Getting a dog or cat is a commitment that many may be reluctant to take on, especially in their later years. Pets can live 12 years or more, and we may feel anxious about our ability to cope in the future.
However for those who love animals, and would benefit from their companionship, there can be a solution … ‘time sharing’ the pet.
The idea is logical, retired people are usually at home in the daytime, younger households are usually out at work, so with the right partners – and with the animal’s best interests put front and centre – it’s an idea that could work well all round.
Before you start
The ideal pet-sharing partners are family members. Relationships are easier to work out if arrangements go awry and communications are generally more frequent. But friends and neighbours have the benefit of proximity and can work out too if everyone is equally keen on committing to make the sharing work.
Tackle the question of costs early on. Who pays if the animal needs an expensive operation? And for food, insurance and other bills? These things should not be left to chance.
The secret of success is starting young – with a puppy or kitten. Puppy and training classes are always a good idea with new dogs and they should be attended by both families.
Puppies learn to adjust to the human lifestyle over the first three months of their life, so it is important that both families give more or less equal time during that period.
It’s also important that the humans learn the same training methods. Dogs will get very confused if one person calls them back with the word “Come” while another calls them back with their name.
Food, feeding times and walks should ideally be timed the same in both households too.
Gemma, a border terrier, had two owners from the age of eight weeks onward. For the first three months she spent a week with her retired owner, Suzanne, followed by a week with her daughter’s family. Her bed and box of toys went with her from one home to another.
“Our training words and methods were identical from the start,” explained Suzanne. “She probably spends more time with me because my son’s family takes more holidays and day outs than I do. But if I am ill, they can be over to collect her very quickly. She is a very well adjusted dog.”
Read our guide to introducing grandchildren to a new dog.
Timesharing a cat
Timesharing a cat is a little more tricky, especially if there is an already resident dog or cat at either home who feels they have ‘territorial rights’.
Ideally, both owners should handle the kitten before the age of eight weeks but if that is not possible, they should make sure other people do enough handling so the cat is relaxed around humans.
The kitten should be adopted as soon as it is weaned and introduced to both its homes as soon as possible.
Because cats are so sensitive to smell, their bedding should at first be swapped from one home to the other, making sure there is a familiar smell in both households.
Ditto the cat tray. A little soiled litter should be transferred from a used litter tray to the unfamiliar litter tray to keep the scents familiar.
The cat’s food, brand of litter and tray and, as far as is convenient, the household routine, should be the same in both homes.
Read our guide to choosing the right cat breed.
Would timesharing work with an older dog or cat? An already well-adjusted dog would probably cope reasonably well, because human contact is more important to dogs than territory.
Although cats are more territorial than dogs, even they can adjust to having two territories. My two cats Mog and William were perfectly happy in our London flat and in a country cottage, but both had been introduced to this, and the journey between the two, as soon as I adopted them at eight weeks.
Even so a confident older cat could also probably adjust to two homes, though it might take longer for it to be entirely relaxed.
The key for both keeping shared dogs and cats calm, unstressed and happy is continuity – keeping thing as far as possible to a familiar routine, food and scent in all the places the pet inhabits.
Celia Haddon is the author of Cats Behaving Badly.