How Pets Can Benefit Senior Health

Matching the person and the pet is crucial for pet owners

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Perhaps you always had pets as a kid but haven’t for years. Or maybe your cat or dog died a while ago and you haven’t sought out another pet. If you don’t have a pet as an older adult, you have many good reasons to consider one.

Julie Covert, president of Awesome Paws Rescue in Buffalo, has been in rescue for 14 years and cites many benefits of pet ownership for older adults, such as the quiet evoked by spending time with a pet.

“Bonding for just 15 minutes can lower levels of cortisol and raise serotonin levels,” she said. “It can lower cholesterol and fight depression.”

Animals need a gentle touch and a patient approach, so a petting session requires owners to slow down and remain calm.

Pets also encourage more movement, something that some older adults don’t get enough.

“Walking a dog is good exercise,” Covert said.

She added that lower-energy dogs and cats can also increase activity and maintain range of movement. Think of the work of feeding, watering, grooming and cleaning up after a pet.

Some of these activities can also encourage social interaction, Covert noted, like taking a dog to the groomer or dog park.

Simply having something to talk about — “Do you know what Muffin did yesterday?”— can make conversation more interesting.

For those living alone, a pet can offer someone to talk to and something to look forward to.

Of course, not everyone loves animals. Covert warns to not spring a pet gift on anyone, even those who enjoy the company of pets. A homemade gift card for a pet adoption, where you can select a pet together, may be a better way to give a pet.

Older adults may have additional considerations, including the physical and financial ability to care for a pet. For the former, some assistance and accommodation can enable keeping a pet. A helper can aid in dog walking or changing cat litter, for instance. Installing a dog run can reduce the need for dog walking. Placing a covered litter box on a flat-topped kitty condo could make scooping litter easier.

Of course, allergies are a big consideration. People with pet allergies tend to better tolerate poodle and labradoodle dogs and sphynx, bambino and Ukrainian Levkoy, Siberian, Cornish rex, Devon rex, javinese, oriental shorthair, Balinese cats. Check with shelters for breeds of interest — not all animals in shelters are mixed breeds. Keeping the pet out of the bedroom can also help reduce allergy issues.

Pets with dark colored fur may present a greater tripping hazard, as it’s harder to see them when they’re curled up on the floor. Covert recommended using a reflective collar or a bell.

Large, strong dogs can be more difficult to walk, but tiny dogs can easily get underfoot. Covert recommends an in-between-sized breed, such as a beagle or Springer spaniel as a happy medium.

The animal’s age can also influence the amount of care it will need. Kittens and puppies need much more attention and tend to play more vigorously. Lifespan also matters. For these reasons, many shelters pair “seniors with seniors” when recommending pets.

“Puppies are a lot of work,” Covert said. “To match a puppy with a senior can be silly. I ask people, ‘What will your plans be if your dog outlives you?’ Oftentimes, they think a family member will take a dog, but we have had a dog returned because an owner ended up in a nursing home unexpectedly.”

Older dogs, like older people, tend to feel more content to relax. While they enjoy walks, they don’t walk as far nor as briskly.

Rock Ballone, president of Lakeshore Humane Society in Dunkirk, also recommends no untrained dogs for older adults.

“Cats can make perfect pets for older people, especially when it’s cold out and they don’t want to have to take a dog out continuously,” Ballone said. “Or for people who travel, it’s a lot easier to have someone stop by to take care of a cat than to kennel a dog or have someone take care of a dog. They need more day-to-day care.

“Matching the person and dog is really important. For someone who’s home and retired, a lap dog or cat is ideal.”