Should Seniors Get a Pet?

Related topics: Getting Enough Exercise, Mental and Emotional Health, Senior Life, Safety

Tempted by that adorable kitten? Pets provide many health benefits for older adults, but be sure to make an informed decision before you adopt.

Senior woman selecting a kitten

Here's a research finding to make economists sit up and wag their tails: Pet ownership saves $11.7 billion in U.S. healthcare costs every year, says a new study from the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation (HABRI). The researchers report that having a pet reduces stress and is good for our hearts, cholesterol level, blood pressure, immune system and overall psychological well-being. HABRI executive director Steven Feldman said, "Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, 'get a pet' belongs on that list."

More organizations and agencies that serve older adults are incorporating animals into their programming. Pick up a newspaper and you'll see heartwarming coverage of a menagerie of visitors at nursing homes, retirement communities, dementia care facilities, hospices and senior centers — everything from the usual dogs, cats and birds to horses, goats, llamas, chickens and exotic tropical creatures.

Touching a warm, living creature meets an important emotional need. Animals provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love, boost self-esteem, and provide a sense of purpose — things that, sadly, can be in short supply for older adults. Animals have a way of opening us up to other humans, as well, providing an important social context. Think about it: Most of us won't walk up to a stranger in the park and strike up a conversation. But if the other person is walking a dog, commenting on it is perfectly acceptable in our culture. Nursing homes report that residents who seldom speak will "come alive" when an animal visitor is in the room. And pets encourage intergenerational connections, serving as a common meeting ground for people of every age.

Beyond the emotional boost we get from pets, the physical benefits are many, as well. For example, a recent study published by the Gerontological Society of America looked at the health effects of owning a dog. Study author Rebecca Johnson, who is a professor at the University of Missouri, reported that "dog walking is associated with lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits, more frequent exercise and an increase in social benefits for seniors." What's more motivating to get us off the couch and out for a walk than a hopeful pooch scratching at the front door?

If you or a senior loved one own a pet, here are a few pet-related health and safety issues to remember:

Falls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that some senior fall injuries are caused by pets. Dogs should be well-trained so they don't jump on their owners or pull them off balance by the leash. And to avoid tripping over dogs or cats, equip them with a belled collar.

Infection. Humans can catch a number of diseases from pets. People with a compromised immune system should discuss pets with their doctor; contact with some animals, reptiles in particular, may not be recommended. All companion animals should be under veterinary care, and have the recommended immunizations. Wear protective gloves when changing the litter box or cleaning up after a dog.

Sleep disturbances. The Mayo Clinic reports that some pets — dogs, cats and birds, in particular — may disturb our sleep by making noise, jumping onto the bed, whining to go out in the middle of the night, and even snoring.

Before you or a senior relative decide to get a pet, here are five questions to ask:

Senior woman in wheelchair with dogs

1. What type and breed of pet would be a good fit for the potential pet owner's personality, physical abilities and lifestyle? A dog, cat, fish, bird, guinea pig, rabbit? If choosing a dog, consider which breed has the most appropriate size and temperament. Should you select a puppy or kitten? Or would adopting an older pet be a better choice?

2. How much care will the pet need? A fish tank takes quite a bit less attention than a dog. Are there any tasks that would be hard for the owner to do? Will the owner be able to participate in the right level of training? Does the owner like to travel, and if so, who will care for the pet then?

3. How much will it cost to purchase and care for the pet? Beyond the initial cost of the animal, calculate the annual cost of food, training, equipment and grooming—and, especially, possible costs of veterinary care. Modern veterinary science can successfully treat many illnesses and injuries that might befall a pet, but this care can be costly.

4. What are the regulations where the senior lives? More retirement and senior living communities allow pets these days, but not all do. There may also be restrictions on the type, breed, size and number of pets allowed.

5. What would happen to the pet if something happened to the owner? We don't like to think about the fate of our furry and feathered friends if we were to pass away or no longer be able to care for them. Yet when we have an animal companion, it's humane and provides peace of mind to have "pet estate planning" in place. Some people even leave a bequest in their will to provide support for a beloved animal companion.

If having a pet is not an option…

Even people who don't own a pet can benefit from spending time with animals. Offer to pet sit. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Take the grandkids to the zoo or aquarium. While you're there, find out about docent opportunities. If your senior living community features animal visits, be sure to go to the activity room to enjoy a cuddle! And find out if it's OK for others to bring their pets for a visit. (Remember: You'll want to be sure that people who may be allergic to or afraid of animals aren't inconvenienced.)

Pets bring people of every age together. Find more ideas for intergenerational sharing in this month's puzzle, "Generations Together."

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2016 IlluminAge