When it’s Time to Give Up a Pet

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Helping our loved ones navigate the realities of aging — such as recognizing when it is time to give up the family pet — can be heart-wrenching. As life revolves full circle, you may find yourself in the position of taking away the dog from the very person who rounded out your childhood experiences by including a pet in the happy chaos.

A quick search of the literature includes exponentially more information to support the advantages of pet therapy for a wide range of disorders and diseases. However, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), baby boomers, the historically largest segment of the pet owners’ market (37 percent), are nearing a point where they are no longer able to care for a pet. So what happens when a dose of reality does not include the “hair of the dog”?

It is a heartbreaking dilemma for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or other debilitating diseases to consider a new home for their faithful companion. The physical and emotional stress that affects the patient and family caregivers can also adversely affect proper pet care. Some pets may even mirror the declining condition of their owners. Poor hygiene and worsening behavior may be a clue that your pet needs a change.

Other signs that it may be time to find a new home for your pet include:

• The physical condition of your loved one limits the ability to provide your pet with adequate exercise;

• Your loved one’s inability to drive or use public transit to purchase food and supplies or take a pet to the vet;

• Injuries incurred while attempting to care for a pet;

• Medical treatments that cause lethargy make it increasingly difficult to provide care;

• Numerous high medical bills that make your loved one financially unable to provide care, especially if your pet also has a serious medical condition requiring expensive treatment;

• Your loved one’s condition has changed their lifestyle so much that their pet is noticeably unhappy due to lack of attention, exercise or other care.

If you recognize these circumstances, it is always better to start executing a plan rather than to react in panic mode. It is so stressful when rallying around an aging family member and the juggling act includes what to do with the family pet. Though it is difficult to accept, don’t delay after coming to the conclusion that the pet needs a new home. Being an active participant in the re-homing of the pet is paramount.

Ultimately, asking a loved one to adopt the pet is usually the most ideal solution, especially since he or she is already familiar with the animal. Even if they can’t take the pet in, friends and family are also great resources for potential adopters. They might know a friend or co-worker who would be interested and can act as a valuable reference. Confirm that your pet has a clean bill of health from the veterinarian and is up-to-date on all vaccinations. This will undoubtedly increase the pet’s chances of adoption.

If your aging senior signed an adoption contract when they first got their pet, they may be required to return it to the same person or organization. Some rescue groups specify that an animal must be returned regardless of how much time has passed, so contact the organization to confirm.

Reach out to rescue organizations. They may have foster families available to take in your pet and/or help you interview adoption candidates to find the right home. To have the luxury of time to be a part of the re-homing process is a psychological comfort beyond measure. Ideally, a smooth transition could include play dates and overnight stays to help the pet with his/her new surroundings. Though you’ll pass on many of your pet’s supplies to the adopter — such as food and water dishes, favorite toys and bed — consider holding onto a keepsake, like a collar, that will serve as a reminder of the special role the pet served in your loved one’s life.

When the transition period ends and the inevitable occurs, your loved one will need support. Encourage your aging loved one to keep in touch with the adopter to receive updates to ease their anxiety over the well-being of their beloved pet. If you are the caregiver of someone who’s recently had to give up a pet, do your best to stay supportive. Don’t be afraid to talk about the pet; though it may seem insensitive, it’s often helpful to the grieving process to reminisce. Keep an eye out for depressive symptoms including fatigue, social withdrawal, loss of appetite or weight loss, loss of interest in hobbies and neglecting personal care. Giving up a pet is a devastating situation but when the pet’s well-being and your loved one’s own are at stake, it is the best choice for everyone.

Bob Roth, a Baltimore native and Pikesville High School graduate, is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions in Phoeniz, Ariz.

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