Animals are often invaluable companions to older people and have been proven to help many older people physically, mentally and emotionally.
However, there are often challenges and responsibilities for older people looking after pets, to ensure the pet doesn’t create more worry and stress for the older person and to ensure the welfare of the chosen pet. We highlight some of these issues and offer solutions, below:
Start with the Right Pet
Choosing the right pet is particularly vital for older people. Dogs make great pets, but a new puppy isn’t a good fit for an older person with possible mobility issues.
Consider breeds and temperament and how much exercise they are likely to have. Consider too, implications should the older person enter a care home – would the home permit pets and who else could care for the pet should this be an issue.
We have a helpful article addressing just such issues: https://firstaidforpets.net/caring-for-your-dog/
Cats are also a great choice for older people as they are more independent, don’t need walking and generally require less maintenance than a dog.
Avoid creating trip hazards
Clear aside a designated area for the pet. Make it accessible, easy to clean and free from clutter. This makes it easier for the older person to navigate the space. It also reduces the risk of them tripping over the pet equipment. Put the water bowl on an absorbent cloth so inevitable spills are less likely to make the floor slippery.
Make things as easy as possible
Slightly raising the pet food bowls or litter boxes will reduce the need for the older person to bend down when it comes to cleaning the litter box, or refilling the food and water bowls. Make sure everything has its own place so that it is easy for the older person to find. A specific hook where the dog lead always hangs for example, can prevent it from being a trip hazard on the floor.
Hear them and see them
It may be sensible to put a brightly coloured collar on the pet or choose a collar with a bell so that the elderly person knows where they are and is less likely to trip over them. Additionally, it can mean that the owner isn’t startled by the pet if the pet approaches unexpectedly.
Support with supplies
Ensure the older person is equipped with everything their pet might need. Start with supplies like food and water bowls, collars and leashes, toys and grooming supplies. Wherever possible opt for brightly coloured kit that will be easy to see. Additionally, opt for simple designs that are easy to use and straightforward to clean. Invest in lightweight litter which will be easier for an older person to replenish.
Set up an online ordering and delivery system to make it easier for them to obtain necessary supplies on an ongoing basis.
Consider the cost
Ensure that the older person can afford a pet and it will not overstretch their budget. Pets are not cheap and they will require insurance, vaccinations, veterinary visits, medication, feeding and ongoing food and supplies – all these costs can mount up.
Help them sign up with a vet
Assist the older person sign up with a local vet. Some vets offer mobile pet clinics who will come to an elderly person to provide pet care. This reduces the stress and inconvenience of needing to transport their pet to the vet, especially if they no longer drive.
Consider any medications their pet might need. Also, since pet care can be a little pricey for older people on a fixed income, many pet’s charities such as the PDSA, RSPCA, Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, Cats Protection offer help towards veterinary assistance, be that free or subsidised treatment. Additionally, there are also several independent charities which can offer help with veterinary expenses.
Reassess the situation
Check in regularly with the older person and their pet to ensure they are staying on top of their pet care.
Family members need to be honest and realistic about their loved one’s mental and physical capabilities.
Get the support network in place
Think ahead in case the older person becomes unwell or needs to go into hospital. Are friends, family or neighbours on standby to step in? Or is there a local pet minder or professional pet service you could use for cover at short notice?
It’s important to have a conversation about who will care for the pet if that person can no longer care for the animal due to illness or infirmity.
Sadly, there are many care homes where pets are not allowed. As a result, the only solution is for people requiring long term care to give their pet to a rescue centre, find a new owner, or have their pet put down. A recent survey discovered over 2 million people in the UK knew someone forced to put their dog or cat down because of a move into residential care.
The same survey showed 20% of elderly people with pets would rather refuse to go into care than be separated from their pet. Crucially 4.3% of respondents would consider taking their own life if they were forced to separate from their pet companions.
Have a plan in place for the pet to be re-homed or returned to an animal shelter. It is best to have these difficult conversations in advance of the situation if possible.
Outliving the owner
In the cases where pets outlive their owner, similar provisional should have been made for transfer of a pet to their new home. Older people may want to consider allocating a percentage of their estate to cover the pet’s care. If everyone in the family is clear about the future of the pet and how it will be paid for it can save confusion later on.
In the case of loss
Many pets are part of the family, and for many elderly people the only other companion they have. Therefore, the death of a much-loved pet can be devastating and an enormous loss to them. However, there are a range of pet bereavement support out there to help older people grieving after the death of your pet. And friends and family should be on hand and prepared to offer emotional support too.
Further support here:
First Aid for Pets provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for veterinary advice. The author does not accept any liability or responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any mistreatment or misdiagnosis of any person or animal, however caused. It is strongly advised that you attend a practical First Aid for Pets course or take our online course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.