Goodbye, Old Friend: Prevention of the unnecessary surrendering of companion animals among the elderly


Background: Every day families are surrendering pets to animal shelters as their elderly owners transition to new living arrangements or begin to have difficulty keeping up with the animal’s care. Yet, for many seniors, their pets are their closest family members, the givers of love and companionship, their confidants and even their reason to live. The loss of their pet can lead to grief, despair, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and a decline in health for the elderly person. Problem: Families may be prematurely surrendering these pets because they are unaware of resources that may help keep an elderly person and their beloved pet together. Intervention: This article explores potential resources that can be utilized and details the benefits derived by the elderly when their pet is allowed to remain with them. Many programs exist all over the country to assist the elderly in keeping their companion animals.  Local SPCAs, humane societies, senior centers, area senior programs, veterinary clinics, hospice groups and churches provide assistance such as food, vet care, dog walking, and emergency housing. Outcome: All caregivers should become aware of what is available in their area and work with families to keep the elderly and their companion animals together. The result will be improved health and happiness for both the senior and their pet.

Goodbye, old friend.

They stood side by side.

dogs waiting 1 (2)

Two old dogs had just been surrendered.  Their elderly owner had become too ill to care for them, and a family member had brought them to the animal shelter.  The dogs stood shoulder to shoulder, alert by the cage door, eagerly awaiting the return of their beloved owner.  That is when I spotted them, and my heart broke.

As a volunteer in a local humane society, I see it all too often – the old dog or old cat sitting in a cage at an animal shelter after having been surrendered by a family member. They look so hopeful at first, especially the dogs. They think every person walking in the door might be their owner. Unfortunately, the truth starts to settle in as the days go by.

When I saw the pair of old dogs again, they still waited by the door, but they did not stand quite as tall.  It was as if they were beginning to suspect the truth.  Their best friend was not coming for them.  No one was coming for them. For whatever reason, their family could not see a way to keep these loyal and loving companion animals within the family.  Instead, they were surrendered to terrifying and uncertain futures. Worse, this did not need to happen.

For these two old dogs, I could not help but mourn. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 5 to 7 million companion animals enter shelters each year in the U.S.  Of those, about 60% of dogs and 70% of cats are euthanized (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2015). This is a fact, I believe, that many surrendering family members do not realize or consider.

Additionally, older pets (especially cats with little socialization to anyone other than the owner) often do not adjust well to the separation and may be deemed unadoptable. Mom or Dad’s beloved cat or dog will likely NOT find another loving home, especially if they are senior pets.  More often than not, they will die alone and afraid.

I mourn as well for the dog’s elderly owner. It is highly likely that this person is grieving deeply over the surrender of their pet. For many seniors, their pets are their closest family members, givers of love and companionship, confidants, and even reasons to live (Tunajek, 2009). For the elderly, their pets might be the only reason to get up in the morning.


In turn, their companion animal is devoted to them and wants nothing more than to be fed and lovingly cared for throughout the day. They are a barrier against loneliness, depression and hopelessness that can add years of health and happiness to an elderly person’s life (Tousley, 2014).  What happens to their pet after they are given up can become a major issue for the senior. Often, the welfare of their “best friend” becomes a greater concern than their own welfare (Duno, 2013).

The elderly face so much loss.  Their declining health, the loss of their independence, busy children, and the death of friends can lead to isolation, loneliness and fear (Tousley, 2014).  It is no wonder that seniors develop such rich relationships with their pets.

Pets give elders a sense of being needed and a reason to keep active, while providing companionship and unconditional love.   Without their pets, there may be no one to talk to, to sleep beside or provide for. Until we understand the significance of these relationships, we cannot begin to measure the grief and despair experienced by the elderly when forced to give up their pets (Tousley, 2014).

In fact, seniors are telling us they want their animals living with them. According to the last Harris poll, 68% of people aged 66 and above reported that dogs should be allowed in hospitals, and 89% felt they should be allowed in long-term care facilities (Harris Interactive, 2011). Knowing all of this, what can caregivers do to help maintain the relationship between the elderly and their pets?  The first thing we should do is educate ourselves on the incredible health benefits of companion animals.

Of importance is a growing body of evidence that points to pet ownership as having a positive effect on cardiovascular health, in addition to its socio-emotional benefits.  Owning a pet is associated with better one year survival rates after a heart attack, fewer health complaints and fewer trips to the doctor (Fine, 2010). This is not new news! Twenty years ago, another study found that elderly pet owners reported less distress and fewer doctor visits than those who did not own pets (Siegel, 1990). In fact, in one study published as long ago as 1980, one year survival rates after a heart attack showed that 28% of patients without pets died, while only 6% of the patients with pets died (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch, & Thomas, 1980).

There have even been several studies done on coronary care patients that show the mortality rate of patients with a pet was one-third of those who did not have pets.  Blood pressure and heart rates are lower when a pet is in the room, and some patient’s blood pressures fall below resting rates when they gently pet their animals. Since loneliness is thought to be a major contributor to heart disease, having a pet can contribute to better coronary health (Roy & Russell, 2006).

Pets may also buffer stress, which becomes especially apparent in a time of illness (Staats, 2006).    Pet interaction has been found to lower stress hormone levels and boost other chemicals that produce feelings of happiness. Excess stress contributes to skin diseases, diseases of the respiratory tract and a decrease in immune function (Tunajek, 2009).

