How to Pick a Pet for a Senior Citizen

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Numerous studies have shown that animals can be wonderful companions for older adults. Their presence can calm agitation and go a long way toward alleviating loneliness. While a long-time family pet can truly be a best friend to an aging adult who lives in his or her home, pets are also recognized in many care facilities as an important part of a satisfying life for their residents.

Animals can make wonderful companions, but they also require care and they need to be a good match for their human partner. With this in mind, Amy Kracht, Vice President of 4 Luv of Dog Rescue, offers some guidance about dogs as pets for older adults. Her insights also apply to cats and birds.

Q: Do you recommend any particular breeds of dogs for older adults?

A: "We always stress that both dogs and humans are individuals," Amy says, "therefore it's important to take the personalities of the dog and the person into account before getting a pet. An active person can handle that lab puppy, but someone who is leading a quieter, low-key lifestyle might want to consider a smaller dog.

"We have had great success teaming up older adopters and adult—three to six year-old—dogs. By that age, dogs typically have a well-defined personality, so we're able to make a good match. Generally, smaller, adult dogs such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, and Pekingese tend to be more popular with folks in that age group."

Q: What happens if a person dies and the family can't take the animal?

A: "Unless specific instructions are left via a will or trust, placement of the dog is up to the surviving family members. The dog could be re-homed within the family or with a different family in the community. Sometimes family members don't know what to do and decide to euthanize the dog. Leaving directions is the best way to ensure that any animals left behind are cared for or re-homed according to the deceased person's wishes.We get around 10-15 dogs a year into our rescue when their owners pass on."

Q: Can you adopt animals out, even if they are older?

A: "Absolutely! Older dogs make fantastic companions for someone looking for a mellow pet. Older dogs are typically house trained and don't need as much rigorous exercise, making them a great choice for someone who is lower energy themselves."

Q: After their owner dies, animals often grieve. Can they still make good pets for someone else?

A: "Dogs live in the moment," Amy said. "While some dogs do grieve for a time, they quickly move on and adjust to their current situation. I also want to add that some retirement facilities and nursing homes will allow residents to move in along with their pet. If an older adult adopts a dog and foresees having to move into an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, it is best to research those places early, before needing to move in, to ensure an appropriate home for Fido and Grandma."

4 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Dog for a Senior

  1. Does the person enjoy regular walks or is he or she more sedentary? Older dogs are great for those with a more sedentary lifestyle, while more active people can certainly enjoy training and exercising a younger puppy or dog.
  2. Does this dog require a lot of grooming or veterinary care? Dogs with coats that require grooming need to be seen by a groomer every six to eight weeks. This expense, as well as deciding who will transport the animal to grooming and veterinary appointments, needs to be taken into consideration. The initial veterinary costs for a puppy, such as vaccinations and spaying/neutering, should also be factored in.
  3. Is the dog house trained? Adult dogs are more apt to be reliably potty trained and need fewer trips outside than puppies. Does the person have any mobility issues that will make housetraining a puppy a challenge? If so, it would be best to opt for an adult dog.
  4. Is the dog obedience trained? Who will train the dog not to bark, to walk nicely on leash, sit, stay and not jump up?

Coni Jones, Director, Recreational Therapy, Mira Vista Care Center in Mount Vernon, Washington agrees with Amy that there's not necessarily one breed of dog that works best for aging individuals. She says the demeanor and personality are more important than the breed. "I have seen everything from a Westie to a Newfoundlander be great with older adults."

Planning for Fido's future

Carol Applegate B.S.N., M.S.Ed., J.D. of Applegate Elderlaw in Carmel, Indiana provides information from a legal viewpoint on what happens to the companion animal after the owner dies. She says people often provide for their pet's future.

"Many older clients have a family pet that they love very much," Carol says, "and they desire to provide a home for the pet upon their demise. There are several alternatives available to them, ranging from giving the pet to a family member to giving the personal representative the authority to place the pet in an appropriate home or, last resort, to put the pet to rest by a reputable veterinarian. Some clients may even establish a trust which will provide the funds to properly care for the animal during the animal's lifetime. The wording of the document will depend on the client's wishes and desires."

When the real thing isn't possible

Often, a person with Alzheimer's will have been without a beloved pet for some time, but he or she may have cognitively returned to a time when the pet was with them. This is where some of the new, realistic stuffed pets and even robotic pets can pinch hit. I've seen countless elders cuddling stand-in pets or even baby dolls, depending on their needs. These stand-in pets—or dolls—should be treated by other family members as though they are real, since they are very real to the person with the disease.

Even visiting pets can help

I grew up with spoiled dachshunds as family members. During my dad's many years in a nursing home (due to surgery induced dementia) he rarely mentioned the dogs.

Even so, when a nursing home visitor came to see one of their family members with a small dachshund on a leash, I asked them if they'd mind letting my dad hold the dog for awhile. The people kindly took the dog into Dad's room where the animal enthusiastically leaped onto Dad's lap. They instantly bonded. I hadn't seen such happiness on Dad's face for a long time.

As I watched that scene, there was no doubt in my mind that a pet can provide love in an unconditional way that challenges human understanding.

The bottom line to me is that, if an older adult is attached to a pet, families should do what they can to nurture the relationship. Naturally, there are exceptions. If the animal is going to be deprived or the aging person may become endangered by the animal, then stuffed stand-ins are likely a better match.

Overall, though, the right pet can greatly enhance the quality of life for many older individuals who could benefit from a little more unconditional love.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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10 Comments

My mother adopted a dog who had obviously been with another senior - he walks behind her, is very cautious around her when she's walking, and when she went into a nursing home after she broke her hip, we took her in to visit, and he acted like he's been in a similar place before. When we got him, he was totally housebroken, had perfect manners, and was 2 days away from being euthanized. He only barks when someone comes to the door and he doesn't shed (poodle/bichon cross). We have to get him groomed once a month, but the no shed makes it way worth it. No dog hair anywhere, and none of the dust and dander that goes with it. I've had a ton of ton of dogs before, and this is by far the easiest one I've ever had. Oh, he also goes in and out a doggie dog (had to train him to do that) and only uses one part of the yard (which we also trained him to do). Perfect dog.
Mike, above, had a good point about pets who can get under foot... and especially if an elder is wearing bifocals, they are viewing down through the reading glass part of their eye glasses, thus things tend to be blurry.... easy to accidently step on a pet sleeping on the floor or on a carpeted step that is a similar color as the pet.

If someone really wants a pet, I suggest checking the shelters for an elder dog or cat... they tend to be much calmer but they will also come with age decline issues. A nice new forever home would be great for such an animal who desperately misses their masters.
We share custody of my daughters chihuahua ( we take her when I have a long stretch off,, weekly) My parents LOVE her. She stays out from underfoot because she is nervouse about being stepped on. She does growl sometimes if Dad tries to kiss MOm while she is cuddling up with Bella and she has nipped on occaison, but the love and enjoyment they get is worth it to them. Bella has become less agressive as she has gotten used to them, and they love her cuddling and licks