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Benefits Of Pets For The Elderly (Should Seniors Have Pets?)

A senior man and his dogs.

With the population of older people growing every day, and pets remaining one of the most popular companions for humans, many people find themselves wondering about the pets of senior family members and whether being a pet parent is appropriate for older adults.

What are the benefits of pets for the elderly? It has been scientifically proven that seniors who have pets live longer, more fulfilling lives. Seniors with pets are also less likely to suffer early onset of dementia, less likely to have depression or anxiety, and are not as lonely. Pets can greatly improve overall senior health.

“While we recognize that pet ownership isn’t for everyone, we find that interaction with pets, even on a small scale, can have a big impact on older adults,” said Jodi Goldberg, senior care expert and owner of the Home Instead Senior Care in Gloucester. “A simple act like petting a dog, holding a cat or watching a bird can bring so much joy to a senior who may be feeling lonely.”

Delcotimes.com

There is a great deal to be said on the topic of pets for the elderly, and it is understandable that many people have questions or concerns when it comes to their senior relatives having pets.

Why Pets Are Good for the Elderly

A peer-reviewed study cited by the U.S. National Institutes of Health notes that human-pet interaction is a key component to good health and well-being in older adults.

Pets can be incredibly beneficial for the elderly for a variety of reasons:

  1. Companionship: Pets provide companionship, which can be especially important for elderly individuals who may live alone or far from family. They can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  2. Routine: Having a pet can provide a routine, as they require feeding, exercise, and care. This can give structure and purpose to an elderly person’s day.
  3. Physical Activity: Pets, especially dogs, require exercise which can encourage elderly individuals to stay active and mobile. This can help maintain their physical health.
  4. Mental Health: Interacting with pets has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Pets can provide comfort and joy, which can be beneficial for mental health.
  5. Social Interaction: Pets can also act as a social catalyst. Walking a dog or talking about pets can lead to more social interactions and conversations, helping the elderly stay socially connected.
  6. Sense of Purpose: Taking care of a pet can give elderly individuals a sense of purpose and responsibility, which can be beneficial for their self-esteem and overall happiness.
  7. Health Benefits: There are several studies that suggest having a pet can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, and improve overall cardiovascular health.

It’s important to note that while pets can provide many benefits, owning a pet also comes with responsibilities that may not be suitable for all elderly individuals.

Factors such as the type of pet, the individual’s physical capabilities, and their living situation should be considered.

In fact, a poll conducted by the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found that, of a representative sample, fifty-five percent of older adults owned a pet.

The poll results also showed that “their pets help them enjoy life (88%), make them feel loved (86%), reduce stress (79%), provide a sense of purpose (73%), and help them stick to a routine (62%).

Researchers went on to say that, “Respondents also reported that their pets connect them with other people (65%), help them be physically active (64% overall and 78% among dog owners), and help them cope with physical and emotional symptoms (60%), including taking their mind off pain (34%).

Let’s face it – pets are wonderful companions.

“Pets enhance our lives,” Norris (Lee Norris – owner Home Instead Health Care) said. “And a lot of our clients have pets.” They recall stories of clients and their pets, such as one woman whose significant other died. “But she still had her cat, and that cat was so important to her,” she said. “She was devastated but that cat provided her unconditional love.”

Kinston.com

What Are Positive Benefits of Having a Pet?

Let’s explore the numerous health benefits of pet ownership for older adults.

