5 Reasons Pets Are Good For Your Health
By Wen Liu • August 13, 2019
These days, pets are full-blown members of the family.
Dogs especially get so much more love than they did even two decades ago. They travel on family vacations, stay in pet hotels or daycares, have gourmet food options, and the list goes on.
We have found a way to include our pets in more aspects of our lives than ever before. These days, pets are even members of wedding parties, enjoying star treatment on their owners’ big day.
And it’s no wonder we’ve elevated our pets. Doctors and social scientists continue to discover the benefits of pet ownership across age, gender, and class. Research now supports what you’ve known in your heart since the day you brought your furry friend home. Pets make life better.
The reasons for this fact are clearer than ever. Pet ownership can reduce stress and depression and lower blood pressure. For seniors, pet ownership can dramatically improve quality of life on a number of fronts. Let’s dig into the health benefits of pet ownership, especially for seniors.
1 - Pets Provide Routine and a Sense of Purpose
Owning a pet can be a lot of work and responsibility. They need to eat once or twice a day, go on walks, and make regular visits to the vet. They need attention and maintenance, and in case of dogs, they can't be alone for long periods of time. Pet ownership can get expensive, especially as the pet ages and develops health challenges.
With all this in mind, why would owning a pet be good for those getting on in age? Research shows that the obligations of pet ownership are actually helpful to a lot of people. The required routines of care-taking can give retired folks some daily structure. This structure might replace the structure of previous work or child-rearing. Having to feed an animal at the same time every morning means you have to wake up by that time. Same goes for daily walks.
In the absence of a job or nearby family, developing a routine around your pet can help keep your mind sharp. So too can engaging with your animal. In this context, the obligation is a good thing – it provides a sense of purpose for the pet owner.
2 - Pets Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Besides providing some stability and routine in life, pets offer major therapeutic benefits. Studies have shown that pet companionship helps improve mood and reduce depression symptoms. That's because the simple act of petting an animal releases beneficial hormones into the bloodstream. These mood-enhancing hormones include serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin.
Serotonin is often called the feel-good hormone. It not only improves mood, but is the precursor to melatonin, a critical hormone for healthy sleep. Seniors often have trouble getting a good night's sleep, and poor sleep is linked to poorer health outcomes. It's also linked to poorer mental health. So it's not a stretch to conclude that pets have a direct impact on mood and psychological health.
3 - Pets offer Companionship
In addition to the act of petting your furry friend, the very presence of the animal can improve quality of life. That's because pets provide companionship for seniors who might feel isolated.
We mentioned oxytocin in the previous section. Oxytocin is often called the love hormone. It's released when a mother gives birth, and again when she's nursing to help her bond with her baby. It's also the hormone that bonds lovers to each other and creates a deep emotional connection. When it comes to pets, oxytocin bonds pets to their owners, and that bond helps improve quality of life.
This bonding effect isn't just true for seniors, but for most everyone. That includes young children. In 2004, researchers observed the effects of therapy dogs on kids in schools and hospitals. The children ranged in age from five to eight years old. Results from this research showed that the dogs helped reduce anxiety among the kids in both settings. It also helped improve the kids' reading skills because they practiced reading to the dogs.
4 - Pets Can Improve Cardiovascular Health
Pets have participated in the healthcare setting for decades as therapy animals. Nursing homes and retirement communities bring animals to boost the residents' morale. But the health effects go beyond having a good time. In fact, mental health and cardiovascular health are tightly intertwined.
In a 2011 study, residential patients who'd had a recent heart attack were observed. They received pet therapy, which significantly relieved their depression post-cardiac event. It also improved survival rates within the group.
Another study done in 2016 observed the effects of bringing therapy pets into community living. The study showed that pet therapy helped lower blood pressure and heart rate in the seniors.
The physical requirements of owning a pet are also beneficial to heart health. Dogs require walks and social activities. A Canadian study found that dog owners spent almost twice as much time walking as non-dog owners. It averaged out to 2.2 more hours per week.
Walking is one of the best ways for aging adults to stay in shape, as it's a low-impact activity that doesn't need a gym. It's also among the most recommended activities for maintaining cardiovascular health. In fact, walking reduces the risk of cardiac events by 31% and the risk of dying by 32%. This finding applies to both men and women.
