When Your Loved One Can’t Care for a Pet

What to do about pets when a loved one has Alzheimer’s is a delicate issue. Here’s some guidance to help you make the right decisions.

By Winnie Yu

For Rose Holland, Sparky was a constant companion who kept her company after Rose’s husband died 11 years ago. But when Rose developed Alzheimer’s and her memory got worse, taking care of the miniature chihuahua became increasingly difficult. Family members noticed that Sparky was gaining weight, while Rose was becoming thinner. Rose often fell when she picked up Sparky and tripped over his leash when she took him outside.

Pets can be wonderful therapy, but they require care and maintenance.
Pets can be wonderful therapy, but they require care and maintenance.

When her memory deteriorated, Rose’s family placed her in Autumn Leaves, an assisted-living facility in McKinney, Texas, where she was allowed to keep Sparky. But the problems didn’t go away. “She would stay in her room with the dog because she worried about him running away or somebody taking him,” says her granddaughter, Jamie Lopez, vice president of healthcare at Constant Care, the company that runs Autumn Leaves. “And at meal time, she couldn’t take the dog with her, so she’d ask to have the meals sent to her room.”

On top of losing weight, Rose had stopped socializing. Her family grew worried. Finally, in the fall of 2011, after consulting with other caregivers, Lopez and her mother and siblings decided to let another caregiver at Autumn Leaves take Sparky. These days, Sparky visits Rose once or twice a week and lives with the caregiver. Rose, now 88, has gained back 12 pounds and is socializing again.

A Delicate Balance

It isn’t easy when a loved one with Alzheimer’s can no longer care for a pet. The companionship and love that comes with having a pet must be weighed against any health and safety issues that arise from the responsibilities of owning a pet.

Mike Kiger, of Lake Oswego, Ore., for instance, couldn’t imagine separating his mom, Katie Kiger, 81, from her dog Keemac. So when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in November 2011, his brother agreed to let her live with him and his wife. “We were told that if we were to take her dog away from her that she would go down quicker,” Kiger says. “She needed the dog for therapy, and the dog needed her. She would be completely lost if we had taken her dog away from her.”

But as any pet owner knows, having a pet is a responsibility that involves feeding, walking and bathing, tasks that can be a challenge when memory and balance are compromised.

Lopez says her family struggled with the decision to separate her grandmother from Sparky. “Looking back, we knew what had to be done, but it was hard to recognize that when we knew how beneficial the dog was,” Lopez says. “In fact, I think it was harder on us than it was on her. We had so much guilt about taking Sparky away. Sparky has been her lifeline since my grandfather died.”

Having a pet is a responsibility that involves feeding, walking and bathing, tasks that can be a challenge when memory and balance are compromised.

What to Do

Whether to remove a pet from a person with Alzheimer’s requires careful thought and consideration. The key is to be honest about the situation and what needs to be done, Lopez says. Here’s what you should do:

• Pay attention to signs that the pet’s care is compromised. One of the biggest tip-offs is a change in weight. People with Alzheimer’s may struggle with remembering whether they fed their pets or forget that they did. Other signs include frequent accidents in the house, which indicates the pet isn’t being taken out regularly.

• Take your cues from your loved one. Does your loved one resist the idea of separating from her pet? Or is she becoming agitated by the animal’s unpredictable behavior? Although health and safety are important considerations, it’s also important to look at her behavior around the pet and to consider what she wants.

• Choose your words wisely. Lopez said her grandmother wouldn’t listen when family members first suggested removing Sparky. “She didn’t see that feeding the dog was a problem or that if she fell it was the dog’s fault,” Lopez says. “But she was much more receptive to the idea when we told her, ‘We know you want Sparky to get a bath every three days and to go the park every day.’”

• Find ways to get hired help if you choose to keep the pet. Ask the home health care aide to add pet chores to her responsibilities for a small fee. If there are friends or other family members nearby, ask if they could drop in and take the dog on a walk or change the cat’s litter box. If you must remove the animal, find ways to arrange visits, so the pet remains a presence in your loved one’s life.