  • Better heart health. Seniors who own pets (particularly dogs) are, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association, at reduced risk for cardiovascular disease because pet ownership keeps them active.
  • Better mental health. The world-renowned Cleveland Clinic notes that pets can help the elderly and seniors have better mental health by slowing the impact of dementia, elevating mood, and decreasing depression.
  • Faster healing – having a beloved pet to care for and love on can make a senior who is healing from an illness or health condition heal faster because the person is moving around on a regular basis. Their animal best friend is also a distraction when they don’t feel well.
  • May improve life span. In a study involving almost 4 million people throughout the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom – the findings were that ownership of a dog “…was associated with a 24% reduction in all cause mortality.” – CNN.com
  • Staying active and social benefits. Owning pets keeps seniors active and helps to avoid social isolation. It can help them to make new friends, and get out of the house.
  • Better overall quality of life. Peer-reviewed medical journals also agree that seniors with pets require fewer (human) doctor visits, and stay healthier because they are working to keep their pets healthy, too.
  • Security. Pets provide a sense of both physical and mental security for seniors—especially those who live alone, according to U.S. News & World Report.
  • Service Dogs – These wonderful dogs are trained to help seniors with mental and/or physical disabilities.” Service dogs are specifically trained to help make the day-to-day life of their owners better and alleviate the burden of their condition. These animals can help with different aspects of everyday life for their owner, from retrieving hard to reach items to physically supporting a person with impaired motor skills.” – usserviceanimals.org

What Are Some Of The Challenges Of Owning A Pet?

We can’t ignore the fact that there may also be some challenges in owning a pet for seniors, as well.

Some of these disadvantages may include the following:

  • Mobility – IF you are choosing a new pet, make sure that you are picking the type of pet that is a good fit for the senior’s mobility. Seniors on a walker, for example, probably would not pair well with a large dog like a Great Dane. In some cases, the daily walks required for even a small dog might be too difficult for a senior with health problems.
  • Income – If a senior is already on a fixed income, vet care, and food bills for the pet could pose additional challenges for their already tight budget.
  • Housing considerations – If your senior lives in senior lives in senior housing, an assisted living community, public housing, or an apartment, you will have to make sure that the management actually allows pets that are not specifically certified as therapy animals.
  • Allergies – As people get older, sometimes they develop different allergies. You will want to make sure your senior isn’t allergic to cat or dog hair or dander before helping them connect with their forever furry friend.

If care of a pet is too challenging for a senior to do full time, know that there are pet therapy programs available where you can have a trained service dog visit with them for 30 or 60 minutes. 

One such program is Therapy Dogs International.

Of course, there are products that can help make pet care easier for older adults. Things like auto-cleaning litter boxes and elevated feeders, just to name a few.

What Animals Are Suitable for the Elderly?

Choosing a pet for an elderly person depends on their lifestyle, health, and personal preferences.

Here are some pets that are best for older adults:

  1. Dogs: Not all dogs require high levels of exercise. Breeds like the Bichon Frise, Pomeranian, or Shih Tzu are often suitable for the elderly as they are small, require less exercise, and are known for their affectionate nature.
  2. Cats: Cats are often a good choice as they are relatively low maintenance, requiring less attention and exercise than dogs. They can provide companionship and comfort.
  3. Birds: Birds can be great pets for the elderly. They are relatively low maintenance, and their singing can be comforting. Canaries and budgies are popular choices.
  4. Fish: Fish can be soothing to watch and require minimal physical effort to care for, making them a good choice for some elderly individuals.
  5. Small Mammals: Animals like guinea pigs and rabbits can be suitable as they are small, relatively low maintenance, and can be handled easily.
  6. Reptiles: For those who prefer less conventional pets, certain types of reptiles (like tortoises) can be a good choice. They are quiet, don’t require walking, and have long lifespans.

Remember, it’s important to consider the individual’s physical capabilities, living situation, and personal preferences when choosing a companion pet.

It’s also crucial to ensure that the pet will be well cared for and that owning a pet won’t become a source of stress or difficulty for the elderly person.

Pets For The Elderly Program

The Pets for the Elderly Program is a national, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that exists solely to help provide senior citizens and the elderly with companion animals, i.e., pets.

Pets for the Elderly began in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1992 working with two shelters and eventually expanded its reach across most of the United States.

Pets for the Elderly’s mission is to provide animal companions for senior citizens while saving the lives of animals who have been consigned to animal shelters.

Pets for the Elderly works with more than 50 animal shelters in 37 U.S. states to help connect senior citizens with otherwise unwanted animals.

