Seniors & Pets

Seniors & Pets
Holly Frisby, DVM, MS
Veterinary Services Department,
Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.

elderly woman holding a dog in her lapPets can play a special role in the lives of senior citizens who live in care facilities and at home. For those elderly citizens living at home with pets, there are several issues that may be helpful to discuss.


Federal mandates allow people living in federally-assisted housing units to have pets. Pets allowed include dogs, cats, birds, rodents, rabbits, fish, and turtles.

As may be expected, there are some caveats:

  • An additional pet deposit may be required.
  • A limit may be placed on the number of animals in a unit.
  • There may be restrictions based on the size and type of building or project.
  • 'Dangerous' animals are prohibited.

According to the law, pet owners will have to maintain their pets responsibly and in accordance with applicable state and local health, animal control, and anti-cruelty laws and regulations, and meet the standards on waste disposal.

Contingency plans
man in a wheelchair talking to a woman holding a catAll pet owners, whether senior citizens, people living alone, or those in families should develop contingency plans for the care of their pets. You should have a card on your person, in your vehicle, and on the refrigerator that has the names of your pets, their descriptions, where they are (including favorite hiding spots), any medications they are taking, the name of your veterinarian, and who to contact regarding them. That contact person should know your vet, and know where you keep your pet’s medications and medical records stored.

Many people have provisions in their will or attachments to their will that provide for the financial and care needs of their pets. A lawyer can help you write such a document. In doing so, think about the financial aspects of pet care; whom you would want to have your pet; if you have multiple pets, is there someone who can take care of all of them; and if you have an older or ill pet, are there special provisions you want to make.

It is also helpful to have someone available who can come and do the more difficult tasks if you are unable to, such as walking the dog or cleaning the litter box. Neighbors, scouts, church members, and friends may be more than willing to help.

It is also important to continue the socialization of your pet. Your pet should be comfortable around other people, and allow other
people into the house if the need arises.


Transportation can be a hurdle when owning a pet. You will need to make trips to the veterinarian, to the store to get pet food, and perhaps to a groomer. If you do not drive, someone from your
neighborhood may be able to help. Some veterinarians make house calls, so that is another possibility.

Good communication with your veterinarian
Dr. Foster holding a Cocker SpanielGood communication between you and your veterinarian and other people who may care for your pets is essential. Provide your veterinarian with information on who will take care of your pets if you become ill or incapacitated, who will make decisions regarding your pets, and also discuss any financial arrangements. If you become ill, not having to worry about these details will help you concentrate on your recovery.

Make sure you understand any medical condition your pet may have. Ask your veterinarian questions so you can understand what is going on. If you do not understand it the first time, ask again, do not just smile and nod politely as many of us do when also talking to our automobile mechanic. Sometimes as medical professionals we tend to use technical jargon or do not explain things fully.

Ask that any instructions on caring for your pet or directions for medications be written down in a way you can read and understand. It may also be helpful to have a friend who will be responsible for your pet present during your pet’s examination. Then both of you are sure of what is going on.


If your veterinarian says your pet needs to be  given medications, tell your veterinarian whether you find pills or liquids easier to give. If given pills, you can request that a regular cap be placed on the bottle instead of one of the so called 'child-resistant' caps, which many of us find to be 'human resistant.'

Keep your medication separate from your pet’s. Use color-coded bottles – colored tape or stickers may work well. Color code the bottle, not the caps, since you could end up putting a cap on the wrong bottle.

It is important that medications be given to your pet as  prescribed. Have the veterinarian or staff show you how to give the medication. Again, if you have difficulty, ask someone to help you. The staff at the veterinary clinic may be able to provide you with suggestions.

Pet Care

There are new pet supplies available which can help you care for
your pet. If your dog tends to pull on the leash, halter-type collars can be very useful in breaking that habit.

If you have difficulty moving about and/or have poor eyesight, you may be concerned about falling or tripping over your pet. Bright collars with a bell on them could help you know where your pet is.

dog eating from elevated feederElevated feeders and waterers are available so you do not need to bend down to the floor. There is no rule that says litter boxes must be on the floor. If your cat can jump, place the litter box on a stable stand or table that your cat can easily get to. Clumpable litter can be easier to use than other kinds.

Brushes and combs with bigger handles are available. These can be especially helpful for persons with arthritis.


Pets can play an extremely important role in the lives of senior  citizens. By thinking ahead and making necessary accomodations, elderly people can make caring for their pets much easier.

References and Further Reading

Anderson, WP; Reid, CM; Jennings, GL. Pet ownership and risk factors
for cardiovascular disease. Medical Journal Australia. 1992; 157:298-301.

Beck, A; Katcher, A. Between Pets and People. Purdue University Press.
West Lafayette, IN; 1996.

Eichelberger, NR. When kitty has an older owner. The Whole Cat Journal. 2000; (May):14-16, 22.

Fick, KM. The influence of an animal on social interactions of nursing
home residents in group settings. American Journal of Occupational
1993; Jun: 47(6):529-534.

Kongable, LG; Buckwalter, KC; Stolley, JM. The effects of pet therapy on the social behavior of institutionalized Alzheimer's clients. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 1989; Aug: 3(4);191-198.

McElroy, SC. Animals as Teachers and Healers. Balantine Books. New York, NY; 1997.

Raina, P; Waltner-Toews, D; Bonnett, B; Woodward, D; Abernathy, T. Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people; an analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 1999; Mar:47(3):323-329.

Serpell, J. In the Company of Animals. Basil Blackwell Inc. New York, NY; 1986.

Walkowicz, C. Who will care for my cats? The Whole Cat Journal. 2000; (May):12-13. 

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