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What to Do When You No Longer Can Care for a Pet

Whether you're affected by health, finances or housing, you have options

Man looks lovingly at his pet dog

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En español | Sara Knowles, a fundraising consultant in Denver, has happy memories of snowshoeing with her Australian Shepherd puppy, Sadie Mae, snug in the knapsack on her back. The duo enjoyed outdoor adventures for several years even when Knowles, now 63, dealt with worsening symptoms from rheumatoid arthritis.

Sadie and Sara

Courtesy of Sara Knowles

Sara Knowles with Sadie Mae

Complications from numerous surgeries and pain and stiffness from the arthritis finally made it too difficult for Knowles to care for her rambunctious companion. She hired dog walkers and asked friends to take in Sadie when needed, but it wasn't enough.

“I had to recognize my limitations. I wasn't going to get better. It was not happening. And it was not good for me to keep the dog,” said Knowles. It took two tries to find Sadie the right home, with a friend's sister. “They send me pictures all the time,” she said.

When it’s time to let go

Pets provide love and companionship to people of all ages and are especially important in making isolated seniors feel less alone. But illness or limited mobility can make it difficult to give Fido or Fluffy the home they need. Julia Veir, a professor of small animal internal medicine at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, says it's time to give up a pet or get in-home services when the owner can no longer provide adequate exercise and grooming, feed them as needed and administer medication.

For dogs, the breed can impact a decision. “Greyhounds will be perfectly happy to sleep on the sofa 23 and a half hours a day,” Veir said. “A lot of Labrador retrievers are high energy, high drive. If left alone, without stimulation, they will become destructive and start chewing furniture because they just have too much energy to burn. They need to be exercised or they get stir crazy, essentially."

If it's financially feasible, Lauren McCarron, founder of Joyful Pets, a pet care and adoption service based in Amherst, Massachusetts, advocates keeping the pet at home by using the growing number of online pet services. McCarron says that for many older adults, pets are their “everything."

“They're losing their friends. They're losing their independence. They're not driving. They're probably not working and the pet provides unconditional love. You've got that little buddy sitting on your lap."

Laurenn McCarron

Investigate local services

Online platforms like Rover, Wag! and Task Rabbit offer dog walking services and there are various platforms to help you find services, such as grooming and poop scooping, you need to care for your pet. Your veterinarian and your friends can be resources, McCarron said. “Now with online delivery you never have to go buy dog food or cat food or litter. There are all these big heavy trips you don't have to do."

If your pet is sick, Veir recommends hiring a veterinary technician who may be looking to supplement their income. “Depending on the region you live in, vet techs can provide subcutaneous fluids for cats with kidney disease,” she said. They can also stop by daily to administer pills, she said.

Giving up your pet can be heart-wrenching. The 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan surveyed 2,051 adults ages 50 to 80 about pets and found that more than half owned a pet. Of those who reported living alone or being in fair to poor physical health, 72 percent said their pets helped them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, according to a report on the survey released last spring.

The emotional impact

"For my mom to give up her dog was unimaginable,” said Teri Wright, a psychologist in private practice in Santa Ana, California, who took in the dog when her mother moved to assisted living because of dementia. “But whether or not she could care for the dog was second to whether she could care for herself.”

To find a new home, first look to family, McCarron said. She suggested sending an e-blast to family to hopefully find at least a temporary home while you research the right match. And then if you need more help, consider professional rehoming services like Rehome with Love or Rehome by Adopt-a-Pet, which is run by the largest nonprofit adoption site in North America.

You also can search for a breed-specific rescue organization or a no-kill shelter, which means that no healthy or treatable pets are killed if there is no longer room to house them. Petfinder.com is a searchable online database with a directory of close to 11,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations across the U.S. and in Canada and Mexico. It also provides adoption information for almost every dog breed from Affenpinschers to Yorkshire Terriers and cat breeds from Abyssinian to York Chocolate.

Assisted living communities and nursing homes often permit pet visits, which McCarron applauds. “When you're older and people aren't understanding you, these little pets lick you up anyway. They just love you the way you are,” she said.

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