If you have a pet you know the joy and comfort it can bring to your life: A pet helps you stay active and provides companionship. And pets do another act of good: Research shows they may boost your mental and physical health.
Scientific evidence suggests that pets play a unique role in humans’ lives, especially those of older adults. “Not only do pets provide companionship that may benefit those who have lost loved ones, but they also may help reduce the stress of these losses,” says Erin Rice, director of the People- Animal Connection (PAC) at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Pet owners benefit from frequent physical activity and social connections from chats with fellow pet owners. Pets also contribute to a sense of purpose that comes from caring for another.”
Pets enhance emotional and psychological well-being, according to various studies. Animal companionship has been associated with decreases in depression, fatigue, loneliness, stress and social isolation—common conditions to which older adults are particularly vulnerable. Benefits have been seen in owners of pets ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats, chimps, and snakes.
Physical benefits also have been tied to pets, especially dogs. Older adults with pets report fewer doctor visits and increased physical activity. A growing body of research has attributed pet companionship to lower blood pressure, a lower resting heart rate and lower cholesterol levels. People with cardiovascular disease who have pets reportedly enjoy longer survival and decreased mortality than non-pet owners.
The evidence supporting the heart-health benefits has proved strong enough that, in 2013, the American Heart Association issued a Scientific Statement that concluded that owning a pet, particularly a dog or a cat, is associated with decreased cardiovascular risk factors.
Animals as therapy
Some animals, notably dogs, can be trained to assist people with disabilities, including visual or hearing impairments, limited mobility, seizures, and mental illness. Many nursing homes and hospitals arrange for pet visits because of the calming effect pets have. Several studies have shown that people with dementia show less agitation and aggression when they interact with a dog.
Pet therapy is a term that encompasses both animal-assisted therapy (programs through which individuals interact with trained service animals with the goal of improving social, emotional or cognitive function) and animal-assisted activities, which use animals to provide comfort and enjoyment. According to a report in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research last November, pet therapy programs have been shown to be effective in helping improve socialization abilities, lower blood pressure, and combat loneliness.
Rice has seen the benefits of animal-assisted therapy firsthand. “With PAC, our human-canine teams regularly visit patients of all ages during their hospital stay. Many patients are critically ill, and others have no family to support them emotionally.
“The human-animal bond is most evident with the delighted response of patients when a PAC team arrives to visit and with the dogs’ ability to help calm them. Beyond the emotional level, evidence confirms that animal visits such as these can lead to a healthy surge of the hormone oxytocin and oxygen levels in the blood while decreasing cortisol—the stress hormone—and lowering blood pressure,” she says.
If you’re thinking of adopting
Adding a pet to your life is a big responsibility and commitment. “In some ways, caring for a pet isn’t unlike caring for a child: You’re ultimately responsible for your pet’s care and well-being. Depending on the type of pet, you may need to house-train him, see that he gets regular exercise, and take him to the vet,” Rice says.
Older adults may understandably be hesitant to commit to owning and caring for a pet. A number of barriers prevent them from adopting a pet, according to a review published online in March 2015 by Activities, Adaptation & Aging. These barriers may prevent them from being able to take advantage of the health perks that come with the human-animal bond.
Have you considered a pet but resisted because of obstacles you’re not sure you can overcome? Here are four questions you might have asked yourself and possible ways to lower some barriers to adopting a pet:
1. Am I physically able to care for a pet?
For many people, aging is associated with increases in conditions such as arthritis or diabetes, which may limit your ability to care for a pet. It may be difficult, for example, to walk a dog, clean a litter box, or travel to a store for pet supplies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 86,000 people are injured from dog- or cat-associated falls each year, mostly after tripping over a pet or pet bowls or toys.
Solution: If walking a dog a few times a day would be difficult for you, consider a cat or another small animal that doesn’t require as much physical care. Local shelters may also have programs through which you can foster or adopt pets on a trial basis. Avoid a rambunctious dog if you lack the strength or balance to control him. Consider adopting an adult pet who may be housebroken and perhaps more sedentary. If you have a disability or a chronic illness, you may want to seek your doctor’s advice before adopting.
2. Can a pet make me sick?
If you have an immune system disorder, are undergoing treatment that suppresses the immune system or are frail and elderly, it’s possible for your pet to make you ill. Infections transmitted from animals to humans (called zoonoses) are often caused by contact with a pet’s feces, urine, and saliva or through bites and scratches. Pet-associated diseases include Salmonella, ringworm, toxoplasmosis (a parasitic disease transmitted from cats through feces) and Campylobacter (an infection that causes diarrhea).
Solution: Talk with your doctor if you’re at high risk for zoonotic dis- ease—for example, if you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer—and are considering a pet. If your doctor agrees that a pet might do you good, he or she can counsel you on ways to reduce pet-associated disease. A study published online last April in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Jour- nal) suggests taking these precautions:
■ Always wash your hands after handling pets or cleaning up after them.
■ Avoid handling a pet that has diarrhea.
■ Keep your cat’s nails trimmed.
■ Take your pet to the vet for checkups.
■ Don’t let your pet lick your mouth or an open wound or cut.
■ Clean litter boxes daily, and keep them away from eating areas.
■ Wear gloves when cleaning litter boxes, aquariums and cages, and don’t pour aquarium water down your kitchen sink.
■ Wash pet bedding once a week.
3. Can I afford a pet?
The minimum annual cost of pet ownership ranges from about $35 (for fish) to $875 (for a large dog), with initial costs for the first year running from $235 to $1,843, according to the ASPCA—not including adoption fees and unexpected vet bills.
Solution: Some shelters and charitable organizations offer programs for reduced or waived adoption and other veterinary fees. The Pets for the Elderly Foundation works with animal shelters by paying adoption fees for adults 60 and over. Meals on Wheels offers a We All Love Our Pets program, which provides pet food as part of its delivery service. Pet insurance, while an added expense, can help protect against large, unexpected costs should your pet become ill or injured.
4. What will happen to my pet if I become ill or disabled or die?
A common concern among older pet owners is for the welfare of their pets should they become unable to care for them.
Solution: Do you have a loved one who would be able to help care for your pet if needed? If not, the nonprofit Banfield Charitable Trust helps people with medical or financial challenges keep their pets. Their Pet Peace of Mind program helps with pet care at participating hospices. The program also helps pet owners plan for the pet’s care after they die to ensure that the pet will not end up at a shelter. You can also set up a pet trust to provide for the ongoing care of your pet—but not all states legally recognize them.