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What to Do With Your Parent’s Pet

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerFebruary 3, 2017

We’ve shared an inexplicable bond with animals throughout our history. Whether it’s the joy, love or protection that animals offer us, the benefits of having a pet are well documented.

When we age, however, it can become more difficult to care for oneself, let alone a pet. What do we do when a parent can no longer provide for their four-legged friends? Read on for warning signs and suggestions about what to do with your parent’s pet during this time.

Pets and Seniors

Pets are special to all of us, but according to U.S. News,pets are especially important to seniors because they offer:

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  • A way to channel new or established hobbies or interests
  • Increased companionship
  • Opportunity to socialize with other pet lovers
  • Protection
  • Reason to exercise (for dog owners)
  • Reason to get outside (for dog owners)
  • Sense of routine
  • The feeling of being needed and useful

Studies have also shown that in addition to these emotional and psychological benefits, pets:

  • Fight depression
  • Help protect against heart conditions
  • Increase the production of the feel-good hormone, serotonin
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Produce a chemical chain reaction in the brain that helps to lower levels of the stress-inducing hormone, cortisol
  • Reduce blood pressure and stress levels

There’s no doubt that pets are important companions to seniors — sometimes the only companion they have.

“It’s bad enough getting old,” Brenda Hancock, an ElderDog volunteer, tells CBC News. “When you have to get old and have someone, a dog that you love ripped out from you, it’s heartbreaking.”

So, when your parent can no longer care for their pet, what do you do? One step that pet owners can take is to have a succession plan in place before they become ill or pass away. In fact, there are legal avenues to explore that will help pay for care of the pet in these circumstances.

Having a plan in place, however, doesn’t make separation any easier when the time comes.

Warning Signs That Your Parent’s Pet is Becoming Too Much for Them

Having to give your parent’s pet to a shelter when he or she can no longer care for it, or rehome the pet with another family, is not only difficult, but emotional as well. There are alternative options available, but the solution needs to take everyone’s needs into account — including the animal.

If the pet is developing behavioral problems or suffering, then you may need to step in with some solutions. Here are some signs that caring for their pet is becoming too much for them:

  1. Forgetfulness: If the pet’s water dish is empty, or the pet is gaining or losing weight, then this could be an indication that your parent is overfeeding or forgetting to feed their pet. Repeatedly forgetting to let the dog outside to use the restroom is another warning sign that it may be time to step in.
    • Solution: If the senior has a fenced yard and lives in a secure area, then a dog door will give the dog access to go outside when needed.
    • Solution: If you’re close by, you could fill an automatic food and water dispenser a few times a week to ensure the pet has access to fresh food and water (although this would not solve overfeeding).
  2. Mobility: Can they no longer walk the dog? Is changing the cat’s litter box too strenuous?
    • Solution: Bring in a dog walker.
    • Solution: Move the cat’s litter box to a higher location so that the senior doesn’t need to bend to change it.

What to Do With Your Parent’s Pet When It Is Too Much

Keep in mind that many senior living communities that your parent may be considering are pet friendly. However, sometimes these communities aren’t a workable solution because your parent is mentally or physically unable to care for their pet, or needs to move somewhere that doesn’t allow pets.

If this is the case, you have options:

  • Charities like ElderDog have volunteers dedicated to helping seniors stay with their pet as long as possible. Volunteers will stop in to feed the pet and/or change it’s litter, give medication, take the pet to groomer and veterinary appointments, and finally, walk the pet.
  • If your parent is moving into a senior living community, look for one that is not only pet-friendly, but also has pet coordinators who will help your parent care for their pet when it gets to be too much.
  • Re-home the pet with a family member, friend or neighbor who will bring the pet to visit your parent on a regular basis.

When Separation from a Pet Becomes Inevitable

When the only option is separation, it’s important to be mindful of the emotional trauma that this will cause to both your parent and the pet. Providing your parent peace of mind that their pet will be well cared for, is a must.

Arranging visits to see the pet (or having the pet come to visit your parent) is a great option when separation is inevitable. If your parent is going to hospice care or another community that doesn’t allow pets to visit, ask for a trial period to prove that the visits will not be disruptive.

If bringing the pet to visit is not possible, see if you can arrange for a visit from a therapy bunny, cat or dog, or other furry companion. Therapy Dogs International is an example of one organization you could contact, but there are many more across the country. Talk to your veterinarian for recommendations.

In her book, “Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy,” award-winning author Marie Marley suggests giving parents with dementia a stuffed animal to ease the separation of their pet, or to help them grieve for pets who have passed.

If you do have to re-home the pet, you may find it difficult to find a new owner if the pet is a senior. Rather than going to your local humane society, consider contacting a group that specializes in caring and re-homing senior pets.

The pain of parting with a beloved animal runs deep. Is the joy and love pets bring to our lives worth the pain? Almost half of Americans think so. With this in mind, remember that there are options and ways to ease your parents’ pain during this difficult time.

Here are some helpful resources that may assist you:

Have you been through an experience like this with a parent and their pet? What other suggestions do you have for getting through this difficult time? We’d love to hear your stories and tips in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
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Kimberley Fowler
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