Ask the Expert: Thinking Through Pet Ownership

My mom is 82 years old and lives alone in her home of 30 years. My dad passed away two years ago, and mom has been talking about getting a pet to keep her company. She had dogs growing up and likes the idea of having a companion. I am just not sure she will be able to take care of a pet. Any suggestions?


Pets can indeed make excellent companions; however, with pet ownership comes a great deal of responsibility. It is understandable that your mom feels a void in the home and would be looking to fill that gap. You are in a great position to help her logically think through
her decision. 

On the positive side, pets have been shown to be a source of joy and companionship to older adults. Emotionally, research has shown benefits to having these furry companions, including less depression and loneliness. Some studies have shown physical benefits as well, such as increased physical exercise (walking the dog) and lowered blood pressure (stress relief). However, there are some potential negatives to be aware of. Animals tend to get underfoot, and thus there is an increased fall risk. Leashes can easily get tangled around feet and ankles. Some pets tend to run, and chasing after that pet can potentially lead to falls as well. It is important to consider your mom’s mobility when thinking about pet ownership. 

The National Council for Aging (, promotes pet adoption for seniors. They list the top six reasons as:

Calmness: A pet can relieve stress and anxiety.

Companionship: A person will not be alone.

Daily Exercise: Establishing a healthy routine.

Purpose: A pet can add meaning to life and make a person feel needed.

Security: Thieves are less likely to rob a house with a barking dog.

Staying Social: Taking a pet on walks or to public places including the vet, groomer, pet store and dog park promotes socialization.

There are adoption programs that will help match seniors to the ideal pet. Many times, these are older pets. If the pet is not a good fit, many organizations will take them back. This would be key if she chose to go this route. It is important to have a backup plan for the potential pet. If your mom’s health or living situation changes, who will care for it? If your mom has a disability, a service dog might also be an option. Many facilities and community centers have pet therapy programs that might be beneficial as well.

Here are some other points of discussion to consider: 

1. Is the environment conducive to the pet? Is a fenced yard (or another special accommodation) needed?

2. What will the related expense for pet care be? Is this realistic for your mom’s budget?

3. As mom gets older, who will care for the pet? What is your succession plan?

4. Who will the vet be? How will the animal get there if mom no longer drives?

Ultimately, to work it needs to be a good fit for mom and the pet. If this is not the case, then maybe one of these alternatives would be better:

1. Consider a robo-pet for companionship:

2. Have your mom volunteer at a local animal shelter or pet boarding facility.

3. Set up visits with a local therapy dog owner who can provide home visits. 

4. Inquire about a neighbor or friend who might need some help pet-sitting from time to time.

There are many emerging programs that involve pets and older adults. Talk to your local senior center, community center, or area agency on aging to find out what might be available in your mom’s area. You might find that there is a solution to get your mom the companionship she desires from a pet without having to tackle the full responsibilities of becoming a pet owner.


by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA