The dilemma faced by managers in accommodating pets in care homes

Britain is considered a nation of animal lovers; so why should this be any different if we have to move into a care home? A dog’s silly antics and wagging tail or a cat purring on one’s lap can raise a smile, or relax anyone, regardless of age. But the decision of the registered manager to have pets in a care home is not as easy as it may seem and can often turn out to be problematical in the long term.

I recently came across a case north of the border which highlights the dilemma faced by managers of care homes. A resident who had lived in a care home for 4 years and says he was originally promised his dog, Darkie, could stay with him as long as he lived in the home.

However, he claims he was told last week that his dog had to leave after causing too much trouble – but the resident claims he is the “perfect pet”. He says the pooch is the only thing he has to live for and it would “finish him off” if he was forced out.

I just love him and everybody else loves him. “He lives in my room and he’s a perfect pet and is my companion. It is breaking my heart.”

The Managing Director of the care home company said: “‘I have witnessed personally this dog coming out of nowhere, barking and becoming aggressive at a family to the point where a mother and grandmother were forced to shield thier two young children. “Fire doors are consistently left open so that the dog has free reign.

This leaves residents freezing in the winter months as the cold air comes in. “Over time this dog has been allowed to run freely. The home is housing mostly vulnerable residents, people that need care.

“These people have limited mobility and sensory abilities; it is not safe.
“If the resident insists on keeping the dog, he will have to find somewhere else to live.

I’m sure many managers have experienced similar situations. It may well be that when the dog first came to the home, it was welcomed by staff and residents alike. But things have obviously changed over time. The manager is now faced with a dilemma; on the one hand, it is plain how much the resident loves his dog and according to him the dog continues to be loved by other residents. On the other management are concerned because the dog has become a risk to other residents. I am sure the management are not lacking compassion and understanding for the resident and his dog. However, the manager’s overall responsibility is to the duty of care and quality of life of other residents.

The question is what can be done to prevent this kind of situation recurring?

Moving forward, first and foremost any care home strategy designed to accommodate pets should have in place the following:
• A resident’s information booklet that contains the homes position on the acceptance of pets.
• A policy that is given to residents when admission to the home involves pets, that clearly spells out responsibilities of the home and that of the resident in caring for a pet. The policy should also detail that the agreement to allow pets will be subject to ongoing review.
• The policy should require a risk assessment to be carried out to evaluate whether or not the resident is capable of caring for the pet.
• The policy should state that the pet will only be allowed to live in the home as long as it does not affect the quality of life of other residents.
• The policy should detail the responsibilities of the service should the resident become incapable of looking after the pet.

It is universally acknowledged that pets are good for us. A study at Cambridge University found that owning one can improve our health in under a month, with pet-owners reporting fewer minor ailments such as headaches and colds.

Simply stroking a pet or watching fish swim can help us relax, reducing heart rate and lowering blood pressure.

Research indicates that keeping a pet can even reduce cholesterol levels and give you a better chance of surviving a heart attack, can lift depression, and can also reduce loneliness and isolation. No one is more vulnerable to all of these afflictions than the elderly who live in care homes.

At the time of the 2007 study, psychologist June McNicholas wrote for the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS): ‘We need to explode the myths that it is difficult, dangerous or time-consuming to have pets in care. A lot of fears from managers and staff are unfounded.’

But sadly, now ten years on care homes do not appear to be rising to the challenge. In effect the situation has become worse. So much so that it is becoming more the exception rather than the rule to allow residents to care for their pets in a care home. Age UK estimates that each year 140,000 pets are given up by older people moving into residential care or sheltered housing.

If managers of care homes are to change their approach to the acceptance of pets in the home they will need to adopt a more strategic approach. This may give them confidence that recognises that pets can be of benefit not only to the individual resident, but also to the to the home as a whole.

As a starting point managers should discuss the value of pets with other residents and develop a policy that is clearly understood by pet owners. Managers where practical should take into account the trauma that results from resident who are parted from their best friends and grasp the nettle.

Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute
Managing Director
Bettal Quality Consultancy