By Helen Anne Travis
When Dr. Laurie Hess’ grandfather was 92, she adopted a cat for him from the local animal shelter. Her grandfather was a widower. Many of his friends had already passed. While he had lost his eyesight due to macular degeneration, he was fit as a fiddle mentally.
Everyone told her she was crazy. But she knew the cat would bring him so much joy in his final years.
She was right.
“He loved this animal so much,” says Dr. Hess, a board certified avian veterinarian and author of “Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor.”
In addition to being great company, having a pet can benefit our mental and physical health, especially as we get older, says Dr. Joseph Mosquera, a New Jersey physician and medical contributor to Univision, Telemundo, and CNN. “I’m a huge supporter of pets for the elderly,” he says.
Here are seven ways pets can help keep you youthful and happy as you age.
There are the obvious ways a pet can help an older adult’s health. For instance, taking a dog for a brisk 30-minute walk improves blood flow, heart health and brain function, says Mosquera. Research shows that dog owners get more exercise than non-dog owners, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has tried to ignore their dog who is sitting impatiently by the front door on a rainy day.
At the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative, which maintains the world’s largest online library of research on the relationship between pets and people, there are multiple studies that show the connection between having a pet and staying healthy as we age, says executive director Steve Feldman. He quotes studies that show spending time with pets increases our levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and decreases levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
The American Heart Association says having a pet at any age may help reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improving the body’s reactions to stress. Then there’s the study, conducted at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute, that shows we’re more likely to be alive one year after suffering from a cardiac event, like a heart attack, if we have a cat at home, Feldman says.
Other research shows spending time with animals promotes the release of endorphins, your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, says Dr. Mosquera.
While the experts were quick to credit all the physical health benefits of having pet, they all agree that the benefit animals provide to mental health is perhaps even more significant for older adults. “One of the biggest battles the elderly face is loneliness and despair,” says Mosquera.
Hess agrees. She explains that unlike other people, pets won’t move away or get caught up in work or social responsibilities. They won’t get bored or lose patience. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’ve accomplished in life,” she says. “That animal will always love you back.”
Pets also give us a sense of purpose, which Dr. Hess says was one of the biggest benefits for her grandfather.
“The cat gave him a reason to get up in the morning,” she says. “This was someone who needed him, who depended on him.”
Pets can also help ease the discomfort of short-term memory loss, says Mosquera. In fact, Alzheimer’s patients have been shown to have fewer agitated outbursts and are better able to maintain their weight when animals are present in their environments. Patients might not remember what happened earlier that day, but for someone with fond memories of a childhood pet, spending time with an animal can bring temporary joy, he says.
But there are some special considerations that need to be addressed before a pet is placed with a person who may have constraints on their capabilities as a long-term caretaker. Specifically, make sure you have plans to monitor that all the pet’s needs are being met (food, water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary visits, etc.) and that some thought has been given regarding who will take over care of the pet should circumstances change.