Would physical and mental health benefits for seniors be good enough reasons to get a pet?
It is said that for a senior having a pet is beneficial in more than a few ways.
A lot of studies has been conducted on the topics and the results are more than approving.
As with almost everything, though, there is the other side of the coin, as well. While it is beyond dispute that pets bring many good things into the life of an elderly person, there are also things to consider before deciding on having one, especially if you have never had one before.
In this post, we’ll take a look at both sides, the pros and the cons, as well. We’ll also find out how to take care of the cons, so they do not present an obstacle any more.
Let’s First Take a Look at Pros:
The available literature mostly suggests that there is a connection between pet ownership and well-being/health in elderly:
Improving Overall Physical Health and Keeping Us Active
Those who regularly walk a dog were found to be more likely to do other exercises regularly. A ball or a stick throwing in your backyard is already some physical activity for you. And, given that, as a senior, you are recommended to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, this can be one of the most relaxed and joyful forms of keeping up with it.
The chances are you will also become more fit and keep your weight under control, improve your blood flow, lower your blood pressure and even add to your bone density, preventing so osteoporosis. Researchers often say pet owners are likely to have less doctor visits, as well.
A one-year-long study concluded even that the level of Activities of Daily Living (ADLs, i.e. how good you can take care of yourself) that an elderly person could perform was higher at the end of the year in pet owners than in non-pet-owners.
Lowering Our Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, Cholesterol and Triglyceride Levels.
A 2002 clinical trial aimed to find out whether the mere presence of their pets will have an effect “on cardiovascular reactivity to psychological and physical stress” of participants. They found that people with pets had significantly lowered heart rate and blood pressure levels while resting and significantly smaller increases, reactions with faster recovery in and after a stressed situation.
Having a dog is somehow connected to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The mechanism of connection is unclear, but diet, smoking or body mass index could be excluded as possible explanations in this study.
A distant, but still the most relevant study from 1980 concluded pet owners were 90% more likely to survive a year after they had a heart attack. Those who were not pet owners had a 70% chance.
Relieving Stress and Boosting Mood
We all know how caressing a pet feels nice. The gentle touch instantly brings a sense of joy and feelings of being loved.
A recent study proved stroking a cat or a dog even for just 10 minutes can lower cortisol, “which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health”
Cuddling a cat in a lap or petting a dog by your side can very much positively affect your mood, making you calmer and less stressed, being able even to influence fear and anxiety.
A 2012 study confirmed even short meetings with therapy dogs in elderly chronic pain patients resulted in meaningful pain relief and significant mood significant mood improvements.
Improving Our Mental Alertness and Focusing on Present
Having a pet will not allow you to spend hours and days living in the past, which is not rare in the elderly. Caring about someone will trigger the sense of responsibility and raise the sense of purpose in anyone, but especially in elderly. They have probably cared about someone most of their life, so getting back that feeling can boost their self-esteem, too. Not to mention the sense of being loved, wanted and needed. A few very good reasons to get up in the morning.
A pet can’t be put aside and told to wait until your depressed or other negative mood gets better. It needs to be taken care of, fed, walked, so you’ll get used to focus more and add some good routine to your days. This will not only help your pet to be well-balanced, but you, as well.
Helping to Tackle Loneliness
As humans are simply not created to be alone, talking, touching, and interacting with others is essential to our well-being. Elderly can often be in a situation to live alone and the social life and social circles tend to decrease as people age. Pets may fill a good part of it, helping them to overcome loneliness, which is quite common at old age and may seriously negatively affect their well-being.
Another study confirms this possibility, as the researchers concluded that dog owners were significantly less lonely than non-owners.
Yet another research focused on the bereaved elderly persons and concluded that a pet may be a support sufficient to lessen emotional distress. After having lived probably for decades with a spouse, not only the grief of losing him/her, but also the lack of everyday interaction, love and affection can take a toll on the well-being of the widowed one. Having someone near, even if only a pet, who can take and give some of that love can somewhat ease the mental pain the bereft one feels.
People consider their pets to be family members and highly important, supportive parts of their lives. This might partly explain that some studies assume that a hormone oxytocine (a so called “cuddle hormone”, which plays role in social bonding) also contributes to these psychological benefits that elderly pet owners experience.
Start New Friendships
Pets can help in meeting new people, starting a conversation. Some of these may grow to a friendship. Having a dog around, for example, often stimulates conversation. Also, people tend to find more friendly and approachable those who walk their dogs or cats, for example.
Even in case of non-walkable pets, like birds, fish or hamsters, these are always good topics to start a conversation, as people like to talk about their beloved pets.
Provide Support to Those With Mental Disorders
Numerous researches have been conducted on this possibility, as it is known that even for elderly with various forms of dementia, having a pet may reduce the anxious outbursts, helping them to stay calm and relaxed.
A study on effects of owning a dog in people with mental disorders showed in 94% reduction of anxiety through touch, in 71% their nudging or pawing made them focus on present, in 51% interrupted undesirable behavior and in 46% even “decreased participants’ use of psychiatric or other health care services”.
Animals can be, and are also used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical rehabilitation to help patients recover.
That much about proving the benefits by scientific studies.
Do you happen to know elderly people who are pet owners? Do you really need scientific proof to tell you a pet being around has a beneficial effect on them? Right?
And it is not about cats or dogs only. Any animal can be a pet, if the owner recognizes it as one:
Birds, Parrots, Guinea pigs, Fish, Hamsters, Turtles, Frogs, even Gecko or Ants, or anything you find affection for.
