Providing the best life for your senior or disabled pet

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For many pet owners, a dog or cat is not simply a pet, but rather a member of the family that is constantly by our side. In 2020, millions of people sought this deep level of companionship by adopting pets from shelters and purchasing from breeders. While demand may have surged because of the pandemic, many senior and disabled pets remain unadopted.

In reality, older pets can be wonderful additions to the family since many of them are already trained and have outgrown those tough, destructive phases. And pets with disabilities often have challenges which can be easily managed and allow them to function like any other pet. All pet owners will eventually face the reality of watching their own pets age, but there are some easy changes or adjustments that can be made to accommodate aging or disabled pets so you can continue providing the best life possible for them.

Key pet statistics

Pet ownership and adoption

  • 67% of all American households have a pet, with 69% of those having a dog and 45% owning a cat. (APPA)
  • Millennials account for the majority of pet owners, with 34% owning at least one pet. (APPA)
  • Approximately 6.3 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year (approximately 3.1 million dogs and 3.2 million cats). (ASPCA)
  • Approximately 4.1 million shelter animals are adopted each year (2 million dogs and 2.1 million cats). (ASPCA)
  • “Pet problems” (problematic or aggressive behaviors, pet grew larger than expected or unmanageable health problems) are the most common reason that owners rehome their pet, accounting for 47% of rehomed dogs and 42% of rehomed cats. (Open Journal of Animal Sciences)

Traveling with pets

  • 37% of pet owners travel with their pets. (Condor Ferries)
  • 2 million pets travel on airplanes each year. (Condor Ferries)

Senior pets

  • Senior dogs have about a 25% adoption rate, compared to 60%  for younger dogs. (ASPCA)
  • Senior pets are more likely to settle into a new home more easily than a younger pet. (ASPCA)

Making your pet more comfortable

For pet owners whose dog or cat is aging or physically challenged, modifications can be made to make it easier on the pet. From riding in vehicles to getting situated in their favorite spots around the house, there are plenty of options for making pets more comfortable.

Car safety and modifications

Pet car safety tips

According to the Center for Pet Safety:

  • Pets can be as distracting while driving as talking on the cell phone.
  • A pet’s carrier should not be buckled with the safety belt unless it is according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Allowing your pet to hang their head out of the window can increase the likelihood of road debris hitting their eyes.
  • Pet carriers should be placed behind the front driver or passenger seat if possible.
  • Harness extension tethers can actually cause more harm than good for pets and are not recommended for use by the Center for Pet Safety.

How to choose the best car safety products for your pet

There are several options available for car safety products for your pet. These products could help keep pets safer in the event of a crash:

  • Look for quality, crash-tested harnesses to restrain your pet while you are driving.
  • Harnesses typically come in two types: preventing distractions while driving or providing actual protection for your pet in the event of a crash. Select the crash protection types when possible.
  • If your dog insists on riding with their head out the window, try a pair of pet eye goggles to protect them from flying debris.

Will car insurance cover medical costs for your pet?

Pet owners may be curious if their auto insurance policy covers medical costs for pet injuries related to a car accident. It depends on your personal policy, but it is possible. Some insurance providers automatically include pet coverage in standard policies, but most don’t, so you should verify whether you need to purchase additional coverage and whether your insurance company offers it.

If you don’t have specific coverage for your pet and are the at-fault driver and your pet is hurt because of an accident, your collision insurance may cover part of your dog or cat’s medical expenses. If the accident is the other driver’s fault, you might be able to file a claim for your pet’s medical expenses and it is possible their liability coverage will pay for it. If you’re worried about covering medical costs for your pet after an accident, though, you’ll probably want to look for your own pet insurance.

Help your senior or disabled pet ride more comfortably

Here are some tips on things you should pack to help your older or disabled pet ride more comfortably with you when you travel:

  • An extra dog bed: Your older or disable dog may need more cushion for the ride than other dogs might, so an extra bed and blanket could help make them more comfortable.
  • Towels for accidents: Any pet can have stomach distress during car rides, but senior or disabled pets may be more prone, so bring disposable or washable towels to help with accidents.
  • A toolkit: If your pet relies on any equipment for mobility, be sure to pack a tool kit in case it needs to be adjusted.
  • Water: Keep your dog hydrated for the ride so they will be more comfortable.
  • Your pet’s favorite treats: If it doesn’t cause further distress with their stomachs, then try offering your pet their favorite treat to help with anxiety.

Home safety and modifications

There are modifications you can make around the house to help your disabled pet feel more at ease.

Things that can be dangerous to your pet at home

Certain things around your home can cause a hazard to any pets, but more so for pets that are older or disabled. Take care to keep your house as free as possible of these potential hazards, or at least strive to keep your pet from being able to access them:

  • Wires and electrical cords
  • Hazardous chemicals (especially in bathrooms and kitchens)
  • Holes or small spaces
  • Toilets
  • Small objects, such as strings or hard items
  • Raise the food bowl: By moving the bowl, you can make it easier for your pet to reach their food and ensure they are still getting adequate nutrition.
  • Place water bowls throughout the house: Instead of relying on one location, place water bowls throughout the home so they can always easily reach their water and stay hydrated.
  • Add pet steps or ramps: If your pet has a hard time jumping onto the bed or sofa, try adding pet steps or ramps to make it easier for them to walk up. If they struggle with steps, try ramps instead.
  • Use area rugs around the house: Cushioned rugs can decrease pressure on your pet’s joints and make it easier if they suffer from arthritis or other joint conditions.