People may need pets most when they are in need themselves. While the role of pets is recognized as hugely important to many people, pets have been shown to be most valued at times of crisis, loss, and adversity.  During these times, companion animals provide social and emotional support, love, and a feeling of security – in short, an improved atmosphere for coping (Cain, 1985). A 2011 study showed pet owners exhibit better self-esteem, exercise more, and suffer less loneliness than non-owners (McConnell, Brown, Shoda, Stayton, & Martin, 2011). This same study showed pets as having a similar positive effect as a best friend when a person was faced with a social rejection, loneliness, or isolation.

cat-saves-man (2)

It is especially agonizing when there is a forced surrender of a valued pet. The loss of a pet amid other losses, such as illness or displacement from the home, can have a cumulative effect and grief can be especially strong (Walsh, 2009).  Not only can the surrender of a pet be bad for the health of the elderly person, but keeping companion animals is profoundly good for their health.

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, was an early believer in the importance of pets for the sick and suffering.  In 1898 she wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room. If he can feed and clean the animal himself, he ought always to be encouraged to do so (Nightingale, 1898).  Nurses have known for almost 120 years that it is important to maintain the human-companion animal bond!  As such, finding out how we as caregivers can help keep pets with their seniors is the second thing we should be doing. All it takes is a little research.

Luckily, now more than ever, there are organizations and services to turn to for help.  The best place to start is your local humane society or other animal sheltering agency.  My own local shelter, the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, MA, provides emergency temporary boarding services which can be utilized for an elderly owner’s hospitalization or temporary rehabilitation.  It provides free food from its pet food bank for those unable to afford to feed their companion animals.  They are also a resource for the myriad problems that can arise with keeping an animal in the home.

If your local Humane Society or SPCA can’t help, there are many other programs available across the country.  Check with your local senior center, area senior programs, veterinary clinics, hospice groups, churches and the internet.  Programs exist, but too few people know about them.

For example, California boasts many programs to support the human-animal bond in the elderly population. In Marin County, there is a website for sponsors to donate money towards a senior’s pet care (Best Friends Animal Society, 2009).  This allows the Marin Humane Society to administer a program called SHARE that delivers pet care assistance to seniors, including pet food delivery, transportation to the veterinarian, dog walking, litterbox maintenance, and emergency boarding (The Marin Humane Society, 2011). Farther south in California, a program in Los Angeles called the PAWS/LA P.A.C.E. program is designed to help keep disenfranchised seniors and their pets together and offers services similar to SHARE. The LA group services over 1,700 animal guardians and their 2,000+ companion animals (Pioneers for Animal Welfare Society, 2011).

In New York, the JASA PETS Project is dedicated to helping keep seniors and their animal companions together.  The organization pairs volunteers with elderly pet owners to meet the needs of the specific person and pet.  The volunteers are supervised by a social worker who has specific pet care experience or training. Volunteers help with dog walking, litterbox cleaning, veterinarian appointments, pet food shopping, and pet sitting, among other things.  The organization is even able to provide medication administration for pets and help with providing for pets in the event of the death of the client (Jewish Association Serving the Aging, 2015).

PetPALS of Southern New Jersey, formed in 1995, is dedicated to helping pets and their owners stay together for “as long as practical” (PetPALS of Southern New Jersey, 2010).  They offer in-home pet care, pet food, supplies, veterinary care, grooming, transportation, foster care, and adoption assistance when an owner dies or is unable to maintain his pet (Drake, 2014). Not far away, a Long Island group named PAWS runs a similar program called SWAP (Seniors With Animals Project) (Pioneers for Animal Welfare Society (PAWS/LI), 2011).

In Texas, the Seniors Pet Assistance Network provides low-income seniors with veterinary assistance and pet food.   It is a volunteer resource to Dallas area senior organizations and will provide help with basic veterinary care such as shots and flea medication.  Additionally, they will deliver a month’s worth of pet food at a time to seniors (Seniors Pets Assistance Network, 2012).

In Florida, the Pet Project for Pets is dedicated to preserving the human-animal bond for people with debilitating or life threatening diseases.    They offer a pet food bank with home delivery, discounted veterinary services, transportation and temporary foster care, among other services.  This is a completely volunteer driven organization servicing the South Florida area (The Pet Project, 2015).

On a national level, the Banfield Charitable Trust has been addressing the growing need to keep pets and families together since 2004.  Working with a wide array of organizations, they are able to offer a variety of programs to help struggling pet owners (Banfield Charitable Trust, 2013).  In addition to providing for emergency vet care and food, Banfield administers a program called Pet Peace of Mind for pet owners in hospice. They provide a wide range of services to help keep a companion animal in the home during its owners last days, working with hospice providers across the country (Banfield Charitable Trust, 2013).

Finally, the Humane Society of the United States administers a program called Pets for Life.  It is a program dedicated to keeping pets in the homes they already have.  While not specifically for elders, they partner with local welfare agencies to provide free dog training, vaccinations, pet supplies and general wellness care (Humane Society of the United States, 2015).

The ASPCA reminds us to encourage seniors to plan for the future of their companion animals while they are still able to do so.  The ASPCA website has an excellent guide to planning for the ongoing care of beloved companion animals.  It provides guidance in setting up a pet trust as well as making both formal and informal arrangements for the future care of pets (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2015).

I will never know what happened to those two old dogs.  But I do know this – all across the country, these programs and many others, help to keep pets and seniors together. More are popping up every day all around us.  It’s just a matter of spending a little time to see what is available in your area!! Education is the important first step!  We must educate those we care for and their families on the benefits of keeping companion animals with their senior owners (or at least within the family).  We must let them know there are resources available to help a senior keep an animal in their home if the elder can still provide basic care.  We must let them know the harsh realities of surrendering companion animals, both for the elderly and for the pet.  Let’s work together to help keep the elderly and their “best friends” together! As Florence Nightingale said, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion” (Nightingale, 1898).

The Caregiver’s Journal thanks Karen Davis, MSN, MBA, RN, CAPA at the University of Hartford for sharing this article with our readers.


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