Last Updated: April 2, 2013
By Steve Duno
For generations, pets have been a part of the fabric of our
lives, keeping us company and providing us with steadfast, loyal
devotion. Most of us have felt their unconditional love, and the
sheer joy that comes from having a best friend who accepts us for
who we are, faults and all, in an uncomplicated, mutually
satisfying intimacy. Pets just make people feel happy.
Enjoyed by over half the households in the country, pet
ownership is especially common amongst seniors, who, often living
on their own, find the company of a good cat, dog, bird, or other
pet to be of great comfort. The bond they develop with their pets
can be deep-seated; indeed, the elderly's closest confidants often
walk on four legs rather than two.
The Trauma of Pet Separation
When the decision is made to move an elderly loved one to an assisted living facility, the fate of
that strong pet/owner bond can become a major issue for the senior.
"What on earth will happen to my friend?" is sometimes their
biggest concern, often even above and beyond their own welfare. And
some seniors, though relieved by the surrender of caring for a pet,
can become remorseful over it; ironically this can mirror the
mindset of their own families, who too may feel
guilty over the senior's move to the assisted-living
The deteriorating health of our elderly, besides being the major
motivator for a move to an assisted- living facility, can also
adversely affect their pets. No longer able to go for regular
walks, seniors aren't able to properly exercise their dogs, or
attend to basic pet needs such as feeding, cleaning up, and taking
the pet in for a veterinary checkup. Those without the ability to
drive or use transit can no longer get to the store for pet food
and other supplies. And if the pet is a large, healthy dog, the
senior might even get hurt trying to manage or control it. Though
smaller pets such as cats or birds pose less of a problem, the
ability to care for them properly is still diminished, often to the
detriment of the pet. Clearly, when fading health becomes an issue,
the pet/owner bond suffers.
The Benefits of Pet Ownership
Despite the elderly pet lover's diminishing capacity to care for
his or her pet, studies show the health benefits of regular contact
with an animal to be significant, especially for the aged. Contact
with a dog, cat, or other pet has been clinically shown to lower
blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and to reduce the incidence
of depression as related to failing health and fading autonomy.
Pets help reduce boredom and feelings of hopelessness, and instill
in the owner a sense of purpose born from being accountable for the
welfare of an animal. Fewer doctor visits are reported, and aerobic
activity levels tend to rise. In addition, caring for the pet
becomes an "events calendar" of sorts for the senior, who without
the pet would have precious little to do during the day. The pet
provides a sense of obligation and duty, acts as a social catalyst,
and gives the elderly owner someone to talk to and confide in. For
all pet owners, but especially those in failing health, a pet can
literally add years of health and happiness.
Degrees of Pet Separation
The good news is that most seniors today need not be denied the
company of a pet, even when relocated into an assisted-care
facility. First, as per federal housing laws, publicly-run
facilities cannot prohibit pet ownership by residents,provided they
are able to care for the pet. This would allow the pet/owner
relationship to continue as long as the pet is adequately trained
and socialized, and does not pose a threat to other patients.
Though private facilities need not abide by these same federal
laws, many still do allow pet ownership on varying levels. Staff
and family providing elder care support can assist the patient when
needed, with feeding, walking, and other pet-related duties.
Patients with a good degree of autonomy are often fully able to
care for a pet, especially when the living arrangement closely
mirrors a normal home environment.
"Many homes allow pets on the premises," says Michelle Cobey,
spokesperson for the Delta Society, a Bellevue, Washington
volunteer organization that helps incorporate pets into the lives
of the ill, elderly, or disabled. "But sometimes it can be
difficult to manage without help from the staff, or from volunteer
case workers." Cobey's organization specializes in sending
volunteers and their well-mannered pets into managed-care
facilities, and in helping the elderly care for any resident pets
Resident pets don't always work out well though, especially when
the senior in question has a dog evidencing territorial behavior.
If the resident does not properly socialize the dog with other
patients, the animal can become overly-protective and guarded. This
is especially common with the dog of an elderly owner, as it can
sense its master's failing health, and often compensates with
"It usually works out better to have one resident-shared pet at
the facility than to have many individually cared-for pets,
especially dogs," says Ron Baker, administrator at the North Creek
Health and Rehabilitation Center in Bothell, Washington. "That way
you avoid territorial issues that can lead to injury or trauma."
Baker adds that pet care volunteers are always welcome at his
facility, to bring in pets or help with ones at the center.
Pet Separation Alternatives
If the senior cannot adequately care for a resident pet, family
members can bring the animal into the facility for regular visits,
rules permitting. Or, volunteer organizations such as the Delta
Society, Pets On Wheels, Therapy Dogs International, or dozens of
others can be called upon to send their legions of volunteers to
facilities all across the nation, bringing with them friendly dogs
or cats to delight both residents and staff. Trained to help
seniors, children, hospital patients, and the cognitively impaired
to enjoy interaction with gentle, loving pets, these volunteer
visits are often the highlight of a pet-loving resident's entire
In some cases, when the family or senior is unwilling or unable
to care for a pet, it may have to be surrendered to a shelter for
placement with another family. This pet separation can be
devastating or liberating to the pet lover, depending upon the
outcome. With a well-funded "no-kill" shelter in charge of
placement, though, most healthy adult dogs have a good chance at
finding a new home, especially if the pet is well-behaved and
sweet. National organizations like the SPCA and the Humane Society,
as well as countless quality regional shelters can all help with
the difficult task of finding the appropriate home for a good pet
whose owner can no longer care for it.
"Often it's a last-minute decision made not by the elderly
resident, but by the family," says Judith Piper, director of Old
Dog Haven in Arlington, Washington, dedicated to finding homes for
older dogs often surrendered up by the elderly. "Often I find the
physical and mental condition of these dogs mirrors the condition
of the elderly owner, who might be suffering from reduced cognitive
capacity. A dog's poor hygiene and worsening physical and
behavioral state is often a clue to the owner's inability to care
for it. Families can get a good feel for their loved one's state of
mind by noticing any health or behavior problems in their pets."
Piper adds that, if a family or resident plans to surrender a pet
up for adoption, it is essential to provide the shelter with
pertinent veterinary records, especially if the pet is old.
If the pet is being cared for in a managed care facility by a
resident, certain practices can be taken to make caring for the pet
easier. With a cat for instance, the litter box needn't be located
on the floor, where it might be difficult for the senior to access.
Better to locate it at waist height on a counter, where the
resident can easily attend to it. For walking a dog, residents can
use a halter-type collar instead of a traditional neck collar, to
prevent pulling on leash. The halter collar fits on the pet's face
like the bridle of a horse, and makes leash control nearly
effortless. The same goes for a bird cage; place it at the
appropriate height and location so the resident can access it
easily. All food, litter, and pet supplies should be easily
accessible and light enough not to cause strain. Buying smaller
bags of food and litter can prevent muscle strains and back
injuries. And for medical concerns, consider having a mobile
veterinary service visit the facility, instead of requiring the
senior or a family member to make a trip.
With proper family help, institutional elder care support, and
volunteer assistance, our elderly loved ones need not deny
themselves the elixir of the pet/owner bond. It can continue on,
helping to motivate and inspire them for years to come, providing
the love and good cheer they so deserve.
Veteran pet behaviorist and authorSteve Dunolives in Seattle
with his family and an ever-changing assortment of rescued pets,
and has authored seventeen books and numerous articles for
magazines and the Internet.