Seniors and Pets
Updated for January, 2022
Are you wondering how you are going to care for your pet as you age in place? Are you wondering if you should adopt a pet as you age in place? This guide will help you decide on the best choice for you. Studies have shown that owning a pet can be physically and mentally beneficial for people of all ages. In the case of senior citizens, “just 15 minutes bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol, and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels, fight depression and may even help protect against heart disease and stroke”.
Senior dogs and cats are better for the elderly because they are more calm, quiet, and less maintenance.
Pet Adoption for Seniors
If you are mostly immobile, a cat may be the best option because you don’t have to walk them. A small dog that uses pee pads or a caged animal may also be a good option. Senior dogs and cats are better for the elderly because they are more calm, quiet, and less maintenance. Be sure to have the pet checked out by a veterinarian. A pre-existing illness or disease could drain your bank account or make you sick. For those seniors who want a dog, there are many reasons to be wary of jumping into pet adoption too quickly. The lack of mobility and inability to drive to and from the vet, groomer, or pet store worries them. The initial costs are usually high. They also worry that if and when there comes a point when they can no longer care for the dog, that the dog might be taken to a shelter and eventually euthanized. Many seniors feel like their worsening health condition is a burden, and a pet might possibly add to that.
Ask your doctor, physical therapist, or social worker about any pet therapy programs in your community.
Pet Therapy for Seniors
Those who work caring for the elderly say that pets pull withdrawn seniors out of their shell, provide mild activity and cardio through walking and grooming the pet, and offer a way to feel needed and connect with the world. Pet therapy can also help with Alzheimer’s Sundowners Syndrome. Nighttime can be very confusing and disorienting for folks with Alzheimer’s disease. This is when some Alzheimer’s patients try to run away or leave their home. A pet can prevent this issue by keeping those with Alzheimer’s connected and occupied.
“Animals’ non-verbal communication and profound acceptance can be soothing for those with difficulty using language; some may even connect with memories of their own treasured pets,” (Byrne, 2015). Pet therapy has shown to improve appetite, social interaction, brain stimulation, and tactile activity. The unconditional love of a dog brings healing and meaning to a sometimes lonely stage in life. Ask your doctor, physical therapist, or social worker about any pet therapy programs in your community. Just because you give away a pet or choose not to take one into your home, it doesn’t mean that you can’t visit with other family pets or receive pet therapy. There are pet therapy home visit services all over the country. Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International are volunteer-run organizations with outposts all over the world. A local volunteer will come to your home and bring a trained service dog that is very well-behaved. The dog can play, cuddle, and perform commands during a half hour or one hour session.
Service dogs are trained to perform life-saving tasks, like retrieving medication, calling 911, opening the door for EMT and first responders, running to get help or barking for help after identifying an emergency, and laying down on their handler’s chest to help them cough or breath better.
Service Dogs for Seniors
For seniors with disabilities, a service dog might be the best option. “The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2011 defines service dogs as those trained to do work directly related to a person’s disability. Emotional support animals and dogs used as crime deterrents are excluded from this definition. A service dog is expected to accompany a person with a disability at all times”. Service dogs go through extensive training to remain calm and help their owner with mobility issues.
Service dog skills include: opening doors with a strap, pushing doors closed, helping their handler dress and undress, helping those in wheelchairs sit up straight & place feet and arms on footrests and armrests, preventing falls, and retrieving wheelchairs and walkers. It’s amazing the tasks these dogs can do! In an emergency situation, service dogs are trained to perform life-saving tasks, like retrieving medication, calling 911, opening the door for EMT and first responders, running to get help or barking for help after identifying an emergency, and laying down on their handler’s chest to help them cough or breath better.
For hearing impaired owners, service dogs are trained in alerting their handlers to the presence of other people or particular sounds, retrieving dropped objects, carrying messages, and warning that an unseen vehicle is approaching. For visually impaired owners, service dogs are trained in avoiding obstacles like moving vehicles, signaling change in elevation, locating objects on command, and retrieving dropped objects. Find the right service dog for you. Pets often increase the amount of exercise pet owners get versus non-pet owners. More exercise isn’t always a good thing for older people with injuries and susceptibility to falls. There are also some nonprofits in existence that will help elderly folks care for their pets when walking their dog multiple times a day or cleaning out the litter box is too burdensome. Look to see if there is one in your area.
Elderly people give up their pets for several different reasons. In some cases, it may be necessary to make the heartbreaking decision to give up a pet.
