Every Community, every facility, and every person, whether it is your activity team or administration team, has varying ideas on what should be in a pet policy. Some communities are very strict with their pet policies, while others do not have any guidelines or restrictions.
There are considerations for the pets visiting and living in the different care levels we provide. Should size and breed be deciding factors when deciding which dogs should be allowed to visit or live in your facility? Do facilities allow dogs and cats, or are other pets such as birds, fish, and even iguanas welcome? When a person can no longer care for a pet, who decides what happens to that pet? There are many things to consider when setting up your program for success.
Often the policing of the pet policy falls to the activity staff in Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing. The Independent areas are usually the responsibility of marketing, resident life, or the social worker. A clear, distinct pet policy makes it much easier for all staff members and residents to understand what is required and expected when a pet is involved.
One of the biggest problems can occur when residents in any given area can no longer care for their pets. There may be unexpected surgeries, falls, or level of care changes. Without clear policies and procedures to manage and protect these pets, it could mean great sadness and unnecessary trauma to all involved. Whether or not you live in a retirement community, pet owners must have written and well-thought-out plans for their faithful friends if they cannot care for them. It is a meaningful conversation, especially in Independent Living Communities and with our aging population with pets. The same is true if your Assisted Living areas have pet owners. What happens if the dog owner can no longer take “Buttons” on daily walks? If family or friends don’t live in the area, who will buy pet food, clean litter boxes, or arrange veterinary visits? Unfortunately, many animals end up in foster situations and shelters not because they are unwanted but because their owners can no longer care for them.
My community has pet policies and procedures in place, and I like to review them every couple of years and ensure they are still current. Dogs and cats are allowed in our Independent living areas, but there are size and number limitations. The owners must have a plan in place to care for animals if they cannot care for them. Our assisted living residents can only have one cat and must have a plan for their care if they can’t. Health and vaccination records of the pet should be updated annually with a veterinarian, and a copy should be kept in the activity office for quick review if necessary. Transitions are always very hard within a CCRC, but involving pets is even more challenging. Our skilled nursing area relies on certified therapy dog visits from our volunteers and residents living in our community.
One way we ensure that we have a viable pet therapy program in our community is by offering space for our pet therapy certification teams and volunteers to meet. Pet therapy organizations provide testing and certification for therapy dogs and other animals. Partnering with one of these pet therapy groups is a win-win for us as it offers volunteer opportunities within our walls. We currently have two national organizations offering certification in my city. My facility provides the space to test, observe, and certify the dogs while interacting with residents. It also provides an excellent opportunity for our independent residents to certify their dogs and start volunteering here in their community.
One of the most challenging tasks involved in overseeing Pet Therapy visits and programs in any community is dealing with non-compliant people. There are family members who visit with inappropriate pets, handlers who never provide up-to-date vaccination records, and people with emotional support animals who think their pets are also therapy animals. They are not. Educating yourselves on the differences between Service, Therapy, and Emotional support dogs is advisable. Your facilities and communities must decide what to allow, and you need clear, concise policies and procedures. The saying “It Takes a Village” applies here. There are always notable exceptions to your policies and procedures. If you have life care residents who live in two separate areas of your campus, consider allowing your independent resident to bring the family dog to see the spouse during specially arranged times. You can always make these notable exceptions part of your policy.
Another discussion surrounding pet care in your facilities involves the outdoor bird feeders in common areas and those in front of patient rooms. Who provides the food? Who hangs them and where? Also, who fills the feeders, and how often? During COVID, one of the greatest pleasures was the bird feeders. At one time, we had 34 feeders and were responsible for filling them at least once a week. It was costly, but now our family members are responsible for the individual feeders. Bird aviaries are also popular in many facilities but can be expensive, time-consuming, and controversial. Some people firmly believe aviaries are cruel and birds should not be caged. Again, this should be a topic for discussion in your facilities and perhaps with your resident councils. Large-capacity fish tanks are popular and provide many hours of enjoyment. They can also be expensive and must be maintained regularly. Budget and maintenance are keys in determining what services involving pets you can provide.
First and foremost, you always need to know your state and local regulations regarding pets in Long Term Care settings when setting up facility policies and procedures. These regulations can vary from state to state and sometimes county to county. Your health departments will happily work with you to maintain a solid therapy program. A good working relationship with your local pet therapy organizations is a good idea. They usually have someone who can answer your questions or steer you in the right direction regarding therapy pet advice.
Julie Moser Cooley NAAP Regional Director