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Rethinking their final days

What we do for our aging family members

There’s not much that enrages animal lovers more than someone surrendering an elderly pet to a shelter. The stories, shared from one rescuer to another, are prime fodder for Facebook condemnation—that 9-year-old German shepherd purchased as a puppy; the 12-year-old cat who wandered onto the porch as a kitten; or perhaps the 3-year-old hamster the kids clamored for at the pet store. That pet no doubt gave her family the best years of her life, and this is how that devotion is repaid? Dumped at a shelter, scared and alone, left in the hands of strangers? What could be more cruel? Who are these callous, unfeeling people? They certainly couldn’t be worthy of the love and affection their now geriatric pet gave them. They must be monsters!

But what if there’s more to the story? What if the person has lovingly cared for their pet for years and now just can’t handle the expense or special needs of their aging companion? What if they truly believe that surrendering their senior pet to the shelter is the best way of caring for that pet? And what if, instead of condemning them, we looked for ways to support and assist them?

I have had many pets in my lifetime, some of whom passed away at relatively young ages (an unfortunate occupational hazard I know you all can relate to), and some of whom lived long, happy lives. They all gave me as much love as possible in their own ways, and I hope that they all felt loved enough in return. But as deeply as I have cared for each and every one of them, and as strongly as I feel that I would never, ever consider just giving them away, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t challenges, particularly as they got older.

My eldest current canine resident is Elphaba, a Cairn terrier I took in as an adult from a hoarding/puppy mill case more than ten years ago. She’s now somewhere between 13 and 16; her early history of neglect makes it impossible to tell. Elfie is the sweetest, kindest, most forgiving dog I have ever been privileged to meet, but she hasn’t exactly been “easy.” In her first two weeks of foster care, she pulled all of the plumbing out from under my sink—yup, you read that right. She also chewed through electrical cords, ruined furniture and generally created a swath of destruction everywhere she went (hence her name, after the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked!). But, she also stole my heart, and despite the thousands of dollars in repairs she cost me, I decided to adopt her. Once she settled in and seemed to move past her destructive phase (thank goodness!), the medical bills began, and while pet insurance would probably have been a wise move, it wasn’t something I had even considered. Among other problems, she had terrible allergies which required extensive diagnostic testing, multiple series of shots and medications too numerous (and expensive) to mention. This past Christmas, she was diagnosed with kidney failure, requiring specialty dog food costing more than $80 per bag (which she frequently refuses to eat unless she is being hand fed) and resulting in ever-increasing “accidents” (which my cat-person fiancé certainly does not appreciate!). Most distressing, she appears to be suffering from dementia. Some days she’s her normal, playful self; other days I carry her out to the yard and she doesn’t seem to know where she is. She recently spent a good month sleeping heavily all day and waking up barking repeatedly throughout the night, something I’ve discovered is sadly not uncommon for some elderly dogs. And even though I know that giving her a peaceful end when the time comes will be absolutely humane, I’m still dreading it.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories. It’s not a piece of cake, but we all know the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the downsides, and so we sign up anyway.  It comes with the territory, and we deal with it. It’s what we do for our aging family members.

At the same time, there is another very elderly member of my family suffering through an incurable disease; in his case, advanced prostate cancer and age-related dementia.  But unlike Elfie, my uncle isn’t at home being cared for in his final days by his family, he’s in a facility that specializes in providing expert care for elderly people in his condition. And frankly, it’s probably the best place for him. My cousins simply aren’t equipped to manage his ever-growing care needs. And to be honest, even if they were, it would undoubtedly be emotionally draining for them to watch him waste away, physically and mentally, each and every day. Maintaining some physical distance surely helps them cope with their pain. This is also what we do for our aging family members, day in and day out, for better or for worse, across America.

So why is it considered acceptable to place beloved elderly human relatives in a facility that’s specially equipped to be give them the care they need--but when pet owners do the same, they are roundly condemned? After all, aren’t many animal shelters full of professionals specially trained to meet the needs of an aging canine and feline population? Yes, it’s true that when surrendering a pet to a shelter, the owner is making the decision to completely cut off ties with that animal, while placing an elderly relative in a home certainly shouldn’t be considered an “ending,” but in some cases, for a variety of reasons, there are people who languish in facilities who receive few, if any visitors. Is this really that different? 

Maybe instead of judging, we can try, as hard as it might be, to identify with what that pet owner is experiencing, and ask ourselves—or better yet, them—what it was that caused them to decide to leave their elderly pet behind. Could they not afford the looming veterinary bills? Were they not familiar with the signs of dementia and ways to cope with them? Or perhaps they could see the end was near and just weren’t equipped emotionally to deal with inevitable, painful end-of-life decisions. The possibilities are endless, and don’t necessarily include a callous lack of caring for their pet.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not condoning or encouraging abandoning elderly animals (or people, for that matter). I would never do that to one of my beloved pets, and I know none of you reading this would, either. I’m simply saying that maybe, just maybe, if we try, we might be able to judge a little less, and sympathize a little more. And maybe by sympathizing, we can open ourselves to considering additional ways to help people support their geriatric pets and not feel that their only option is to give them up.

Many shelters have created “fospice” (a blend of fostering and hospice) programs for elderly relinquished animals, supplying the veterinary care, medications and special diets required to keep them comfortable in their waning days. Perhaps we could provide these same services for pet owners in our community well before they walk through our doors to surrender? We hold training classes for puppies—and now even kittens—in part to help cement the bond with their new owners. But do we offer classes that help pet owners better deal with dementia, arthritis and other geriatric ailments, or even how to look at quality of life and end of life questions? And how many of us work directly with local veterinary offices, offering support to people whose pets have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness or who have just reached that “certain age,” to ensure they feel equipped to give their pets that last gift, a painless death safe in the arms of the family who loves them?

I’m not excusing bad behavior. There certainly are pet owners who don’t think twice about giving up an elderly animal who has now become a burden. But I would guess that in your experience, just like in my time in the shelter, there have been many owners who struggled mightily with their decision to surrender their four-legged family members, who were deeply affected by the loss and who might have chosen a different path if they had been judged less and supported more. Maybe we don’t owe it to the pet owners to help them find ways for their pets to live out their few remaining days among the people they know and love. But I would think we all can agree that we owe it to those pets.  In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up Elfie’s accidents, hand-feeding her, and trying my best to keep her comfortable until it’s time to let her go.

About the Author

Inga Fricke is Director, Sheltering Initiatives and Outreach, at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  She has served on the Board of Shelter Animals Count, a non-profit organization formed to create and share a national database of sheltered animal statistics, and as Chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ CAWA Exam Preparatory Resources Committee. Prior to joining The HSUS, Inga served as Administrator of the Wyandot County Humane Society/H.O.P.E. Clinic, helping to found the Wyandot County Equine Rescue, and as Shelter Manager for Loudoun County Animal Care and Control.