ABSTRACT: The physical and psychological benefits of contact with pets have been well researched, with the elderly gaining particular health and social advantages. Yet the decreased flexibility in housing choices and physical mobility that elderly people often experience can severely restrict their access to companion animals, or may lead to behavioural problems that pose welfare issues for both pet and owner. With an increasing percentage of the elderly population using anti-coagulant therapy, even minor scratches and abrasions resulting from interaction with a pet may be fatal. Potential problems can be markedly reduced by timely and constructive advice from veterinary staff.

Elderly people gain enormous benefits from pet ownership, but choosing the right sort of pet can often be tricky. The petrowner relationship can occasionally become problematic, leading to potential welfare problems for the pet and harm and distress for the elderly owner. Advice from the veterinary nurse regarding selecting a suitable pet, and subtle chats during routine visits, pave the way for elderly owners to feel they can discuss their concerns, thus improving their, and their pet’s, quality of life.

Bereavement issues

People are rarely prepared for the emptiness and loneliness that follows the death of a constant companion. This may be their life partner – in such cases, the family pet will take on a new role and importance in their owners life. But all too often the elderly person will have already lost their human partner and will need to discuss the recent or imminent demise of their much-loved pet.

Many practices have staff trained or experienced in bereavement counselling to assist at such times, but how should staff respond to the elderly persons continuing need for companionship? Should they encourage them to commit themselves to another pet? What sort of pet and what age?

What species of pet?

Birds, small ‘furries’ and exotic pets may be very fulfilling for those interested in their behaviour and maintaining an environment that enhances their well being, but handling and caring for such pets can be extremely tricky for owners whose mobility and dexterity is decreasing – leading to handling problems, potential pain for the pet and problems with aggression. Despite the cognitive advantages of keeping such pets, it is the quality of the social and physical relationship with a companion animal that will enhance the life of the elderly the most, and it is inevitable that dogs and cats will fulfil this role most fully.

However, there are pros and cons in the selection of a cat versus a dog. Cats are popular because they require no supervision of outdoor exercise. As long as a cat has a stimulating 3D environment, it will cope well with a reduced living area, such as in sheltered housing, and will even tolerate remaining indoors. Obviously, such restrictions will be easier for a more mature cat. However, a cat whose natural behaviour is frustrated by its environment – yet fails to receive adequate mental stimulation – is likely to develop inappropriate behaviours, including aggression.

Cat bites and scratches are not only potentially extremely toxic to the elderly, but with the decreased thickness of skin and high incidence of anticoagulant use, seemingly superficial injuries may prove fatal. Frustration-related attacks can be reduced through increased mental stimulation and a selection of diagrams and photographs of simple devices that can be erected to provide a stimulating 3D environment can help owners to visualise ideas. A selection of good quality puzzle feeders and other toys should be available in practice for demonstration and sale.

For fit and healthy elderly clients, a dog can be the perfect choice, although it may be useful to think ahead and select a breed that will require only a little less exercise as it matures – young collies are, therefore, unlikely to be suitable. Most dogs have a desire for social relationships, staying in close contact with an owner for far longer than many cats – as long as exercise needs are compatible with the exercise potential of the owner, such relationships can be made in heaven!

A major requirement of an elderly owners pet will be tolerance of stroking and petting – handling techniques that many dogs and cats may consider intrusive and even uncomfortable, especially as their owners hands become less flexible. Some pets simply do not appreciate being stroked.

Advice from veterinary staff can assist owners in recognising when a pet is uncomfortable – ear, eye and tail movements in cats; lip licking, blinking, yawning, tail tucking, ear movements and initiating the exposure of the belly in the dog, for instance – which will prevent the need for the pet to use aggression to discontinue the interaction. Such signs can also be used to help clients to select a rescue pet that will tolerate a high level of physical contact.


How soon should a pet be replaced?

Only the bereaved owner can answer this; but nursing staff can certainly assist in ensuring that the right choice is made. The fact that an elderly person may have no family or friends to assist with pet care doesn’t necessarily preclude them from committing themselves to a new companion.

What happens to my pet if something happens to me?

This is a common – yet often unspoken – question asked by elderly clients, and the lack of a convincing answer can often prevent an elderly person from committing to a companion. The Cinnamon Trust does a wonderful job in re-assuring the elderly by ensuring that their pets are fostered while owners undergo short or long-term medical care and they organise permanent fostering if owners have to enter accommodation that can’t include their pet.