Safety for pets with disabilities

Although any dog breed can experience health issues, certain breeds tend to have disabilities at a younger age. For example, Saint Bernards are known to have problems with hip dysplasia, while Basset Hounds often have to deal with bulging discs. But even with known health issues or disabilities, many pets go on to live long, happy lives while providing years of loyalty and companionship for their owner.

Types of disabilities

Vision

Like humans, senior pets are prone to cataracts and glaucoma. There are also instances where vision loss occurs at birth or as a result of an accident. If your pet is suffering from vision loss, you might find the following helpful:

  • Use of a halo collar to provide a barrier between your pet and other objects.
  • Keep furniture arrangements consistent. Your pet will memorize where the items are and it will help them avoid bumps or falls.
  • Limit the amount of sharp-edged furniture to prevent scrapes or severe bumps.

Hearing

There are numerous reasons a pet may succumb to hearing loss. Causes range from too many ear infections to brain tumors, but old age is definitely a factor. Deaf dogs live perfectly normal lives, but pet owners may find it helpful to:

  • Use vibrating remote collars (not the same as a shock collar).
  • Learn to use hand signals to communicate with your dog.
  • Use body language as a means of communication.

Mobility

Mobility issues in dogs can be caused by accidents, brain conditions and old age. There are plenty of ways to encourage your pet to move when possible and keep them comfortable, including:

  • Set up an area with plenty of padding and cushioning close to you, such as in a crate or in the form of an ultra-thick pet bed.
  • Help your dog change positions every four to six hours to prevent bed sores and promote circulation.
  • Take your dog outside by either carrying them or using a cart. Getting around outside is good for the dog’s muscle tone and well-being.
  • Pets with severe mobility issues might benefit from a wheelchair or leg braces. Finding the right one for your pet’s specific needs is definitely worth the investment and can dramatically improve your pet’s quality of life.

Hidden disabilities

Hidden disabilities, such as megaesophagus or epilepsy, may not be detectable by others, but pet owners do need to take extra precautions. Hidden disabilities also need their own special plan for dealing with the unique circumstances. Talk to your vet to create a specific plan for your pet around the home to keep them safe and happy.

Cost of caring for a senior or disabled pet

Caring for senior or disabled pets can be expensive. General pet care can become quite costly and adding the unique needs of a senior or disabled pet can increase these overall costs.

  • On average, dog owners spend $1,201 per year on pet care. (Statista)
  • Food makes up the largest expense at nearly half of the average pet owner’s budget. (Statista)
  • Vet care is typically the second-highest expense for pet owners with a quarter of the average pet owner’s budget going to these costs. (Statista)

What are some of the most common expenses?:

Although these are common expenses for any pet owner, those caring for a senior or disabled pet may find they are spending more in these categories versus other pet owners:

  • Special diet
  • Vet bills
  • Additional supplies
  • Pet insurance

Giving them the best life possible

One of the most admirable qualities of our beloved pets is how resilient they are even as they age or face a disability. As pet owners, we can help them by providing great care that is both worthwhile and consistent. With our care, they can go on to live full, happy lives despite any obstacles. While the average lifespan of dogs is anywhere from 8 to 15 years, the oldest dog on record, “Bluey,” lived to be 29 years old. While most dogs won’t live to be that old, there are some things you can do to ensure your pet has the longest and happiest life possible.

Tips for keeping your pet happy and healthy

Fortunately there are a few simple steps pet owners can take to ensure their pet has every advantage in life.

Proper nutrition

Look for premium pet food with balanced nutrition. You can also incorporate certain human foods into their diet, such as cottage cheese, cooked eggs, fruit and vegetables, although the amount should be limited. The food can be the dry or wet variety, and if you are unsure what is best for your pet, your veterinarian can provide guidance.

Exercise

Dogs depend on exercise to stimulate their minds and stay healthy. The amount of exercise and intensity depends on the breed, but dogs that engage in regular exercise are less likely to chew and destroy things out of boredom.

Regular checkups

Regular exams from a veterinarian should be included in pet care. Vets check for irregularities we may not be aware of on our own. A vet will examine your pet from head to tail and track any changes from one visit to the next.

Flea, tick and heartworm protection

Fleas, ticks and heartworms can pose serious health risks to our furry friends. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of preventative medicines available through your veterinarian to help prevent issues. Checking regularly for fleas and ticks during the warm season is also crucial.

Spay or neuter

Spaying and neutering may not be an option for all pets, especially pets with certain disabilities. However, when possible, sterilizing your pet can prevent them from running off or marking their territories. Most importantly, it can significantly reduce the chance of your pet developing reproductive infections or cancers, which could help them live a longer, happier life.

Give them a purpose

Pets thrive on feeling like they are meant to do something. Whether it’s guarding or training, giving your pets a purpose will help them fulfill their highest potential — and remain loyal to you until the end.

Resources

  • Financial: Carecredit.com offers credit options to cover medical expenses not paid for by pet insurance.
  • Care assistance: Companionbridge.org is an online community resource for pet owners whose animals are sick, disabled or require significant medical assistance.
  • Pet insurance: The ASPCA is one organization that offers pet health insurance.
  • Emergency vet bills: Oscar’s Cause helps pet owners with financial assistance for both emergency and non-emergency vet bills.
  • Grief management: The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement can help pet owners who have experienced loss get through it.
  • Adopt, foster or donate: Special need animal rescues can be a great place to search for your next pet companion.
  • Special needs pet equipment: HandicappedPets.com might be a great place to start if you need equipment for your pet.
Written by
Sara Coleman
Insurance Contributor
Sara Coleman has three years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, Reviews.com, Coverage.com and numerous other personal finance sites. She writes about insurance products such as auto, homeowners, renters and disability.
Edited by
Insurance Editor