Seniors and pets go hand-in-paw

An up close photo of a Beagle with two seniors on a park bench in the background

Do you know the secret others have discovered about animal companions?

When it comes to meaningful, purposeful living, some people have discovered the nonhuman secret. People with pets already know that their animal companion requires their affection and attention – and that their relationship with their animal friends rewards them with numerous healthy benefits. While people of all ages enjoy pets, particularly those over 60 appreciate all that pet companions offer – including enriching overall health and wellness in seniors’ lives. And so the secret’s out: The benefits of adopting a pet when you’re a senior are better health and more happiness.

10 benefits of pets for seniors

Here’s a list of 10 reasons why seniors need pets, as compiled in a US News & World Report

    1. Companionship. Reduce isolation by keeping an animal companion nearby. Dogs and cats mold their personalities to their keepers and are constant in their presence. Some make great travel mates, too.
    2. Having a routine. Tending a pet provides the routine around which daily life can be structured. The responsibilities aren’t taxing – unless you want to sleep in when the cat wants to be fed!
    3. Exercise. Walking the dog makes exercise a daily event.
    4. Stress. Older people with pets show less stress than older people without pets – perhaps because of the many ways pet responsibilities structure daily life, or perhaps because of the constancy and predictability of the companionship.
    5. Getting out. Those with dogs have a built-in reason to go outdoors often.
    6. Making friends. While it’s hard to meet new people, dogs make terrific icebreakers.
    7. New interests. Dog owners might feel inspired to clean up the neighborhood park where they walk their canine. Hospitals sometimes seek hospital-friendly pets to visit patients.
    8. Protection. Even small dogs can provide security, as thieves usually avoid homes where there’s a barking dog.
    9. Taking care of something. It’s deeply satisfying to take care of another living being, and the desire to be useful and of value never relents.
    10. Investing in life. Having a pet means making a promise to be involved in the pet’s life. It’s a life-affirming decision that requires commitment and dedication.

Keeping pets can keep you healthy.

An article posted on SeniorDirectory.com points to physical benefits of pet companionship for older adults, which can include lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate. The same article also reports that a study found seniors who have pets will frequent the doctor’s office 21% less often, and show decreased signs of depression when aging. The emotional benefits are easy to understand, given the survey that reveals these behaviors of seniors who have a pet companion:

· 95% talk to their pet
· 82% say their pet helps when they feel sad
· 71% claim their pet helps when they physically feel bad
· 65% report that touching their pet makes them feel better
· 57% admit they confide in their pet

A deeper dive into the health benefits associated with having animal companions can be found in “The Health Benefits of Pets for Older Adults” on NextAvenue.org:

      • Dog-Walking. Citing 2 recent studies, the article reports that “a group who walked with shelter dogs improved their normal walking speed and distance” … and were “more likely to go for a walk than those who walked with a human companion. In fact, the human companions often discouraged each other from walking.” Moreover, “Dog-walking was associated with lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.”
      • Heart Benefits. Those with dogs and cats reduce their risk of coronary heart disease. According to studies, pet adopters often have higher heart attack survival rates, lower resting heart rates and blood pressure, smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress, and quicker stress recovery.
      • Mental Health Benefits. Many older adults find themselves alone, and group dog walks help them connect with others. Plus, a pet companion becomes a focus of attention when the house is otherwise empty, which reduces the sense of isolation.
      • Comfort. In difficult times, many seniors report that their animal companion was a help in coping with medical treatments and recovery after injury or illness. Both dogs and cats can be keenly sensitive to their human companion’s distress and discomfort, and may snuggle in to be supportive.
      • Healing Powers. Petting a dog “results in reduced levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol.” Overall, human-pet interaction is known to release the “anti-stress, calming hormone oxytocin in animals and humans.”

So, should you get a pet?

The health and wellness benefits of pets for the elderly are numerous, but before you visit the adoption center, prepare yourself. AgingCare.com offers this helpful list of 9 questions for helping you find the right pet for the right owner.

      1. Are you set in your ways? Bringing a pet into the house will require you to adapt.
      2. Have you had a pet before? If so, your chances of a good pet companionship experience improve.
      3. Do you have disabilities? Cats or birds may be a better choice for those with physical challenges.
      4. Do you need a therapy pet? Consider an assistance- or therapy-dog.
      5. Is the pet the right age? Kittens and puppies require extra attention, but a pet who’s aging into the later stages of its life may soon develop health conditions too.
      6. Does the pet have a good temperament? The breed of the dog or cat can tell you something about its expected behavior, but getting to know the particular animal is the best way to know how you’ll get along.
      7. Is the pet healthy? Insist on a careful and thorough veterinarian checkup.
      8. One pet or two? A pair of dogs or cats may keep each other company, but it’s important each bonds with the human first.
      9. Are finances an issue? From vet bills to sacks and cans of pet food, pets cost money.

Look for a pet-friendly community.

Many are pet-friendly senior living communities now, offering walking trails and dog parks, and welcoming aging residents along with their pet companions. Retirement communities like Meadow Ridge in Redding, for example, recognize the benefits pets provide their owners and affirm pets as a vital part of community life.