How to Help Pet Parents on National Shut-in Visitation Day


Today (Feb. 11) is National Shut-in Visitation Day, established to encourage friends, relatives, and church family to visit people who are unable to leave their homes. Many elderly and disabled people depend on their pets for companionship and comfort. But engaging in pet-related necessities such as lifting and bending, and even opening food cans, may prove impossible to those with physical challenges, young and old.

“There’s a lot of overlap between the needs of persons with disabilities and the elderly,” says Madeleine Johnston, a disability counselor from Agoura Hills, California.

Author Deborah Straw’s 96-year-old mother lives 10 minutes away from her in an assisted-living facility. Amy, a small shy calico, sleeps with her mother and hangs out on the back of her chair.

“Mom frequently says she’s living for Amy,” Deborah says. “As Mom loses her short-term memory, she needs help with Amy.”

Deborah’s mother feeds Amy, but she can no longer smell strong odors associated with leftover food and the litter box. Deborah checks in twice a week to dispose of spoiled food, wash the bowls, and change the litter. Deborah shops for Amy and has promised her mother that when the time comes, she will find the calico a home.

Today, on National Shut-in Visitation Day, think about what you can do to help a homebound friend keep his or her pet.

Here are some tips that could mean a world of difference:

1. Organize a pet food drive

Pet food is a big expense for people on a fixed income. Judge Susan Sexton (ret.) from Tampa set up a Christmas program called Elves for Elders, encouraging the public to donate pet food. She enlisted her son’s school in this food drive and had the students deliver the pet food to the seniors.

2. Shop for and help with pet food, litter, and water

This is especially important if the cat is on a prescription diet, says vet tech Dorothy Truax of Granbury, Texas. If the person can shop for herself, bring coupons for food and treats. If you live too far away to deliver necessities, food and litter can be purchased online food and delivered to the door.

Contact your local Meals on Wheels office or similar service to see whether volunteers can deliver pet food to your friend.

Purchase automatic feeders and waterers that don’t need to be tended for several days at a time. Two-liter water bottles will provide enough water for at least a week.

Simplify food and litter storage. Handling heavy bags and opening cans may prove very difficult for people with dexterity challenges — remember that even five pounds can be too heavy. Break food down into single-serving zippered food-storage bags. Do the same with cat litter. Store them on low, easily-accessible shelves near the food bowl or litter box. Pre-open cans and put them in the fridge.

3. Help with veterinary care and grooming

Monitor the cat’s health. Cats are masters at hiding disease. Try to pet the cat whenever you visit. From a distance you may not notice that he’s thin or matted. Offer to take the cat to the vet if you see fleas, feel mats or too many ribs, or smell stinky breath. (Cats shouldn’t have dog breath.) Keep vaccinations current. If your friend has the financial resources, mobile vets and groomers can come to the home.

Contact local animal shelters to check on vet care programs for seniors. Many Meals on Wheels offices also work with area vets to do in-home wellness checks.

Help with routine grooming. Caretakers should look at the cat’s paws every month and brush longhaired cats regularly. If the cat will let you, use a pair of scissor-style claw clippers to nip off just the curved tip of the nail. Nail trims aren’t just for the cat’s comfort. It protects the owner from accidental scratches. Plastic nail caps on front and back claws can protect paper-thin senior skin.

Give monthly meds like flea or heartworm preventative.

4. Monitor the litter boxes

Bending down and grasping a scoop can be very painful for people with achy joints. You can help by scooping or changing litter in the box on every visit. Switch to the new, lighter generation of litter that’s easier to carry and scoop.

Some people recommend automatic litter boxes to keep litter boxes from overflowing. Some cats love them. Others are terrified by them and will go elsewhere. If you buy a self-scooping box, don’t toss the old box. Put the self-scooper in the same room as the old box. Rather than leave the electronic box on all the time, the caretaker can wait until the cat is out of the room and activate it a couple of times a day.

Occasionally wash all litter boxes as well as kitty beds, blankets, and toys. Clean, disinfect the home, and treat for fleas when necessary.

5. Help with socialization and play

While kitties aren’t pack animals, they are social. And living with limited outside contact, they might not get as much socialization as they need. Spend some time playing with the cat. If your friend can no longer care for the cat, the socialization will help with the rehoming process.

Organize in-home enrichment activities so that the cat can have necessary stimulation, ideally in the presence of their owner who can enjoy watching.

6. Plan for the inevitable

One important way you can help your friend is to take her beloved pet if she must be hospitalized or can no longer care for him. If you or family can’t adopt the cat, assure your friend you will find the cat a loving home. Create a scrapbook about that animal’s history, life, needs, and preferences to help with the rehoming process. Also create an emergency plan to care for the animal if a short-term crisis should arise. Keep medical records in a convenient place.

How do you help housebound friends and family with their pets? Let us know in the comments!

Read more by Dusty Rainbolt:

About the author: Dusty Rainbolt, ACCBC, is the vice president of the Cat Writers’ Association, editor-in-chief of and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She’s the award-winning author of eight fiction and non-fiction books including her most recent paranormal mystery, Death Under the Crescent Moon.

I’d like to thank Madeleine Johnston, a disability counselor from Agoura Hills, CA; Deborah Straw, author of The Health Pet Manual; Dorothy Truax, a former vet tech from Granbury, TX; Judge Susan Sexton (ret.); Christian Lambrecht, author of Living Among Friends; dog trainer Suzanne Clothier of the Elemental Animal; and Barbara Lundgren of Meals on Wheels Inc., of Tarrant County, for their suggestions.

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