The Reality of Pet Ownership: When and Why it May Not Work Out

Pets offer many benefits for seniors. Spending time with a pet leads to lower blood pressure, fewer visits to the doctor’s office, decreased loneliness, and many other positive health benefits.

While pets offer these positive health benefits for seniors, they also involve a lot of responsibilities, and they can pose certain risks for the elderly.

Pets can pose a variety of concerns for your senior loved one, such as:

  1. Injury Risk

  2. Allergies

  3. Additional/Unforeseen Care Needs

  4. Additional/Unforeseen Care Costs

  5. Restriction on Living Arrangements

  6. Personality Mismatch

  7. Distress/Grief with Loss of a Pet.

A pet may not be a safe idea, but if your senior loved one is interested in adopting a pet, this article can assist them in considering all of the lifestyle and health related factors that go into adopting a pet.


1. Injury risk

Pets pose injury risks that a senior must consider before adopting a pet. If your senior loved one already has a pet, you will want to understand these risks as well to help prevent injury.

Pets can be a fall risk for seniors. They may not see their pet and accidentally trip over them, or the pet may startle them and cause a fall. Some pets, such as dogs, can be trained to stay out of the senior’s way when walking or moving around the home. If there is a concern that your senior loved one is a high fall risk and may experience a fall with a pet such as a dog or a cat in the home, hamsters or guinea pigs that are caged and off the ground are a great alternatives and offer the same pet therapy benefits.

Dogs that require a walk despite cold or rainy weather also pose a risk that a senior may slip and fall while outside walking their pet.

If your senior loved one is able to walk a dog, they should still consider the potential that a dog may pull on their leash. A large dog that pulls constantly can cause injury to a senior’s shoulder or cause them to lose their balance and fall. Smaller dogs can be safer for seniors, however,  even a small dog that suddenly runs after a squirrel can injure their owner. Your senior loved one may need to consider hiring a dog walker if they cannot safely walk their dog themselves.

A potential risk of injury that is not the fault of a pet, is a medication mix-up. If your senior loved one has a pet that requires medication, it can be tricky to keep track of a pet’s medication dosages on top of their own personal medications and dosage schedules. Mixing up the timing of medications or mixing up the medications themselves can cause serious harm to the pet and the senior. If your senior loved one struggles to remember what medications to take or when to take them, a caregiver can assist them with reminders or a nurse can ensure they take the appropriate type of medication.

Finally, pets can pose an injury risk to seniors with delicate skin. Both dogs and cats have claws that need to be trimmed. If your senior loved one has easily damaged skin, they will have to be very careful to keep their pet’s claws cut short, either by doing the trimming themselves, getting assistance from a family member or friend, or taking the pet to a groomer. Though declawing cats has been determined to be an inhumane practice, many shelters do have cats who were declawed by previous owners and are looking to be adopted. These cats can be great companions for seniors.


2. Allergies

Your senior loved one may have a lifelong allergy to dander, or they may have developed allergies over time. Seniors with mild allergies may tolerate mild symptoms associated with owning a pet in exchange for the benefits of pet therapy and ownership. For most seniors with dander allergies, pet ownership is not ideal. The majority of seniors are on a host of medications, and it is an unnecessary burden to add allergy medications into the mix.

While most diseases that infect pets are not communicable to humans, pets can and do carry and shed certain bacteria. Seniors should make sure their pet sees their veterinarian regularly and prior to owning adopting their pet to ensure that they are in good health.

Seniors with weak immune systems may want to have a conversation with their doctor before committing to pet ownership. Pets that go outside - dogs and outdoor cats - tend to bring bacteria into the home; while this is not a major concern for most people, it is something that might impact seniors with weakened immune systems.


3. Additional/Unforeseen Care Needs

All pets require a degree of care-taking and a time commitment.

The time commitment required by pets varies depending on the type of pet - a hamster, for instance, is less time consuming than the care for a dog - but every pet has needs that require time from their owner. Feeding, grooming, picking up waste, play and/or exercise time, along with the occasional veterinary visit, are necessary to keep pets healthy and happy.

If your senior loved one has several health concerns of their own or other time-consuming commitments in their everyday lives, a pet may not be right for them. Unfortunately, a senior who spends a great deal of time at doctors’ appointments or physical therapy is unlikely to have enough time to dedicate to a pet.

Seniors who tend to travel fairly often or who spend most of their time out of the home volunteering or socializing may also not be suited to pet ownership - while pets can be wonderful sources of companionship, if your senior loved one is finding fulfillment in other parts of their life, they should not sacrifice their visits to friends and family or attendance at social gatherings in order to stay home with a pet.

