How to Pick a Pet for a Senior Citizen

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Studies show that animals can be wonderful companions for older adults—their presence can calm agitation, alleviate loneliness and even lower blood pressure. A family pet can truly be a best friend to an aging adult who lives alone, and pet therapy is a popular approach in long-term care facilities for enriching residents’ lives.

While animals can make wonderful companions, they also require care and must be a good match for their human partner’s personality, functional abilities and financial situation. Use these pointers to ensure a senior is up for pet ownership before matching them with the perfect new furry friend.

Look Beyond the Breed

A dog’s breed can tell you some things about him, but it can’t tell you everything. While people tend to only take looks into account when adopting, the best way to choose a pet is to carefully consider what you’re looking for in terms of personality, size, age, maintenance needs, and energy levels. Typically, the only instances where breed is of utmost importance is if the potential owner needs a “hypoallergenic” dog or one that does not require intensive grooming.

Personality Is Everything

Although dog breeds are often associated with certain temperaments, every dog has a unique personality. “Like humans, dogs are individuals,” says Amy Kracht, Vice President of 4 Luv of Dog Rescue. “It’s important to take the personalities of the dog and the person into account before getting a pet.” Will the senior want an outgoing companion who will keep them company on their daily walks, or more of a lapdog type who is content watching movies on the couch? Think about the potential owner’s average daily routine and consider how an animal would ideally fit into it.

It is important to interact with an animal before taking them home in order to get a good feel for their personality. Some dogs are anxious or aggressive, and some do not get along with strangers, children or other animals. This doesn’t mean that a particular dog is “bad” or will always be difficult, but it could indicate that they’ll need special attention or extensive training to help them socialize and feel more secure. A good rule of thumb is to look for a dog who is friendly and capable of calming down within a few seconds while in a comfortable setting.

For Dogs, Age Is More Than a Number

While most people favor puppies for their cuteness and playful antics, adult dogs are equally as adoptable, if not more so. “We have had great success teaming up older adopters and adult dogs,” Kracht advocates. “One of the benefits is that, by ages three to five, dogs typically have developed well-defined personalities. For this reason, adult dogs make for a more confident match.”

Another benefit of adopting older dogs is that they are typically house trained already and do not require as much rigorous exercise. Starting from scratch with a puppy requires a great deal of energy, time, attention and patience, which a senior may not want to deal with.

Weigh the Costs

Many seniors are living on limited incomes, and a pet of any kind is a serious investment. There are initial expenses for adoption/purchase, spaying/neutering, supplies, and vaccinations as well as ongoing expenses for food, toys, grooming, medical exams, preventive treatments, and flea and tick control.

Veterinary care is undoubtedly the most expensive aspect of pet ownership, so be sure to ask about an animal’s health issues prior to adoption. Some breeds are prone to specific medical conditions, and just as in humans, dogs tend to develop more problems as they age. Emergency vet visits are another reality of having a pet that can get expensive very quickly.

An Alternative to Ownership

If a senior does not have the financial means or stamina for pet ownership, there are other options available. Shelters and rescue groups are always in need of volunteers to help care for dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and other animals. Some even run foster programs that allow volunteers to bring animals home temporarily and provide one-on-one attention that will help increase their chances of adoption.

Visiting pet therapy programs are another source of valuable interaction. Senior centers, adult day care centers and long-term care facilities often host activities with therapy animals, and some animal therapy organizations even offer home visits.

For seniors who are living with dementia, a cuddly stuffed animal may provide sensory stimulation and companionship without the walking, training and vet bills. There are even robotic products on the market that make realistic animal movements and sounds.

Making a Decision

There is no doubt that a pet can provide unconditional love and play a part in improving a senior’s quality of life. Just be sure to carefully consider the commitment and see to the wellbeing of both the senior and the animal.

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