Seniors and Pets: Hidden Health Benefits

The fourth Wednesday of every month is therapy dog night at Country Meadows in Macungie, Penn. The senior residents there wait anxiously in the lobby for Greater Lehigh Therapy dogs. The dogs wag in with their handlers, and the residents greet them with smiles, cheers and hugs. Soon, more residents emerge from their rooms to pet the dogs. The residents are clearly happier from the dog visit, but they may actually be healthier, too.

Seniors who interact with pets experience better health and reduced stress. A recent study by Purina found that seniors with pets had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Simply petting an animal can lower heart rate and body temperature. Seniors with pets also visit the doctor less. The study also found that older males who have dogs are less likely to die a year after a heart attack than those without dogs.

Seniors in the hospital also go home faster. “They want to get home to care for their pet,” says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, vice president of national programs for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Pets also boost mental and emotional health. When family and friends are not close by, a pet can act as a form of companionship.

McLean, Va.-based Sunrise Senior Living provides adopted “house pets” for residents to enjoy at each of its senior living locations. They also encourage residents to bring their own pets from home.

Liz Huibregtse, activity and volunteer coordinator for Sunrise at Countryside in Sterling, Va., has seen the benefits firsthand from residents who spend time with their house cat, Tommy. “There are two residents here who didn’t participate much in activities,” says Huibregtse. “Now they sit with Tommy all day long and they feel a sense of purpose caring for him.”

When seniors care for an animal, it gives them more reasons to stick to regular routines such as grocery shopping and cleaning. They feed their pets and take them to the vet. They exercise more and meet others with common interests.

“Pet owners typically interact more socially,” says Dr. Zawistowski. “They usually get out more and meet new people.”

Choosing a Pet

Adding a pet to the household can decrease minor emotional and physical problems as early as the first month, but there are many issues to consider before getting a pet. Most importantly, be certain that the senior can handle the responsibility of caring for the pet. Make sure he or she is physically able to take care of an animal, feed it and clean up after it.

If the individual lives in an apartment or other community living situation, be sure that pets are allowed. Some communities have size or weight limitations and require a pet security deposit.

It is also important to consider who will care for the pet if the owner suddenly cannot. Is there someone who can care for the pet if the owner becomes ill or goes on vacation? “A pet may not be suitable for a senior who travels all the time,” says Dr. Zawistowski. Be sure to have a plan in place in case conditions, housing or lifestyle does change.

When you are ready to select a pet, it is important to match the owner with the appropriate pet. Dogs and cats make wonderful companions, but be sure to research size, breed and dietary concerns. Some breeds are more prone to medical problems such as ear infections and allergies. Learn about the activity level of the breed. For example, border collies need a lot of exercise and a good place to run. This would not be an ideal breed for someone who lives in an apartment.

On the other hand, active or athletic seniors can be nicely matched with a more active dog. “Some 70-year-olds can run miles with their Labrador retrievers,” says Dr. Zawistowski. “It just depends on the health and activity level of each person.”

Shelters are a great place to find suitable pets. The ASPCA provides a “Meet Your Match” service, which matches dogs with potential adopters. Shelters often have older dogs that can make wonderful companions. Many are already house trained and have a known history and personality. Older dogs are more prone to health problems, so be sure to request a health check and vaccination history before you bring one home.

For some, cats are a wonderful alternative. They do not need to be walked, but they provide affection and companionship. They can sit on a lap and cuddle. They are typically quiet and relatively easy to care for. Litter boxes and food dishes can be placed on a table for easier access and cleaning.

If you are considering a bird, parakeets and canaries are smart choices. They are small and easy to care for and not as loud and messy as parrots.

Other “Pets”

If owning a pet is not an option due to housing or physical limitations, a little bit of creativity can go a long way. Seniors can still enjoy the health benefits of animal interaction through activities such as therapy dog visits. Certified therapy dogs are tested to be well behaved, and they are used to visiting with seniors. They can provide health benefits through regular visits without the commitment of actually owning the pet.

Seniors themselves can volunteer with pet organizations so they can be around animals. They can volunteer at a shelter or even become a handler for a therapy dog.

For others, the health benefits of interacting with animals can be as close as their own porch, patio or backyard. Dr. Zawistowski remembers one of his aunts who enjoyed her “pets” outside.

“She had 73 bird feeders outside in the yard,” he says. “She bought nuts and fed squirrels and birds every day while she drank her morning coffee. Someone can have flowers on a porch to attract butterflies and still stay in touch with animals and nature.”