Living and Aging Well

How pets help keep us healthy as we age

Living and Aging Well: Column by Kelly Diehl
Posted 7/9/18

Happiness is a warm puppy. Who doesn’t love the feel of fur between your fingers, or the nicker of a horse when they see you come into the barn? The importance of the human-animal bond has been …

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Living and Aging Well

How pets help keep us healthy as we age

Posted

Happiness is a warm puppy. Who doesn’t love the feel of fur between your fingers, or the nicker of a horse when they see you come into the barn? The importance of the human-animal bond has been increasingly recognized and studied in the last 30 years. For those of us who have felt the nuzzle of a cold nose in our hand, or warmth of a cat settled in our lap, we have firsthand experience of the power of an animal’s love.

In an increasingly fractured and hectic world, where family can be separated by long distances and busy schedules, pets can help fill an important role in providing companionship and purpose for seniors. Although it seems intuitive that pet ownership would be beneficial, what do we really know about the health benefits of pet ownership?

There are many documented health benefits to pet ownership. Several studies have shown that interactions with animals (not necessarily pet ownership) can decrease blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and help treat depression. A very recent study showed that Alzheimer’s patients who interacted with animals had improved cognition.

Of course, many studies suggest that people who own dogs get more exercise, although other studies contend that people who are active tend to exercise more with their pets. Although the jury is still out on the effect of pets and exercise, there is no question that interactions with animals improve many measurements of well-being. A few lesser known, but equally important benefits of pet ownership include enhanced self-discipline and self-worth, and more opportunities for meeting people. As one recent AARP article put it, “Pets are natural born ice breakers!”

Pet ownership is not without its downside for seniors. Although there are many documented benefits, there are some downsides to pet ownership. Veterinary care can be expensive, and, for folks on a fixed income, can be a drain on limited resources. As seniors elect to move into assisted living or other types of housing, they can encounter restrictions on size or type of pet, or whether pets are allowed at all. Many physicians are concerned about the potential for injuries or falls for older pet owners — and sometimes a pet can be injured if stepped or fallen on.

Thinking outside the box of traditional pet ownership can provide alternative options. As mentioned above, many studies show that simply interacting with animals on a regular basis can have positive health effects. Volunteering at a shelter or rescue can be a rewarding experience — not only can it give you your animal “fix,” helping out also provides much-needed support to our most vulnerable animals. Many shelters and rescue groups also need volunteers to foster pets for a short time before permanently placing them in a forever home. This can be a great way to get the benefit of having an animal in your home without a long-term commitment. If you travel frequently to visit family members you may find fostering dogs and cats a rewarding experience and one that fits with your lifestyle. You can even foster guinea pigs!

Adopting an older pet is another option for people who love pets but worry about a long-term commitment or don’t want the hassles associated with raising a young animal. Many older pets sit unwanted in shelters, but they can make great companions for seniors. A senior that has had a series of older pets since retiring shared the following, “These animals are so deserving of love and care. I’m happy we can share our golden years together!”

Pets can fill an important void in seniors’ lives. They provide unconditional love and companionship, can be a stimulus for exercise and social interaction, and improve our health. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Kelly Diehl, DVM MS Dipl. ACVIM, is the senior scientific programs and communications adviser for the Morris Animal Foundation — Bridging Science & Resources to Advance the Health of Animals. For more information, email kdiehl@morrisanimalfoundation.org or visit www.morrisanimalfoundation.org. This column is hosted by the Seniors’ Council of Douglas County. For more information, go online to MyDougCoSeniorLife.com, email DCSeniorLife@douglas.co.us or call 303-663-7681.

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