also be medical expenses, health supplements, Therapeutic Memory Foam blankets, and other goodies that come at an additional cost. As the beloved pet gets into senior status, the cost of vet care will also impact Uncle Jack’s income.
Energy and attention level of aging relative: When matching your relative to a pet, evaluate his or her energy and attention level. Dogs and cats require walking to keep bodies limber – some breeds more than others – so obviously they are not a good choice for someone who rarely leaves the house. In addition, pet care requires some manual dexterity. Leashes must be attached and detached.
Consider the pet care: Dogs need to be frequently brushed, bathed and trimmed, how much depends on breed, age, and state of health. (If your aging family member barely combs his own hair, forget the poodle, Shih Tzu, or Japanese Chin.) Some pets are prone to infections (such as ear infections) or joint problems (Jack Russell Terriers) or hip dysplasia (Bullmastiffs) or epilepsy (Chihuahuas), and may require vet visits and/or medicine (which, by the way, are not tax deductible). Snoring, drooling, shedding, and barking—are these pet behaviors compatible with your elderly loved one, the others that live nearby, and/or the rules of the facility where she lives? Then there are fleas, a problem that must be addressed immediately and regularly! Cats need less care, although the litter box must be cleaned regularly. Bird cages and fish tanks must also be cleaned. As your aging relative copes with life and her diminished capacities, will she want to continue to fret about who will feed the fish, or take the dog or cat on potty breaks.
Falls involving cats and dogs: Seniors visit their local ER because they trip and fall over Fido or Clementine, breaking a hip and/or suffering contusions/abrasions. According to a 2009 study by the CDC, over 86,000 visited their local ER between 2001-2006 because of falls involving their dog or cat. The takeaway: cats and dogs love to zip around under feet, so the aging senior will have to be attentive and cautious.
Physical size of owner: Is the recipient of your pet strong enough and nimble enough to handle the pet? A small, older woman should not have a giant, high-energy dog (Labradoodle, German Shorthaired Pointers, Golden Retriever, Setters, Collies) as she may have difficulty controlling the dog, much less providing the necessary amount of physical activity these breeds require. A smaller, “let’s hang out together,” cuddly breed (i.e., Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, French Bulldogs) is easier to control for an owner who no longer has the strength to hold back a 15-pound, 4-legged “kid.” Once again, birds and fish are less problematic.
Opt for senior pets: If the elderly person is a committed dog lover, consider choosing an older dog. Older dogs are less energetic, calmer and loving, and more likely to be well trained and well behaved, not to mention housebroken. Also, the life expectancy of an older dog would normally coincide more closely with that of the elderly person, which reduces concerns about caring for the animal after the owner’s death. That being said, there is also the risk that the aging pet will develop behavior problems (biting, for example) or complicated and expensive health problems.
Health condition of the owner: If your aging relative sneezes, itches, and breaks out in hives – an allergic reaction to animal dander, you may want to avoid cats and certain dog breeds. Dogs with “real” hair are hypoallergenic (Poodles and Terriers) and less likely to trigger allergies.
Whether you choose a feline or Fido, make sure the animal is spayed or neutered. This helps to reduce the pet overpopulation problem (and thus reduces the number of animals who are euthanized each year) and prevents any unexpected additions to the elderly person’s household.
A pet can enrich the home and lifestyle of an elderly person. If chosen wisely, a pet will contribute to the health and happiness of your senior relative or friend for many years to come.
A final note: If your loved one needs help caring for a pet, there may be a community resource available to match up volunteers with homebound seniors, providing services such as dog walks, litter box cleanup, pet food and accessory purchases, and/or transportation to the vet. Hot meal delivery services for seniors may offer a bag of dog, cat or bird food for a elderly person’s companion along with the owner’s own meal. If your loved one already has a pet that he cannot keep, contact PAWS for help.