by William Arnold
Recent stories about hurricane victims and their pets raised the issue of
seniors and pets. About 60 percent of U.S. households have at least one dog,
cat, bird or other companion animal. Many have more than one. I checked with
a local veterinarian about her experiences with pets and older people.
Veterinarian Tracy Wight reports that pets, particularly cats and dogs, help
her older clients feel less lonely. They tell her it is like they have a
special friend. Wight’s grandmother, who lived with her parents, created a
special bond with a cat. She said she did not like cats but always managed
to give Pele a special rub with the tip of her cane. Pele, a reclusive cat
by nature, never hid from her and seemed to appreciate the attention. I
looked at the research on pet ownership and health.
The data is clear that having a pet reduces blood pressure and even reduces
the number of trips to see a physician. A 1999 study in the Journal of
American Geriatrics demonstrates that seniors living on their own who have
pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those
who don’t. They are more active, cope better with stress and have better
overall health. They also reported shorter hospital stays and less
health-care costs than non-pet owners.
One other study found that the daily activities of living, such as eating
and grooming, declined less for those with a dog or cat than those who had
no pet. The health benefits How does pet ownership keep the owner healthy?
First, pets need walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water and fresh kitty
litter, and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these
activities require some action from owners. Even if it’s just getting up to
let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat, any physical activity can
benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible.
Consistently performing this kind of minor exercise can keep pet owners able
to carry out the other normal activities of daily living. Again, Wight
reported that many of her clients tell her that taking care of a pet is a
reason to get up in the morning and often a reason to get dressed and go for
a walk. Second, pets also aid seniors simply by providing some physical
contact, affection and companionship.
A pet as a gift?
Should you get a pet for an older relative? Any pet purchase should involve
the person who will be responsible for the pet. The last thing you need to
do is to spring a cocker spaniel or a tabby cat on an unprepared person. You
should discuss the value of a pet with the older person to be certain that
it will meet his/her needs. If they are interested, other issues need to be
considered. First, does the person actually have room for a pet? Clearly a
collie would be inappropriate for a relative living in a small apartment on
the third floor. In this case, a cat might be a better fit. (All of this
assumes that the property, if being rented, allows pets.)
Dogs and cats are better companions than birds or other pets because they
require less maintenance. Although I don’t have space here to discuss all
the breeds and how they relate to people, that should be considered. You may
want a pit bull to protect your older relative or friend, but that strong,
active breed may not be the right choice. Talk first to a veterinarian about
breeds and their temperaments.
Second, does the future pet owner travel a lot, thus requiring someone else
to care for his/her pet? Traveling is not a reason not to get a pet. It is
just an issue that should be addressed beforehand. There are a lot of very
reliable pet sitting services that will provide tender loving care almost as
good as the owner’s.
Third, does the person who will be caring for the pet have the ability to do
just that? A person in an apartment will have to be able to walk a dog many
times a day. A great deal of bending and lifting is required with pet
ownership. And, of course, pets create more housecleaning chores, too.
Finally, depending on the age and the health of your older relative or
friend, you might want to look for a previously owned but loved pet.
Housetraining a new puppy can put a real burden on the older person. Cats
are easier in that regard. Any new pet should be seen by a veterinarian for
a complete physical very early on or prior to adoption to avoid problems
Pets and beyond
If your older friend or relative is forced to move to an assisted-living
facility, you should look for one that allows pets, has its own pets or
allows visits by pet therapists. This is a rapidly growing service for our
aging population because of the companionship value of a pet. See the
following Web site as one example: http://www.dog-play.com/therapy .html.
Another site of interest is: seniors-site.com/petsm/ needpets.html.
William Arnold is an Arizona State University professor and an expert on
aging. He welcomes reader comments. You can reach him at