Elderly are often encouraged to have a pet, for all the above benefits, however, pet ownership in older age can also be challenging, depending on the owners health, mobility and even financial conditions.
All Sorts of Animals Can Be Pets
Besides the unique needs, it is also important to consider the future owner’s personality and try to find the most suitable type of pet.
Cats. They rarely need a walking. They would rather sleep or play inside with a toy designed to keep their interest. As there is no way they can wear out their claws, someone will need to trim them regularly. They may be trained to go out or use a litter box. And they can fantastically fit into your lap.
Birds. Small parrots and canaries can freely fly around in your home, or sit on your shoulder, while you are in. They do not require much food, but do need a good and frequently cleaned cage.
Hamsters. They are easy to look after, very clean animals. They usually designate one corner of the cage to be the toilet, keeping the rest clean. But, they can bite quite severely and they sort of live a night life, so no proper sleeping for you close to their cage.
Fish. All sort of varieties are available, as in tanks, as in fish. The cost will depend on what you choose to have. More costly tanks usually have a self-cleaning system, while the small one-two fish ones require a more frequent cleaning. Watching, feeding them can be incredibly soothing and calming.
Dogs. Dogs are by far the most popular choice, especially with still active seniors, or those who want to become active again. They are wonderful companions to seniors, even if their owner is not that mobile any more. Only the right breed and age of a dog needs to be chosen. They require, though some care, as with bathing or grooming, depending again on the breed.
Give to These Some Thought, Before You Act
We’ll here take a dog as an example, but these principles can be applied for any other kind of pets. When choosing one, you’ll need to think about some of these:
-Have you had a pet before? If not, but you are prepared to learn, you can still make a great pet owner.
-What temperament would be good for you, would you like a playful, vigorous, very active or a more calm pet? If a dog, would you like just occasional barking, or you wouldn’t mind a loud companion?
-Is there a suitable housing available, a fenced back yard for the future-to-be your pet?
-What age dog would you like? Can you put up with a puppy’s playfulness, shoe and who- knows-what-else chewing, intensive training and general care needs? On the other hand, can you support an older dog, potentially with special needs, due to age-related conditions (arthritis, incontinence, kidney disease, blindness, deafness, to mention just a few)?
-Do you have limited mobility yourself, perhaps? Will it be a too big challenge to get out and walk a dog daily?
-Is there a greater need for a therapeutic dog than for only a companion? They require special training to be able to support an impaired person.
-Can you afford financially to support the pet you would like to have? Smaller dogs are less expensive in terms of feeding and perhaps some items of the equipment, but the medical costs, the vaccines and potential vet visits are more or less the same for all. Still, be sure to calculate all these when you decide what kind of an animal you can support long-term.
How to Decide Which Dog Is Best for Seniors?
As you see, many factors will influence the choice of the best dog breed for a senior. They are different in size, activity and care needs and even in personalities.
The American Kennel Club has a useful Dog Breed Selector, which can help you narrow your choices of a suitable breed, based on a few preferences of yours.
There is another important issue you need to deal with before your final decision of purchasing or even better, adopting a pet.
While you are putting your heart and soul into their care and well-being, there is a possibility that a pet will still be alive, when you are not around any more. What will happen to your pet then? Do you have one or two trustworthy, reliable persons in mind (and not only in mind, but on board, as well) to take over the care the moment it becomes necessary? Even then when you are only in the hospital for a week or two for some examination?
It is important that you also have back up support. If this person does not know your dog almost as much as you do, you might want to provide some instructions-what he likes and doesn’t, what he eats, how he plays, how often you walk, etc. Some people even include some financial provision on a separate account for their pet’s care.
I’d certainly advise to at least have your dog’s veterinary records organized, make sure they are up-to-date at all times and in a place where the designated person will easily find it, if necessary.
Cons of Having a Pet at Old Age:
-for a senior with decreased sense of balance, a pet or pet’s toys, beds, food and water bowls can present a tripping hazard. Even in healthy elderly, with a good mobility and balance, unexpectedly stepping on a dog’s or cat’s toy may result in a trip and fall, so that’s something to think of in advance and adopt good habits of having a dedicated time for playing, feeding, after which all the toys and bowls go back to their places until the next time.
-a pet may transfer infections to humans, therefore it is essential that the animal is checked by a vet not only before adoption, but regularly later on, as well as maintaining the hygiene with and around them.
-adopting or purchasing a dog is a long-term commitment. Financially, as well. Elderly might be devoted to their pets as much as choosing to feed well them on expense of feeding themselves well, or buying other necessities. A reason more to think well through what level of support we can provide for our pets, no matter what.
-seniors with pets might delay a necessary visit to the doctor, worrying about what happens to their pet,
-or even delay or refuse hospitalization out of the same reason. If there is an agreed person to take care of the pet, these issues may diminish.
-they may suffer from a deep depression if their pet is chronically or terminally ill,
-they might grieve as deeply as they would’ve after a human, when they outlive their pet.
Adopting a pet is likely a many years’ commitment and can have also unexpected turns, which you must be ready for. It is a huge responsibility, as it is a living being that you are going to take care of. It may be difficult at times, but it will reward you with an incredibly satisfying bond and a truly unconditional love for years, if you accept it.
Now that you know benefits, i.e. pros and also the cons of becoming a pet owner at an older age, you can weigh them and decide whether it is your cup of tea, or not. If it is, I wish you to find your perfect match with a pet in a relationship you’ll be both happy for many years to come.
What are your thoughts on having pets as seniors? Do you happen to have some experience in your near surrounding? I’d love to read about those in comments.
And, as always, feel free to reach out, should you have questions and I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my knowledge.
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