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Seniors and Pets

Seniors worry a lot about their pets’ futures.

“Dear Nana, I promise to take care of Kitty if anything ever happens to you.”.

One of the most precious gifts we can give aging friends or family members is the peace of mind knowing their beloved pets will be cared for when they die. That knowledge allows them to enjoy without fear, the irreplaceable companionship and unconditional love provided by a pet when they might otherwise be more alone than ever in their lives.

At a time when a spouse may have died along with many long-time friends, pets provide huge benefits for both physical and mental health. I have heard more than once over the years that a little dog was the main motivation in a seniors’ desire to get up in the morning. “He’s the reason I’m still here, Doc.”

Some pet owners – and not just senior citizens – are managing the fate of their furry friends by providing for care in their wills. If money is being left behind to cover expenses, legalities have to be hammered out carefully. But sometimes wills just designate the trusted person to whom ownership of the pet will be transferred.

Personally, I’m “Godmother” to two swanky Siamese kitties living in Brighton and I’ll be responsible for them if their owners pass away. I’m not sure the fussy felines would be happy to move in with Run-It’s-The-Vet! as they seem to know me, but at least their meal-ticket is secure.

Euthanizing sick pets is one of the saddest parts of my job and never more so than when an elderly owner is involved. Too often, this is the last time I see someone who has become a friend over the years. “No more pets for me, Doc, I’m too old. Who would take care of them when I can’t anymore?” and the tears just flow faster.

Sometimes a new pet in these circumstances is not advisable, but in many cases, nothing would be better. Given time to grieve for their lost pet, many seniors would welcome a new companion. Maybe a puppy or kitten is too much work, but there are lots of fully trained adult animals in need of homes. There are also a number of animal rescue organizations that have older animals that could really use a loving home and whose shorter expected lifespans may be better in these situations (ed.).

There are a few social programs that match senior people with senior pets, but that seems like a recipe for heartache to me. Just like humans, pets are at higher risk for illness as they age. Nana doesn’t need to see another friend get sick. There are no health guarantees, but young adults carry less risk.

However, for those of you who would prefer an older pet with a shorter expected lifespan, there are a number of animal rescue organizations who would love to hear from you. Dr Steen’s wife Sonyia works with Genesis Dog Rescue (as does Hillcrest, they are wonderful clients of ours and have a base in Belleville), Rat Terrier Rescue and Loyal Rescue to name just three. These animals have been fostered out to ensure that they have no behaviour issues or serious long-term health issues. They are just looking for a loving home to care for them in their twilight years. See Mr. Reagan’s story on our website to see an example.

Small-breed dogs or cats are particularly suitable for seniors because they are easily picked-up. I’ve seen too many seniors struggling to move large dogs around if they get lame or sick.

Please don’t run out and get Dad a new dog without consulting him, but if his grief is overshadowed by loneliness, maybe it’s time to make an offer. Find a pet he can love now and promise you’ll take care of the forever part if needed.

A pet may also not be a good idea if a senior is prone to tripping or is unable to provide for the animal’s daily needs. In those cases, regular supervised visits by pets could be requested through the local branch of St. John Ambulance at (613) 962-7933. Also for those of you with those very special animals out there that can pass the St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog Course, there are very few things in life that are as rewarding as visiting these folks with your dog and brightening their lives (ed.).

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Quinte West/Trenton, Ontario
June 2013

(editorial comments tossed in by Dr. Mike Steen)

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