Pet Ownership Guide for Older Adults
Pet ownership brings older adults many benefits — companionship, caretaking, exercise and love — but it also comes with challenges. In addition to the time commitment involved in pet care, there are many associated pet ownership costs involved in ensuring your furry friend is healthy, happy, well-loved and insured. Learn more about the benefits, challenges, costs and considerations of pet ownership for older adults.
How Pets Help Older Adults With Healthy Aging
A study from NASEM found that a third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, which may lead to unfavorable health conditions. In another study with more than 1,000 participants, on average 65-years-old, 53% owned pets. It isn’t surprising, considering pet ownership comes with multiple benefits. Besides providing emotional support, pet ownership can also lower stress levels and prevent health issues, such as high blood pressure. Older adults who've had pets for over five years have sharper cognitive skills than those who didn't. Below are some additional benefits pets bring older adults.
A sense of purpose
Seniors often experience empty nest syndrome. Their children are independent and have families of their own, which can make them feel unneeded. Pets are dependent on their owners, which can help older adults rediscover meaning in their lives.
Loneliness is common among seniors, especially if they live in a retirement home and don’t often see their family. Pet companionship provides much needed comfort and someone to talk to every day. Pets also love their owners unconditionally, creating an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding.
Older adults usually have a sedentary lifestyle, which isn't healthy. Pets — dogs, especially — need daily walks and this provides seniors with an opportunity to stand up and move around. Physical activity can also be done indoors, such as playtime with pets.
Safety and security
Living alone may be a security risk, especially for older adults. Having a pet can provide additional security. They can scare away intruders and warn others of potential dangers. Pets tend to be incredibly loyal to their owners and will defend them in risky situations.
As of 2019, 28% of older adults lived alone, making them vulnerable to social isolation. A pet requires seniors to visit various places, such as the vet, park and pet store, providing opportunities to interact with other people often. They may even find other senior pet owners and form connections and friendships.
Challenges of Pet Ownership for Older Adults
Despite the many advantages pet ownership brings, it also presents some challenges. Caring for a pet requires a lot of mental and physical energy, and older adults may not have the stamina and endurance for it. There are also financial implications of having a pet to consider. These include medical bills and finding affordable pet insurance. If you’re considering getting a pet, it’s best to understand the possible challenges you’ll face.
Owning a pet can be expensive. For example, dog owners may spend anywhere between $737 to $1,040 a year, depending on their dog’s size. Older adults typically have a fixed income and may have difficulty managing their finances with these additional expenses.
Fear of loss
Because of the many benefits brought by owning a pet, its loss may become unbearable for an older adult. Seniors tend to form strong emotional bonds with their animal companions. The loss of a pet is as devastating as losing a loved one.
People have more time to travel after retirement. However, if you have a pet, you can’t just pack up and go any time you feel like it. Sometimes your destination won’t allow you to bring them, so you’ll have to think of where to leave them to ensure their well-being while you’re on vacation.
Pets need regular care. This includes playing with them, staying up-to-date on vet visits, taking them for walks, and feeding and grooming them. Older adults may not have the energy and the endurance to maintain this routine in the long term.
Risk of injury
68% of senior pet owners have dogs, while 48% have cats. These pets are more active animals, which may cause an older adult to sustain injuries. For example, a pulled muscle from chasing a cat when it bolts out an open door or tripping over the dog in the kitchen.
Deprioritizing personal health
Older adults invest much of themselves in their pets. Although it brings many advantages, it may also lead them to prioritize their pets’ health and needs above their own.
Helping Older Adults Cope With the Loss of a Pet
Pets become family members to their owners, and the loss of one can be devastating to an older adult. Without support, emotional and mental distress can turn to depression. Although you can’t escape the sorrow, there are ways to make it more manageable. It may involve finding comfort from family and friends or joining support groups.
Dealing with the loss of your pet is never easy. Without the appropriate support, it’s easy to fall into depression. Here are some ways you can cope with your pet’s passing.
