Tuesday , 12 December 2017

Dr. Amanda Glew: Dealing with Older People and Older Animals

My father in law is recently deceased.  As I am beginning to realize, this causes a chain reaction with the remaining spouse – housing arrangements, travel changes, finances and of course, dealing with animals.  As a vet, I have often encountered situations when a family member has to make a decision about an animal left behind. Unless it is stipulated in your will what you want done, often the fate is left to an executor who may not be animal oriented, and sees your pet as a liability, an item to dispose of.  Sometimes this happens before the person is deceased.

I was at the clinic and was to see a new client, a daughter accompanied by her mother. I was unsure who the owner was, but quickly realized by the tone of voice that the mother was not in possession of all of her faculties. The dog was an older poodle, in good shape except for dental disease, a few warts, and eyesight that was slowly deteriorating.  The reason for the visit was the animal was “not well” a generalization, which often accompanies older animals.  A few blood tests later, I was baffled. The dog was fine!!! I returned to the client perplexed, in order to get a little more history.  At this point, the daughter asked me to wait a moment, and escorted her mother to the waiting room. On her return, the purpose of the visit became clear.

“Can’t you pretend the dog has cancer?” was the request. I was in shock, and requested clarification. “Do you mean you want me to say your dog has a terminal illness? Why would you want this?” I was soon to find out that the mother, suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, lived with the daughter. The dog was used to living with the routine of an elderly person. Suddenly, placed in a busy family environment, he responded by excessive vocalization and occasional inappropriate house soiling. The husband (who of course was not present) had laid down an ultimatum. “Well, if you cant say he has a disease, if I book him in for a dentistry, could you at least pretend he died under the anesthetic?”

My initial response was anger at this new request. I had to leave the room to voice my concern with colleagues, and plan an appropriate response. Clearly the people did not want the dog, but could not face the emotional fragility of the elderly mother, so felt they needed some sort of “disease” in order to justify euthanasia. One of our staff workers, who had been nursing her mother with end-stage Alzheimer’s, was horrified. It became apparent there is a need for foster homes for older animals whose owners can no longer care for them. Which now has led me to counsel older clients to have this written in their living will, and not for just when they pass away. Keeping older animals is costly, and an allowance should go along with the animal to make it easier for the foster owners to maintain it.

My staff went out to advise the owner about support groups who had helped her with her mother. The final decision was that the dog was to return, with crate training and anti-anxiety medication to aid the animal in adapting. If there was a problem, I suggested that the husband come and meet me to discuss it further. In person. One on one. No dog. If he dared.

Of interest, when we returned the little dog to the older woman in the waiting room, she burst out in tears. When asked why she was crying, she told us she had been sure she would never see her companion again. This caused us all to cry in sympathy, and pray that things would work out.  I have yet to meet the husband.

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  1. I provided for each dog in my pack when I set up my estate provisions. This is particularly important if animals come from reputable rescues, which often demand that an animal be returned to them if the adopter can no longer care for it. In that case, the agreement and consent of the rescue is required if the animal is to be cared for by another person.

  2. This is exactly why ElderDog Canada was founded. It came out of a national research project that showed the importance of the companion animal human bond to Alzheimer’s patients and to their caregivers. Too many dogs have been abandoned, breaking both their hearts, and their seniors, because of situations like this. ElderDog works to keep seniors and their dogs together as long as possible, and when that is no longer an option (through death, or going into care), then to foster and rehome the dogs. We are a new, national organization, all volunteer. Check out our website: http://www.elderdog.ca

  3. This is a very important topic and one that should be addressed in conversations by both elderly animal owners, and the not so elderly – all of us: it is crucial to make provisions for our companions but the care of animals must not be “assigned” or “assumed” without a conversation – the person we ask to take over guardianship must be in agreement to take on this responsibility or be willing to make suitable arrangements if their personal circumstances later change. One of the things that I found most disturbing in this anecdote was that this was a first-time visit – ideally these discussions would be had with a veterinarian who has a reasonably long relationship with both the owner and the animal. I made it a priority to keep her dog with my mother through her loss of autonomy; unfortunately, there came a time when her care was being compromised in order to keep the two of them together. I understand this family’s dilemma and I hope that with medication and support they too will be able to keep this mother with her canine companion for a little while longer. It is good to know that an organization like ElderDog exists.

  4. P.S. the possibility that a dog may eventually need to live with someone else should be great motivation to undertake training and ensure excellent canine manners…it is so much easier to integrate a well behaved dog in a household than a spoiled animal that requires a great deal of re-training.

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