Yesterday on her way home from the grocery store, Norma drove past the park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and many people were out walking their dogs or playing with them. Her husband, Jim, had recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was feeling down. His doctor wanted him to be active, but some days, Jim just wanted to stay in his recliner. Norma wondered if perhaps a dog might help lift Jim’s spirits and get him out of the house a little each day. She didn’t know if adopting a pet was a good idea or not, though. Jim loved dogs, but they were in their late 60’s—what if they got a dog and something happened to them? Who would take care of it? Would it be sent back to a shelter and euthanized?
Pets are amazing creatures, and pet ownership can be a wonderful and healthy choice, but it can also come with some challenges, especially as we age, so it shouldn’t be rushed into. July 4-10 is Dementia Awareness Week, July 10 is National Kitten Day, and July 31 is National Mutt Day, so let’s examine the benefits and cautions to owning a pet as we age.
Scientific studies have found that the benefits of pet ownership for seniors are numerous, and include:
• Pets can have positive benefits for physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), owning a pet can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
• Pets help ease pain and anxiety. Studies have shown that pets can help chronic pain patients experience a reduction in pain and emotional distress. Research has shown that just looking into a dog’s eyes can boost oxytocin, the hormone in the brain that helps us feel good. One study even found that using pet therapy after surgery may reduce the amount of pain medication a patient might need.
• Pets can help increase physical activity. A study from the University of Missouri showed that seniors who owned dogs were more likely to walk on a regular basis than those who didn’t. According to a study in The Gerontologist, seniors who walked dogs had lower BMI and made fewer visits to the doctor.
• Pets can have a positive impact on feelings of loneliness or depression. In one survey of seniors, nearly 75% stated that their pets helped give them a sense of purpose. Without a sense or purpose or meaning, the risk of depression rises, and cognitive abilities may decline. Many seniors also live alone. More than 60% of the seniors surveyed stated that their pets helped them connect with other people.
Although pets come with many positive benefits, there are some things to consider before owning one:
• Pet ownership can be expensive. According to the ASPCA, the annual cost of owning a dog ranges from about $700 to more than $1,000 (depending on the size of the dog), and the annual cost of owning a cat is around $800. These figures do not account for any injury or illness that may require treatment. For seniors on a fixed income, these expenses may be more than they can afford, though The Humane Society has a list of resources that might help (https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/are-you-having-trouble-affording-your-pet)
• Pet ownership can be physically demanding. While going for a daily walk with Fido may be wonderful, it’s not always possible for those with mobility challenges. There are resources one can use to help with pet care if needed.
• Find the pet that is best suited to your lifestyle. If you’re training for a marathon, owning an active, energetic dog might be a good choice. But if you have mobility issues, you may want to consider owning a cat or other small animal, such as a rabbit, bird, or guinea pig.
It’s also important to remember that pets may outlive their owners. Cats live an average of 14 years, dogs live an average of 12 years, and some birds can live for decades. For some, it may be wiser to consider adopting an older pet (you’d also be rescuing a pet that others might overlook), or consider adding pet planning to your estate plan. You can name a caretaker for your pet or set up a trust to cover their care, and ensure they safely find the best home when you are gone.
Owing a pet is a big responsibility, but it can also be a wonderful and healthy experience for both owner and pet. To review some of the science and research on pets and aging, or to read heartwarming stories of shelter animals who have found their forever homes with seniors, visit http://www.petsfortheelderly.org/