1. Don’t isolate yourself. Although it may be tempting to hole up in your house and relive your memories, it may lead you to a downward spiral. Reach out to friends and family. You can even connect with another pet owner and share fond memories of your pet.
2. Create memorabilia. You may have many cherished memories with your pet and you can compile these to create something beautiful. Perhaps a memorial photo book can help you honor your pet’s memory while simultaneously helping you through your sorrow.
3. Call a pet-support hotline. Grief can be overwhelming after you’ve lost a pet and it can hit at the most unlikely times. Sometimes, it helps to talk to someone, regardless of the hour. The Ohio State University compiled a list of pet loss hotlines you can use.
4. Join a support group. Not everyone understands how it feels to lose a beloved pet. Although hotlines are available, sometimes in-person support is better. You don’t have to speak with a professional to cope with your grief — sometimes, you need to be with others undergoing the same experience.
5. Volunteer at a shelter. Keeping busy is one way to avoid falling into depression. The Humane Society of the United States suggests volunteering at a shelter. Sharing your time with other animals in need is a healthy way to mourn for your pet. It also gives you a chance to be with people who share your love for animals.
Taking Care of a Pet While Aging in Place
A lot of joy can come with owning a pet, but so do several responsibilities. You need to feed them and keep them healthy and safe, which takes a lot of work. Keeping track of regular feeding times, medical check-ups and daily exercise can exhaust seniors. Remember, no matter how important your pet is to you, your priority should be your own health. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to make it easier.
Assign a designated pet space
Although you can’t stop your pet from running around the house, you can avoid trip hazards by ensuring all their toys and supplies are in a specific place. Choose bright colors for your pet supplies so that it’s easier to spot. These can keep your house decluttered and easy to navigate.
Automate when possible
Invest in gadgets that provide food and water for your pets regularly. These are available for different animals and come in various sizes. These won’t require you to refill their bowls manually, alleviating mental stress and physical exertion. Petmate and Petco Animal Supplies are great sites to check out.
Find a mobile vet
Taking your pet to the vet is necessary. Even if it doesn’t need any procedures, you still have to get it checked up regularly. Look for a vet near your home, so it won’t be challenging to reach. Better yet, see if you can find one that offers mobile services so that your vet comes to you, not the other way around.
Find a pet feeding program
Going out to buy food might not be easy for older adults. More than traveling to and from your local pet store, there’s the concern of lugging the pet food on your way back. Some organizations not only provide meals for seniors, but they can also provide nourishment for your pets.
Have a support system
Remember, you don’t have to do everything yourself. If it gets too much for you, ask for help. Some apps can help you find pet care assistance so someone can take your dog for a walk or clean your bird’s cage. It can also be an opportunity to spend time with family and friends if one of them is willing to come over and help with pet care.
Getting Support: When Older Adults Can No Longer Care for Pets
The time may come when you can no longer care for your pets. There are senior homes that won’t allow you to bring a pet when your health deteriorates, you become more forgetful or less mobile. Giving up your pet may be the wisest choice for both of you, even if it’s heartbreaking.
Letting go of your pet is never easy, but part of pet ownership is making sure you give them the possible chance of receiving quality care. The following points can help ensure this happens.
1. Adopt your pet to friends or family. The most logical place to place your pet is with loved ones it may already know. The advantage of this route is that it allows you to keep in touch with your pet. You can also visit your pet and ask for updates about how they’re doing.
2. Contact a rescue organization. Rescue organizations provide temporary homes for animals through a network of animal foster parents until they’re adopted. They’re similar to animal shelters, except they don’t receive government funding. You may want to contact them in advance since some rescue organizations have limitations regarding what type of animal they accept.
3. Take your pet to an animal shelter. Surrendering your pet to an animal shelter gives it a chance to be cared for and, hopefully, be adopted by another family. You may want to look for animal shelters with no-kill policies. When shelters are full, they must euthanize pets.