The Cost of Pet Ownership
It is important to make sure you have the funds to adopt a pet. Puppies have been known to cost upwards of $800 in their first year for healthcare, food, toys, and everything else that goes into pet care. Are you able to spend over $500 a year on your dog or cat? If not, a bird or fish might be a better option. In some cases, it may be necessary to make the heartbreaking decision to give up a pet. Elderly people give up their pets for several different reasons. They might not be physically able to care for them anymore, they might not be allowed to have a pet in their assisted living facility or nursing home, they might rather spend their time traveling, or they might actually be relieved to no longer have the responsibility.
Some doctors studying seniors and their pets believe that the death of an animal can affect an elderly person’s depression in a more severe way.
What you don’t hear about very often are the dangers of owning a pet as a senior citizen. “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly,” said Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Seliger, 2012). If you think about it, you might know someone (maybe yourself) who has fallen trying to care for a pet.
Some studies even find that the more attached an elderly person is to their pet, the more depressed they are. This could very well be a correlation, not causation, but it is something to consider if you are prone to depression or mental illness. Some doctors studying seniors and their pets believe that the death of an animal can affect an elderly person’s depression in a more severe way. Life can be isolating as you age, and the death of pet could add to this stress. Other studies have found that if you have a strong social network, having a pet makes no difference in your happiness level. These opposing studies create conflicting views on the subject, so it is wise to just do what’s best for you.
You know yourself better than anyone, so be honest about whether keeping your pet or adopting one is a good idea or not. Create a pros and cons list. Many doctors believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, but they might not for you. See if you can find a co-caretaker for your pet. Is your mobility good enough to not fall when picking up a dog that is running circles around you? Is it hard for you to bend down to their level to clean up after a cat or dog? Asking a loved one or volunteer agency to take care of the more physical aspects of pet care can alleviate stress and susceptibility to accidents. If you don’t have a close family member or friend to do this, you might have to give away your pet. This is a hard decision, and your doctor and family can help you make it.
The downside of pet ownership is a difficult subject to breach because no one wants to give up their beloved pet. Again, designating a trusted family member, neighbor, or friend to come check on you and your pet’s well-being is a great idea. If you have a grandchild or child whom bonds with your dog or cat, they might not mind coming over to let the dog out, or scoop out the cat litter. Don’t put yourself in danger of breaking bones simply because you are too proud to ask for help. Having a plan B and/or a pet helper may prevent injuries that lead to surgery, months of rehabilitation, and a lot of emotional stress.
Reach out to family members, friends, neighbors who care, or a nonprofit that provides assistance to aging pet owners.
How to Care for Your Pet While Aging in Place
Although, pets can do wonders for an elderly adult, the pet’s needs are important to keep in mind as well. In some cases, an elderly person may forget to medicate or feed their pet. They may get to the point where walking their dog is difficult. For these reasons, choosing a designated family member or in-home health aide that is willing to check on the pet and help take care of it would be ideal. Make sure you are taking care of yourself first and foremost (Remember the oxygen mask metaphor? You can’t take care of someone if you don’t care for yourself first). Some older folks go without food or necessities because money is tight, and they love their dog too much to let them suffer. Don’t be that person! Reach out to family members, friends, neighbors who care, or a nonprofit that provides assistance to aging pet owners. Veterinarians are good resources for finding pet care assistance.
Your well-being should be top priority. Have a succession plan for your pet. If you are an aging pet owner, create a succession plan you are comfortable with early on. Designating a god-parent or guardian for your pet in case you become ill or unable to care for the pet, is the humane, smart path to take. This designated guardian could be a family member, friend, neighbor, or trusted pet adoption agency.
If you do decide to give up your pet for adoption, an “open adoption” is best. Meet with your designated guardian beforehand, so that they can bond with your pet and see if they are really right for ownership. And, make sure that you will be allowed to visit your pet if you are able. If a family member or home health aide moves in to be a caregiver, they might not be able to take care of both you and your pet. A rambunctious, needy pet or a pet with multiple medications and a high maintenance routine may be too much work. Caregivers may not be willing to perform these tasks on top of other caregiving duties. This is a decision you will have to make together. Euthanizing a pet should be the last resort. Some older people believe that putting their animal down is the best option because the animal is so bonded to its owner that it would be too depressed to bond with a new owner. This is not normally the case. There are many options for adoption, foster care, and shelters that can take care of your pet.
Keep your pet for as long as possible, but don’t be afraid to start the succession plan when you need to. Taking away a pet may cause an elderly person to deteriorate mentally and physically, so make sure to allow regular visits with the pet. Many older folks look forward to these planned pet visits.
Owning a pet while aging in place is certainly not for everyone. Ask your veterinarian, family members, and doctor if this is the right decision for you and your health. If you are healthy enough or your caregiver is willing enough to care for a pet, the rewards of pet ownership can be life-changing. An aging dog, cat, or even bird could be the best medicine and your best friend, all in one.
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