Social opportunities—Animals bring us together. Few of us are comfortable coming up to a stranger and starting a conversation, but if the other person is walking a dog, it’s perfectly acceptable to compliment their pooch and ask its name. Chances are a nice chat will follow. Pets are also a good content for intergenerational connections.
Emotional benefits—Touching a warm, living creature, whether it’s a dog, cat, bunny or hamster, helps meet an important emotional need. Animals provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love. Taking care of a pet, whether one of the soft ones, or fish, or even a snake or tarantula, boosts self-esteem, and provides a sense of purpose—something that can be in short supply in our later years.
Stress reduction—Whether it’s petting a cat, playing catch with a dog, or watching fish swim in an aquarium, spending time with animals can reduce stress and anxiety. “The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” says Dr. Ann Berger of the National Institutes of Health. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”
Motivation to exercise—Dogs need to walk, and they usually need people to do that with them! In 2017, the Gerontological Society of America reported, “Older adults who walked their dogs regularly were significantly more likely to meet recommended physical activity requirements than dog non-owners [and also] had greater functional ability than dog owners who did not walk their dog, and dog non-owners.”
A few words of caution
Seniors who own a pet or spend time with animals should consider these pet-related health and safety issues:
Pets can be a fall risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that a significant number of fall injuries are associated with pets. An enthusiastic dog can knock a frail senior off their feet. Or an elder could be pulled off balance while walking a dog, or trip over a cat in the home. We can take precautions to avoid these falls. Equip cats and dogs with a belled collar so we’ll be aware of their presence. And if a dog is rambunctious, it’s time for obedience school.
Pets may raise the risk of 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. An expert from Henry Ford Health System reports that cleaning a fish tank carries a risk of certain skin infections. All companion animals should be under veterinary care, and have the recommended immunizations. Wear protective gloves when changing the litter box, cleaning up after a dog, or cleaning an aquarium, and wash your hands afterwards.
Pets might keep us up at night. Anyone who has a cat or dog probably knows that these companions can have a nocturnal nature. 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. On the other hand, another Mayo Clinic study suggests that having your pet sleep in your bedroom can be comforting—though it’s better if dogs have their own bed, rather than climbing under the covers with you.
Pets are a factor in allergies. Some people are allergic to certain animals, and allergies may worsen as we grow older. If you have allergies, do your homework before adopting a pet that you might fall in love with, only to have to rehome. Keep animals out of your bedroom, vacuum regularly and wash sheets weekly to minimize your exposure to allergens. Talk to your doctor if symptoms persist. Consider also that if they are allergic to pets, grandchildren and others may find it difficult to visit your home.
Caring for a sick pet is very stressful. Often as they grow older, our pets will face health challenges of their own. “The effects of caregiving for a sick pet—stress, anxiety, depression, low quality of life—are in many ways similar to what we see in a person caring for a sick family member, for example, a parent with dementia,” says Kent State University neuropsychologist Mary Beth Spitznagel, Ph.D. “The caregiver burden is at a high enough level that for some people, it could be causing symptoms of anxiety and, more likely, depression.”
If owning a pet is not an option
If you don’t want to make the full-time commitment of having a pet, or circumstances don’t allow you to have one, there are still plenty of ways to spend pleasurable time with animals. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Offer to kitty sit, or to walk a friend’s dog. Go to a cat café. If you live in a senior living community, chances are that pet visits are featured. And here’s some surprising good news: Indiana University experts say that even watching cat videos can also be a real mood booster! (Fun fact: Indiana University is in Bloomington—which happens to also be the home of the famous cat star Lil Bub.)