4. Prepare a pet trust. If an owner can outlive their pet, you must be ready for the opposite. Creating a pet trust can put your mind at ease, knowing that your pet will be cared for if you pass. Depending on your state, the trust can continue for your pet’s lifetime or 21 years, whichever comes first.
6 Ways Older Adults Can Save Money on Pet Costs
University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found that around one in five respondents considered cost a challenge — and it’s true. Everything from pet food to toys and supplies to vet visits entails cost. It may cause a financial strain for older adults who live off a fixed income. Finding ways to save on pet care costs can be an enormous help to senior pet owners.
Choose the right pet
Consider this if you’re still deciding whether or not you should get a pet. Though all animals have similar needs, the cost of certain expenses varies between them. For example, you’ll spend an average of $300 to spay or neuter a dog but only $150 for cats.
Take advantage of pet food assistance
Seniors with fixed incomes tend to share their food with their pets because they don’t have enough funds to buy pet food. However, food-assistance programs, such as Meals on Wheels don’t just provide nourishment for older adults. They’ve extended their services to their pets, too.
Use senior discounts
As a senior, you can often get 15% to 25% off of purchases. Although frequently used for restaurants and prescriptions, there’s no harm in asking your pet store or veterinarian if they can apply it, too.
Look for a low-cost clinic
Pets need a lot of medical attention. Even with no illnesses or surgical requirements, you still need to bring them in for annual check-ups and vaccines. You can look for low-cost clinics to save on costs.
Spay or neuter your pet
States require you to spay and neuter your pets to decrease unwanted offspring. However, these are typically not cheap. You can use sites like PetSmart Charities to find clinics that do these services for more affordable rates.
Purchase pet insurance
Although you need to shell out money for premiums, investing in pet insurance, especially for dogs and cats, may be more cost-effective in the long run. It comes in handy if you incur unexpected medical expenses.
Protecting Your Pet and Finances With Pet Insurance
One thing to consider is whether pet insurance is worth it. You can view it as one more thing to pay for monthly or as an investment that may bring benefits in the long term. Depending on the plan you purchase, your insurer can reimburse up to 80% of your vet bill, allowing you to save significantly on pet care. That alone is one of the reasons to get it, especially for older adults who live on a fixed income.
1. Peace of mind. Pet insurance assures you that your pet has access to various medical treatments. With reimbursement, you can make medical decisions based on what’s best for your pet and not just based on affordability.
2. Premiums are easy to budget. Purchasing insurance means paying a monthly or annual premium. Although it’s another expense to deal with, it’s easier to plan your monthly budget than wait for an emergency to happen. Even if you regularly set aside a bit of money, you never know how much you’ll need to spend — for all you know, what you’ve saved isn’t enough.
3. It covers emergency medical expenses. Pet insurance prevents you from using your savings. Most pet insurance companies reimburse 70% to 90% of covered services. Figo’s Preferred Plan covers up to 100% of costs up to your chosen limits.
4. You have flexibility. Pet insurance companies offer several plans, which means you can choose one that fits your budget. You can also decide to add coverage, such as theft or loss of a pet or liability damage if your pet destroys someone else’s property or causes injury to another person.
5. You can insure senior pets. Ideally, you insure your pet while they’re young. However, puppies or kittens may not be the best match for senior adults since they typically require more care. If you get a senior pet, you can still insure it. The rate may be slightly higher, but insurers won’t discriminate based on breed or age.
What Is the Best Pet for Older Adults?
Getting a pet is an excellent idea, but you have to ensure you find the right one. The National Poll on Healthy Aging showed that 68% have dogs, while 48% have cats. Others have smaller pets like birds or fish. Knowing the pros and cons of each can help you decide which fits your needs and lifestyle. You must also consider how much space you have and whether or not you’re up for a lot of activity. Below are recommendations to help you determine what may be best for you.
Top 4 Pets for Older Adults
One way to ensure you’ll have a positive experience with pet ownership is to find the right one for you. The ideal companion depends on your lifestyle and preference. Do you want to keep active? How big is your home? Do you prefer a lot of interaction? Knowing the answer to these can narrow down your choices and help you find a suitable pet.