A few important facts about Pets for the Elderly:

  • Only works with dog or cat adoptions (no birds or exotics)
  • Not available in every state
  • Only for seniors 60 and up

Free Pet Adoption For Seniors

There are many options when it comes to finding free pets for senior citizens.

Many municipal animal shelters
Often county or city shelters will adopt out pets to residents in their city who are 55 and above at no charge or at a significantly reduced charge. Check with your local animal shelter for more information.

Other private and non-profit animal shelters
Some private and non-profit shelters will offer free adoptions if seniors pledge to have the pet vaccinated, spayed, or neutered within a specified time of the adoption.

Some shelters that do charge a fee will refund that fee in whole or in part upon proof of vaccination and spay/neuter.

Animal rescues
Adoption from an animal rescue is another option for senior citizens.

As shelters have become filled to overflowing, private animal rescues that foster animals in private homes and expansive private compounds have picked up the slack.

While animal rescues may have an extensive interview process and require signing a lengthy contract, they often will adopt free to seniors.

Adoption events
Events can be a great way to find a free pet for a senior.

National Clear The Shelters Day, a program of the Animal Defense League, other national animal welfare organizations, and NBC Universal and Telemundo Television Stations is another good option for seniors seeking a free pet.

The annual event is one in which all adoption fees at participating municipal shelters are waived to facilitate adopting out as many cats and dogs as possible into good homes.

Low Maintenance Pets For Older Adults

While “low maintenance,” is somewhat of a subjective term depending on the current health and welfare of the elderly person seeking to adopt a pet, there are a number of options for low-maintenance pets for seniors.

  • Cats – Feline friends are among the lowest-maintenance animals out there. They need food, water, human companionship, and a litter box in which to do their business (and can even be trained to use the human toilet). Cats don’t require walking and are okay with being completely indoor animals.
  • Specific-breed dogs – Some dogs are more low-maintenance than others when it comes to the type of low-maintenance pets senior citizens are looking for. Dogs that require less grooming, fewer long walks, and less individual attention like Chihuahuas, Boston terriers, and pugs are great options.
  • Rabbits – Did you know that rabbits are also used in animal therapy? That’s because bunnies are soft and cuddly, they aren’t noisy, and some breeds are tiny, which makes them an ideal pet for seniors. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box and aren’t high-maintenance pets. They generally live about 8 to 12 years.
  • Fish – Watching fish can provide hours of relaxing enjoyment and fulfillment for seniors with little maintenance aside from quick tank cleaning and adding new water—and, of course, regular feeding.
  • Steer clear of betas and goldfish, though. Both have specific needs (goldfish have serious pH balance requirements for their water and can get swim bladders) that may be beyond the desire and level of care for seniors seeking true low-maintenance fish. The same goes for saltwater fish. Look toward freshwater tropical fish for the best results.
  • Birds – Feathered pets have been a popular pet for seniors for centuries. Whether parrots or parakeets, birds live in cages, require clean food and water, and a little attention, and are fairly self-sufficient otherwise.
  • Reptiles – Yes, reptiles! Some geckos, lizards, komodo dragons, and similar reptiles don’t need much care and can even get a little “cuddly,” in that they like to be held and walk around on their owners. Snakes and frogs, however, are reptiles that require significantly more care and are not low maintenance.

Pet Therapy For The Elderly

American Senior Care Communities, an alliance of senior care communities, notes many benefits for senior citizens when it comes to pet therapy.

  • Having a pet to pet or touch can lower blood pressure and normalize heart rate
  • Interaction with animals can reduce depression
  • Animals are soothing for dementia patients who have lost the ability to use language (see next section)
  • Feeding and grooming pets may help increase motor skills and keep them active

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a therapeutic means of treating physical and mental health issues through animals.

This service is frequently offered at hospitals, mental health institutions, nursing homes and senior care facilities, and even prisons.

A person may have their own assistance dog or might just visit these places with an animal.

Read more about Pet Therapy in our article How Does Pet Therapy Help The Elderly?

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