One of the unexpected changes that COVID brought to our culture is a tremendous increase in house pets. During 2020, there were puppy shortages everywhere, and nobody saw that coming. Betsy and I both grew up in homes that had dogs, and in her later years Betsy’s mother wished dearly that she could have had a small dog, but her mobility would have made caring for a pet very difficult.
It’s fairly common for family caregivers to care for a loved one that has a dog or cat. Pets can be rewarding or challenging, depending on the home situation and the animal in question. If your loved one has a beloved dog or cat that is well socialized and comfortable with you and others, you might not have any problems…unless you are allergic to pet dander! When your biggest problem is cat hair on your black pants or a friendly dog that pesters you constantly for affection, you can probably manage this situation easily. But if the pet is anxious or aggressive, you have a different story entirely. In cases like this you need to set boundaries for your own safety as well as the safety of your loved one and other visitors to the home.
Dogs (and sometimes cats) that have lived in isolated settings with older family members can become very protective of their owners when others come to visit or give care. Older animals are even harder to train to accept new people in the home. Advanced age affects animals much as it does people, and if your dad’s dog can’t see, hear, or smell like she once did she could feel afraid and overly protective of her “person” if your dad can’t do the things he once did to care for her. Fear, anxiety, and confusion can lead to loud, sharp barks and snapping teeth, and this can create an unmanageable environment for the family caregiver or other support services entering the home to provide wellness checkups, therapy, or hospice care.
If the pet cannot be put outside in a contained area, having a crate or a separate room for the pet to be in while strangers are in the home can protect both pets and visitors. It’s good if your pet is already familiar with the crate prior to needing this intervention strategy so that it will feel more familiar and less like a penalty box. If your pet is not already crate trained, start this process with lots of little treats to give as incentives for entering the crate, and try not to leave your pet confined for long periods of time. A walk or active play period before strangers come to the house is also a good idea, so your pet is tired and ready for a rest. In the worst case, you might need to consider letting an aggressive pet go to live with another family member if no other solution can be found, but this should truly be a last resort, and hopefully the pet can come for frequent visits.
Pets give older adults companionship, comfort and joy. They break up the monotony of social isolation to some extent, providing loving nuzzles, comic relief, and unconditional love. But when in-home care is needed, pets can also require strategic action for successful caregiving.
Betsy and I hope you will join us this week at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about navigating pets while giving care.