The American Heart Association put out a report on the positive effects of pet ownership. Here are some of the findings in the research they reference:
- ➡️ New dog owners increased walking over a 10-month period from one hour a week to five hours a week.
- ➡️ Pet owners have lower resting heart rates.
- ➡️ Odds of obesity in children decreases with dog ownership.
- ➡️ Cat and dog ownership are equally associated with lower blood pressure.
- ➡️ Cat and dog owners have better stress recovery than non-owners.
- ➡️ Pet ownership (especially dogs) is linked with decreased risk for cardiovascular disease.
- ➡️ Pet ownership (especially dogs) might actually cause a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. (More work needs to be done in this area.)
5 - Pets Are a Good Excuse to Get Out of the House
Pets like to be social and out and about. Walking them allows them to experience new stimuli, sniff their surroundings, and explore. It also allows those things for the pet owner!
Although you might not want to start sniffing things alongside your dog, getting out of the house with your pet can be a great social activity. This is especially true for older adults who may be experiencing empty nest syndrome or those who have just lost a spouse. Pet owners love to chat each other up at the dog park or on a light hike.
Bringing your pet with you to a local coffee shop can help you strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Having your companion with you can also boost your confidence. Often, just walking down the street or sitting on a park bench with your dog can invite conversation among members of your community.
Selecting the Right Pet
Not all pets are right for seniors, and not all seniors are right for pets. If you're considering getting a pet for yourself or your older loved one, here are a few questions to consider.
How mobile are you?
If you or your loved one has restricted mobility, you might consider a smaller dog or cat. Small dogs need less exercise and are a lot less likely to knock you over or pull you down on the leash. Cats are great for those with mobility impairments as well, as they don't require daily walks.
How flexible are you?
If you or your loved one are set in your ways and uninterested in accommodating another living being, you might reconsider. In this case, try starting with volunteer work. Spend some time at an animal shelter before taking a pet home to live with you. You might find that weekly visits to see all the animals accomplishes most of your goals!
Would you need a therapy or emotional support animal?
There are non-profit agencies all over the country that train therapy animals. Contact your local ASPCA to find out more information about the agencies in your area.
Have you ever been a pet owner before?
The most ideal senior candidates have had pets in the past. Experience helps prevent undesirable stress or added burden to your life. However, if you or your loved one are open to a new furry family member, it's worth giving a try. This is another instance when starting with volunteer work could help you decide.
How often do you travel?
If you or your loved one travel regularly by plane and plan to bring your pet, choose one under 30 pounds. Airlines are becoming increasingly flexible about allowing pets on flights, but larger pets may require the purchase of an additional seat. You might also consider starting with a cat if you plan to travel without your pet. Cats are a lot more independent and can be alone for longer periods of time.
What type of pet personality works well with you?
Do a little research before committing to a specific breed of dog or cat. Some breeds are more rambunctious than others, requiring more energy than you or your loved one is willing to spend. It's important to have an idea of what to expect before diving into the deep end with your new companion.
Young or adult animal?
This is one of the most important questions to consider. Puppies and kittens are absolutely adorable, but they're a LOT of work. They have to be potty trained and attended to. They have tons of energy and need to run around. They might destroy things in your or your loved one's home if they don't have enough stimuli around them. Consider getting an adolescent or full-grown pet from a shelter instead of a puppy or kitten.
What can you afford?
Large pets like dogs and cats can get expensive quickly. Food, vet bills, potential medications, and/or accidents can really pile up. Make sure you know what you're committing to before making the investment. And definitely get pet insurance.
Pets Are Good for Us
Life is better shared.
With aging sometimes comes isolation and loneliness. Pets not only make amazing companions, they also tug at your heartstrings until you fall in love with them.
Study after study shows the positive effects a pet or therapy animal can have on physical and emotional wellbeing across life, at every age. If you're feeling the tug of depression or wanting to make a change for the better, consider visiting your local animal shelter.
You might find that volunteering helps brighten your spirit. Or you might find your new best friend.