The more pragmatic and practical elderly client may be persuaded to take on the fostering of a dog for the Cinnamon Trust – at the same time ensuring that similar provision will be made for the pet should their medical needs require it. Practices may also be able to keep their own register of clients who would be willing to foster or exercise a pet while an elderly owner is unwell. Knowing of such arrangements can make all the difference when an elderly client is deciding whether to commit themselves to a new companion or to live in solitude.

Pets get elderly too

Kittens and puppies may be unsuitable for elderly clients, as both client and pet will be prone to injury There are thousands of adult and elderly pets – many of which have had elderly owners who have given them up to rescue – just ready to settle into a cosy relationship with an elderly owner.

Careful advice should be given regarding the choice of such a pet. Some ‘amateur’ rescue centres are too keen to get their charges re-homed and fail to consider the future welfare needs of pet and owner. Ex-breeding dogs may not be suitable – if such dogs have spent their lives in a kennel they will require patient, consistent and accurate toilet training, which is a potential nightmare for a house-proud pensioner.

Animals with behaviour problems, or breeds that may have a high mental stimulation or exercise requirement, are also likely to be unsuitable. But a dog or cat that is willing to potter and be petted can find its dream home with an elderly person – even if he or she is an inexperienced pet owner.

Figure 1: Some elderly owners may struggle with specific breeds – it may be d
ifficult, for instance, to take the spring' out of a Springer!

Experience isn’t everything

When developing a relationship with a pet, it is important to be able to change and learn. One of the problems with dog ownership is the welfare challenges that arise from outdated training and relationship models. Many elderly owners have kept dogs all their lives, but as they become less physically fit, training techniques that are based on conflict may lead to anxiety based challenges from their dog. Such situations may result in an escalation of conflict and aggression.

Gentle questioning about handling techniques can give an indication regarding potential conflict problems, and clients may benefit from time spent with a nurse demonstrating simple reward-based training techniques. If owners are entrenched in outdated, potentially dangerous techniques – and are likely to be reticent to comply – new ideas can be ‘sold’ as methods that avoid owners with physical impairment having to physically manipulate the dog, thereby instantly reducing the conflict between pet and owner.

Figure 2: Reward-based training works well for elderly owners

I need to have the same breed as my last dog

This works well if the last pet was a Cavalier, but not so well if it was a Rottweiler. Owners forget how difficult a puppy can be – particularly if they have had the perfect pet for the last 14 years of its adult life. For an elderly person, a young dog may be extremely difficult, but all the more so as it becomes a wilful and frustrated adolescent, especially if it is likely to be strong. Owners can be extremely entrenched in loyalty to a particular breed and it will take all of a nurses counselling skills to alter this. Failure to do so, however, will invariably guarantee misery for both owner and dog.

Similar problems can arise with cat owners – particularly those with experience of exotic breeds. Owners should be counselled towards taking on cats with the least reactive and most tolerant personalities.


Elderly people are vulnerable, and it is imperative to protect them from aggressive pets. Encourage clients to discuss all of their concerns, and if there is any mention of aggression the pet should be fostered to another environment and immediate professional advice should be sought. Haemorrhage in the elderly can quickly lead to death, and a lack of physical dexterity and the proximity of walking, aids such as sticks, can quickly lead to a mild conflict escalating into severe aggression.

Continued support for the elderly owner

Practices could keep a register of their elderly or less physically able owners and offer an annual nurse support package – possibly purchased by a relative or group of friends for the persons birthday or Christmas present. Such support could include three or four ‘nurse visits’ per year, plus internal and external parasite control, nail clipping and a general health check. Visits would provide opportunities for the owner to raise health and behaviour concerns and for the nurse to raise issues that the owner may have overlooked.


There are so many advantages to pet ownership for the elderly. With sensitive and proactive veterinary support, the advancing years of the owner or the pet shouldn’t form an impediment to a high quality pet-owner relationship.


Claire Hargrave BSC MSC PGCE CCAB

Claire is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors who has worked in veterinary practice in numerous capacities for over 30 years.

Claire runs a specialist referral practice for companion animal behaviour cases and is located in South West Wales. www.petbehaviourwales.co.uk

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00098.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 365-367

Further information

The Cinnamon Trust: 10 Market Square. Hayle. Cornwall. TR27 4HE, telephone 01736 757900 www.cinnamon.org.uk

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 26 • October 2011