November 12, 2012 — (Note: See our followup to this article, “The X Factor in Retirement“, which recapped comments made here). Americans love their pets, there is no getting around that. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the USA is the overwhelming pet capital of the world. The WSPA reports that in 2007 we had 67 million dogs, more than twice as many as Brazil, which had the second highest number. And when it comes to cats we are even crazier – our almost 84 million cats outnumber Russian cats by more than 4 times (Russia holds 2nd place in the cats race with 18 million cats). The number of pets reported by WSPA seems higher than those from Petfinder.com, but they are directionally similar. Petfinder reports that 57% of American households have some kind of pet, often more than one.
The question many folks have as they approach retirement is whether or not to have a pet, and if so, what kind. This article will explore some of the issues you need to consider about pet ownership – pros, cons, and strategies for pet owning success. More than that, we are hoping to provoke a discussion that will generate lots of real world comments and experiences from our members.
Pluses for owning a pet:
They offer great companionship. More than 90% of Americans surveyed by Petfinder.com agreed that a dog or cat companion could help people living alone, senior citizens, handicapped or disabled people, and young children live more satisfying lives. Which leads us to our all-time favorite bumper sticker: “Oh Lord, please help me become the person my dog thinks I am”.
They can make us feel better. Pets can help us fill the emotional void created in a household where the kids have grown up and left, or from the loss of a spouse. Indeed we unabashedly attribute human qualities to our pets – 9 in 10 pet owners consider their pet to be a member of the family. Some 80% of surveyed pet owners believe their dog or cat can sense the owner’s mood; 40% hang up Christmas stockings for their dog. Many people believe that pets make us happier, and thus healthier.
They can offer protection. Even the smallest dog offers some protection against burglars – their bark makes it appear someone might be home. Some breeds will protect an owner if they perceive a threat.
They are great way to meet people. Our dog Tonka is, quite frankly, a “chick” and “guy” magnet. People who wouldn’t give us the time of day will stop and make complete fools of themselves oohing and awing (over him, not us!). He is the reason we met some of our new best friends (owned by Henry the dog) and made our way into a wonderful social circle. Dogs have to be walked, which puts you out on the street, where you actually have a chance to meet people and make new friends, particularly among other dog walkers. Not to mention just a little bit healthier from the extra exercise.
In the case of retirees moving to a new community, or who feel lonely, the assistance that pets can lend to making friends cannot be understated – it is a big plus.
The negatives of owning a pet for retirees
The biggest problem with owning a pet in retirement is that they are limiting. You are responsible for their welfare and that means you are tied down to a certain degree.
Long term travel. Say your retirement dream was to join the Peace Corps or become a long term volunteer in a distant location. Pet ownership does not fit well with that. If you expect to travel for months at a time, you face the same problem – who is going to take care of the pet, and how much will that cost.
Travel. Perhaps the biggest problems with pets in retirement is the crimp they can put in your travel plans. A cat or small dog can fly with you on the plane, although this usually comes with limited availability and extra fees. No one we know would trust a pet as special checked pet baggage – too many horror stories for that. Travel in the car is no picnic either, as you will see below. Although the number of hotels and motels that accept pets is rapidly increasing, you do face limitations and fees. Pet friendly rooms are often also smoking rooms, so they can be smelly. You have to worry at rest stops about Fido or Muffy escaping. And in hot weather you can’t leave them in the car, limiting your shopping and dining options.
A personal story sheds a little light on the travel issue. Last year Mrs. Topretirements won the discussion that both our dog and cat should make the travel team for the winter trip down south (previously Yoda the cat boarded at a friend’s). We left Connecticut with Tonka awake in the back seat and Yoda crying frantically in his cat carrier. Their travel gear (dishes, water, litter box, pet food, leash, etc.) threatened to overwhelm the cargo area. By the time we hit New Jersey Yoda had decided it was time for a reconnaissance. First a gray paw emerged from the carrier, then he unzipped the whole thing. As Bayonne flew by at 65 MPH there was Yoda walking across the dashboard, taking in the scenery. After his second escape, we figured out how to use a twisty to keep him contained.
Pet restrictions. Some of the biggest barriers to pet ownership are Home Owners Association regulations. Pets (usually their owners) do cause problems; we are not saying that restrictions are a bad thing. But it can be very disconcerting to fall in love with an active adult community and then discover that your pet weighs too much (weight restrictions vary, but 30 pounds is one common cut-off), is the wrong breed (don’t even think about a pit bull), or you have too many (having 1 pet is common restriction, sometimes 2). Some pet owners don’t follow common courtesy rules like cleaning up after, or leaving barking dogs unattended, which creates more rules and animosity. The bottom line could mean a tough choice: find a new home for your pet or keep looking for a community that works for both you.
Responsibility and expense. The responsibilities and expense of pet ownership as we enter retirement should not be dismissed. Our pets are totally dependent on us, every day. That can become tedious, especially as they enter their retirement years and require extra care. Food and vets bills can be an expense that blows an already tight budget.
Behavior problems. Unfortunately, some pets cause trouble. A nipping or aggressive dog is an invitation to a lawsuit and removal from the community. Dogs that bark incessantly are a liability. Cats can ruin upholstered furniture and their dander can leave serious allergic reactions as a calling card.
Strategies for Retirement Pet Ownership Success
1. Think through your retirement plans. If you plan on extensive travel or want to live in a place not conducive to pets, maybe you should reconsider pet ownership.
2. Choose a pet to match your lifestyle. Cats, which have no trouble being on their own for a few days, are easier than dogs, which need frequent bathroom and exercise breaks. Likewise if you have mobility issues or you intend to live in a city, you might consider a dog that requires less exercise.
3. Think small. If you plan on traveling by air a lot and want your pet with you, a cat or smaller dog that can fit under an airline seat might be a good choice. A bird might be a good choice in some situations.
4. Find out pet restrictions in advance. If you own a pet, one of your first questions when you visit a community should be to find out any pet restrictions. Sometimes the pet must be approved. What is the attitude of your new neighbors – does it seem like a pet friendly place? And if you don’t like pets, you need to ask some of the same questions – don’t move into a community where you don’t fit in.
5. Be resourceful about pet-sitting. Finding someone to take care of your pet for vacations, extended stays, and emergencies is a priority. Keep your eye out for pet-crazy friends. They might be the perfect resource for you while your pet is a source of some extra money for them. Likewise, exchanging pets with another pet owner can be a money-saving alternative to a costly kennel stay.
6. Hire a trainer. If you get a dog and don’t have a track record as a good trainer, invest in obedience training. There will be a big pay off in how well your pet is accepted and your enjoyment. And remember the dog training mantra – it’s not the pet that needs to be trained!
7. Enjoy your pet! Have fun, pets can be a great addition to anyone’s life.
Comments: Do you have any personal stories about you and your pet as it relates to retirement? Or opinions about what makes a good pet for retirement? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
For further reading:
Pets and Your Golden Years