The Dilemma: ‘Am I too old for a new pet?’

dvm360dvm360 May 2020
Volume 51
Issue 5

Addressing this question with your elderly clients can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it’s important and requires careful attention.

older woman hugging dog

Yakobchuk Olena /

Dr. Marge Lee owns a successful small animal practice in South Florida. Many of her clients are older, part-time residents or “snow birds.” Recently, two of her long-time clients told her they wanted new pets, but both were concerned about these newer pets outliving them.

Dr. Lee’s initial response was along these lines: “Oh don’t be silly, you’re going to live a long time together with your pets.” But after giving the idea some careful thought, she realized there is no simple answer. Helping an elderly client make this decision calls for an in-depth discussion.

Helping elderly clients plan

Dr. Lee believes there is no reason to deny an elderly person the reward of living and joyously interacting with a companion pet. On the other hand, she understands that life‘s realities must be factored into this decision. If a client feels there’s a possibility that they may not outlive their pet, the veterinarian should be able to offer both assistance and viable options.

Dr. Lee scheduled appointments with both clients to address their concerns. Here’s the advice she offered:

  • Find out whether your children, or other family members or friends, would be willing to take on ownership of your pet after you’ve passed on. This requires serious and thoughtful discussion, and would benefit from a legal document outlining the agreement.
  • Formalize a document allowing a portion of your estate (if possible) to assist with upkeep and medical care for your pet.
  • Ask your veterinarian to consider being included in this document as the final arbiter of medical decisions for your pet.
  • If your pet has a chronic illness or behavioral issues and would not do well in another household, you may need to make the difficult decision to elect humane euthanasia.

The happy client

The first client is an elderly woman who has two middle-aged house cats. She lives alone with her pets, but is far from reclusive. This client felt Dr. Lee’s suggestions were very reasonable and helpful. She even asked Dr. Lee if she would consider being the final arbiter for her pet’s medical decisions.

The offended client

Dr. Lee’s second client is an elderly gentleman who currently owns a small terrier. He was quite offended that Dr. Lee, his pet’s long-time health care provider, would be so willing to recommend euthanasia. He also felt that if a friend or relative agreed to adopt his pet, there would be no need for a formal agreement. Dr. Lee was disappointed that this client disagreed with her recommendations, but she did her best to respond in an honest, ethical manner.

Do you agree with Dr. Lee’s approach, or do you feel this type of counseling should be handled by other professionals? Email us and let us know at

Dr. Rosenberg’s response

I feel very strongly that as veterinarians, we aren’t just animal caretakers. We’re also animal advocates. Our training and experience make us experts. When an animal is having an issue, whether it be medical, behavioral or one that requires some form of advocacy, it is our job to intervene.

Fortunately, Dr. Lee realized that clients inquiring about postmortem planning were not looking for comforting platitudes but rather sound directives. That is exactly what she offered them. The truth is, everyone won’t be happy after these types of conversations, but veterinarians should be prepared to provide valuable information when these inquiries arise.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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