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Pets: Prescription for Senior Health

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Pets may chew on furniture, bark at shadows, pee in unauthorized places, jump on your face in the middle of the night, leave mangled birds at the doorstep, and never stop to apologize. Yet many people can't imagine life without them. As any pet owner will tell you, tooth marks on table legs and surprises in the corner are a small price to pay for the loyalty, fun, and unconditional love and affection a pet affords.

Can pets really help seniors stay healthy?

Yes. Older people often lack social networks and recreational opportunities, and having a cat on their laps or a dog romping beside them on a leash can be an immense boost to their health and happiness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets not only foster feelings of love and security but can also help lower a person's blood pressure, as well as their cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

For seniors, these little benefits add up to an impressive advantage. A Canadian study of nearly 1,000 adults age 65 and over found that pet owners were more physically fit and less likely to suffer a decline in health in the course of a year. The trend held up even after researchers adjusted for the fact that pet owners tended to be younger and more active than nonowners. Interestingly, cat owners enjoyed the same rewards as dog owners, strong evidence that pets can improve your health even if they aren't constantly begging for walks.

How do I know if a pet is a good choice for me?

Bringing an animal into your life requires careful planning. Before you set foot in an animal shelter or a pet store, think about what you really want from a pet and what your pet will need from you. Here are some things to consider before taking the plunge:

Cost. When you add up the cost of food, litter, leashes, chew toys, and vet bills, pets can be expensive companions. A dog or cat may be unable to bring you much joy if it seriously strains your budget.

Space. Is there enough room for two or more active beings in your home? In addition to just plain elbow room (or the animal equivalent), a cat will need space for a litter box, and a dog will be happiest with a fenced area for outside play.

Time. Are you ready to dole out love and attention on a full-time basis? Do you have the time to keep a pet clean, well-fed, and well-exercised?

Patience. A puppy may look angelic in the window, but that angel won't hesitate to knock over your trash can and spread coffee grounds everywhere. Any pet, young or old, dog or cat, will eventually stretch your good will to the limit. Are you ready to forgive and forget?

Physical demands. There's going to be a certain amount of stooping, lifting, and scrubbing involved in caring for the animal you choose. Are you physically able to take on some extra work, or can you make arrangements with a caregiver to help out on a regular basis?

What kind of pet should I choose?

Birds, fish, snakes, and hamsters all have their fans. Seniors who enjoy the companionship of a parakeet or canary in the home will have to keep the cage clean and freshly lined. Fish also rate high as therapeutic pets, although refreshing their water can be somewhat complicated, depending on the size and setup of the tank. Hamsters and other small mammals will want a clean, roomy cage with toys and fresh litter.

For most people, however, the choice of pets simply comes down to cats versus dogs. You probably already know whether you're a cat person or a dog person at heart, but weigh the considerations carefully. Dogs will need more food, exercise, attention, and space, not to mention patience during the house-training period. Of course, they usually far outclass cats when it comes to enthusiasm and affection. Cats score bonus points for being easy to house-train and for their ability to amuse themselves.

What health concerns should I be aware of when choosing a pet?

Pets may be helpful for your peace of mind, but you don't want them to bring on health problems. Animal dander can bring on a bout of asthma or allergic reactions, so keep your hands washed after handling your animals. Also, check the condition of the store or animal shelter before you decide to adopt and make sure you choose a healthy pet. Some other tips:

  • Don't allow an affectionate pet to lick your mouth or ears.
  • Always wash your hands after you change the litter box.
  • Keep your pet as flea-free as possible.
  • Seek medical attention if a scratch gets infected and doesn't heal quickly.

What's the best place to find a pet?

Animal shelters are a great place to find both dogs and cats. The staff will help you find the right pet without any high-pressure salesmanship, and they can give you excellent advice about care and feeding. (Many offer free vaccinations for your animal as well.) For birds, fish, and other small pets, visit a reputable pet store with a friendly, knowledgeable staff. When you find the right match, your intuition will probably tell you so.

References

National Institutes of Health. Can pets keep you healthy? February 2009. http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm

Centers for Disease Control. Health Benefits of Pets. http://www.cdc.gov/HEALTHYPETS/health_benefits.htm

Raina, Parminder. Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: An analysis of the one-year longitudinal study. JAGS; 47:323-329,1999.

Cookman C. Older people and attachment to things, place, pets and ideas. Image J Nurs Sch; 1996:28:227-31.

Erikson R. companion animals and the elderly. Geriatr Nurs; 1985;6:92-96.

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