home icon

Bad Dog or Wrong Owner? Challenging Pets for Anyone Aging in Place

Size, energy, noise, grooming needs and even health risks may rule out certain pet companions

By Debbie Swanson | March 27, 2013

Always a welcome companion, a pet can keep older adults active (and, therefore, healthier) and help them feel needed, loved and less alone.

But like any good relationship, the right match is crucial. Someone with limited dexterity, for example, might struggle to care for a cat that needs daily grooming and a sedentary adult may not be content with a dog that demands a daily mile-long walk.
 
(MORE: The 10 Best Pet Companions to Have at Your Side)

Here are some potential mismatches you might want to avoid as you search for a new pet, whether for yourself or a parent or other loved one aging in place:
 
Action Adventurers The traits that characterize a breed are part of its ancestry. The Australian shepherd has a long history as a sheep herder, the Dalmatian ran long distances escorting horse-drawn carriages and early Irish setters eagerly embraced hunting day.
 
While these breeds have been domesticated over the decades, they haven't lost their natural zeal. These dogs want to work and they want to move. "Aussies do best when they have jobs to do," says American Kennel Club spokesperson Lisa Peterson. "They require daily, vigorous exercise — more than a walk around the block or a romp in the yard. The Irish setter needs an extremely active owner. With its clown-like personality, it does well with a family that can provide a great deal of play time and exercise."

(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)

These active breeds may be fun, but it's best to steer clear if you're unfamiliar with obedience training, unable to get out for long walks or don't have ready access to a fenced-in area.
 
Constant Companions Cats have a reputation as independent, but some breeds are so people-centric they border on obsessive. "The Abyssinian needs to be with people — they want to play with you," says Joan Miller, outreach and education chairwoman at the Cat Fancier's Association. "They'll watch you cook and get up on the counter to see better." Similarly, the Japanese bobtail is a cat that wants daily playtime and will not be content sitting by himself.
 
Choose a different breed if you prefer a mellow cat, won't enjoy being followed around or are unable to engage in active daily play.
 
Low Hair, High Maintenance Most dogs and cats sport a fluffy coat, but hairless breeds have gained in popularity, partly to accommodate owners with an allergy to pet hair. The Sphynx cat and the Chinese crested dog are two companion animals sans fur. But that doesn't mean they have fewer grooming needs. Hairless breeds probably require more overall upkeep than their furry cousins.
 
Without hair to absorb normal oils, regular bathing is necessary to keep their skin healthy. The Sphynx, for example, requires as many as three baths a week, Miller says. If the Chinese crested doesn't get regular baths, its skin could break out. The task will be much easier if you acquire a pet that has already been trained to handle frequent bathing so be sure to ask the breeder or other seller about this before you make the purchase. Routine ear cleaning is another must for these pets, as wax collects easier in a hairless environment.
 
Don't go with a hairless breed if regular grooming is an issue, or if there'll be any difficulty lifting the pet in and out of the tub.
 
Beauty Queens At the other end of the spectrum, animals with long, sleek fur make elegant companions, but also require serious upkeep.
 
Cats like the Persian, Maine coon and Himalayan require daily combing to keep their locks luxurious. "You'll need to comb them with a wide-tooth comb to avoid mats," Miller says. "While you don't have to comb the entire cat each day, you do have to address the areas where mats occur — the armpits, belly and between the legs. And they need regular baths, as oils collecting in their fur will also cause mats."
 
Long-haired dogs, like the Maltese, collie or fluffy Great Pyrenees, require frequent brushing and snipping. Depending on the dog and the season, the need may be weekly or even daily. Also, while smaller dogs may perch on your lap, the bending, squatting and reaching needed to groom a larger dog can be a real physical workout. Enlisting a professional groomer on occasion can help, but these pets will still require some at-home care.
 
(MORE: 4 Fun Pets for Your Empty Nest)

An especially furry friend may not be the right choice for an owner who will have difficulty manipulating tools, is uncomfortable lifting and manipulating a pet or will not be able to keep up with brushing.

Noisemakers Part of the appeal of a pet is that it can break up the quiet of a house. Some serve this role better than others — and some serve it too well.
 
Certain dogs are known barkers, like the petite Chihuahua, the active Cairn terrier (and several of its terrier counterparts) and the ever-alert beagle. With an owner ready and willing to do the training, most dogs can learn to cease barking on cue.
 
Cats tend to be quieter companions, but the elegant Siamese and Burmese are known conversationalists when its owners are near. These cats will stay by your side, occasionally breaking into a feline monologue.
 
Don't choose a talkative breed if you live in close quarters, don't have the patience to train a barking dog or prefer a cat that's seen but not heard.

Look, but Don't Touch Quiet and low maintenance, reptiles and amphibians may seem like simple pets. But turtles, frogs, iguanas, snakes, geckos, horned toads, salamanders and chameleons are known carriers of salmonella, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fever and cramps. Elderly people, children and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.
 
Even a healthy animal may carry the salmonella germ, which is spread through direct contact. For owners, hand washing and cage cleaning are critical.
 
Don't choose a reptile if you want a pet that can be handled freely at any time, if your preference would be to let the animal wander out of its cage or if young children will be frequent visitors.