Having a pet at any age has huge benefits
by Eleanor Edwards, DVM
Cat Clinic of Norman
Having a pet at any age has huge benefits, but having a pet as a senior citizen has more significant benefits than many people realize. Not only do pets give us unconditional love and affection, they also give us a reason to get up in the morning, a routine and a reason for socialization. They help buffer us from loneliness, anxiety and depression.
It has even been published that having pets can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, helping to protect us from heart disease. The impact of having a pet as we age is so great that there are many websites, rescues and foundations dedicated to helping senior citizens have access to a pet and resources for pet ownership.
When I became a veterinarian, I knew that I wanted to help animals and that, as a bonus, I would be helping their owners, too. I did not imagine how much of an effect I would actually have until I started practicing. I personally know the bond with an animal can be life-changing and deep, but to witness it in an exam room is something else. Over the years, I have helped care for many pets who are their owners’ whole world. Quite literally, they live for them.
Many senior pet owners have a spouse who has passed away, children who have grown up and moved, or the individual is a confirmed bachelor(ette) who has no other family. Maybe roles have reversed, and they are the ones needing care now, but having their pet gives them a sense of purpose. Whatever the story, they have their friend who gives back every bit of love they receive. Not only do they give us love, but they help to diffuse tension and anxiety. Pets also help combat depression and the symptoms that come with it.
These conditions are often underdiagnosed in our older generations, but they have a very real and negative impact on health. Studies have shown that just being in the presence of an animal can release serotonin, which is the feel-good hormone for us humans. This makes us relax, which, in turn, can slow our heart rate and decrease our blood pressure in a matter of minutes. We could all probably benefit from stress reduction. Why not do it by petting a dog or playing with a cat?
Having a pet often means we are more active and social. Dogs typically need to be walked a couple of times a day, and having playdates are fun for both pet and owner. I even have some cats in my practice that enjoy a stroll in their harness. As we age, loss of mobility and balance are major concerns. The best way to combat that is to stay moving. Having a pet that needs exercise, and depends on you for it, is a great way to stay active. It feels less like work and more like fun. Now that is my kind of exercise!
Depending on where you live, you may choose to take your dog to a dog park for exercise or meet up with a few friends in a park or large backyard. This is a great way to meet new people and to spend time with like-minded folks. Having a pet also means you will need to take them to the vet and purchase supplies, allowing for another opportunity to interact with people a senior may not otherwise have a chance to do. We have several clients that have somehow morphed into more than typical clients. We hear about their families, their medical conditions and their life changes. We celebrate their wins and mourn their losses with them. Their pet has allowed us to connect on a more personal level.
At some point, a senior may no longer be able to have a pet, but the individual can still benefit from time spent with an animal. They still receive the health benefits and the flood of serotonin pets can give us. It is important that caregivers recognize the importance of the mental and physical health benefits of having a pet and the bond that is formed between a pet and its owner. That relationship must be preserved.
It is such a special visit when a caretaker, whether that is a family member or a nurse or a companion, brings a senior owner in with his or her pet. To see them honor that bond and invest in that relationship leaves us feeling thankful and happy we can be a part of that relationship.
Another aspect to consider is what will happen to the pet when its owner is no longer able to care for it or can no longer be in his or her own home. There also needs to be a plan if the owner passes away. I have seen many tears shed over the anxiety and worry of what will happen with the pet companion when this time comes. Some clients are lucky enough to have a friend, neighbor or family member step up and take in the pet.
Some choose to set up a trust for the pet, ensuring it will be cared for throughout its lifetime.
There are some organizations that, for a fee, agree to take care of the pet for the rest of its life. Unfortunately, many pets are not this lucky and end up in shelters and rescues. If you are a senior with a pet or know a senior with a pet, please have this conversation early and often. The peace of knowing their friend will be taken care of is immense.
There are a few things to consider if you are a senior considering getting a pet.
What kind of animal should you get?
You will need to consider your living arrangement. Are you in an apartment, a house or will you be moving into a living facility or a family member’s home soon? A large rambunctious dog would not be good in an apartment, and a cat would not be a good choice if your family is allergic. Maybe a bird or a fish or a rat would be a better choice.
What age pet are you considering?
In general, a young animal is not always a great choice. The allure of a puppy or kitten is strong, but those sweet faces come with sharp teeth and claws. They can quickly create what looks like a crime scene with thin skin and chewing everything in sight. Having a young pet is very much like raising a child. That takes a lot of energy! They also require a good deal of training. Having an older animal also means more trips to the doctor and, likely, medications to give. That can be a drain on time, energy and your bank account. Giving medications may also be a challenge.
Can you afford to properly care for a pet?
Cost of care is another important consideration. There are calculators online to help determine average yearly cost. You will also need to have an emergency fund in case of accident, injury or unforeseen illness. These expenses can add up very quickly. In general, a goldfish will be less expensive to keep than a bird, reptile, dog or cat. If pet ownership does not fit into your budget or living situation, maybe volunteering at a shelter or with a rescue to socialize the pets could be a good alternative.
Pets are good for us at all life stages for so many reasons but particularly so as we age. They can give us a sense of purpose and routine, and we can gain from the health benefits as well. I think we all are heavily benefiting from our pets during this pandemic. If you are a senior considering getting a pet, please take the time to honestly assess your living and health situation in order to decide on the best pet for you. If you know seniors with pets, please consider asking if they need help and have a plan as they age for their furry family member. Life is hard, and it gets harder the older we become. But our pets can make it more enjoyable.