Even if your senior loved one has the time for a pet, are they physically capable of caring for the pet? If a senior’s mobility has decreased to the extent that walking a dog would pose difficulties or is potentially dangerous, a cat may be a better option. But there is mobility involved in caring for a cat as well, including bending over to fill food dishes and scoop the litter box. These are important factors to keep in mind when considering adopting a pet.

Talk with your senior loved one to seriously consider if they are able to provide the additional care that a pet requires. Can they keep their pet’s eyes, ears, nails, and teeth clean? Many pets run and hide from these types of hygiene routines; can your senior loved one bend over to retrieve them from under a couch?

If your senior loved one is struggling to complete their own daily activities, such as getting dressed and bathing, adding another task of brushing and bathing a pet can become a heavy burden.


4. Additional/Unforeseen Care Costs

Pets are wonderful companions, but they have basic needs that cost money, and they may require additional spending for emergencies. Your senior loved one needs to acknowledge the costs associated with a pet and if their budget has room to care for a pet in addition to caring for themselves. Seniors who are retired are typically on a fixed income, so it’s important for them to be realistic. Can they afford pet food, flea products, vet appointments, pet sitting services, and emergency care?

Costs may vary depending on the pet and location, but the first year of owning a dog is around $1,270 and $1,070 for a cat. The following years will cost around $695 for a dog and $705 for a cat.


5. Restriction on Living Arrangements

For seniors who live in houses, condos, or apartments, owning a pet is usually possible, though some condominiums and apartment buildings have rules that restrict or forbid pets on the property.

Retirement homes or assisted living communities typically have ‘pet policies.’ Traditionally, these forms of senior housing do not allow pets on the premises. But as studies have revealed the benefits of pet ownership for seniors, more retirement and assisted living communities are allowing residents to have pets.

If your senior loved one is living in a rental or any kind of seniors’ community, be sure to look into these policies.  

Whatever the situation may be, it’s worth thinking about how your senior loved one’s future will play out when contemplating pet ownership. What is the plan for the pet if your senior loved one’s health declines?

It isn’t pleasant to think of a future in which your senior loved one loses a degree of their independence or mobility or suffers from an illness, but as a responsible potential pet owner, it’s important to think through these possibilities. It would be unfair to the pet, and likely heartbreaking for your elderly senior loved one, to have to send their beloved companion to a shelter.


6. Personality Mismatch

If your senior loved one is considering adopting a pet, they may soon find that the pet they choose does not match their lifestyle. A dog that barks at every noise can be alarming for a senior, cats who prefer not to be touched may scratch and cause infections. A small bird can be a good match for seniors, but they must be able to clean out their cage regularly and have someone to call on if the bird escapes their cage.

When adopting a pet, talk with the staff at the shelter about the animal’s personality and if they offer a foster-to-adopt program to ensure the match is a positive one.


7. Distress/Grief with Loss of a Pet

Your senior loved one will be going through health and lifestyle changes as they continue to grow older. If they adopt a senior pet, that pet will also go through their own health and lifestyle changes. Older pets can lose their sight and hearing, and develop ailments like arthritis. Seniors may find it hard to cope with caring for an aging pet. Pets also age more quickly than their owners, and the loss of a pet can be an emotional burden that the senior is not ready to face.  

If your senior loved one would benefit from spending time with a pet, keep in mind that some of these complications are manageable.

A family member or friend may be able to help out with tasks like dog-walking, and there are automated, “self-scooping” litter boxes on the market for cats. There may even be volunteers in your senior loved one’s area that can help out with pet care - Elderdog, for instance, recognizes the importance that dogs play in their owners’ lives and to assist seniors in putting the right resources in place to keep their pets even if they have mobility struggles or health concerns. Elderdog's volunteers assist owners by walking dogs, carrying heavy bags of food, providing transport to the vet, and even helping out with hygienic care for dogs, all throughout Canada.


The Middle Ground

If, for whatever reason, pet ownership isn’t a possibility for your senior loved one, that doesn’t mean they can’t experience the benefits of interacting with a furry friend. Many community programs, such as Therapeutic Paws of Canada and Pet Partners in the US, facilitate visits between seniors and dogs in seniors’ centres, assisted living communities, retirement homes, and nursing homes.

Even if there is not an official volunteer program which organizes interactions between pets and the elderly in your senior loved one’s community, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy some quality time with a pet. If you know someone with a good-natured cat or dog, ask if they might be willing to visit your senior loved one, or have your senior loved one over to their place. An hour or two spent curled up with a cat or walking through a park with a dog still offers mental and physical benefits - with the bonus that there is no waste to clean up, no chewed-up bones or messy hairballs, and no vet bills to pay.


We also covered the pros of pet ownership for seniors. Check out that blog post now if you want to know the benefits: When Pet Ownership is Just What the Doctor Ordered