You’ve probably noticed that when you pet a soft, warm cat or play fetch with a dog whose tail won’t stop wagging, you relax and your heart feels a little warmer. Scientists have noticed the same thing, and they’ve started to explore the complex way animals affect human emotions and physiology. The resulting studies have shown that owning and handling animals significantly benefits health, and not just for the young. In fact, pets may help elderly owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May of 1999 demonstrated that independently living seniors that have pets tend to have better physical health and mental wellbeing than those that don’t. They’re more active, cope better with stress, and have better overall health. A 1997 study showed that elderly pet owners had significantly lower blood pressure overall than their contemporaries without pets. In fact, an experimental residential home for the elderly called the Eden Alternative, which is filled with over 100 birds, dogs, and cats and has an outside environment with rabbits and chickens, has experienced a 15 percent lower mortality rate than traditional nursing homes over the past five years.
How do they do it?
There are a number of explanations for exactly how pets accomplish all these health benefits. First of all, 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 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 normal activities of daily living. Pets may also aid seniors simply by providing some physical contact. Studies have shown that when people pet animals, their blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature decrease--see The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership.
Many benefits of pet ownership are less tangible, though. Pets are an excellent source of companionship, for example. They can act as a support system for older people who don’t have any family or close friends nearby to act as a support system. The JAGS study showed that people with pets were better able to remain emotionally stable during crises than those without. Pets can also work as a buffer against social isolation. Often the elderly have trouble leaving home, so they don’t have a chance to see many people. Pets give them a chance to interact. This can help combat depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today. The responsibility of caring for an animal may also give the elderly a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Pets also help seniors stick to regular routines of getting up in the morning, buying groceries, and going outside, which help motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and well.
Pets in residence
Many nursing homes have taken this information to heart. For years, organizations like Pets on Wheels and Therapy Dogs International have been bringing thoroughly vaccinated, groomed, and behavior-tested animals into hospitals, hospices, and assisted living homes to give seniors a chance to pet and play with them. The residents get to have some therapeutic physical contact and a fun activity to break up their day. More recently, some resident homes have even begun letting animals live in the home full time. The Stanton Health Center in Stanton, Nebraska, a residential nursing home, has had dogs for its Alzheimer wing and now has an aviary and cats that live in the center’s common area.
"The animals help patients keep their mind off their problems," says Jean S. Uehl, the center’s director of nurses. "The love the patients get from the animals is unconditional." One particular stroke patient was withdrawn and rarely smiled, until she began to play with the resident cat. The patient and the cat became closely bonded to each other, and when the cat had kittens, "they became like the patient’s babies," according to Uehl. The kittens played and slept on a tray on the resident’s wheelchair and slept in a chair near her bed whenever they could. The kittens brought the resident out of her shell and she began to talk and smile. "The kittens in particular get all the residents’ attention," says Uehl. "Everyone always wants to know where they’re at and what they’re doing." When there are kittens in the building, a number of residents stay busy all day, following them, playing with them, and keeping an eye on them.
Finding that furry friend
If there are older people in your life that you think might benefit from having a pet at home, be sure to talk to them before you pick one out. Make sure that they want the responsibility of a new pet, as well as the noise and the messes that may come along with it. Talk to them about whether they feel capable of feeding, watering, grooming, exercising, and cleaning up after an animal. If they decide they’re willing to accept that responsibility, take your elderly friend or family member out with you to the humane society or the breeder to pick out a new furry friend. It is often a good idea to pick out older pets that may not require as much energy to take care of them. Puppies and kittens can be destructive and more responsibility than the person can handle. They may fall in love with a dog or cat that might never have caught your eye.
Finally, before you encourage an older person to adopt a pet, consider whether you could take care of the animal if its owner is no longer able. Often, if seniors reach the point where they have to leave their homes and move into assisted-living facilities, they also have to give up their pets. The number of nursing homes and other types of housing for the elderly that will accept animals is growing, but the vast majorities still don’t allow pets. Seniors can plan ahead and find a pet-friendly nursing facility, just in case they need to use it someday.
Pets and the elderly have a lot to give to each other. Research and experience has shown that animals and older people can share their time and affection, and ultimately, full and happy lives. Though pets can’t replace human relationships for seniors, they can certainly augment them, and they can fill an older person’s life with years of constant, unconditional love.