Best dog breeds for older adults
- Bichon Frise
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Shih Tzu
Dogs make excellent pets because they’re affectionate and loyal. They are also very expressive, so it’s easy to form bonds. However, a canine companion can be costly. Dog food alone can cost anywhere between $700 to over $1,000 annually, depending on your dog’s size. They also need someone who has enough energy to take them for walks daily. If you’re not very active, you may want to consider a different pet.
Best cat breeds for older adults
- Scottish Fold
- Maine Coon
A cat is a good pet for older adults who don’t like strenuous activity. They’re typically good indoor pets and are more independent, which means cats require less maintenance. When choosing cat breeds, be aware of their temperament as some cats may bite or scratch if displeased. People are also twice as likely to be allergic to cats than dogs, so make sure having one won’t cause health problems.
Best breeds for older adults
Birds require even less maintenance than cats. They’re easy to clean up and don’t need much grooming. They also make good indoor pets and can be sociable. Birds like interacting with their owners. However, it can quickly become bothersome — if you prefer peace and quiet, you may have to reconsider. Birds need their beaks and nails trimmed occasionally and it isn’t something you can do on your own.
Best breeds for older adults
- Siamese Fighting Fish
- White Cloud Mountain Minnow
- Dwarf Puffer Fish
Fish probably need the least attention among the pets on this list. They don’t require much interaction from their owners. However, it can be relaxing to watch your fish in their aquarium. However, it doesn’t mean they don’t need maintenance. You’ll have to be mindful of your aquarium’s pH levels and clean its filters. You’ll also need to replace the water occasionally. Fish are delicate pets because it’s difficult to tell when they’re unwell. Usually, it’s too late when owners notice.
Breeders can help you find your ideal companion, but so can adoption centers. These days, sites such as The Shelter Pet Project or Petfinder can help. Although the former focuses specifically on cats and dogs, the latter includes birds, fish and even more uncommon pets, such as rabbits and hamsters. You can also check local shelters or talk to your vet.
How to Choose the Right Pet for Older Adults
No matter how much you love dogs, you have to assess whether it's the right pet for you. Factors like breed and personality are significant, but choosing the right pet involves more than your preferences. It's best to consider practicalities, too, such as how big your home is, how much it’ll cost you and why you want a pet in the first place.
If you have a yard, a dog might be a good fit. However, if you live in an apartment, you may want to think about getting a different pet. It also matters if you live in a condo unit several floors up. Imagine how much effort it requires if you need to take your pet out daily.
Most older adults want to get pets because of the companionship they offer, but is there another reason you’re considering it? For example, if you're looking for comfort and security, a dog is a better option than a cat.
Personality and preference
Different breeds have varying personalities. Do you want a pet who’s active and playful? Or do you prefer one who’s calm and gentle? Athletic dogs will need space to move around. In comparison, cats, birds and fish won’t require you to exert much energy.
How much can you spend on your pet? Are you willing to pay for insurance? Dogs typically are more expensive to maintain than cats. Fish food is affordable compared to dog food or cat food, but you’ll need to spend on an aquarium and everything that comes with it.
Your options are affected by your physical (and, sometimes, mental) condition. If you use a wheelchair, you best not get a pet that moves around a lot. If you’re allergic to fur, perhaps you should stay away from dogs and cats.
Expert Insight on Pet Ownership for Older Adults
To provide additional insight about the impact, benefits and challenges of pet ownership for older adults, MoneyGeek reached out to industry leaders and experts for their expertise.
- How does having a pet affect an older adult's daily routine? How can they adjust to this change?
- Do the benefits of pet ownership for seniors outweigh its drawbacks?
- What pet ownership challenges should seniors pay most attention to?
- What should be the most important consideration when older adults want to get a pet?
