Give a pet as a gift to an elder?

ManDog1Think about the details of pet care

Most of us have companion animals and enjoy the comfort, love and affection of a cat or a dog, perhaps a bird or a fish…and we naturally want those we love to have that same experience of comfort and companionsip. Are you thinking of giving a gift of a companion animal to an elder?  If so, let’s think about some details of pet care before taking that final step to purchase the dog, cat, bird, fish, or other living being.

Pets are wonderful gifts of joy to our lives – if we can take care of them properly.  A dog or a cat require daily care of feeding, grooming, exercise, and most important, elimination.  Indoor pets require attention for cleanliness (a cat box requires attention!) and most dogs need to make a trip outdoors a few times a day, or train to pads indoors. Pets need food every day and fresh water.  Just think about this – every day without fail, a dog or cat must eat, must drink, and must have all their basic needs cared for.

Now place that dog or cat in the home of an elderly person who has memory loss.  Dementia will progress to the stage where the individual is no longer capable of providing nutritious meals for themselves, so what happens to the pet?  That strong smell that develops from urine on the floor and other messes is not identified as a problem, so it is not addressed.  The dog, cat, fish or any other living creature that is relying on the elder for food and water may not be fed at all.  The following is a former client and a very real case of neglect:

Janes husband died leaving her alone in their rural Arkansas home. She had always wanted pets, but her husband had not allowed animals in the house and did not like dogs.  She immediately went to a shelter and adopted a beagle for her first companion.  As friends had litters of puppies and kittens, she collected more.  Neighbors noticed more and more dogs and cats, then chickens, around her home, and that the appearance of the yard and house showed neglect.  When one neighbor stopped to check on Jane, they found her home to smell strongly of urine, cats everywhere in the house, with all the dogs and cats looking thin and in need of care.  Knowing Jane had no family for support, her neighbor reported concern to the county sheriff.  After his visit, he called adult protective services.  The APS case worker found Jane to be malnourished, confused, and unable to care for her needs.  She also found molded dog and cat food in bags, pet food bowls crusted over with filth, cat boxes mounded high with feces and urine soaked floors and carpets, reporting the smell in the home was so strong it was hard to breathe.  Jane was taken to a hospital for evaluation and the county animal control was called to take the dogs and cats. Janes neighbor took her chickens.  

This description of animal neglect may seem extreme, but sadly it is a common finding.  Many elders who age alone and who have pets progress in cognitive impairment that can lead to neglect of their own self care and neglect of pet care.  Not everyone becomes an animal hoarder like Jane, but many who have one dog, one cat, even one fish, progress to a time in their life when the daily care required for their pet can be a Fotosearch_k11897875 (2)challenge for them.  Not only memory loss and other cognitive impairment cause neglect.  The onset of an illness or an injury from a fall can cause a period of time for anyone when the physical needs of pet care creates a challenge.  But with the old-old this is more likely.  Know that if a pet is in the home of an elder, family and friends need to be aware of any changes that create a need for assistance in pet care.

If you DO give a pet as a gift to an elder

First, make sure they want the pet.  Your thoughts that the elder needs companionship or a reason to get up every morning may show concern for the elder, but placing a dog or cat in the home may not be what the elders wants. And it may not be wise.  Make sure that the elder is physically and mentally capable of providing the daily care that an animal needs.  An adult child who visits a parent from a distant residence is not a good judge of the performance capability of an aging parent.  Make sure that everyone involved in the care of the elder is on board and in agreement that the elder has a desire for a pet, and the capability to care for it.

If a pet is given, make arrangements to visit frequently to monitor how the animal is settling in to the home environment with the elder.  If the pet is young, a puppy or a kitten, there will be lots of messes and perhaps some damage done while the pet is being trained.  Puppies and kittens look so sweet and irresistable, but think ahead to the care required.  A mature dog or cat are probably a better choice.  But even with an older, trained pet, the first days and weeks can present challenges.  Do not place a pet then fail to provide monitoring and support. If the presence of an animal to care for does present stress for the elder, be prepared with a plan to either provide daily support or find an alternate placement for the pet.

Older cats and dogs can be found at every animal shelter.  If a pet is desired for an elder, a senior animal, already trained and settled in personality, is a good option for an older person.  They need a home – and what better home than to live as a companion for an elder alone. But first think of all the factors we have discussed here.  If adding a pet to the home of someone who is aging is still a good fit, wonderful, visit your community shelter or rescue shelter to meet all the loving pets ready for their new home.

Sara Cain-Bartlett, MSW, LCSW, C-ASWCM of CareSupport Services, PLLC     479-466-0611