Pets for Seniors
You’ve probably noticed that when you pet a soft, warm cat or play fetch
with a dog whose tail won’t stop wagging, you relax and your heart feels a
little warmer. Scientists have noticed the same thing, and they’ve started
to explore the complex way animals affect human emotions and physiology.
The resulting studies have shown that owning and handling animals
significantly benefits health, and not just for the young. In fact, pets
may help elderly owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May
of 1999 demonstrated that independently living seniors that have pets tend
to have better physical health and mental well being than those that don’t.
They’re more active, cope better with stress, and have better overall
health. A 1997 study showed that elderly pet owners had significantly lower
blood pressure overall than their contemporaries without pets. In fact, an
experimental residential home for the elderly called the Eden Alternative,
which is filled with over 100 birds, dogs, and cats and has an outside
environment with rabbits and chickens, has experienced a 15 percent lower
mortality rate than traditional nursing homes over the past five years.
How do they do it?
There are a number of explanations for exactly how pets accomplish all
these health benefits. First of all, pets need walking, feeding, grooming,
fresh water, and fresh kitty litter, and they encourage lots of playing and
petting. All of these activities require some action from owners. Even if
it’s just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat,
any activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints
limber and flexible. Consistently performing this kind of minor exercise
can keep pet owners able to carry out the normal activities of daily
living. Pets may also aid seniors simply by providing some physical
contact. Studies have shown that when people pet animals, their blood
pressure, heart rate, and temperature decrease.
Many benefits of pet ownership are less tangible, though. Pets are an
excellent source of companionship, for example. They can act as a support
system for older people who don’t have any family or close friends nearby
to act as a support system. The JAGS study showed that people with pets
were better able to remain emotionally stable during crises than those
without. Pets can also work as a buffer against social isolation. Often the
elderly have trouble leaving home, so they don’t have a chance to see many
people. Pets give them a chance to interact. This can help combat
depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today.
The responsibility of caring for an animal may also give the elderly a
sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Pets also help seniors
stick to regular routines of getting up in the morning, buying groceries,
and going outside, which help motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and
Finding that furry friend:
If there are older people in your life that you think might benefit from
having a pet at home, be sure to talk to them before you pick one out. Make
sure that they want the responsibility of a new pet, as well as the noise
and the messes that may come along with it. Talk to them about whether they
feel capable of feeding, watering, grooming, exercising, and cleaning up
after an animal. If they decide they’re willing to accept that
responsibility, take your elderly friend or family member out with you to
the humane society or the breeder to pick out a new furry friend. They may
fall in love with a dog or cat that might never have caught your eye.
Finally, before you encourage an older person to adopt a pet, consider
whether you could take care of the animal if its owner is no longer able.
Often, if seniors reach the point where they have to leave their homes and
move into assisted-living facilities, they also have to give up their pets.
The number of nursing homes and other types of housing for the elderly that
will accept animals is growing, but the vast majority still don’t allow pets.
Pets and the elderly have a lot to give to each other. Research and
experience has shown that animals and older people can share their time and
affection, and ultimately, full and happy lives. Though pets can’t replace
human relationships for seniors, they can certainly augment them, and they
can fill an older person’s life with years of constant, unconditional love.
David the Dogman