Founder and Cat Behaviorist of Kitty Cat Tips
CEO of Rainwalk Pet Insurance
Founder of PuppyHero
CEO and Founder of Trinidad Birding
Resources for Pet Ownership for Seniors
Having a pet when you get older can be very rewarding. However, pet ownership comes with many responsibilities. MoneyGeek provides you with several resources to help you out, regardless of where you are in your pet ownership journey.
Finding a Pet
- Pets for the Elderly: A shelter is a great place to find pets for older adults. Pets for the Elderly has 57 partner shelters across 35 states. You can check out which ones are nearest to you.
- Pets for Seniors: An adoption program that matches senior dogs and cats with older adults. They can provide support from choosing the best pet for you to handling the associated fees.
- Cost of Living Calculator: Besides determining what a pet’s estimated costs will be, it’s important to understand your bottom line, too. Dig into your various financial factors to determine what pet may best fit your lifestyle and budget.
- Pet Food Cost Calculator: Pet food is the leading expense when it comes to pet ownership followed by insurance. Knowing how much you’ll need to spend for pet food can help you manage your finances better and develop cost-effective strategies.
- Pet Medical Cost Calculator: You can’t get around medical expenses when you own a pet. This online calculator can help you estimate how much you need to spend for general exams and vaccines. It may help you decide whether or not you should purchase pet insurance.
Financial and Pet Care Assistance
- PALS Pet Assistance Fund: Pet supplies can be costly. If you’re experiencing financial difficulties, you can ask for support by joining PALS’ pet assistance program. It’s available to pet owners over 60 and meet the guidelines.
- Seniors Pet Assistance Network: SPAN provides assistance to senior pet owners by delivering pet food to their homes. You can also ask for veterinary assistance from them.
- The Animal Foundation: Medical expenses can pile up quickly, putting you in a difficult financial position. The Animal Foundation can help you look for low-cost clinics to help you save money.
Pet Assistance Apps
- Rover: Older adults who own dogs and cats may benefit from using Rover’s services. You can use their app to make sure someone checks in on your pet when you’re away, even when you’re traveling. Their services include dog walking or drop-in visits for days when you don’t have the energy to take your pet out.
- Wag: Older adults who enjoy traveling can use Wag for pet-sitting or boarding services. This way, you can enjoy your vacation without worrying about your pet at home. You can rest easy, knowing your furbaby is in the capable hands of their pet sitters who have been vetted thoroughly.
- First-Time Pet Owner Guide: Getting a first pet can happen at any time in a person’s life. If you’re just starting to consider it in your older years, learn more about the ins and outs in this first-time pet owner’s guide.
- Lap of Love: The days after the death of a pet are the worst, but you don’t need to go through them alone. Find a support group where you can find comfort with people who have similar experiences. They can offer a level of understanding you may not find elsewhere.
- Rehome by Adopt-a-Pet: No one wants to give up their pet, but sometimes you don’t have an alternative. Rehome allows you (or your representative) to have more control about who takes care of your pet. You’ll meet the adopters before completing the process to ensure your pet goes to a family that will genuinely care for them.
- Renters Insurance Pet Liability: Pet incidents happen more often than people think about. Adding your pet to your renters insurance policy can help protect your property and cover any third-party damages or injuries.
About the Author
- Administration of Community Living. "2019 Profile of Older Americans." Accessed April 1, 2022.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Pet Allergy: Are You Allergic to Dogs and Cats?." Accessed April 2, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How to Stay Healthy Around Pets." Accessed March 31, 2022.
- Michigan Health. "One in 10 Older Adults Have Gotten a “Pandemic Pet,” Poll Finds." Accessed April 1, 2022.
- National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. "Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System." Accessed April 1, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. "Understanding the Benefits, Challenges, and the Role of Pet Ownership in the Daily Lives of Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Case Study." Accessed March 31, 2022.
- University of Florida. "Long-Term Pet Ownership May Help Older Adults Retain Cognitive Skills." Accessed April 1, 2022.
- University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. "How Pets Contribute to Healthy Aging." Accessed April 2, 2022.