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Seniors Dogs & Humans
Companionship Through the Ages

Whether his correspondence comes via snail mail or email, Duncan, my father, closes it with love, and always includes the names of his dogs sending love my way. When I was younger, this sentimental touch made me laugh and sometimes embarrassed me. But over time, I came to appreciate this sign-off—an endearing reminder that a family is always the sum of its individual members, be they human or animal.

That’s why the real impact of Sasha’s demise didn’t hit me until I read an email ending in a simple “love, Mum and Dad.” Sasha had been 14, a good age for a Labrador, and now Duncan, 71, claimed he had finally reached a bad age to be thinking about another dog. Had the man who seemed incapable of a future without a dog by his side finally hung up his leash?

Many of my elderly clients crave the companionship of a dog. They love the responsibility, the reason for getting up in the morning, the easy conversation and the unparalleled emotions these creatures draw from us. But they fear not being physically able to care for a dog and not providing sufficient exercise. Most of all, they worry about who will look after their dog when they pass.

Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. When I contacted her regarding this dilemma, she was brimming with ideas. “What if middle schools and high schools had a program to train young people how to help the elderly care for their pets? Everyone wins. The elderly get help walking and feeding their pets. The young people get to cuddle with the dogs and feel useful. Throw in school credit, cross-generational friendships and you’ve got a terrific way to generate a sense of community in our increasingly isolated lives.”

Given that my father lives in rural England, I went with a different approach. “Why not adopt an older dog?” I asked. “Unlike a new puppy, what you see is what you get. They’re already housetrained and ready to go for walks.”

Truth is, older shelter dogs are always looking for good homes because they are more difficult to adopt. People see an older dog and wonder if they’ve been relinquished because of behavioral or expensive health problems. Connie had another great idea.

“What about a national registry for elderly pet owners? They could register when they adopt, alerting family and friends so that when they pass, there is a system in place to find new homes. This way, future adopters would know the reason for the pet’s abandonment.”

In fact, Dogs Trust, the largest dog-welfare charity in the UK, already has a free service known as the Canine Care Card, whereby they guarantee to take on the responsibility of caring for and rehoming a dog should the worst happen to its owner. Even if they cannot find a suitable home, they promise to look after the dog for the rest of its natural life.

How did I find out about Dogs Trust?

“You read my mind, son. There’s such a large hole in my life without Sasha. I still go out alone for our walk, talk to her, imagine she’s with me, but I hate walking alone. An older dog would be grand. Mind, she’d have to be good around sheep.”

There’s always been a period of mourning, time for my father to let the world know he was grieving a significant loss. Still, there’s hope for another dog in his future, a female no less. I wonder how long before a new name finds its way to the last line of his letters.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 75: Fall 2013
Nick Trout is a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. facebook.com/DrNickTrout
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Submitted by Frances | September 23 2013 |

You might want to also look at the Cinnamon Trust, which has a network of volunteers to help elderly owners care for and exercise their dogs, and can guarantee care in the case of hospitalisation etc.

Submitted by Kathy | September 25 2013 |

Great article. As someone who has worked with seniors and animal non profits for years, I could go on and on about this subject. Since this may not be the format to do that, I will say there is a great care plan for pets that the present person fills out for a caretaker if needed, it's kind of an introduction/love letter about their pet. It's at www.mypetdirective.com. Seniors and pets belong together!

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