Sorting out behavioural problems early may help the elderly to keep their pets - Veterinary Practice
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Sorting out behavioural problems early may help the elderly to keep their pets

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI believes that behaviour problems may cause older people to lose pets prematurely and urges the profession to make a concerted effort to stop this happening

APPARENTLY we have an “ageing population problem”. Those of us who’ve acquired “senior status” may not regard ourselves as particularly problematic but it seems that we are, simply because there are so many of us and we are getting ever more numerous.

As a consequence, many “baby boomers” who value the companionship provided by their animals may in due course need to seek out alternative living arrangements, where suitable facilities abound and everyday assistance is readily to hand. And unfortunately, herein can lurk a very real problem.

It’s not that retirement communities and care homes all refuse to accept pets along with people as in the past. Thanks to effective campaigning by such admirable bodies as the Cinnamon Trust (website plus the fact that where there’s a potentially lucrative market there are generally those willing to cater for it, more providers of “twilight support” will willingly do so.

Powerful incentive

We would perhaps wish there were yet more but with an increasing demand and the powerful incentive provided by greater numbers of comfortably-off pensioners, this is likely to happen. No, under these circumstances the difficulties are more likely to be encountered at the individual level.

Conditions usually apply when pets are accepted with ageing owners.

It’s great to know that an elderly person who has to relinquish independent living may have a better chance of avoiding also having to “say goodbye” to Fluffy, Spot or Candy. Positively terrific that they can move together into their new accommodation but, a significant but indeed, this is only likely to work well, if at all, when the behaviour of the companion animal is acceptable to all concerned.

This is only reasonable. It can be tough enough for neighbours when dogs bark all day in gardens or through party walls, constantly launch themselves through hedges or gaps in fences at any passing person or canine or bold, feisty felines invade nearby homes, beating up resident cats and, if their owners’ luck is really out, liberally spraying urine.

When not effectively addressed, issues like this can bring people to the point of war but importantly they often also demonstrate that the “miscreant” animal itself is far from “happy”. Its husbandry may be lacking, owner expectations unrealistic or it may be “a pain in the neck” to others not out of malice (although this may be how it is perceived) but because of initial management failures during the social referencing period or negative experiences since then.

Whatever the underlying factors, however, such issues will make it a poor candidate for living in retirement premises, no matter how spacious and well appointed or how understanding and tolerant other residents and staff may be.

Even worse are those pets whose house training has been unreliable at best or frankly unacceptable to anyone with “normal” expectations. This matters because many people either ignore their animal’s problematic behaviour or accommodate it – often over many years.

Tip of the iceberg

Hence the folks who long ago gave up issuing invitations because their homes reek of cats’ pee or those whose dogs are taken out, if ever, in the dead of night or to the remotest areas, where encounters with anything on two or four legs can be avoided.

As we are probably only aware of those owners of troublesome animals who inhabit the tip of the iceberg, there are an awful lot of them out there. What happens when these people age or become infirm for other reasons?

Undermining general care provision

Sadly, behaviourists, it appears, are increasingly being called in to advise care home staff when residents’ pets cause trouble – difficulties that can strain newly-established relationships at a sensitive time and even put the placement in jeopardy if a workable solution cannot be reached.

This is not only distressing but naturally increases the risk that those establishments where pets are welcome may decide this route isn’t worth pursuing – a situation where there will be many losers.

However, unresolved problem behaviour can also compromise the chances of ageing or increasingly disabled and frail owners receiving assistance in their own homes before ever they reach the stage where they choose or are forced into residential accommodation.

A well-behaved dog that walks nicely on the lead, obeys commands, can be trusted around children and not to soil its own or other people’s homes is a good candidate for additional support from friends and neighbours. It will lend itself to regular exercise and perhaps the odd sleep over with someone recruited from the owner’s social circle or more formally via a charity support group.

A canine that lunges at other dogs, people or cyclists, for example, or shrieks and barks throughout each outing is far less likely to find a queue of willing volunteers to help with its care when the need arises.

Similarly, people whose cats behave acceptably are better placed to seek support than those with pets that make extra work for carers or whose aggression strikes fear into the most robust of human hearts.

There are many reasons why we collectively should be proactive in helping clients identify and deal effectively with their pets’ problem behaviour, or better still prevent it in the first place.

So this may seem to justify a place rather low down the list. However, we live in a fluid, often fragmented society where animals for many provide an increasingly important and valuable source of emotional support.

Indeed, it is sadly too often the case that they provide the only actual companionship people can rely on. Studies also demonstrate the value of pets to isolated individuals and the distress owners can experience towards the end of their lives when parted from their animal companions.

Most of us not only care about our patients, we also have a reasonable regard for the welfare of their people. Therefore, with the number of elderly pet owners likely to increase, we will surely fail in our duty of care all round if we don’t make more of a concerted effort to help clients sort out their pets’ behavioural difficulties as early as possible.

That’s when we’re more likely to succeed than way down the line when our options are more limited and the stakes considerably higher.

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