Dementia and Pet Care

Posted by Rachael Wonderlin on August 15, 2019

Our Guest Blogger, Rachael Wonderlin, MS, is a dementia care consultant living in Pittsburgh, PA. She runs a blog, Dementia By Day, and wrote a book called, “When Someone You Know is Living in a Dementia Care Community,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

When we talk about the concerning signs a person living with dementia may begin to exhibit early in the disease process, we always talk about “missing bill payments” or “forgetting to take a shower regularly.” One thing we don’t often talk about is declining pet care, which can be as much of a sign of dementia as any other task. For an aging loved one with a beloved pet at home, pet care can become an issue. Let’s talk about the ways that pets are influenced by someone’s cognitive abilities:

- Mom begins to overfeed her beloved dog

- Dad forgets to feed his parrot regularly

- Your spouse stops cleaning the cat litter box like they always had

- Fido needs regular medication, but your aunt doesn’t seem to remember if she gave it to him yesterday

Planning ahead, keeping track of information, preparing medications and food—all of these tasks require a person to have a good memory and great task-switching skills. A person living with dementia immediately begins to struggle with both of these things.

I remember one resident I had, Cathy, who absolutely adored her dog, Rex. Cathy loved him so much that she began to give him treats on a regular basis. Every time Rex came in from outside, she’d give him a treat…and Rex caught on to the pattern. Eventually, Rex began begging to go outside every 30 minutes. He knew that the second he came back in, he’d get a treat. This dog was no dummy: he knew what outside meant! Cathy’s daughter was getting concerned. “The minute that dog dies, mom is going to die, too,” she sighed heavily. “She relies on him, but I’m really worried that, for all she’s feeding him, he’s going to get so overweight that he has a heart attack.”

This is not an uncommon problem. Cathy’s daughter hadn’t really realized anything was wrong with her mom until she noticed that her ability to care for Rex had changed significantly. Now, there was a new issue: Cathy needed to transition to a dementia care community. I recommended to the family that they look for care communities that allowed pets. “Most communities that allow pets also have plans in place for the staff to assist with pet care,” I explained. “It usually costs a little extra, but if mom needs Rex, I’d look into it.”

Keep an eye out for changes in your loved one’s ability to provide pet care. Are they feeding the animal too often or not enough? Has the pet begun to urinate in the house? Has your loved one’s response to the pet changed? For example, is dad suddenly afraid of the cat when he never was before? I have had families tell me that their loved one suddenly seems as though they “don’t like” the pet anymore.

In situations where the pet is in danger of any kind, I always recommend that families look to send in extra help or move the pet to another house. I absolutely hate the idea of taking a pet to the vet to be euthanized or bringing it to a shelter when the owner can’t care for it anymore. Instead, see if a friend or family member can take over the pet’s care needs, even if it’s temporary. Look to see if a home care agency can come in and provide care, or if a local care community would take in both a new resident and their animal.