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Growing old with your pet
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PHOTO BY SEFTON IPOCK photos by Sefton Ipock/Independent Mail Jeff Bell feeds treats to rescue dogs as his wife, Caroline, sits nearby. Caroline Bell places dogs owned by senior citizens who can no longer care for them and advocates for owners to include their pets as they make arrangements for aging.

By Sarah Freishtat - Anderson Independent
Published March 16, 2014

Pat Dotson’s mother lived for her little Chihuahua after she got sick.

While Dotson’s mother was rehabilitating at Anderson Place nursing home, she looked at Cassie through a window when Dotson brought the little dog by. When her mother was well enough, she would sit and play with Cassie, Dotson said.

Dotson’s father had died, and Cassie gave her mother a reason to want to get well, Dotson said.

So when her mother died, Dotson did not know what to do with Cassie.

“They loved that dog so much, but they never thought about what would happen to Cassie if they couldn’t take care of her,” Dotson said.

So Dotson turned to Caroline Bell with Oconee Animal Rescue, and Bell ended up keeping Cassie. Bell also has a business helping the elderly and their families prepare for their later years, and knows how to work with animals and seniors.

Bell estimated Oconee Animal Rescue has found new homes for more than 200 dogs since mid-2011. Many of the dogs came from homes where one or both previous owners had died or moved to a nursing home where they were unable to take care of the pets.

For Dotson, it was a relief to know the dog that had brought her parents comfort would be in good hands, she said.

Cassie is not the first dog to help the elderly, but research about how pets actually affect a person’s health is mixed.

Pets provide social support to owners of all ages, according to a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 2011. Pet owners are more likely to have high self-esteem and be conscientious, and pets can help prevent negative feelings that can come from social rejection, according to the studies.

But an August 2011 study from Western Carolina University found the “pet effect” is a theory that has not been proven. And a November 2010 study from the Pew Research Center found those without pets are about as happy as those with pets.

According to the same Pew Research study, about 26 percent of those 65 and older owned dogs.

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PHOTO BY SEFTON IPOCK Caroline Bell holds her dog Coco as she talks about her work helping senior citizens plan for the care of their pets as they themselves age.
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PHOTO BY SEFTON IPOCK Cindy Lou Who is a rescue dog placed with Caroline Bell through her work with Oconee Animal Rescue. The nonprofit organization finds homes for dogs owned by seniors who can no longer care for them.

Dogs can be expensive, Bell said, and seniors may have a hard time keeping up with rambunctious pets and visits to the vet.

It can cost more than $530 a year to care for a pet, according to, a website that promotes adopting pets from animal shelters. It often costs more than that the first year, when new owners must purchase new supplies.

Toys and leashes may pose a tripping hazard, she added. Some assisted living facilities do not allow pets, so animal owners must plan ahead before moving into one.

“It has to be in a safe environment,” she said. “I’m not saying a dog can stay in place forever — it has to be safe.”

She often gets calls from seniors who have moved into a nursing home or from family members of a parent or sibling who has died. The callers do not know what to do with the animal left behind, she said.

She has taken many of those animals, and has been able to find new homes for many of them. She and her business partner, Sindie Crease, keep the rest, she said.

She is hoping to use property near her home on Hartwell Lake to build a “lost dog” sanctuary, she said.

Bell recommends seniors plan ahead to find a family member who will be willing to take care of the pet, either temporarily or permanently. Almost all nursing homes allow pets to visit, if they do not allow residents to keep a pet, so seniors should choose a family member who lives near and can bring the pet to visit, Bell said.

While Bell recommends seniors own an older pet — which is likely less rambunctious — she also says they should take into account that older dogs are harder to adopt into new homes.

In that situation, someone moving into a nursing home is best advised to find a sanctuary to keep their pet, rather than an animal shelter that may try to re-home the dog, Bell said.

Bell also said seniors should consider designating someone to have power of attorney over their pet, in case they are no longer able to take care of it.

Robert Tope, a veterinarian at the Electric City Animal Clinic who often works with Hospice of the Upstate, said seniors who own pets should ask their vet to make house calls, so the animal’s treatment is not neglected.

He worked with a couple in their mid-70s who had two kittens, he said. The couple put aside a fund for their cats.

He recommends putting between $300 and $400 a year in such a fund, he said.

“That would take care of if they (the pet) needed any type of dental care, or if they needed exams and vaccines,” Tope said.

Caring for a pet can be one of the first things overlooked if a senior moves into a nursing home or becomes ill, said Kathy Little, a spokeswoman for Hospice of the Upstate. That is why the hospice applied for a grant to help families care for pets, Little said.

“Those pets are so important to those patients at the end of life, and may be their only source of comfort and companionship,” Little said.

Bell is hoping to begin a pet foster program for seniors. Oconee Animal Rescue will place a pet with an elderly resident, helping cover the costs and taking care of the pet if the seniors want to travel.

“It gives them that opportunity to be able to keep and have an animal,” Bell said.

Follow Sarah Freishtat on Twitter @srfreish


  • Use a harness instead of a retractable leash to prevent tripping.
  • Make sure your pet has access to regular veterinary checkups, and have a plan in place if you cannot drive to the vet.
  • Own an older pet, or understand that younger pets can be rambunctious.
  • Take rambunctious or loud dogs to training classes to calm them down.


  • Identify assisted living facilities that accept pets.
  • Identify a close family member who will be willing to keep the pet and bring the pet to visit you, if possible.
  • Identify a shelter or sanctuary for the pet.
  • Designate a person to have power of attorney for your pet, and assign the pet a dollar value.

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