It’s no secret that the furry friends we call “pets” can bring joy and meaning to their owners’ lives. While many people enjoy having pets for this reason alone, studies have shown that pets can improve the health of their owners in multiple ways, especially for seniors. Seniors living independently with pets have better physical and mental health than those without pets.
Whether it’s walking the dog, cleaning the litter box, feeding, grooming or playing, most pets force their owners to stay active while caring for them. This exercise can help seniors fight obesity and other health problems. A University of Minnesota study found that pet owners have lower cholesterol and blood pressure than non-owners. Seniors with heart issues especially benefit from owning a pet – they reduce their risk of heart disease and have a better chance at long-term survival after a coronary event. Overall, pets lower health care costs because seniors with pets actually make fewer doctor visits than those who do not own a pet. Pets also allow seniors to recover from health issues more quickly.
Pets also improve health by reducing the side effects of stress in their owners’ lives. The University of Minnesota study found that the heart rates and blood pressure of pet owners increase less when faced with difficult situations. According to a study by the State University of New York at Buffalo, of 48 participants taking medication for hypertension, those who obtained a pet reduced by half the increase in blood pressure that came with stress.
Because of the many proven health benefits to seniors, many nursing homes and assisted living facilities have enlisted the help of animals for therapy. Interaction with animals contributes to lower anxiety levels in seniors. One facility in Southport, North Carolina welcomed animals from local shelters every week, and activities director Christina Miller said she witnessed the positive impact the animals had on the elderly patients daily.
“Residents who normally weren’t active were suddenly getting up, petting and talking to the cats and dogs, smiling and interacting,” she said. “Patients would ask me, ‘Are the dogs here? Did they come yet?’ Half the patients had better reactions to the dogs and cats than they did to people.”
Many seniors struggle with depression and loneliness as they age, usually due to the loss of a spouse, a lack of friends, or isolation. Pets help seniors overcome depression by giving them a constant companion, a greater sense of self-esteem, and unconditional love. Those who have a dog will need to get out of the house to walk it or go to the park, giving them a chance to meet new people and spend time with other dog owners. For those seniors living alone, a pet can also add a sense of security and safety. A senior suffering from depression may find that taking care of a pet every day gives them a sense of purpose.
Pets can help seniors focus on current activities, instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. “Dogs—and other pets—live very much in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people,” said Dr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey psychotherapist.
Pets can also offer mental health benefits, which are especially important for those with cognitive impairment.”A new pet can stimulate someone to read up on an animal or breed, which can be very mentally stimulating and important at that age,” says Dr. Katharine Hillestad, a veterinarian with the office of Doctors Foster and Smith in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
A large dog can be a great companion for any senior, but may not be the best choice for those with physical limitations. If a senior has limited mobility, a small dog or a cat may be a better choice. If a senior is very impaired physically or mentally, he may qualify for a therapy dog, which can help with physical and emotional stability. If the senior wants a dog, temperament is another thing to consider. Small dogs may not be best because often they have high energy, and contrary to popular belief, there are many large dogs that are mellow in temperament. It is also important to make sure the pet is a good age for the senior. A pet that is too young may be too much of a responsibility, but a pet that is older can have health problems that require more attention.
There are many organizations that match shelter pets with seniors who are looking for an animal companion. Most seniors make great pet owners because of the amount of free time they have to devote to a pet. While many seniors are simply looking for a furry friend, their pets will offer them not only an abundance of love, but good health as well.