Dr. Judith Davey
Interacting with an animal or pet is widely thought to have health-related benefits for older people.
Having a pet, especially a dog, can increase exercise and physical activity opportunities. Maintaining an active lifestyle helps to maintain overall health. It is associated with a decreased risk of falls, a decline in bone density and muscle strength. It can also support agility, like climbing stairs, bending, and kneeling. Some studies conclude that caring for a pet can help reduce stress and thereby lower blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
Daily walks with pets, as well as adding structure, routine, and purpose to an individual’s day can increase the likelihood of engaging with others, increasing a sense of community, thus developing a stronger social network,. This effect was widely recognised during the recent Covid 19 lockdowns when older people ordered to stay home could still interact with neighbours in their immediate locality.
Positive emotional attachments between people is a well-recognised component of healthy development. Similarly, human‐pet interactions can foster feelings of happiness, love, security, and a sense of responsibility and satisfaction with life. Hence pet ownership can counteract a lack of social support and be protective against feelings of loneliness, provide emotional support, and give people something to talk about with family, friends and caregivers.
Pets need a routine of feeding, walking, etc., this can provide a daily routine. These activities can even be extended into regular personal daily memory tasks such as “remembering to take your medicine”, which have been shown to improve when people are caring for a pet. Studies have shown that elderly people who own pets tend to take better care of themselves.
In summary, pets can provide stimulation, a sense of purpose and protection for their owners, and provide non-judgemental acceptance which ultimately helps older people to live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives. In most cases, older people make very responsible pet owners and have more time to give to an animal which is mutually beneficial for both pet and their owner. Pets can fill an empty space in the lives of older people, and many spend a great deal of time interacting and talking to their pets, which can be therapeutic. For people who can go days without talking to or seeing another person, the presence of an animal can be hugely beneficial.
However, academic research, looking at the effects of animal interaction on the wellbeing of older people has had mixed results . Many other factors may influence social isolation or loneliness. The relationships that are established between humans and animals are diverse and may depend on a person’s beliefs, personality, and attitudes. Much like human relationships, human‐animal interactions can vary in intensity and form and depend on the behavioural characteristics of the humans and the animals involved, and sometimes on the cultural context. For instance, dogs and cats are thought to develop closer relations with humans than other animals, such as reptiles and fish, because they share more similar “social organisation” and “communication” systems.
Pets are not right for everyone and for some people pet ownership can be stressful, expensive and even dangerous.
• In particular, older people may be less mobile and more likely to have balance issues and eyesight problems. So pets and their accoutrements, such as pet beds and food bowls, can be tripping hazards and can cause serious accidents.
• There may also be concerns about getting infectious diseases from a pet, although if older people are in good health they are not necessarily at any greater risk than others.
• For people on a low income, the costs of pet ownership may be prohibitive, or they may elect to spend money on a pet at the expense of food or other items for themselves.
• Changes in health or circumstance sometimes means that an elderly owner may struggle to provide adequate care for their pet, or may need to give up their pet, which can be enormously distressing for both parties.
• Friends and family may try to discourage seniors from getting a pet due to concerns about who will take care of the animal if the person moves into residential care or dies.
• Seniors with pets may also delay moving into residential care, even past the point when they are able to live independently, because care homes do not take pets. One of the people I visited through Age Concern’s service took a very realistic toy cat with her into the rest home.
• Finally, emotional difficulties that pet owners may experience when a pet is ill or dies can rival the effects of caring for a sick family member or coping with the trauma of the death of a close relative.
Pet therapy – otherwise known as Animal Assisted Therapy for seniors may be an alternative to full-time ownership. This is often used in residential care and day centres for older people. Canine Friends Pet Therapy Inc. is a national organisation of volunteers who regularly visit residents of rest homes, as well as patients in hospitals and hospices with their well-behaved dogs. The volunteers are currently visiting 363 rest homes, 16 hospitals, and 12 hospices across the country. Even a few minutes interacting with an animal can be beneficial and improve quality of life.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Elderly people and pet ownership, by Trina Cox, Social Worker, Age Concern Canterbury In “KEEPING ON”, May 2016.