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Extent of Pain felt by Elderly people Parted from Pets on Entering Residential Care

Originally Published 22 November 1999
University of Warwick psychology researchers Dr June McNicholas and Dr Glyn Collis have just published a paper on the role of pets in the lives of older people which finds that pets benefit them by companionship, increased levels of activity, and better person-to-person interactions by pets acting as social catalysts. They also found that pets help the elderly maintain self-care routines, eg sticking to regular meals, keeping up adequate room temperatures, and an added reason to make shopping trips.

The researchers also found that pets can provide valuable support during the early stages of bereavement through stability of daily routines, providing a comforting presence at a time when people feel a great sense of loneliness and as a repository of memories of the deceased spouse. Pets can also provide a confidant for the outlet of painful feelings at times when its uncomfortable to share with humans. Unfortunately, growing older also increases the chance of events leading to pet loss. In particular, health problems can lead the elderly to hospitalisation or into residential care. Many care facilities do not cater for pets and the researchers found several problems faced by elderly people parting with pets on entering residential care.
  • Residents who had owned pets immediately before entry showed significantly more negative feelings toward the move; were less likely to regard the residence as 'home' and took longer to adjust to routines within the home and to 'feel settled'.
  • Former pet owners took longer to make friends, and were more likely to avoid joining social activities
  • Former pet owners reported more difficulty in sleeping at the time of entry, took longer to establish regular sleeping patterns and were more likely to require sleeping tablets during the adjustment time
  • They were reluctant to confide in staff the reasons for their unhappiness, believing that their feelings would be trivialised, or just not understood. Each pet owner had believed his or her relationship to be so special that it was beyond the comprehension of others to understand the sense of loss felt

Keeping a pet may be one of the few things a resident can do for himself/herself and retains links with their former lifestyle. Clearly there are many potential residents who do wish to keep their pets if they move into residential care. In market terms there is a popular demand. Homes that permit pets frequently have waiting lists. In these days of competing for residents, a well thought out policy on pets can be an important factor in choosing a residence, as well as helping to avoid needless distress caused by failure to address the issue.Permitting visiting animals such as PAT dogs, or the keeping of a communal pet such as a 'home cat' should not be seen as an alternative to permitting a personal pet. Although much enjoyment can be given by such animals, they are not a substitute for the unique relationship with one's own pet. Many of the homes reporting distress in residents at the loss of a pet permitted visiting animals and/or had communal pets. These did nothing to alleviate the personal distress felt by those having lost their pets.

On a positive note the researchers reported that more homes do now allow pets. In a survey conducted in Wales this year it was found that nearly two thirds of homes had clear policies on pet ownership and, of these, three quarters permitted residents to keep personal pets.

For further information please contact:

Dr June McNicholas, Dept of Psychology, University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76 523759 email:

Dr Glyn Collis, Dept of Psychology, University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76 523182 email: