What Caregivers Should Know When Considering Pet Companions for Seniors

How to choose a companion pet for your aging loved one.There’s nothing quite like coming home to a dog who’s literally jumping with joy to see you. Growing up, my family had two black labs who were just as much members of our family as everyone else. We treated them like queens, making sure they were always fed, petted, loved, and walked; they’d sleep on our beds, cuddle with us while watching TV, and accompanied us on trips to the park. And while caring for them was definitely a commitment, our dogs gave us back so much more than we could ever hope to give them.

I’m certainly not the only one to preach the benefits of having pets: research shows that living with animals—especially interactive ones like dogs—offers an array of positive effects on people’s moods, especially for older adults. Owning a pet is known to decrease depression, lessen anxiety, and lower high blood pressure. It can also help older adults who are recently widowed, suffering from isolation, or afflicted with Alzheimer’s, by providing round-the-clock supportive companionship at home.

Dogs, in particular, can be especially advantageous. Research has shown that spending time with a dog reaps myriad benefits, like increasing oxytocin and “a whole other range of hormones, including beta-endorphins, which are associated with euphoria and pain relief; prolactin, which promotes bonding associated with parenting behavior; phenylethylamine, which tends to increase when people find a romantic partner; and dopamine, which increases pleasurable sensations.” And if your aging loved one still enjoys going for walks outside or spending time gardening, pets like dogs and cats can make excellent indoor and outdoor companions.

The Inside Scoop on Owning a Pet While Aging in Place

Though there are plenty of reasons for older adults to get a pet, it’s not going to be the solution for everyone. Not all folks are animal lovers, and other factors—including living arrangements, financial means, and external support—will impact whether an animal is right for your loved one at this point in time. They might have concerns like caring for the pet, choosing the right one, or might feel unsure about really wanting one. It’s possible to work through most of these issues through compassionate communication, and determining if a pet would be a benefit to their current situation.

The first thing is to make sure you or other family members will be able to help out with caring for the pet if your loved one is worried they can’t do it alone. When searching for an animal that your loved one really enjoys, why not take them to a local animal shelter to see different kinds of animals and try playing with some. To find out if your loved one actually wants a pet, learn about their past with animals. Prior experiences like owning a pet as a child or having a past scary animal encounter can offer insight as to whether they’d do well with a pet, and if so, what kind. Talk with them to find out if they have any specific apprehensions, and offer your support. It’s a big decision, but one that could benefit them immensely.

If your aging loved one is enthusiastic about having a pet, it’s important to assess their situation together, to figure out which animal will best suit their needs.

  • Living conditions. Depending on where your loved one is aging in place, certain pets will be better than others. Some apartment buildings, for example, don’t allow pets like dogs and cats, but smaller animals are fine. Houses, townhouses, or condos might be better for larger animals. Find out what the rules are and what options you have.
  • Level of interaction. Different animals offer varying levels of interaction, with dogs generally being quite high, cats and birds less so, and fish the least. Talk with your loved one about what they’re looking for. Cats are great animals for sitting with and petting, yet don’t require nearly as much upkeep as a dog. Lower maintenance animals like a guinea pig, gerbil, or hedgehog can provide company without needing as much as cats or dogs in the way of care. It all depends on what your loved one wants in terms of interaction and responsibility.
  • Amount of activity. Consider the amount of activity your loved one is able to perform, then try to find an animal or specific breed that’s well matched to that. Smaller animals generally require less energy from their owners, and certain dog breeds like Shih Tzus, pugs, and spaniels are known to be low-energy. Age is also a factor for a pet’s energy, so it might be best to avoid puppies if your loved one becomes easily fatigued.
  • Cost considerations. Financially speaking, the overall cost of owning a pet will be based on the type of animal they get. Determine how much your loved one can afford, and find an animal that fits within their budget. Smaller pets will usually be less expensive, while larger pets like dogs generally cost more to maintain. Keep in mind potential vet fees, food, and daily maintenance. 
  • Meeting your own needs. Having a pet at home won’t just benefit your loved one—it will also have a positive impact on you, too. Lynette Hart, a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, explains that “caregivers also feel less burdened when there is a pet, particularly if it is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog.”
  • Animal lifespan. It’s important to consider the lifespan of the pet you choose. Depending where your aging loved one is in their own journey, an animal with a shorter lifespan—such as gerbils, small fish, or senior cats and dogs—might be a more appropriate choice for your loved one than a pet that is likely to long outlive its owner. Use your best judgment when considering timing.

Selecting the Perfect Pet

If a cat or dog is their preferred pet, a senior rescue could be ideal. Animal shelters and adoption organizations often have senior pets who are looking to be adopted into loving homes, but are often overlooked by younger families. These older animals make wonderful companions for older adults, forming bonds quickly with new owners, and offering deep, unconditional love. Explore the rescue shelters in your area or organizations that have senior pets for adoption. San Francisco has some great local animal shelters that you and your loved one can check out.

No matter what animal you and your loved one choose, having a pet at home will make a big difference in their everyday life. From improved health to decreased stress, your loved one will benefit greatly from a new furry addition. Pets also have a positive impact on both caregivers and other family members, so don’t hesitate to get the whole family involved. When it’s a team effort to help care for the new animal, your loved one will feel even more supported—and everyone will get a boost of happiness.   

If you want to make sure your loved one is supported while aging in place, Institute on Aging provides compassion-filled services and resources. To support your aging loved one, get in touch with us today to learn more.

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Institute on Aging

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